February 29, 1840 William Harvey Carney, Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, was born enslaved in Norfolk, Virginia. Carney escaped to Massachusetts and later bought the rest of his family out of enslavement. He joined the Union Army and served in Company C of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry as a sergeant. On July 18, 1863, he participated in the assault on Fort Wagner in Charleston, South Carolina. For his actions Carney was awarded the medal, America's highest military decoration, May 23, 1900. His citation reads, "When the color sergeant was shot down, this soldier grasped the flag, led the way to the parapet, and planted the colors thereon. When the troops fell back he brought off the flag, under a fierce fire in which he was twice severely wounded." In later life, Carney was a postal employee and popular speaker at patriotic events. Carney died December 8, 1908. The attack on Fort Wagner Is depicted in the 1989 film "Glory." Sgt. Wm. H. Carney Memorial Academy in New Bedford, Massachusetts is named in his honor.
February 29, 1860 George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower, violinist and composer, died. Bridgetower was born October 11, 1778 in Biala, Poland. A child prodigy, he made his debut as a soloist in 1789 to rave reviews. The Prince of Wales took an interest in him in 1791 and made Bridgetower first violinist of his private orchestra, a position Bridgetower held for 14 years. In 1802, Bridgetower met and performed with Ludwig von Beethoven who described Bridgetower as "an absolute master of his instrument." Their relationship is dramatized in Rita Dove's book "Sonata Mulattica" (2009). Bridgetower was elected to the Royal Society of Musicians in 1807 and earned his Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Cambridge in 1811. Bridgetower's compositions include "Diatonica armonica" and "Henry: A Ballad." He taught piano and performed throughout Europe. A jazz opera, "Bridgetower – A Fable of 1807," was commissioned for the 2007 City of London Festival to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the parliamentary bill to abolish slavery in England.
February 29, 1892 Augusta Fells Savage, Harlem Renaissance sculptor, was born in Green Cove Springs, Florida. Savage was admitted to Cooper Union Art School in New York City in 1921. She applied for an art program sponsored by the French government in 1923 but was turned down by an international judging committee because of her race. She received her first commission during this time, a bust of W. E. B. Du Bois for the Harlem Library. Savage enrolled in the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere, a leading Paris art school, in 1929. She returned to the United States in 1931 and became the first African American artist to be elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors in 1934. She also launched the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts that year and it evolved into the Harlem Community Art Center. Savage received a commission from the New York World's Fair in 1939 to create "Lift Every Voice and Sing," a 16 foot sculpture that was the most popular work at the fair. One of her most famous busts, "Gamin," is on permanent display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Savage died March 26, 1962. "In Her Hands: The Story of Sculptor Augusta Savage," a biography intended for young readers, was published in 2009.
February 29, 1908 Archibald James Carey, Jr., lawyer, clergyman and judge, was born in Chicago, Illinois. Carey earned his Bachelor of Science degree from Lewis Institute (now Illinois Institute of Technology) in 1928, his Bachelor of Divinity degree from Northwestern University in 1932, and his Bachelor of Laws degree from Chicago-Kent College of Law in 1935. He established a private practice in Chicago after being accepted to the Illinois bar. Carey also served as pastor of Woodlawn AME Church from 1930 to 1949 and Quinn Chapel AME Church from 1949 to 1967. He was elected a Chicago alderman in 1947 and served until 1955. Carey spoke at the 1952 Republican National Convention and called for equal rights for all minorities. Many scholars suggest that his speech was an inspiration for Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. Carey served as an alternate delegate to the United Nations from 1953 to 1956 and on the President's Committee on Government Employment Policy where he worked to eliminate employment discrimination against African Americans from 1955 to 1961. He was appointed chair of the committee in 1957, the first African American to hold that position. He was appointed a county Circuit Court judge in 1966 and served until mandatory retirement in 1978. Carey died April 20, 1981.
February 29, 1911 Frank "Tick" Coleman, educator and community volunteer, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Coleman attended Central High School where he was the first African American to quarterback their football team and led them to the public school championships in 1929 and 1930. He also was the first African American member of the All- Scholastic High School Football Team in 1928. His football helmet and shoes are in the collection of the African American Museum of Philadelphia. Coleman attended Lincoln University where he was varsity football quarterback, served as class president for three years, and earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1935. Coleman worked as a youth counselor for the School District of Philadelphia from 1949 to his retirement in 1981. He earned his Master of Arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1959. Coleman mentored hundreds of young people in the Black community as a guidance counselor and through Lincoln University and helped finance their education through scholarships that he funded. He also dedicated many years to bringing scouting to underprivileged youth. The Boy Scouts of America created the Dr. Frank "Tick" Coleman National Service Award to honor his years of service. Coleman died December 25, 2008.
February 29, 1932 Reri Grist, pioneering coloratura soprano, was born in New York City. Grist earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in music from Queens College. She performed on Broadway in small roles and in musicals in her early teens. Her first quasi-operatic engagement was in "Carmen Jones" in 1956. She performed in the musical "West Side Story" in 1957. Grist sang the soprano part in Symphony No. 4 in G major with the New York Philharmonic shortly after. She made her official staged operatic debut with the Santa Fe Opera in 1959 and made her European debut in 1960. She was a member of the Zurich Opera from 1960 to 1966. Grist made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1966 and ended her operatic career in 1991. She has been a professor of voice at the School of Music at Indiana University and at the Hochschule fur Musik und Theater in Munich, Germany. Her many honors include a Legacy Award from the American Opera Association in 2001 and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Licia Albenese Foundation in 2003.
February 29, 1940 Robert Sengstacke Abbott, lawyer and newspaper publisher, died. Abbott was born November 24, 1870 in Frederica, St. Simons Island, Georgia. Abbott studied the printing trade at Hampton Institute from 1892 to 1896 and earned his law degree from Kent College of Law in 1898. However, due to racial prejudice he was unable to practice despite attempts to establish law offices in Gary, Indiana, Topeka, Kansas, and Chicago, Illinois. Abbott founded the Chicago Defender May 5, 1905. The slogan of the newspaper was "American race prejudice must be destroyed ." The paper encouraged African Americans to migrate north for a better life and to fight for an even better lifestyle once they got there. The Defender had a circulation of more than 200,000 by the early 1920s and was known as "America's Black newspaper." It also made Abbott one of the first self-made African American millionaires. He co-founded the Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic in Chicago in 1929. His biography, "The Lonely Warrior: The Life and Times of Robert S. Abbott," was published in 1955. His home in Chicago, the Robert S. Abbott House, was designated a National Historic Landmark December 8, 1976.
February 29, 1940 Hattie McDaniel became the first Black performer to recieve an Academy Award when she won the award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Mammy in "Gone With the Wind." McDaniel was born June 10, 1895 in Wichita, Kansas. She was a professional singer/songwriter, comedienne, stage and film actress, and radio performer. Over the course of her career, she appeared in more than 300 films, often portraying a maid. In response to criticism from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, she said "I'd rather play a maid and make $700 a week then be one for $7." During World War II, she served as chair of the Negro Division of the Hollywood Victory Committee, providing entertainment for soldiers at military bases. McDaniel died October 26, 1952. Before her death, she expressed that she wanted to be buried in the Hollywood Cemetery with other movie stars, however the owners of the cemetery would not allow it because of her race. McDaniel has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for her contributions to radio and one for motion pictures. The United States Postal Service issued a commemorative postage stamp in her honor in 2006. "Her biography, "Hattie: The Life of Hattie McDaniel," was published in 1990.
February 29, 1948 Willi Donnell Smith, one of the most successful young fashion designers in fashion history, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Smith attended Philadelphia College of Art for fashion illustration and then moved to New York City to attend Parsons School of Design. He quit Parsons in 1967 to pursue a design career on his own. Smith founded a company called Williwear in 1976. He won the American Fashion Critic's Award for women's fashion in 1983 and a Cutty Sark Award for men's fashion in 1985. His company was selling $25 million worth of clothing a year at the time of his death April 17, 1987.
February 29, 1980 Percival Prattis, the first African American new correspondent admitted to the press galleries of the United States Senate and House of Representatives, died. Prattis was born April 27, 1895 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He attended Hampton Institute (now University) from 1912 to 1915 and earned his bachelor's degree from Ferris Institute (now Ferris State University) in 1916. A veteran of World War I, Prattis joined the Pittsburgh Courier in 1935, became editor in 1956, and retired in 1962. He was admitted to the press galleries of Congress February 3, 1947. He highlighted the struggles of African Americans for fair employment opportunities during his time at the Courier. He was a civil rights leader noted for his ability to unify Black newspeople in the fight against discrimination of African Americans in the press. After retiring, he continued to be actively involved in the Pittsburgh community, including becoming the first African American officer on the Community Chest of Allegheny County Council.
February 29, 1984 Cullen Jones, Olympic Gold medal winning freestyle sprint swimmer, was born in New York City but grew up in Irvington, New Jersey. Jones learned to swim after he nearly drowned when he was five. He turned professional in 2006 and swam a leg in the world record breaking 4 by 100 meter freestyle relay, the second African American to hold or share a world record in swimming. Jones became the third African American to make the United States Olympic swimming team in 2008 and won a Gold medal in the 4 by 100 meter freestyle relay at the Beijing Summer Olympic Games. Jones set the American record in the 50 meter freestyle race in 2009. Jones won a Gold medal as a member of the 400 meter medley relay team and Silver medals in the 50 meter freestyle race and the 4 by 100 meter freestyle relay at the 2012 London Summer Olympic Games. Working with USA Swimming Foundation's Make a Splash Program, Jones is dedicated to helping minorities learn how to swim.