Today in Black History, February 18, 2016 | Paul Revere Williams - The Charles H. Wright Museum Blog

Today in Black History, February 18, 2016 | Paul Revere Williams

February 18, 1874 James H. Harris was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, America's highest military decoration, for his actions during the Civil War. Harris was born in 1828 in Saint Mary's County, Maryland. He worked as a farmer before enlisting in the Union Army in 1864 as a private in Company B of the 38th Regiment United States Colored Troops. He was quickly promoted to corporal and then to sergeant. At the Battle of Chaffin's Farm, September 29, 1864, his regiment was among a division of Black troops assigned to attack the center of the Confederate defenses at New Market Heights. The attack was met with intense Confederate fire, killing, capturing or wounding over 50 percent of the Black troops, and stalling the effort. When a renewed effort began, Harris and two other men ran at the head of the assault and were the first to breach the Confederate defenses and engage them in hand to hand combat. That attack was successful and the Confederate forces were routed. Not much else is known of Harris' life after the war except that he died January 28, 1898 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

February 18, 1894 Paul Revere Williams, architect, was born in Los Angeles, California. A high school teacher advised Williams against pursuing a career in architecture because he would have difficulty attracting clients in the majority White community and the Black community could not provide enough work. Williams studied at the Los Angeles School of Art and Design and at the Los Angeles branch of the New York Beaux-Arts Institute of Design Atelier. Williams became the first certified African American architect west of the Mississippi River in 1921 and opened his own office in 1922. He was the first African American member of the American Institute of Architects and won the AIA Award of Merit in 1939 for his design of the MCA Building in Los Angeles. He became the first African American to be voted an AIA Fellow in 1957. Williams designed more than 2,000 private homes and his client list included Frank Sinatra, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Lon Chaney, Lucille Ball, Tyrone Power, Barbara Stanwyck, and Danny Thomas. Williams received the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People 1953 Spingarn Medal and he received honorary doctorate degrees from Howard University, Lincoln University, and Tuskegee Institute. Williams died January 23, 1980. Biographies of Williams include "Paul R. Williams, Architect: A Legacy of Style" (1993) and "The Will and the Way: Paul R. Williams, Architect" (1994). His name is enshrined in the Ring of Genealogy at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan.

February 18, 1903 "In Dahomey," the first full-length musical written and performed by African Americans to be featured at a major Broadway theater, opened at the New York Theater. The musical featured music by Will Marion Cook, book by Jesse A. Shipp, and lyrics by Paul Lawrence Dunbar. The production ran for 53 performances before touring for a year in England and Scotland. It returned to the United States in 1904 and began a 40-week tour across America.

February 18, 1910 Lucy Ann Stanton, the first African American woman to complete a four-year collegiate course of study, died. Stanton was born October 16, 1831 in Cleveland, Ohio. She entered Oberlin College in 1846 and was elected president of the school's Ladies Literary Society in 1849. Stanton graduated with a literary degree in 1850. At her graduation, Stanton delivered an address entitled "A Plea for the Oppressed," an anti-slavery speech which was published in the Oberlin Evangelist. After graduating, she moved to Columbus, Ohio to become principal of a school but two years later returned to Cleveland to marry. In 1854, Stanton wrote a short story for her husband's newspaper, the first Black woman to publish a fictional story. Stanton and her husband moved to Buxton, Canada in 1856 to teach previously enslaved Black people. After divorcing her husband in 1859, Stanton returned to Cleveland. She was sponsored by the Cleveland Freedman's Association to teach in Georgia in 1866 and later in Mississippi. Stanton moved to Tennessee in the 1880s where she was an officer in the Women's Relief Corps, a grand matron of the Order of Eastern Star, and president of the local chapter of the Women's Temperance Union.

February 18, 1924 Velvalea Rodgers Phillips, the first African American judge in the state of Wisconsin, was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Phillips earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from Howard University in 1946 and her Bachelor of Laws degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School in 1951, the first Black woman to graduate from the school. Phillips became the first female and first African American member of the Milwaukee Common Council in 1956. She frequently participated in nonviolent protests against discrimination in housing, education, and employment during her time on the council. Phillips resigned from the council in 1971 and was appointed to the Milwaukee County judiciary. She lost her bid for reelection. Phillips was elected Wisconsin Secretary of State in 1978, the first female and first African American elected to that position. She again lost her bid for reelection. Phillips was appointed Distinguished Professor of Law at the Marquette University School of Law in 2002. The Vel Phillips Foundation was founded "to help establish equality and opportunity for minorities through social justice, education, equal housing opportunities, and jobs." Phillips Hall at the University of Wisconsin and the Vel R. Phillips Juvenile Justice Center in Milwaukee are named in her honor.

February 18, 1931 Toni Morrison, author, editor and professor, was born Chloe Ardelia Wolford in Lorain, Ohio. Morrison earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Howard University in 1953 and her Master of Arts degree in English from Cornell University in 1955. She became an editor at Random House in 1966 and played an important role in bringing African American literature into the mainstream. Morrison's first novel was "The Bluest Eyes" (1970) which was followed by "Sula" (1973), and "Song of Solomon" (1977), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her novel "Beloved" was published in 1987 and won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the American Book Award. The New York Times Book Review named it the best American novel published in the previous 25 years in 2006. The book was adapted into a film of the same title in 1998. Other novels by Morrison include "Jazz" (1992), "Love" (2003), "Home" (2012), and "God Help the Child" (2015). Morrison was awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature and was cited, "who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, give life to an essential aspect of American reality." The National Endowment for the Humanities selected Morrison for the 1996 Jefferson Lecture, the nation's highest honor for achievement in the humanities. She received the 1996 National Book Foundation's Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters for "enriching our literary heritage over a life of service, or a corpus of work." She was presented the National Humanities Medal, for work that has "deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities, broadened our citizen's engagement with the humanities, or helped to preserve or expand American's access to important resources in the humanities," by President William J. Clinton December 20, 2000. Morrison held the Robert F. Goheen Chair in the Humanities at Princeton University from 1989 to her retirement in 2006. She won the 2008 Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album for Children for "Who's Got Game? The Ant or the Grasshopper? The Lion or the Mouse? Poppy or the Snake?." She was presented the Norman Mailer Prize for Lifetime Achievement in 2009 and received honorary Doctor of Letters degrees from Rutgers University and the University of Geneva in 2011. Morrison was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, by President Barack H. Obama May 29, 2012. She received the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critics Circle in 2014. She is currently a member of the editorial board at The Nation magazine.

February 18, 1934 Audre Geraldine Lorde, writer, poet and activist, was born in New York City. Legally blind, Lorde wrote her first poem when she was in the eighth grade. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in library science from Hunter College in 1959 and her Master of Library Science degree from Columbia University in 1964. Lorde's first volume of poetry, "The First Cities," was published in 1968. Other volumes include "Cables to Rage" (1970), "Between Ourselves" (1976), and "The Cancer Journals" (1980). Lorde co-founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press in 1980, the first publisher for women of color in the United States. She was the state poet of New York from 1991 to 1992. Lorde died November 17, 1992 and was in her words "black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet."

February 18, 1941 Irma Thomas, hall of fame blues vocalist, was born Irma Lee in Ponchatoula, Louisiana. Thomas started singing in her church choir but was singing secular music by her late teens. She recorded her first single, "(You Can Have My Husband but) Don't Mess with My Man," in 1960. This was followed by several successful singles, including the 1964 releases "Wish Someone Would Care" and "Anyone Who Knows What Love Is." Subsequent releases were not as successful and she did not record for several years. Thomas returned to recording in the late 1980s and recorded a number of albums, including "Live! Simply the Best" (1991) and "Sing It!" (1998) which were nominated for Grammy Awards and "After the Rain" (2006) which won the 2007 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album. "Simply Grand" was released in 2008. Thomas was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2009.

February 18, 1957 Dedan Kimathi Waciuri, Kenyan freedom fighter, was executed. Kimathi was born October 31, 1920 in the Nyeri District of Kenya. He enlisted in the army in 1941 to fight on the side of the British during World War II. He became a member of the Kenya African Union, a political organization formed to articulate Kenyan grievances against the British colonial administration, in 1946. Kimathi had become more radical by 1950 and joined the Forty Group, the militant wing of the Kikuyu Central Association, in 1951. Kimathi formed the Kenya Defence Council in 1953 to coordinate all fighters against the British. He was arrested by the colonial government in 1956 and executed. Kimathi is viewed by most Kenyans as a national hero and many towns have buildings or streets named in his honor. A bronze statue of Kimathi was unveiled in Nairobi city centre February 18, 2007. "The Hunt for Kimathi" was published in 1958.

February 18, 1965 Republic of The Gambia gained its independence from the United Kingdom. The Gambia is the smallest country, at 4,007 square miles, on mainland Africa, bordered on the north, east and south by Senegal and the Atlantic Ocean on the west. The population of approximately 1.7 million is 90% Muslim and 8% Christian and the official language is English. The capital is Banjul and the largest city is Serekunda.

February 18, 1997 The home of John Percial Parker in Ripley, Ohio was declared a National Historic Landmark. Parker was born February 2, 1827 in Norfolk, Virginia. He was sold into slavery at eight. He had earned enough money by 1845 to buy his freedom for $1,800. Parker became involved in abolitionist activities and aided in the freeing of over a thousand enslaved people. Parker established the Ripley Foundry and Machine Company in 1854. His foundry employed more than 25 workers and remained in operation until 1918. Parker served as a recruiter for the Union Army during the Civil War and supplied castings for the war effort. Parker received patent number 304,552 for the Follower-Screw for Tobacco Presses September 2, 1884. He received patent number 318,285 for the Portable Screw Press, popularly known as the Parker Pulverizer, May 19, 1885. Parker died February 4, 1900. His autobiography, "His Promised Land: The Autobiography of John Parker, Former Slave and Conductor on the Underground Railroad," was published in 1996.

February 18, 2007 Frank Martin Snowden, Jr., one of the foremost authorities on Black people in ancient history, died. Snowden was born July 17, 1911 in York County, Virginia. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1932, Master of Arts in 1933, and Ph. D. in 1944 from Harvard University. Snowden taught classics at Georgetown University, Vassar College, and Mary Washington College before joining Howard University where he served as dean of the College of Liberal Arts. Snowden documented that Black people were able to co-exist with the Greeks and Romans because they were considered equals. He authored several books, including "Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco – Roman Experience" (1970) and "Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks" (1983). Snowden was fluent in Latin, Greek, German, French, and Italian. From 1954 to 1956, he served as cultural attaché at the American Embassy to Rome. Snowden was presented the National Humanities Medal by President George W. Bush November 17, 2003 for work that has "deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities, broadened our citizens' engagement with the humanities, or helped preserve and expand Americans' access to important resources in the humanities. The Frank M. Snowden, Jr. Lecture Series is held annually at Howard. 


Audre Geraldine Lorde

Writer, poet and activist

Republic of The Gambia 

Gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1965.

"In Dahomey"

The first full-length musical written and performed by African Americans to be featured at a major Broadway theater opened at the New York Theater in 1903.

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