Today in Black History 05/25/2015 | Bojangles - The Charles H. Wright Museum Blog

Today in Black History 05/25/2015 | Bojangles


  • May 25, 1849 Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins, autistic savant and piano music prodigy, was born enslaved and blind in Harris County, Georgia. Wiggins acquired piano skills based solely on hearing by four and composed his first tune, “The Rain Storm," at five. He was licensed to a traveling show at eight and marketed as a “Barnum style freak." Wiggins performed at the White House for President James Buchanan in 1860 and was taken on a European concert tour in 1866. It was said that his memory was prodigious and he never forgot anything, he was often called “a human parrot." During the latter part of the 19th century, he was one of the most well-known American pianists. Despite his fame, Wiggins was exploited, deceived, and robbed of the money he earned by his White guardians. Wiggins died June 14, 1908. His biography, “The Ballad of Blind Tom, Slave Pianist” was published in 2009.

  • May 25, 1874 William Cooper Nell, abolitionist, author and civil servant, died. Nell was born December 16, 1816 in Boston, Massachusetts. He studied law in the early 1830s but was never certified as a lawyer because he would not swear allegiance to the Constitution of the United States which he believed advocated the enslavement of African Americans in the South. Nell was influential in organizing the Freedom Association and the Committee of Vigilance which were all-Black organizations that helped previously enslaved Black people that had fled to the North. Nell worked with Frederick Douglass on the abolitionist publication The North Star from 1848 to 1851 and was instrumental in the 1855 decision to allow African American students in Massachusetts to study alongside their White classmates. Nell was a prolific author and wrote two exhaustive studies of African Americans in war, “Services of Colored Americans in the Wars of 1776 and 1812” (1851) and “Colored Patriots of the American Revolution” (1855). Nell became a postal clerk in Boston December 19, 1864, the first African American to work in the federal civil service. “William Cooper Nell: Abolitionist, Historian and Integrationist; Selected Writings, 1832-1874 was published in 2002.

  • May 25, 1905 Dorothy Porter Wesley, librarian and curator, was born in Warrington, Virginia. Wesley earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from Howard University in 1928 and her Bachelor of Library Science degree in 1931 and Master of Library Science degree in 1932 from Columbia University. From 1928 to her retirement in 1973, Wesley assembled and catalogued an invaluable collection of material from the African diaspora. That collection is now known as the Moorland-Spingarn Research Library at Howard University where scholars and authors interested in African American history can engage in research. To commemorate her retirement, Howard dedicated the Dorothy B. Porter Reading Room in the Founders Library. Wesley published many bibliographical works, including “A Selected List of Books By and About the Negro” (1936), “The Negro in American Cities: A Selected and Annotated Bibliography” (1945), and “Afro-Braziliana: A Working Bibliography” (1978). Wesley received the Charles Frankel Prize in the Humanities (now National Humanities Medal), “for outstanding contributions to the public’s understanding of the humanities," from President William J. Clinton October 13, 1994. Wesley died December 17, 1995. The Dorothy Porter Wesley Research Center in Fort Lauderdale, Florida is named in her honor.

  • May 25, 1906 Martin Magdaleno Dihigo Llanos, hall of fame Negro Baseball League player, was born in Matanzas Province, Cuba. Dihigo began his professional baseball career in the Cuban league in 1922. He debuted in the Negro league in 1923 and played until 1936. Over the course of his career, he played all nine positions and led the Negro league in home runs in 1926 and 1935. Dihigo continued playing in Mexico into the early 1950s. He served as Cuba’s Minister of Sport from 1959 to his death May 20, 1971. Dihigo was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977 and is the only player to be inducted into the Major League, Cuban, and Mexican Baseball Halls of Fame. Buck Leonard said of Dihigo, “He was the greatest all-around player I know. I say he was the best player of all time, Black or White. He could do it all.”

  • May 25, 1919 Madam C. J. Walker, hall of fame businesswoman and philanthropist, died. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove December 23, 1867 in Delta, Louisiana. She founded the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company in 1906 to manufacture and sell hair care products and cosmetics and it was the largest business in the nation owned by a Black person by 1917. She was quoted as saying, “There is no royal, flower-strewn path to success. And if there is, I have not found it; for if I have accomplished anything in life, it is because I have been willing to work hard.” The Guinness Book of Records cites Walker as the first female to become a millionaire by her own accomplishments. Walker saw her personal wealth not as an end in itself but as a means to promote economic opportunities for others. She was known for her philanthropy and after her death left two-thirds of her estate to educational institutions and charities, including Tuskegee Institute and Bethune-Cookman College. Her $5,000 pledge to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s anti-lynching campaign was the largest gift the organization had received at that time. Walker was posthumously inducted into the Junior Achievement U. S. Business Hall of Fame in 1992 and the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative postage stamp in her honor in 1998. Her biographies include “Madam C. J. Walker: Building a Business Empire” (1994), “The Black Rose: The Dramatic Story of Madam C. J. Walker, America’s First Black Female Millionaire” (2001), and “Madam C. J. Walker, Entrepreneur” (2008). Walker’s name is enshrined in the Ring of Genealogy at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan.

  • May 25, 1932 K. C. Jones, hall of fame basketball player and coach, was born in Taylor, Texas. Jones played college basketball at the University of San Francisco and along with Bill Russell led them to National Collegiate Athletic Association Basketball Championships in 1955 and 1956. Jones also was a member of the Gold medal winning United States men’s basketball team at the 1956 Melbourne Summer Olympic Games. He was selected by the Boston Celtics in the 1956 National Basketball Association Draft but served two years in the United States Army. He joined the Celtics in 1959 and over his nine season professional career was part of eight championship teams. Jones retired after the 1967 season and immediately began coaching at Brandeis University. After a few other coaching stints, he took over as head coach of the Celtics in 1983 and guided them to championships in 1984 and 1986, the only African American coach to win multiple NBA championships solely as the head coach. Jones was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1989 and the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006. Jones has worked for the University of Hartford Athletic Office since 2000.

  • May 25, 1936 David Levering Lewis, educator and author, was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. Lewis earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in history and philosophy, phi beta kappa, from Fisk University in 1956, his Master of Arts degree in history from Columbia University in 1959, and his Ph. D. in modern European and French history from the London School of Economics in 1962. He taught at several universities between 1970 and 1980 and was the Martin Luther King Jr. Professor of History at Rutgers University from 1985 to 2003. Lewis published “W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919” (1994) which won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Biography and published “W. E. B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963” (2001) which won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. He was the first author to win two Pulitzer Prizes for Biography for back to back volumes. Other books by Lewis include “King: A Critical Biography” (1970) and “God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215” (2008). Lewis was presented the National Humanities Medal by President Barack H. Obama February 25, 2010. Lewis has been the Julius Silver University Professor and Professor of History at New York University since 2003.

  • May 25, 1937 Henry Ossawa Tanner, the first African American painter to gain international acclaim, died. Tanner was born June 21, 1859 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1879. Tanner left the United States for France in 1891 and found that within French art circles race was not an issue. While Tanner’s early works such as “The Banjo Lesson” (1893) and “The Thankful Poor” (1894) were concerned with everyday life as an African American, his later works such as “The Resurrection of Lazarus” (1896) and “The Annunciation” (1898) focused mainly on religious subjects. During World War I, Tanner worked for the Red Cross Public Information Department and painted images from the front lines of the war. He was made a chevalier of the Legion of Honour by the French government in 1923 and became the first African American granted full membership in the National Academy of Design in the United States in 1927. Tanner’s works are in the collections of a number of Museums, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago. His “Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City” (1885) hangs in the Green Room of the White House, the first painting by an African American to become part of their permanent collection. The United States Postal Service issued a commemorative postage stamp in his honor in 1973. Tanner’s biography, “Henry Ossawa Tanner: American Artist," was published in 1969.

  • May 25, 1943 Henrietta Bradberry of Chicago, Illinois received patent number 2,320,027 for the invention of the bed rack which attached to a bed and provided space to hang shirts, trousers, and other clothing that had been worn in order that they could be freshened by the air. Bradberry was born in Franklin, Kentucky but grew up in Chicago. She also received patent number 2,390,688 December 11, 1945 for a waterproof pneumatically operated way to fire torpedoes under water from either undersea installations or submarines. Not much else is known of Bradberry’s life except that she was a housewife who did not profit from her inventions. Bradberry died May 17, 1979.

  • May 25, 1943 Leslie Uggams, actress and singer, was born in New York City. Uggams started in show business in 1950 on the television series “Beulah” and was opening for such legends as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Dinah Washington at the Apollo Theater at nine. She appeared on the television quiz show “Name That Tune” at 15 and won $12,500 toward her college education. From 1961 to 1963, she attended the Julliard School of Music. During that same period, Uggams was a regular on “Sing Along With Mitch," the first African American performer to be regularly featured on a weekly national prime time television series. She won the 1968 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her performance in “Hallelujah, Baby!." Uggams hosted “The Leslie Uggams Show” in 1969, the second television variety show to be hosted by an African American. She starred in the film “Poor Pretty Eddy” in 1975. Other Broadway appearances include “King Hedley II” (2001), for which she was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play, “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (2002), and “On Golden Pond” (2005). Uggams received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Connecticut in 2015.

  • May 25, 1949 Jamaica Kincaid, novelist and author, was born Elaine Cynthia Potter Richardson in St. Johns, Antigua and Barbuda. Kincaid moved to New York City at 16 and changed her name in 1973. Her first writing experience involved a series of articles for Ingenue magazine and she worked for The New Yorker as a staff writer until 1995. Her works include a collection of short stories, “At the Bottom of the River” (1983), novels, “Annie John” (1985), “Lucy” (1990), “The Autobiography of My Mother” (1996), and gardening books, “My Garden” (1999), “Mr. Potter” (2002), “Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalayas” (2005), and “See Now Then” (2013). Kincaid received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Tufts University in 2011. She is currently the Josephine Olp Weeks Chair and Professor of Literature at Claremont McKenna College.

  • May 25, 1963 The Organization of African Union was established to promote the unity of the African states, act as a collective voice for the continent, and to eradicate all forms of colonialism. The organization also wanted to ensure that all Africans enjoyed human rights, raise the living standards of all Africans, and settle arguments and disputes between members. The OAU was disbanded in 2002 and replaced by the African Union. May 25 is annually celebrated as Africa Day to commemorate the founding of the O.A.U. and to celebrate African unity.

  • May 25, 1972 Octavia Lenora Spencer, Academy Award winning actress, was born in Montgomery, Alabama. Spencer earned her Bachelor of Science degree in liberal arts from Auburn University in 1994. She made her film debut in 1996 in “A Time to Kill." Other films in which she has appeared include “Spiderman” (2002), “Coach Carter” (2005), “Fruitvale Station” (2013), and “Black or White” (2015). She has also made guest appearances on a number of television shows, including “NYPD Blue," “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," “Ugly Betty," “The Big Bang Theory," and “Mom." Spencer made her first and only stage appearance in “The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife” in 2003. She appeared in “The Help” in 2011 and won the 2012 Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress-Motion Picture and the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

  • May 25, 1981 Roy James Brown, hall of fame R&B singer, songwriter and musician, died. Brown was born September 10, 1925 in New Orleans, Louisiana. He started singing gospel music in the church choir. He wrote and recorded “Good Rocking Tonight” in 1947 and it was a hit, reaching number 13 on the Billboard R&B charts. That song was subsequently covered by such rock and roll stars as Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Pat Boone. Other hits by Brown include “Long About Midnight” (1948), “Rockin’ at Midnight” (1948), “Hard Luck Blues” (1950), and “Let the Four Winds Blow” (1957). Brown’s vocal style influenced B. B. King, Bobby Bland, Jackie Wilson, and Little Richard. Brown was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1981.

  • May 25, 2009 Ivan Gladstone Van Sertima, educator and author, died. Van Sertima was born January 26, 1935 in Karina Village, Guyana. He earned his undergraduate degree, with honors, in African languages and literature from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London in 1969. Van Sertima immigrated to the United States in 1970 and earned his master’s degree from Rutgers University in 1977. Van Sertima published “They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America” in 1976 which proposed that Africans had been to the New World centuries before Columbus arrived in 1492. After completing his graduate work, Van Sertima became associate professor of African studies at Rugers. He founded the Journal of African Civilizations in 1979and edited and published it until 2005. Van Sertima retired in 2006.

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