Today in Black History 06/15/2015 | Bessie Coleman - The Charles H. Wright Museum Blog

Today in Black History 06/15/2015 | Bessie Coleman

  • June 15, 1755 John Marrant, one of the first African American preachers and missionaries, was born in New York City but raised in Charleston, South Carolina. During the Revolutionary War, the British forced him into the navy where he served for seven years. Marrant began training as a Methodist minister in 1782 and was ordained in 1785. That year, he was sent to Nova Scotia to minister to several thousand African Americans who had fled north during the Revolutionary War. Marrant became the chaplain of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge Free and Accepted Masons in Boston, Massachusetts in 1788. In 1790, he traveled to London, England where he died April 15, 1791. He published his memoir, “A Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, A Black,” in 1785. His memoir was so popular that it was reprinted more than 17 times. A sermon he delivered in 1789 and his journal from 1785 to 1790 were also published.  

  • June 15, 1789 Josiah Henson, author, abolitionist and minister, was born enslaved in Charles County, Maryland. After trying to buy his freedom and being cheated of his money, Henson escaped with his wife and children to Canada in 1830. After arriving in Ontario, Henson founded The Dawn Settlement and a laborer’s school for other previously enslaved fugitives. The settlement prospered, reaching a population of 500 and exporting lumber to the United States and Britain. Henson also became a Methodist preacher, abolitionist, and served in the Canadian army as an officer. Henson had three autobiographies published, “The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as narrated by Himself” (1849), “Truth Stranger Than Fiction, Father Henson’s Story of His Own Life” (1858), and “Uncle Tom’s Story of His Life: An Autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson” (1876). Henson died May 5, 1883. He was the first Black man to be featured on a Canadian stamp and also was recognized by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada as a National Historic Person in 1999. A federal plaque honoring him is located at the Henson family cemetery. Henson’s name is enshrined in the Ring of Genealogy at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan.

  • June 15, 1838 John Chavis, minister and educator, died. Chavis was born October 18, 1763 in North Carolina. Little is known of his early life although it is believed that he worked as an indentured servant. Chavis enlisted in the army during the Revolutionary War and served in the 5th Virginia Regiment for three years. After the war, he took private classes and enrolled at the Liberty Hall Academy (now Washington and Lee University) in 1795. He graduated, with high honors, in 1800 and was granted a license to preach. He served as a circuit riding missionary from 1801 to 1807 ministering to enslaved and free Black people in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. Chavis opened a school in his home in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1808 and taught White and Black children. His school was one of the best in the state and the children of some of the most prominent White families studied there. After the Nat Turner Rebellion in 1831, North Carolina passed laws that forbade Black people to teach or preach. As a result, Chavis had to close his school and give up preaching and rely on charity for the remainder of his life. Chavis Heights Apartments and Chavis Park in Raleigh are named in his honor.
  • June 15, 1892 Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones became the first African American to sing at the Music Hall in New York City (now Carnegie Hall). Jones was born January 5, 1869 in Portsmouth, Virginia but raised in Providence, Rhode Island. She began her formal study of music at the Providence Academy of Music in 1883 and studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in the late 1880s. She made her New York City debut in 1888 and made successful tours of the Caribbean that year and in 1892. She also performed for Presidents Benjamin Harrison, S. Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. By 1896, Jones found that access to most American classical concert halls was limited by her race and therefore she formed the Black Patti Troubadours, a variety act made up of singers, jugglers, comedians, and dancers. The revue was successful enough to provide Jones an income in excess of $20,000. She retired from performing in 1915. Jones died June 24, 1933.
  • June 15, 1901 John Wesley Work III, composer, educator and ethnomusicologist, was born in Tullahoma, Tennessee. Work began composing music while still in high school, composing his first song, “Mandy Lou,” at 17. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Fisk University in 1923 and his Master of Arts degree from Columbia University in 1930. He earned his Bachelor of Music degree from Yale University in 1933. Work returned to Fisk in 1927 as a trainer of singing groups and remained there until his retirement in 1966. He served as director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers from 1946 to 1956 and chairman of the Department of Music from 1950 to 1957. Work completed over 100 compositions in a variety of musical forms and won first prize in the 1946 competition of the Federation of American Composers for his cantata “The Singers.” His book “American Negro Songs and Spirituals” was published in 1960. He was awarded an honorary doctorate degree by Fisk in 1963. Work died May 17, 1967.
  • June 15, 1921 Erroll Louis Garner, hall of fame jazz pianist and composer, was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Garner began playing the piano at three and was appearing on the radio with a group called the Candy Kids at seven. By 11, he was playing on Allegheny riverboats. Garner was self-taught and never learned to read music but had a superb music memory. He moved to New York City in 1944 and began his recording career in the late 1940s. Over his career, Garner produced a large volume of recordings, including his best known composition, “Misty” (1954). Other recordings by Garner include “Concert by the Sea” (1955), “Magician” (1974), and “Body and Soul,” released posthumously in 1991. He re-recorded “Misty” for the film “Play Misty for Me” in 1971. Garner died January 2, 1977. He was posthumously inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1993 and the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative postage stamp in his honor in 1995. His biography, “Erroll Garner: The Most Happy Piano,” was published in 1985.
  • June 15, 1927 Natalie Leota Henderson Hinderas, pianist, composer and educator, was born in Oberlin, Ohio. HInderas began playing the piano at three and gave her first full-length recital at eight. She made her orchestral debut with the Cleveland Women’s Symphony at 12. Hinderas earned her Bachelor of Science degree in music, with honors, from Oberlin Conservatory in 1945 and did postgraduate work at the Julliard School of Music and the Philadelphia Conservatory. She made her Town Hall debut in 1954 to critical acclaim. Hinderas toured Europe and the West Indies and did two tours of Africa and Asia sponsored by the United States State Department. She signed a contract with NBC television to play recitals, concerts, and variety shows in the mid-1950s and became the first Black artist to perform a subscription concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1971. Throughout her career, Hinderas promoted and recorded works by Black performers and composers. HInderas was a professor at Temple University College of Music from 1966 to her death July 22, 1987.
  • June 15, 1933 Florence Beatrice Price’s composition “Symphony in E Minor” was performed at the Chicago World’s Fair by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the first time a symphony written by a Black woman had been performed by a major symphony orchestra. Price was born April 9, 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas. She played her first piano recital at four and her first work was published at eleven. She earned her Bachelor of Music degree from the New England Conservatory in 1906 and was professor of music at Shorter College from 1906 to 1910 and Clark University from 1910 to 1912. Price’s first major composition was “Fantasie Negre” (1929) and she won the top prize for symphonic composition at the prestigious Wanamaker Competition in 1932. Over her career, Price composed over 300 works and her songs and arrangements were performed by some of the most admired voices of her day, including Marian Anderson. Price died June 3, 1953. Her papers, including correspondences and musical scores, are at the University of Arkansas.
  • June 15, 1937 Curtis Cokes, hall of fame boxer, was born in Dallas, Texas. Cokes excelled at baseball and basketball but began boxing at 17. He began his professional boxing career in 1958. He won the World Welterweight Boxing Championship in 1966. Cokes successfully defended the title four times before losing it in 1969. He continued to fight until he retired in 1972 with a record of 62 wins, 14 losses, and 4 draws. After retiring, Cokes became a trainer of other boxers. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2003.
  • June 15, 1938 Billy Leo Williams, hall of fame baseball player, was born in Whistler, Alabama. Williams began his professional career in 1959 and advanced quickly through the minor leagues. He made his major league debut with the Chicago Cubs in 1960 and was named 1961 National League Rookie of the Year. Williams also set a National League record, since broken, playing in 1,117 consecutive games. He led the league in batting with a .333 batting average in 1972. Williams retired after the 1976 season and later served as a hitting coach for the Cubs. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987. The Cubs unveiled a statue of Williams outside of their baseball stadium September 7, 2010. He was appointed a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee in 2011. Williams published his autobiography, “Billy Williams: My Sweet-Swinging Lifetime with the Cubs,” in 2008.
  • June 15, 1943 The Beaumont, Texas riot started when shipyard workers learned that a White woman had accused a Black man of raping her. The riot was actually sparked by racial tensions resulting from the influx of African Americans competing for jobs in the shipyards. Even though the woman could not identify the suspect, a crowd of approximately 4,000 White men with guns, axes, and hammers proceeded to terrorize Black neighborhoods. Many Black people were assaulted, several restaurants and stores in the Black section of town were pillaged, and more than 100 homes were ransacked. The riots resulted in the death of 2 Black men and 1 White man.
  • June 15, 1949 Johnny B. “Dusty” Baker, former major league baseball player and manager, was born in Riverside, California. Baker was selected out of high school in the 1967 amateur baseball draft by the Atlanta Braves. He made his major league debut in 1968 and spent 16 seasons in the league. Baker retired as a player after the 1986 season and began his coaching career with the San Francisco Giants in 1988. He became manager of the Giants in 1993 and in his first year won the National League Manager of the Year award. He repeated as Manager of the Year in 1997 and 2000. He managed the Giants to the World Series in 2002, the second African American to manage a World Series team. Baker managed the Chicago Cubs from 2003 to 2006 and the Cincinnati Reds from 2008 to 2013. Baker has also served as an ESPN analyst during the postseason. He is a member of the National Advisory Board for Positive Coaching Alliance, a national non-profit committed to providing student-athletes with a positive, character-building youth sports experience.
  • June 15, 1954 Paul Rusesabagina, internationally recognized saver of more than 1200 lives during the Rwandan Genocide, was born in the Central-South region of Rwanda. After graduating from the hotel management program of Utalii College in Kenya, he was employed as an assistant hotel manager from 1984 to 1992. He was promoted to general manager in 1992. When the genocide began in 1994, Rusesabagina used his influence and connections to shelter 1,268 Tutsis and moderate Hutus from being slaughtered by the militia. When the violence subsided, Rusesabagina and the refugees were able to escape to Tanzania. His story was first told in the book “We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families” (1998). It was dramatized in the 2004 Academy Award nominated movie “Hotel Rwanda.” Rusesabagina was awarded the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, by President George W. Bush November 9, 2005 and received the Tom Lantos Human Rights Prize in 2011. His autobiography, “An Ordinary Man,” was published in 2006. The Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation “works to prevent future genocides and raise awareness of the need for a new truth and reconciliation process in Rwanda and the Great Lakes Region of Africa.”
  • June 15, 1968 John Leslie “Wes” Montgomery, hall of fame jazz guitarist, died. Montgomery was born March 6, 1923 in Indianapolis, Indiana. He started playing the guitar at 19 and initially recorded with his two brothers as the Montgomery Brothers. He toured with Lionel Hampton’s orchestra from 1948 to 1950. Montgomery won the 1960 Down Beat Magazine New Star Award for his album “The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery.” He won the Down Beat Critic’s Poll for best jazz guitarist six times during the 1960s. He won the 1966 Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Jazz Performance by Large Group or Soloist with Large Group for “Goin’ Out of My Head.” Other Grammy nominated recordings by Montgomery include “Bumpin’” (1965), “Elenor Rigby” (1968), and “Willow Weep for Me” (1969). Montgomery was posthumously inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1968. Wes Montgomery Park in Indianapolis is named in his honor.
  • June 15, 1981 William Grant Still’s opera “A Bayou Legend” became the first opera composed by an African American to be performed on national television when it premiered on PBS. Still was born May 11, 1895 in Woodville, Mississippi but raised in Little Rock, Arkansas. He started taking violin lessons at 15 and taught himself to play a number of other instruments. Still attended Wilberforce University where he conducted the university band and started to compose. He also studied at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. After serving in the United States Navy during World War I, he worked as an arranger for W. C. Handy and later played in the pit orchestra for the musical “Shuffle Along.” Still was the recipient of the first Guggenheim Fellowship in 1934. He conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra July 23, 1936, the first African American to conduct a major American orchestra. His opera “Troubled Island” (1939) was performed by the New York City Opera, the first opera by an African American to be performed by a major opera company, March 31, 1949. Despite selling out the first three nights and receiving 22 curtain calls on opening night, the opera was shut down, never to be staged again. “Just Tell the Story: Troubled Island” (2006) delves into some of the reasons why. Still eventually moved to Los Angeles, California where he arranged music for films, including “Pennies From Heaven” (1936) and “Lost Horizon” (1937). He receive honorary doctorate degrees from a number of institutions, including Oberlin College, Howard University, the New England Conservatory of Music, and the University of Southern California. Still died December 3, 1978. His biography, “In One Lifetime: A Biography of William Grant Still,” was published in 1984.
  • June 15, 1989 William Julius “Judy” Johnson, hall of fame Negro Baseball League player, died. Johnson was born October 26, 1899 in Snow Hill, Maryland. He began his baseball career in 1918 and reached the highest level of the Negro leagues in 1921. Johnson was a player-coach for the Homestead Grays in 1930 and in that capacity discovered fellow hall of famer Josh Gibson. From 1935 until his retirement as a player in 1938, Johnson was the captain of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, one of the greatest Negro league teams of all time. Johnson was also an accomplished talent scout, responsible for signing Bill Bruton and Dick Allen who later starred in the major leagues. He retired in 1973 and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1975.
  • June 15, 1991 William Arthur Lewis, the first Black person to win a Nobel Prize in a category other than peace, died. Lewis was born January 23, 1915 in Castries, Saint Lucia. After earning his Bachelor of Science degree in 1937 and Ph. D. in 1940 from the London School of Economics, he lectured at the University of Manchester until 1959 when he was appointed vice chancellor of the University of West Indies. Key works by Lewis include “Economic Development with Unlimited Supplies of Labour” (1954) and “The Theory of Economic Growth” (1955). Lewis was knighted in 1963 and received the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics December 8, 1979. He served as a full professor in the Department of Economics at Princeton University from 1964 until his retirement in 1983. After his retirement, he became president of the American Economics Association. The Arthur Lewis Building was opened at the University of Manchester in 2007.
  • June 15, 1996 Ella Jane Fitzgerald, hall of fame jazz and pop vocalist also known as the “First Lady of Song,” died. Fitzgerald was born April 25, 1917 in Newport News, Virginia. She made her singing debut at the Apollo Theater at 17 and won the first prize of $25. She began singing with the Chick Webb Orchestra in 1935 and recorded several hits, including “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” (1938). Fitzgerald left the band in 1942 to start a solo career. Her 1945 scat recording “Flying Home” is considered one of the most influential vocal jazz recordings of the decade. Between 1956 and 1964, Fitzgerald recorded eight multi-album sets that became known as the Great American Songbook. These were her most critically acclaimed and commercially successful works. Over her career, Fitzgerald sold more than 40 million albums and won 14 Grammy Awards, including the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1967. Other major honors include Kennedy Center Honors in 1979, induction into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1979, and designation as a NEA Jazz Master, the highest honor the nation bestows on a jazz artist, by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1985. Fitzgerald received the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor bestowed on an individual artist by the United States, from President Ronald W. Reagan June 18, 1987 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, by President George H. W. Bush December 11, 1992.  In 2007, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative postage stamp in her honor. Biographies of Fitzgerald include “Ella: The Life and Times of Ella Fitzgerald” (1986) and “Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography” (1994). Her name is enshrined in the Ring of Genealogy at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan. 
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