Today in Black History, 12/6/2011

·   December 6, 1878 William Stanley Braithwaite, poet, anthologist and educator, was born in Boston, Massachusetts. At the age of 15, Braithwaite apprenticed to a typesetter at a Boston publisher and discovered an affinity for lyric poetry and began to write poems. Over his career, he published three volumes of poetry, “Lyrics of Life and Love” (1904), “The House of Falling Leaves” (1908), and “Selected Poems” (1948). Braithwaite also contributed book reviews, essays, and articles to numerous periodicals, including Atlantic Monthly, Crisis, and the New York Times. In 1918, Braithwaite was awarded the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP. From 1935 to 1945, he was a professor of creative writing at Atlanta University. Braithwaite died June 8, 1962.

·   December 6, 1892 Theodore Kenneth Lawless, internationally known dermatologist, was born in Thibodeaux, Louisiana. Lawless earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1914 from Talladega College, his medical degree in 1919 and Master of Arts degree in 1920 from Northwestern University, and completed graduate work in dermatology at Columbia University in 1920. From 1924 to 1941, Lawless served on the faculty of Northwestern University where he gained wide recognition for his research into the treatment and cure of syphilis and a host of other skin diseases. Despite his international reputation, his tenure at Northwestern was marked by racism and he left after failing to receive a promotion that he felt he deserved. Lawless also had a private practice that drew patients of all ethnic, racial, and economic backgrounds in search of cures and treatments for rare skin disorders. During the 1940s and 1950s, Lawless served as president of the Service Federal Savings and Loan Association, a bank that helped to finance black businesses, and a real estate enterprise that worked to promote low cost housing. By the 1960s, he was listed on Ebony Magazine’s list of 35 Negro millionaires. Over his lifetime, Lawless donated considerable sums to black educational institutions, including Dillard University where a chapel was established in his name. He also provided scholarship money for black students and sponsored African medical students at United States medical schools. Among the many honors and awards he received were the 1929 Harmon Award in Medicine and the 1954 Spingarn Medal from the NAACP. Lawless died May 1, 1971.

·   December 6, 1916 Powhatan Beaty, Medal of Honor recipient, died. Beaty was born enslaved on October 8, 1837 in Richmond, Virginia. He gained his freedom around 1861 and in 1863 enlisted in the Union Army’s 5th United States Colored Infantry Regiment. By 1864, Beaty had risen to the rank of first sergeant. On September 29, 1864 at the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm, his regiment unsuccessfully attempted to attack the Confederate defenses at New Market Heights. During the regiment’s retreat, their color bearer was killed. Beaty returned under enemy fire to retrieve the flag. Only 16 of the original 91 members of the regiment, including Beaty, survived the attack unwounded. With no officers remaining, Beaty took command of the company and led a second attack against the Confederate lines. This attack was successful and drove the Confederates from their fortified positions. For his actions, on April 6, 1865, Beaty was awarded the medal, America’s highest military decoration. By the time he retired from the army, Beaty had participated in 13 battles and numerous skirmishes. After retiring, he returned to Cincinnati and successfully pursued a career in acting and public speaking. In 2003, an Ohio Historical Marker was unveiled in his honor at his burial site in the Union Baptist Cemetery.

·   December 6, 1919 James Louis Bivins, hall of fame boxer, was born in Dry Branch, Georgia but raised in Cleveland, Ohio. Bivens started boxing professionally in 1940 and won his first 19 fights. From 1942 to 1946, he won 27 straight fights. Despite being ranked the number one contender in both the light heavyweight and heavyweight divisions, he was never given the opportunity to fight for a world title. During his career, Bivins fought seven boxers that are in the International Boxing Hall of Fame and defeated four, including Ezzard Charles and Archie Moore. He retired from boxing in 1953 and was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1999.

·   December 6, 1932 Richard Bowie Spikes of San Francisco, California received patent number 1,889,814 for his improved automatic gear shift. His invention allowed an automobile driver to shift gears without the clashing of gears previously experienced. Spikes later licensed the patent for $100,000. Little is known of Spikes’ life except that he was born December 4, 1884 and was an incredible inventor. He had five additional patents, including patent number 1,362,197 for a trolley pole arrester on December 14, 1920, patent number 1,441,383 for a brake testing machine on January 9, 1923, patent number 1,936,996 for improvements in transmission and shifting means on November 28, 1933, patent number 2,517,936 for a horizontally swinging barber’s chair on August 8, 1950, and patent number 3,015,522 for an automatic safety brake system on January 2, 1961.  Spikes died in 1962.  

·   December 6, 1949 Huddie William Ledbetter (Leadbelly), folk musician, died. Leadbelly was born January 20, 1888 in Mooringsport, Louisiana. From 1915 to 1934, he spent considerable time in prisons where hundreds of his songs, including “Midnight Special” and “Goodnight Irene,” were recorded for the Library of Congress. By 1935, Leadbelly had gained fame and Life Magazine ran a three page article in the April 19, 1937 issue titled “Lead Belly - Bad Nigger Makes Good Minstrel.” Leadbelly performed on radio shows and toured around the world until his death. Despite this, he died penniless. His vast songbook has provided material for numerous folk, country, pop, and rock acts. A film, “Leadbelly,” loosely based on his life was released in 1976 and in 1999 the book, “The Life and Legend of Leadbelly,” was published.

·   December 6, 1961 Frantz Fanon, psychiatrist, revolutionary, and author, died. Fanon was born July 20, 1925 on the Caribbean island of Martinique. He served in the French army during World War II. Fanon’s service in the French army and his experiences in Martinique fueled his first book, “Black Skin, White Masks,” (1952) which analyzed the effects of colonial subjugation on humanity. In 1961, he wrote “The Wretched of the Earth,” which discussed the effects on Algerians of torture by the French forces during the Algerian revolution. Many of his shorter writings were posthumously published in the book “Toward the African Revolution.” Several biographies of Fanon have been published, including “Fanon” (1971) and “Frantz Fanon: A Life” (2001).

·   December 6, 1967 Lillian Evans (Evanti), one of the first African American women to become an internationally prominent opera performer, died. Evans was born August 12, 1891 in Washington, D.C. A gifted student and performer, she could speak and sing in five different languages and earned her bachelor’s degree in music from Howard University. Evans, a lyric soprano, began singing professionally in 1918 under the stage name Evanti. She moved to France in 1925 where she became the first African American woman to sing with a European opera company. In 1934, she gave a special command performance for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1941, she and Mary Caldwell Dawson created the National Negro Opera Company to provide a venue for African American performers. Over her career, Evanti performed in 24 operas.