Today in Black History - The Charles H. Wright Museum Blog

Today in Black History, 01/04/2016 | Mary Ellen Pleasant

January 4, 1904 Mary Ellen Pleasant, entrepreneur and abolitionist, died. Pleasant was born August 19, 1814 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Records indicate that she was in Nantucket, Massachusetts around 1827 as a bounded servant to a store keeper. Pleasant moved to San Francisco, California during the Gold Rush Era in 1852. Because she was able to pass as White, she was able to work in exclusive men's eating establishments and benefit from the financial information and deals discussed at the tables. She publicly changed her racial designation in the city directory from White to Black after the Civil War and filed a lawsuit after being ejected from a city streetcar due to her race. The 1866 decision in Pleasant v. North Beach & Mission Railroad Company outlawed segregation in the city's public conveyances. Her efforts earned her the title of "Mother of the Civil Rights Movement in California." Her biography, "The Making of "Mammy" Pleasant: A Black Entrepreneur in Nineteenth Century San Francisco," was published in 2003. Her name is enshrined in the Ring of Genealogy at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan.

January 4, 1884 Harry Haskell "Bucky" Lew, the first African American to play professional basketball, was born in Dracut, Massachusetts. Lew joined the local YMCA basketball team in 1898 and his team won the state championship each of the four years he played with them. He was recruited to the Lowell, Massachusetts Pawtucketville Athletic Club of the New England Professional Basketball League as their first African American player in 1902. There he gained a reputation for his defensive play but also encountered jeers and racial slurs. When the league folded in 1905, Lew spent the next 20 years barnstorming around New England with teams that he organized. He moved to Springfield, Massachusetts in 1928 and operated a dry cleaning business until his death October 22, 1963.

January 4, 1901 Cyril Lionel Robert James, historian, journalist and author, was born in Trinidad and Tobago. James graduated from the Queen's Royal College in Port of Spain and worked as a school teacher. He moved to England in 1932 and began to campaign for the independence of the West Indies, including the publication of his first important work, "The Case for West-Indian Self Government," in 1933. He also became a leading champion of Pan-African agitation and the chairman of the International African Friends of Abyssinia, formed in 1935 in response to Italy's invasion of what is now Ethiopia. James published his only novel, "Minty Alley" in 1936, the first novel to be published by a Black Caribbean author in the United Kingdom. He then published two of his most important works, "World Revolution" (1937) and "The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution" (1938). James lived in the United States from 1938 to 1953 when he was forced to leave under threat of deportation. Ultimately, he returned to England where he lived until his death May 19, 1989. A public library in London is named in his honor. Biographies of James include "C. L. R. James: The Artist as Revolutionary" (1988) and "Urbane Revolutionary: C. L. R. James and the Struggle for a New Society" (2007).

January 4, 1911 Charlotte E. Ray, the first Black female lawyer, died. Ray was born January 13, 1850 in New York City. After graduating from the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth, she attended Howard University where she was a student and teacher. Ray graduated from Howard University School of Law in 1872 with a specialization in commercial law and was admitted to the bar in the District of Columbia. As a "colored woman lawyer," she was unable to sustain a practice. By 1879, she had returned to New York to teach in the public schools. Ray was also an advocate for women's suffrage. She was a delegate to the 1876 conference of the National Women's Suffrage Association. The Greater Washington Area Chapter of the Women Lawyers Division of the National Bar Association has annually recognized a local outstanding African American female lawyer with the Charlotte E. Ray Award since 1989. The Northeastern University School of Law chapter of Phi Alpha Delta law fraternity is named in her honor.

January 4, 1917 Lloyd George Sealy, the first Black commander of a borough in the New York Police Department, was born in New York City. Sealy became a police officer in 1942 and while working full-time earned his bachelor's degree in sociology from Brooklyn College in 1946 and his law degree from Brooklyn Law School in 1952. He was promoted to sergeant in 1951, lieutenant in 1959, and captain in 1962. He became the first African American commander of a precinct in 1964 and the first Black assistant chief inspector and commander of a borough in 1966. Sealy was also a founding member of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. He retired from the police department in 1969 and became the first African American associate professor of law and police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Sealy died January 4, 1985. The Lloyd Sealy Library at John Jay College of Criminal Justice is named in his honor.

January 4, 1926 Mary Eliza Mahoney, hall of fame nurse and the first African American registered nurse in the United States, died. Mahoney was born May 7, 1845 in Dorchester, Massachusetts. She worked at the New England Hospital for Women and Children for fifteen years before being accepted into its nursing school. Mahoney earned her nursing degree August 1, 1879. She co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses in 1908 and served as director of the Howard Orphan Asylum for Black Children from 1911 to 1912. Mahoney was also a strong advocate for women's equality and women's suffrage. She was one of the first women in Boston, Massachusetts to register to vote in 1920. Mahoney was posthumously inducted into the American Nurses Association Hall of Fame in 1976 and the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1993. The Mary Mahoney Award is bestowed biennially by the ANA in recognition of significant contributions in advancing equal opportunities in nursing for minority groups. The Mary Eliza Mahoney Dialysis Center in Boston and the Mary Mahoney Lecture Series at Indiana University are named in her honor.

January 4, 1929 Bose Ikard, cowboy, died. Ikard was born enslaved between 1843 and 1847 in Summerville, Mississippi but raised in Parker County, Texas. He was freed after the Civil War and worked as a tracker and cowboy, working cattle drives until 1869. After that, he worked as a farmer until his death. Aspects of his life served as an inspiration for the African American cowboy in the movie "Lonesome Dove." A Texas Historical Marker is installed at his gravesite and the Bose Ikard Elementary School is named in his honor.

January 4, 1935 Floyd Patterson, hall of fame boxer, was born in Waco, North Carolina. Patterson started boxing at 14 and won the Gold medal at the 1952 Helsinki Summer Olympic Games as a middleweight. Patterson turned professional following the Olympics and became the youngest World Heavyweight Boxing Champion in history in 1956. After losing his title in 1959, he became the first man to regain the title in 1960. Patterson lost the title again in 1962 but continued to box until retiring in 1972 with a career record of 55 wins, 8 losses, and 1 draw. Patterson became chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission and was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991. Patterson died May 11, 2006. He published his autobiography, "Victory Over Myself," in 1962. A biography, "Floyd Patterson: The Fighting Life of Boxing's Invisible Champion," was published in 2012.

January 4, 1937 Grace Bumbry, considered one of the leading mezzo-sopranos of her generation, was born in St. Louis, Missouri. Bumbry won a competition singing the aria "O don fatale" at 17 but was denied the first-place prize scholarship to the local music conservatory because it did not accept Black students. She studied at Boston University, Northwestern University, and the Music Academy of the West before making her operatic debut in 1960. She gained international renown in 1961 when she was cast as Venus at Bayreuth in Germany, the first Black singer to appear there. Bumbry made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Princess Eboli in "Don Carlo" in 1965. She founded the Grace Bumbry Black Musical Heritage Ensemble in the 1990s to preserve and perform traditional Negro spirituals. She founded the Grace Bumbry Vocal and Opera Academy in Berlin, Germany in 2009. Bumbry received Kennedy Center Honors that same year.

January 4, 1937 Willie Jeffries, hall of fame coach and the first African American head football coach at a National Collegiate Athletic Association Division 1-A college, was born in Union, South Carolina. Jeffries earned his bachelor's degree in civil engineering and master's degree in guidance and counseling from South Carolina State University. He began his coaching career at his alma mater in 1973. He became the head football coach at Division 1-A Wichita State University in 1979, a position he held for five seasons. He coached at Howard University from 1984 to 1988 and returned to South Carolina State in 1989 and coached until 2001. Jeffries compiled a record of 179 wins, 132 losses, and 6 draws over his career. He won three Black National Championships and seven Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Championships. Jeffries was named head football coach emeritus at South Carolina State in 2010 and the football field was named in his honor. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame that same year.

January 4, 1958 Archie Alphonse Alexander, mathematician and engineer, died. Alexander was born May 14, 1888 in Ottumwa, Iowa but raised outside of Des Moines, Iowa. He attended the State University of Iowa (now University of Iowa) where his prowess on the football field earned him the nickname "Alexander the Great." Alexander earned his Bachelor of Science degree in engineering in 1912, the first African American to earn an engineering degree from the school. He formed his own company in 1917 and over the years was responsible for the construction of many roads and bridges around the country. Alexander received an honorary Doctor of Engineering degree from Howard University in 1946. He was appointed Governor of the Virgin Islands by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954.

January 4, 1969 Paul Lawrence Dunbar Chambers, Jr., hall of fame jazz double bassist, died. Chambers was born April 22, 1935 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania but raised in Detroit, Michigan. He started studying music as a young man and started formal bass training in 1952. Chambers moved to New York City soon after. He joined the Miles Davis quintet in 1955 and played on many of Davis' classic albums, including "Kind of Blue" (1959) and "Sketches of Spain" (1960). Chambers left Davis in 1963 and played with the Wynton Kelly trio until 1968. He also played on numerous other albums, including Thelonious Monk's "Brilliant Corners" (1956), John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" (1960), and Wes Montgomery's "Smokin' at the Half Note" (1965). Albums by Chambers as leader include "Chambers' Music" (1956), "Bass on Top" (1957), and "1st Bassman" (1960). Chambers was posthumously inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 2011.

January 4, 1982 William Landon "Gorilla" Jones, hall of fame boxer, died. Jones was born May 12, 1906 in Memphis, Tennessee. He started boxing professionally in 1923 and won the World Middleweight Boxing Championship in 1925. Jones lost the title later that year but continued boxing until retiring in 1940 with a record of 101 wins, 24 losses, and 13 draws. After retiring, he served as a chauffeur and bodyguard for the movie star Mae West and trained other boxers from the late 1940s to the 1970s. Jones was posthumously inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2009.




Cyril Lionel Robert James

 Historian, journalist and author

Mathematician and engineer

The first Black female lawyer

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