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Today in Black History, 9/5/2012

• September 5, 1846 John Wesley Cromwell, historian, educator, and lawyer, was born enslaved in Portsmouth, Virginia. After his father gained the family’s freedom, Cromwell graduated from the Institute for Colored Youth in 1864. In 1873, he graduated from Howard University Law School and the next year was admitted to the District of Columbia bar. In 1876, Cromwell founded the weekly paper The People’s Advocate. In 1887, Cromwell became the first African American lawyer to argue a case before the Interstate Commerce Commission when he served as counsel for the plaintiff in William H. Heard v. Georgia Railroad Company. A gifted organizer, Cromwell helped organize the Virginia Educational and Historical Association and the National Colored Press Association. He was a founder of the Bethel Literary and Historical Association and in 1897 was a founding member of the American Negro Academy, an organization created to stimulate and demonstrate intellectual capabilities among African Americans. In 1914, Cromwell published his most influential work, “The Negro in American History: Men and Women Eminent in the Evolution of the American of African Descent” which influenced Carter G. Woodson to found the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History the following year. Cromwell also published “The First Negro Churches in The District of Columbus” in 1917. Cromwell died on April 14, 1927.

• September 5, 1859 “Our Nig: or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black” was published, the first novel published by a black female. The book was written by Harriett E. “Hattie” Adams Wilson. The book is generally considered an autobiographical novel and it highlighted the brand of racial oppression practiced in New England. In 1982, the book received national attention when it was rediscovered by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Wilson was born March 15, 1825 in Milford, New Hampshire. Her father died and her mother abandoned her when she was young. As an orphan, she was made an indentured servant. After the end of her indenture, Wilson worked as a house servant and seamstress. After publishing the novel, Wilson lectured throughout New England, delivering lectures on labor reform and children’s education. Wilson died June 28, 1900. Her name is enshrined in the Ring of Genealogy at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan.

• September 5, 1910 Benjamin Brown, Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, died. Brown was born in 1859 in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. On May 11, 1889, he was serving as a sergeant in Company C of the 24th Infantry Regiment when his unit was involved in an engagement with robbers in Arizona during the Indian Wars. His actions during the engagement earned him the medal, America’s highest military decoration. The medal was awarded on February 19, 1890 and his citation reads, “Although shot in the abdomen, in a fight between a paymaster’s escort and robbers, did not leave the field until again wounded through both arms.”

• September 5, 1916 Frank Garvin Yerby, novelist, was born in Augusta, Georgia. Yerby earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Paine College in 1932 and his Master of Arts degree from Fisk University in 1938. Yerby was originally noted for writing romance novels set in the Antebellum South. In the 1940s, he embarked on a series of best selling historical novels ranging from the Athens of Pericles to Europe in the Dark Ages. In all, he wrote 33 novels and sold more than 55 million books worldwide. In 1946, he became the first African American to publish a best seller with “The Foxes of Harrow” which that same year was purchased by a Hollywood studio, another first for an African American author. Ultimately the book became a 1947 Academy Award nominated film of the same title. In 1958, his “The Serpant and The Staff” appeared on the New York Times Best Seller List for fiction. Other novels by Yerby include “The Devil’s Laughter” (1953), “The Dahomean” (1971), and “McKenzie’s Hundred” (1985). Yerby left the United States in 1955 in protest against racial discrimination and moved to Spain where he lived until his death on November 29, 1991.

• September 5, 1939 Claudette Colvin, civil rights pioneer, was born in Montgomery, Alabama. On March 2, 1955 while returning from high school on the bus, Colvin refused to give up her seat to a white person in violation of local law. As a result, she was removed from the bus by two police officers and taken to jail. At the time, black leaders were looking for a case to litigate in an effort to overturn the law, but because of Colvin’s poor background they decided to wait until they had a plaintiff who was more upstanding. Nine months later, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white person resulting in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Colvin was sentenced to probation and in 1958 moved to New York City. She retired in 2004 after 35 years as a nurse’s aide at a Manhattan nursing home. Colvin’s story was told in the biography “Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice” which won the 2009 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

• September 5, 1959 Andre Lamar Phillips, hall of fame track and field athlete, was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Phillips attended the University of California, Los Angeles and in 1981 was the NCAA 400 meter hurdles champion. He graduated in 1981 and went on to earn his master’s degree in education. Phillips was ranked the number one 400 meter hurdler in the world in 1985, 1986, and 1988. He won the Gold medal in that event at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. Phillips was inducted into the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame in 2009. He is currently a high school assistant principal.

• September 5, 1994 Isiah “Ike” Williams, hall of fame boxer, died. Williams was born August 2, 1923 in Brunswick, Georgia. He began boxing professionally in 1940 and won the World Lightweight Boxing Championship in 1945. He successfully defended the title five times before losing it in 1951. He was named Ring Magazine Fighter of the Year in 1948. Williams retired from boxing in 1956 with a record of 125 wins, 24 losses, and 5 draws. He was named to Ring Magazine’s list of 100 greatest punchers of all-time and inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. Williams died in relative poverty.

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Founded in 1965 and located in the heart of Midtown Detroit’s Cultural Center, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History is the world's largest institution dedicated to the African American experience. The Museum provides learning opportunities, exhibitions, programs and events based on collections and research that explore the diverse history and culture of African Americans and their African origins.