Today in Black History, 05/08/2015 | Phillis Wheatley - The Charles H. Wright Museum Blog

Today in Black History, 05/08/2015 | Phillis Wheatley

  • May 8, 1888 Matthew A. Cherry of Washington, D. C. received patent number 382,351 for new and useful improvements in velocipede. His invention consisted of a metal frame with two or three wheels attached. It was capable of carrying three or more people and was propelled by someone sitting on the seat and moving their feet along the ground in a fast walking or running motion. His invention has evolved into what we now call bicycles and tricycles. Cherry later received patent number 531,908 January 1, 1895 for a streetcar fender. The fender, which was a piece of metal attached to the front of the streetcar, acted as a shock absorber in the event of an accident. This reduced the potential damage to the streetcar and added safety for the passengers and employees. Not much else is known of Cherry’s life.
  • May 8, 1901 Norman Thomas “Turkey” Stearnes, hall of fame Negro Baseball League player, was born in Nashville, Tennessee. Stearnes began his professional career in 1921 and played for the Detroit Stars of the Negro league from 1923 to 1931. He retired in 1942 and over his career batted over .400 three times and led the Negro league in home runs seven times. Despite his baseball success, he worked winters in Detroit’s auto plants to survive financially. Stearnes died September 4, 1979. He was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000. A plaque in Stearnes’ honor is on display outside the centerfield gate at Comerica Park in Detroit, Michigan.
  • May 8, 1910 Mary Lou Williams, hall of fame jazz pianist, composer and arranger, was born Mary Elfieda Scruggs in Atlanta, Georgia but raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Williams taught herself to play the piano at a young age and became a professional musician in her teens. She played with Duke Ellington and his band The Washingtonians in 1925. Williams recorded “Drag ‘Em” and “Night Life” as piano solos in 1930 and the records sold well, catapulting her to national fame. By the end of the 1930s, Williams had become one of the most sought after composers of the era, composing and arranging for Ellington and Benny Goodman. By the mid-1940s, Williams had moved to New York City and started a weekly radio show called “Mary Lou Williams Piano Workshop” and began mentoring and collaborating with musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. After a two year stint in Europe, Williams was mainly devoted to the Bel Canto Foundation by 1954, an effort initiated by her to help addicted musicians return to performing. Throughout the 1960s, Williams’ composing focused on sacred music. One of her masses, “Music for Peace,” was choreographed and performed by the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. Over her career, Williams wrote hundreds of compositions and arrangements and recorded more than one hundred records. From 1977 to her death May 28, 1981, Williams was artist-in-residence at Duke University and the university established the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture in 1983. Williams was posthumously inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1990 and a Pennsylvania State Historical Marker was dedicated in her honor in front of the elementary school she attended in Pittsburgh in 1996. Since 1996, The Kennedy Center has held an annual Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival.
  • May 8, 1911 Robert Leroy Johnson, hall of fame blues musician, was born in Hazelhurst, Mississippi. Johnson began traveling up and down the Delta as an itinerant musician at a very young age. His landmark recordings from 1936 and 1937 display a remarkable combination of singing, guitar skills, and songwriting talent that have influenced generations of musicians. Considered to be the grandfather of rock and roll, his recordings “Sweet Home Chicago” (1936), “Cross Road Blues” (1936), “Hellhound on My Trail” (1937), and “Love in Vain” (1937) are listed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame amongst the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll. “Cross Roads Blues” was also inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998 as a recording of “qualitative or historical significance.” Johnson died August 16, 1938. He was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. “The Complete Recordings” was issued in 1990 containing almost everything Johnson ever recorded and it won the Grammy Award for Best Historical Album. It was also included by the National Recording Preservation Board in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in 2003 as “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.” The United States Postal Service issued a commemorative postage stamp in his honor in 1994 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award was given in his name in 2006. Several films have been made about Johnson, including “Stones in My Passway: The Robert Johnson Story” (1990) and “Hellhound On My Trail: The Afterlife of Robert Johnson” (2000).
  • May 8 1915 Henry McNeal Turner, bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, died. Turner was born February 1, 1833 in Newberry Courthouse, South Carolina. At that time, the law prohibited a Black child to be taught to read or write, therefore Turner taught himself. He received his license to preach in 1853 and during the Civil War was appointed a chaplain to one of the first regiments of Black troops. After the war, Turner became a proponent of the back to Africa movement and traveled to Africa where he was struck by the difference in attitude of Africans who had never known the degradation of slavery. Turner also preached that God was Black, stating “We have as much right biblically and otherwise to believe that God is a Negroe, as you buckra or White people have to believe that God is a fine looking, symmetrical and ornamented White man.” A number of churches are named in his honor, including Turner Chapel in Ontario, Canada and Turner Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia. Also, Henry McNeal Turner High School in Atlanta and Henry McNeal Turner Learning Academy in West Park, Florida are named in his honor. Turner’s biography, “Life and Times of Henry M. Turner,” was published in 1917 and “Respect Black! Writings and Speeches of Henry M. Turner” was published in 1971.
  • May 8, 1925 Ali Hassan Mwinyi, the second President of the United Republic of Tanzania, was born in Kivure, Tanzania. Mwinyi began his professional life as a teacher and became principal of the Zanazibar Teacher Training School. He entered politics in 1963 and progressed through several government jobs, including ambassador to Egypt for five years, to minister of natural resources and tourism in 1983. Mwinyi served two terms as president from 1985 to 1995 and during his tenure relaxed import restrictions and encouraged private enterprise as well as introduced multi-party politics. He has received honorary doctorate degrees from the Open University of Tanzania and the East African University. The Ali Hassan Mwinyi Elite Schools and Ali Hassan Mwinyi Road in Dar Es Salaam is named in his honor.
  • May 8, 1932 Charles L. “Sonny” Liston, hall of fame boxer, was born in Johnson Township, Arkansas. Liston was sentenced to prison in 1950 for taking part in a robbery and while in prison learned to box. He was paroled in 1952 and made his professional boxing debut in 1953. He won the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship in 1962. Liston lost the title in 1964 but continued to fight until 1970. He retired with a career record of 50 wins and 4 losses. Liston was found dead in his home January 5, 1971. He was posthumously inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991. Biographies of Liston include “The Devil and Sonny Liston” (2000) and “Sonny Liston: His Life, Strife and the Phantom Punch” (2008). A feature film about his life, “Phantom Punch,” was produced in 2008.
  • May 8, 1954 Kwame Anthony Appiah, philosopher, educator and author, was born in London, England but raised in Kumasi, Ghana. Appiah earned his Bachelor of Arts degree and Ph. D. in philosophy from Clare College, Cambridge University. He has taught philosophy and African American studies at the University of Ghana, Cornell, Yale, and Harvard Universities. He was the Laurence S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University from 2002 to 2013. He is currently professor of philosophy and law at New York University. Appiah has published a number of academic works, including “In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture” (1992), “The Ethics of Identity” (2005), “The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen” (2010), and “Lines of Descent: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Emergence of Identity” (2014). He has also published several novels, including “Avenging Angel” (1990) and “Another Death in Venice: A Sir Patrick Scott Investigation” (1995). Appiah was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science in 1995 and received 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 preserve and expand American’s access to important resources in the humanities,” from President Barack H. Obama February 13, 2012. He has received a number of honorary degrees, including a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Dickinson College in 2008 and Doctor of Laws degrees from Colby College in 2010, Harvard University in 2012, and the University of Edinburgh in 2013.
  • May 8, 1958 Lovie Lee Smith, the first African American National Football League head coach to qualify for the Super Bowl, was born in Gladewater, Texas. During Smith’s high school football career, he earned All-State honors for three years and led his team to three consecutive state championships between 1973 and 1975. Smith played college football at the University of Tulsa where he was a two-time All-American and graduated in 1980. After graduation, he began his coaching career at the high school level and later moved to the college ranks. Smith began his professional coaching career in 1996. He was hired as head coach of the Chicago Bears in 2004 and won the 2005 Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year Award. Smith became the first Black head coach to lead his team to a Super Bowl January 21, 2007. Unfortunately, he became the first African American head coach to lose a Super Bowl February 4, 2007. Smith was fired by the Bears at the end of 2012 and hired as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2014. He and his wife started the Lovie and MaryAnne Smith Foundation which provides college scholarships to high school students from low socio-economic backgrounds.
  • May 8, 1959 Ronald Mandel Lott, hall of fame football player, was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Lott player college football at the University of Southern California from 1977 to 1980 and was a unanimous All-American in 1980. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in public administration from USC in 1981. Lott was selected by the San Francisco 49ers in the 1981 National Football League Draft and over his 14 season professional career was a ten-time Pro Bowl selection and four-time Super Bowl champion. He was selected to both the 1980s and 1990s NFL All-Decade Teams. Lott was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 2002. After retiring in 1994, Lott turned to broadcasting with Fox NFL Sunday from 1996 to 1998 and other business ventures. He currently appears on the PAC-12 television network and serves on the board of the GSV Capital Corporation and the board of selectors of the Jefferson Awards Foundation.
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