Today in Black History, February 16, 2016 | Lavar Burton - The Charles H. Wright Museum Blog

Today in Black History, February 16, 2016 | Lavar Burton

February 16, 1957 Levardis Robert Martyn "LeVar" Burton, Jr., actor, director and author, was born in Landstuhl, West Germany. Burton graduated from the University of Southern California School of Theater. While still in school, he came to prominence portraying Kunta Kinte in the 1977 television miniseries "Roots." Burton originated the role of La Forge in the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" television series in 1986. He subsequently reprised that role in the series of films beginning with "Star Trek Generations" (1994) through "Star Trek Nemesis" (2002). Burton also directed the Disney Channel television movie "Smart House" (1999) and the films "Blizzard" (2003) and "Reach for Me" (2008). He has won a number of awards, including the 1992 Peabody Award as executive producer of an episode of "Reading Rainbow," 2000 Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album, "The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.," and 2001 and 2002 Daytime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Performance in a Children's Series. Burton is the host and executive producer of a documentary titled "The Science of Peace," which investigates the science and technology aimed at enabling world peace, and on the board of the AIDS Research Alliance. For the 2016 HISTORY®  remake of "ROOTS", Burton served as  Co-Executive Producer, along with Korin D. Huggins; Will Packer, Marc Toberoff, Mark Wolper, Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal and Barry Jossen served as executive producers. 

ROOTS will air Memorial Day weekend, 2016 - see trailer

February 16, 1852 William Sanders Scarborough, generally believed to be the first African American classical scholar, was born enslaved in Macon, Georgia. Scarborough learned to read and write by ten despite prohibitions against educating enslaved Black children. He was freed after the Civil War and earned his bachelor's degree, with honors, in classics in 1875 and his Master of Arts degree from Oberlin College. He served as a professor in the classical department of Wilberforce University from 1877 to 1908. He published "First Lessons in Greek" in 1881 and "Birds of Aristophanes" in 1886. He also became the first African American member of the Modern Language Association. Scarborough was appointed president of Wilberforce in 1908, a position he held until 1921.He was appointed by President Warren G. Harding to a position in the United States Department of Agriculture in 1921 and held it until his death September 9, 1926. The Modern Language Association annually award the William Sanders Scarborough Prize for an outstanding scholarly study of Black American literature or culture published the previous year. "The Autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough: An American Journey From Slavery to Scholarship" was published in 2005.

February 16, 1858 Isaiah Mays, Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, was born enslaved in Carters Bridge, Virginia. Mays was serving as a corporal in Company B of the 24th Infantry Regiment by May 11, 1889. He was involved in an engagement with robbers on that day and his actions earned him the medal, America's highest military decoration, which was awarded February 19, 1890. His citation reads, "Gallantry in the fight between Paymaster Wham's escort and robbers. Mays walked and crawled 2 miles to a ranch for help." He left the army in 1893 and applied for a federal pension in 1922 but was denied. Mays died penniless May 2, 1925 and his grave was marked with only a small stone etched with a number. The marker was replaced with an official United States Department of Veterans Affairs headstone in 2001. His remains were disinterred, cremated and placed in an urn in March, 2009 and the urn was interred at Arlington National Cemetery May 29, 2009.

February 16, 1904 James Baskett, actor and the first male performer of African descent to receive an Oscar, was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. Baskett appeared on Broadway in the all-Black musical revue "Hot Chocolate" in 1929. He also appeared in a number of all-Black films, including "Harlem is Heaven" (1932) and "Straight to Heaven" (1939). He appeared in the lead role of Uncle Remus in "Song of the South" in 1946 but was unable to attend the premier in Atlanta, Georgia because of the city's racial segregation laws. Instead of being nominated for Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor, Baskett received an honorary Academy Award for his performance as Uncle Remus for his "able and heartwarming characterization of Uncle Remus, friend and storyteller to the children of the world" March 20, 1948. Basket was part of the cast of the "Amos 'n' Andy" radio show from 1944 to his death July 9, 1948.

February 16, 1916 William Ballard "Bill" Doggett, jazz and R&B pianist and organist, arranger and composer, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Doggett started playing the piano at nine and formed his first combo at 15. He toured and recorded with several of the nation's top singers and bands over the next 20 years, including Johnny Otis, Louis Jordan, Ella Fitzgerald, and Lionel Hampton. He also was the arranger and pianist for the Ink Spots for two years. Doggett formed his own trio in 1951 and switched to playing the organ. He recorded his best known single, "Honky Tonk, Pts. 1 & 2," in 1956. It sold four million copies and was number one on the R&B chart and number two on the Pop chart. It was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998 as a recording of "lasting qualitative or historical significance." Albums by Doggett include "Hot Doggett" (1956), "High and Wide" (1959), "Take Your Shot," and "The Right Choice After Hours" (1991). Doggett died November 13, 1996.

February 16, 1932 Otis Blackwell, hall of fame songwriter, pianist and singer, was born in Brooklyn, New York. Blackwell learned to play the piano as a child. He won a talent contest at the Apollo Theater in 1952 but his real love was songwriting. He had his first success in 1956, composing "Fever" which was recorded by Little Willie John. Blackwell went on to become one of the leading African American figures of early rock and roll, writing million–selling songs for Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dee Clark, and others. Blackwell composed more than a thousand songs, garnering worldwide sales of close to 200 million records over his career. Two of his songs, "Don't Be Cruel" by Elvis Presley and "Great Balls of Fire" by Jerry Lee Lewis, have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame as recordings of "qualitative or historical significance." Blackwell was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1986 and received the Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation in 1994. Blackwell died May 6, 2002. He was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010.

February 16, 1933 William Maud Bryant, Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, was born in Cochran, Georgia. Bryant was serving as a sergeant first class in Company A of the 5th Special Forces Group, 1st Special Forces by March 24, 1969. On that day, during a battle in Long Khanh province, Republic of Vietnam, his actions earned him the medal, America's highest military decoration. His citation partially reads, "The battalion came under heavy fire and became surrounded by the elements of 3 enemy regiments. Sfc. Bryant displayed extraordinary heroism throughout the succeeding 34 hours of incessant attack as he moved throughout the company position heedless of the intense hostile fire while establishing and improving the defensive perimeter, directing fire during critical phases of the battle, distributing ammunition, assisting the wounded and providing the leadership and inspirational example of courage to his men. When a helicopter drop of ammunition was made to re-supply the beleaguered forces, Sfc. Bryant with complete disregard for his safety ran through the enemy fire to retrieve the scattered ammunition boxes and distributed needed ammunition to his men. During a lull in the intense fighting, Sfc. Bryant led a patrol outside the perimeter to obtain information of the enemy. The patrol came under intense automatic weapons fire and was pinned down. Sfc. Bryant single-handedly repulsed 1 enemy attack on his small force and by his heroic action inspired his men to fight off other assaults. Seeing a wounded enemy soldier some distance from the patrol location, Sfc. Bryant crawled forward alone under heavy fire to retrieve the soldier for intelligence purposes. Finding that the enemy soldier had expired, Sfc. Bryant crawled back to his patrol and led his men back to the company position where he again took command of the defense. As the siege continued, Sfc. Bryant organized and led a patrol in a daring attempt to break through the enemy encirclement. The patrol had advanced some 200 meters by heavy fighting when it was pinned down by the intense automatic weapons fire from heavily fortified bunkers and Sfc. Bryant was severely wounded. Despite his wounds he rallied his men, calling for helicopter gunship support, and directed heavy suppressive fire upon the enemy positions. Following the last gunship attack, Sfc. Bryant fearlessly charged an enemy automatic weapons position, overrunning it, and single-handedly destroying its 3 defenders. Inspired by his heroic example, his men renewed their attack on the entrenched enemy. While regrouping his small force for the final assault against the enemy, Sfc. Bryant fell mortally wounded by an enemy rocket." The medal was presented to Bryant's family by President Richard M. Nixon February 16, 1971.

February 16, 1948 Midian Othello Bousfield, physician, businessman and the United States Army Medical Corps first African American colonel, died. Bousfield was born August 22, 1885 in Tipton, Missouri but raised in Kansas City, Missouri. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Kansas in 1907 and his Doctor of Medicine degree from Northwestern University in 1909. He was a co-founder of Liberty Life Insurance Company in 1919 and served as medical director and later president. When the company merged with two other insurance companies to form Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company, Bousfield served as vice president and medical director. He also served as director of the Negro Health Division of the Julius Rosenwald Fund where he helped finance the education of a number of Black Physicians and nurses. Bousfield developed the Infantile Paralysis Unit at Tuskegee Institute and Provident Hospital and was president of the National Medical Association from 1933 to 1934. He was the first African American appointed to the Chicago Board of Education in 1939. Bousfield was put in charge of the first U. S. Army all-African American hospital in 1942, a position he held until his retirement in 1945 as a colonel.

February 16, 1972 Jerome Abram "The Bus" Bettis, hall of fame football player, was born in Detroit, Michigan. Bettis played football at Mackenzie High School and the University of Notre Dame before being selected in the 1993 National Football League Draft by the Los Angeles Rams. He was named Offensive Rookie of the Year in his first year as a professional and was a three-time All-Pro selection over his 13 season career. Bettis retired in 2006 after leading the Pittsburgh Steelers to a Super Bowl victory. Bettis founded the Bus Stops Here Foundation in 1997 to aid underprivileged children and was awarded the 2001 Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in recognition of his volunteer work and excellence on the field. He received an honorary doctorate degree from Lawrence Technological University in 2006. Bettis currently hosts "The Jerome Beetis Show" in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His autobiography, "Driving Home: My Unforgettable Super Bowl Run" was published in 2006. Bettis was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015.

February 16, 1974 Anita Bush, dancer, actress and theater administrator, died. Bush was born September 1, 1883 in Brooklyn, New York. She joined the Williams and Walker Company as a dancer at 17 and toured the world. She formed the Anita Bush Players of Harlem in 1915, the first professional Black dramatic non-musical theater ensemble in the United States. The company later became the Lafayette Players and existed until 1932. It helped launch the careers of a number of Black performers, including Charles Gilpin and Evelyn Preer. Bush left the company in 1920 to pursue a career in motion pictures. She appeared in "The Bull-Dogger" (1921) and "The Crimson Skull" (1922).

February 16, 1996 Walter Brown "Brownie" McGhee, hall of fame blues guitarist and singer, died. McGhee was born November 30, 1915 in Knoxville, Tennessee but raised in Kingsport, Tennessee. He spent most of his youth immersed in music, singing with local groups and teaching himself to play the guitar. He moved to New York City in 1942 and met Sonny Terry at a civil rights benefit organized by Paul Robeson. They toured and recorded together until around 1980. Albums by the duo include "Folk Songs of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee" (1958) and "Sonny & Brownie" (1973). They appeared in the original production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" from 1955 to 1957. During the blues revival of the 1960s, they were very popular on the music festival circuit. McGhee also recorded solo. His albums include "Brownie's Blues" (1962), "Blues Is Truth" (1976), and "Facts of Life" (1985). He also wrote and performed the soundtrack for the movie "Buck and the Preacher" in 1972. McGhee received the National Heritage Fellowship, the United States' highest honor in the folk and traditional arts, from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1982. McGhee was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1997. "Guitar Styles of Brownie McGhee" was published in 1971.

February 16, 2000 The Herndon Home in Atlanta, Georgia, the home of Alonzo Franklin Herndon, was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The home was built in 1910. Herndon was born enslaved July 21, 1858 in Georgia. He and his family were freed after the Civil War but forced to continue working for the family that enslaved them at meager wages. Herndon worked in the fields throughout his youth and as a result had little formal education. He had saved enough money to run away by 20. Herndon moved to Atlanta in 1882 and opened his barbershop in 1890. It served only White customers and quickly became one of the city's leading barbershops. Herndon opened the Chrystal Palace in 1902, a lavishly appointed barbershop with chandeliers and marble floors, which served judges, politicians, and the business elite. He bought the Atlanta Benevolent and Protective Association for $140 in 1905 and renamed it the Atlanta Mutual Insurance Association. It had 23 offices across Georgia by 1907. It was renamed the Atlanta Life Insurance Company in 1922 and was operating in several southern states. Herndon was a leading philanthropist, providing large sums to a local orphanage and kindergarten for Black children and to the leading Atlanta church. He was a delegate to the first conference of the National Negro Business League in 1890 and was involved in the 1905 Niagara Movement. Herndon died July 21, 1927. "The Herndons: An Atlanta Family" was published in 2002 and chronicles his story and that of his descendants.

February 16, 2001 The Clearview Golf Course in Canton, Ohio, the first golf course to be designed, built and operated by an African American, was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The course was designed, built and operated by William J. Powell. Powell was born November 22, 1916 in Greenville, Alabama but raised in Minerva, Ohio. He attended Wilberforce University and played on the golf team. After serving in the United States Army Air Force in England during World War II, he returned to Minerva in 1946. Powell was banned from playing on the all-White public golf courses and turned down for a bank loan to build his own course. With financing from two African American doctors and a loan from his brother, Powell purchased a 78 acre dairy farm. He and his wife did most of the landscaping by hand and opened the nine-hole Clearview course in 1948. He expanded the course to 18 holes in 1978. Powell was made a life member of the Professional Golf Association in 1999 and received the 2009 PGA Distinguished Service Award which honors outstanding individuals who display leadership and humanitarian qualities, including integrity, sportsmanship, and enthusiasm for the game of golf. Powell died December 31, 2009.

February 16, 2008 James Edward Orange, minister and civil rights activist, died. Orange was born October 29, 1942 in Birmingham, Alabama. A year after graduating from high school, he was arrested for picketing a local store in 1962. This was the first of more than 100 arrests for picketing or other acts of civil disobedience. Orange was ordained a Baptist minister in 1967. He served as a project coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from 1965 to 1970. He later became a regional coordinator for the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. While at the AFL-CIO, Orange worked on more than 300 labor organizing campaigns, including working with Cesar Chavez to organize the United Farm Workers. He also played a central role in South African voter registration and education prior to their 1994 election of President Nelson Mandela. In 1995, Orange founded and served as general coordinator of the Martin Luther King, Jr. March Committee-Africa/African American Renaissance Committee in 1995 to coordinate commemorative events honoring King and promoted commercial ties between Atlanta, Georgia and other cities in the United States and South Africa. Orange helped organize the Immigrant Freedom Ride in 2003 in support of legal status for illegal immigrants.


​Lavar Burton

Actor, director and author; portrayed Kunta Kinte in the 1977 television miniseries "Roots."

Jerome Bettis 

Hall of fame football player, born in Detroit, Michigan

James Orange

Minister and civil rights activist

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