Today in Black History, 08/07/2015 | Ralph Johnson Bunche - The Charles H. Wright Museum Blog

Today in Black History, 08/07/2015 | Ralph Johnson Bunche

August 7, 1904 Ralph Johnson Bunche, political scientist and diplomat, was born in Detroit, Michigan. Bunche earned his Bachelor of Arts degree, summa cum laude, from the University of California and was valedictorian of the class of 1927. He earned his Master of Arts degree in political science in 1928 and his Ph. D. in 1934 from Harvard University, the first African American to earn a doctorate in political science from an American university. Bunche chaired the Department of Political Science at Howard University from 1928 to 1950. At the close of World War II, Bunche was active in preliminary planning for the United Nations where he, along with Eleanor Roosevelt, was instrumental in the creation and adoption of the United Nation Declaration of Human Rights. Bunche became involved with the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1947 and as a result of achieving the 1949 Armistice Agreements received the Nobel Peace Prize December 10, 1950, the first Black person to receive the prize. Bunche also received the 1949 National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Spingarn Medal and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, by President Lyndon B. Johnson December 6, 1963. Bunche died December 9, 1971. The United States Postal Service issued a commemorative postage stamp in his honor in 1982. Also, there is a bust of Bunche at the entrance of Bunche Hall at the University of California, Los Angeles, the Ralph J. Bunche Library at the United States Department of State, Ralph Bunche Park in New York City, and numerous schools around the country named in his honor. Several biographies have been published about Bunche, including “Ralph Bunche: The Man and His Times” (1990), “Ralph Bunche: An American Life” (1993), and “Ralph Bunche: Model Negro or American Other?” (1999). His name is enshrined in the Ring of Genealogy at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan.


  • August 7, 1866 Elisabeth “Lisette” Denison Forth, landowner and philanthropist, died. Forth was born enslaved in 1786 near Detroit, Michigan. She moved to Canada around 1807 to establish residency and gain her freedom. Forth returned to Detroit around 1815 and worked as a domestic servant. She invested the pay she received in four lots in Pontiac, Michigan in 1825, becoming the first Black property owner in the city. Over the years, she bought stock in a steamboat and bank and bought a lot in Detroit in 1837. In her will, Forth left $3,000 for the construction of a church. This provided the majority of the money for the construction of St. James Episcopal Church in Grosse Ile, Michigan which was completed in 1868. The churches doors are dedicated to the memory and benevolence of Forth. State of Michigan historical markers are located at the four lots Forth purchased in Pontiac, the house she owned in Detroit, and at the church. Her biography, “Looking for Lisette: in quest of an American Original,” was published in 2001.
  • August 7, 1867 Ira Frederick Aldridge, hall of fame stage actor, died. Aldridge was born July 24, 1807 in New York City. He was educated at the New York African Free School where he developed an interest in the theater. Aldridge immigrated to England in 1826 because of the persistent disparagement and harassment that Black actors had to endure in the United States. In England and on tours throughout Europe, Aldridge established himself in many roles, including several written as White characters. He received awards from many European heads of state, including the Prussian Gold Medal for Arts and Sciences, the Golden Cross of Leopold, and the Maltese Cross. He never returned to the U. S. and died in Poland where his grave is tended by the Society of Polish Artists of Film and Theater. Also, Aldridge is the only actor of African descent among the 33 actors of the English stage with bronze plaques at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. He was posthumously inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1979. His biography, “Ira Aldridge: The Negro Tragedian,” was published in 1968. “Ira Aldridge: The African Roscius,” a collection of essays that examine his extraordinary achievements against all odds, was published in 2007.
  • August 7, 1886 Moses Aaron Hopkins, clergyman and educator, died. Hopkins was born enslaved December 25, 1846 in Montgomery County, Virginia. During the Civil War, he worked as a cook in Union Army camps. He learned to read at 20, graduated from Lincoln University, and enrolled at Auburn Theological Seminary. Hopkins earned his degree in theology in 1877, the first African American graduate of the seminary, and was ordained by the Presbyterian Church that same year. Hopkins eventually settled in Franklinton, North Carolina where he founded Mt. Pleasant Presbyterian Church and Albion Academy. President S. Grover Cleveland appointed him United States Minister (ambassador) to Liberia in 1885 where he served until his death. A North Carolina State Historical Marker in his honor was unveiled in Franklinton in 1959.
  • August 7, 1894 Joseph Lee of Auburndale, Massachusetts received patent number 524,042 for an improved dough-kneading machine for use in hotels. His machine replaced the process of mixing and kneading by hand which resulted in a considerable saving of time and labor and produced a superior quality and fineness of dough. He also received patent number 540,553 June 4, 1895 for a machine that made bread crumbs. Lee sold the rights for that machine to the Royal Worchester Bread Crumb Company and the machine was soon in major restaurants around the world. Lee was born July 19, 1849 in Boston, Massachusetts and began working in a bakery as a boy. He soon began preparing and serving food, eventually opening two successful restaurants. Beginning in the late 1890s, he owned the Woodland Park Hotel in Newton, Massachusetts for 17 years. He opened the Lee Catering Company in 1902 and it served the wealthy population of Boston. At the same time, he also operated the Squantum Inn, a summer resort that specialized in seafood. Lee died in 1905. 
  • August 7, 1900 William B. Purvis of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania received patent number 655,455 for an improvement in the construction of an Electric Railway System. His invention prevented the accumulation of moisture within the conduit. Purvis had previously received patent number 419,065 January 7, 1890 for the fountain pen. That invention made the use of the ink bottle obsolete by storing ink in a reservoir within the pen which was then fed to the tip of the pen. Over his lifetime, Purvis received nine additional patents. He is also believed to have invented, but did not patent, several other devices. Not much else is known of Purvis’ life.
  • August 7, 1922 Ernest C. Withers, photojournalist, was born in Memphis, Tennessee. Withers worked as a photographer in the United States Army during World War II and opened a studio in Memphis when he returned. He also worked for three years as one of the first African American police officers in Memphis. Withers documented the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1960s. He also photographed such baseball icons as Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays and the early performances of Elvis Presley, B. B. King, Ray Charles, and Aretha Franklin. His photographs appeared in Time and Newsweek magazines, the New York Times and Washington Post newspapers, and the PBS documentary “Eyes on the Prize.” Many of them are collected in four books, “Let Us March On” (1992), “Pictures Tell the Story: Ernest C. Withers Reflections in History” (2000), “The Memphis Blues Again: Six Decades of Memphis Music Photographs” (2001), and “Negro League Baseball” (2005). Withers died October 15, 2007.
  • August 7, 1924 John Edward Bruce, journalist, orator and Pan-African nationalist, died. Bruce was born enslaved February 22, 1856 in Piscataway, Maryland. He and his mother escaped to Washington, D. C. when he was three and he received his formal education and attended Howard University. Bruce was an assistant at the New York Times at 18. He founded a number of newspapers, including The Argus Weekly (1879), The Sunday Item (1880), and The Republican (1882). At the same time that he was starting these papers, Bruce was serving as associate editor and business manager for the Commonwealth newspaper in Baltimore, Maryland and writing columns for other papers. Bruce was also prominent on the lecture circuit, speaking against lynching and the condition of southern Black people. He was also an advocate for armed self-defense against racist attacks, supporting “organized resistance to organized resistance.” He was president of the Afro-American Council in 1898. Bruce was the American correspondent for the African Times and Orient Review in London, England in 1910. He co-founded the Negro Society for Historical Research in 1911 and it became the foundation for the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Bruce joined the Universal Negro Improvement Association around 1919 and wrote columns for the organization’s Negro World and Daily Negro Times newspapers. His biography, “John Edward Bruce: Politician, Journalist, and Self-Trained Historian of the African Diaspora,” was published in 2004.  
  • August 7, 1930 Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith were lynched in Marion, Indiana. Shipp and Smith had been arrested and charged with robbing and murdering a White factory worker and raping his girlfriend. A mob of townspeople broke into the jail, beat the two men and hanged them. Police officers cooperated in the lynching. A picture of the lynching was widely circulated and included in the exhibition “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America” which was on exhibit at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan in 2004. The picture also inspired the poem “Strange Fruit” (1936) by Abel Meeropol. The poem later became the lyrics for the song of the same name popularized by Billie Holiday and Nina Simone.  A third African American man, James Cameron, had also been arrested and narrowly escaped being lynched. Cameron went on to found America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1988 which is dedicated to the history of lynching. Cameron died June 11, 2006.
  • August 7, 1932 Maurice Farnandis Rabb, Jr., ophthalmologist who did pioneering work in cornea and retinal vascular diseases, was born in Shelbyville, Kentucky. Rabb earned his Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Louisville in 1954 and his Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Louisville School of Medicine in 1958. He studied ophthalmology at New York University and became the first African American resident of the University of Illinois Eye and Ear Infirmary. Rabb served as chair of the Department of Ophthalmology at Mercy Hospital from 1971 to 2005. He was the medical director of the Illinois Eye Bank and Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois from 1972 to 1987, the first African American to be a medical director of an eye bank in the United States. Rabb founded the Comprehensive Sickle Cell Center in 1972. There, he led research that helped prevent retinal detachment and blindness in sickle cell patients. Rabb died June 6, 2005. The National Medical Association annually awards the Rabb Venable Ophthalmology Award for Outstanding Research to students and residents.
  • August 7, 1932 Abebe Bikila, two-time Olympic marathon champion, was born in Jato, Ethiopia. Bikila won the marathon in world record time at the 1960 Rome Summer Olympic Games, the first Black African to win an Olympic Gold medal. He again won the marathon in world record time at the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games, the first athlete in history to win the Olympic marathon twice. Bikila was involved in a car accident in 1969 which left him a paraplegic. Bikila died October 25, 1973 and Emperor Haile Selassie I proclaimed a national day of mourning. A stadium in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia is named in his honor. Since 1978, the New York Road Runners have annually presented the Abebe Bikila Award to an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the sport.
  • August 7, 1935 Rahsaan Roland Kirk, hall of fame jazz multi-instrumentalist, was born Ronald Theodore Kirk in Columbus, Ohio. Kirk went blind at an early age due to poor medical treatment. He added “Rahsaan” to his name in 1970 after hearing it in a dream. Kirk played various saxophones, clarinets, and flutes, often modifying them to accommodate his playing technique. Preferring to lead his own bands, Kirk rarely performed as a sideman. His many recordings include “Triple Threat” (1956), “The Inflated Tear” (1967), and “Kirkatron” (1977). He was also very political, using the stage to talk on black history, civil rights, and other issues. Kirk died December 5, 1977. He was posthumously inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1978. His biography, “Bright Moments: The Life and Legacy of Rahsaan Roland Kirk,” was published in 2000.
  • August 7, 1945 Alan Cedric Page, hall of fame football player and judge, was born in Canton, Ohio. Page played college football at the University of Notre Dame and led them to the national championship in 1966. That same year he was named All-American. Page earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in political science in 1967 and was selected by Minnesota Vikings in the National Football League Draft. Over his 15 season professional career, he was a nine-time Pro Bowl selection, 1970 and 1971 Defensive Player of the Year, and the 1971 Most Valuable Player, the first defensive player to be named MVP. Page retired in 1981 and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1988 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 1993. Page earned his Juris Doctor degree from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1978. He was appointed Assistant Attorney General for the State of Minnesota in 1985 and was elected to the Minnesota Supreme Court in 1992, the first African American to serve on that court. Page continues to serve as an associate justice on that court. He founded the Page Education Foundation in 1988 to provide financial and mentoring assistance to minority college students. To date, the foundation has awarded grants to 4,500 students. Page was named to the Academic All-American Hall of Fame in 2001 and was awarded the National Football Foundation Distinguished American Award in 2005. Page has received numerous honorary doctorate degrees from institutions such as the University of Notre Dame (1993), St. John’s University (1994), and Duke University (2011). His biography, “All Rise: The Remarkable Journey of Alan Page,” was published in 2010.
  • August 7, 1960 The Republic of Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) gained independence from France. The Ivory Coast is located in West Africa and is bordered by Liberia and Guinea to the west, Mali and Burkina Faso to the north, Ghana to the east, and the Gulf of Guinea to the south. The country is approximately 200,000 square miles in size with a population of approximately 20.6 million people. The capital city is Yamoussoukro and largest city is Abidjan. Islam and Christianity are the major religions practiced by most of the population. The official language is French but an estimated 65 languages are spoken in the country.
  • August 7, 1966 Samuel Jesse Battle, the first Black police officer in New York City, died. Battle was born January 16, 1883 in New Bern, North Carolina. After attending segregated schools in North Carolina, Battle moved to New York City where he worked as a train porter and began studying for the police department civil service examination. He was appointed to the police department June 28, 1911 and assigned to San Juan Hill, one of the major African American neighborhoods in Manhattan. As the African American population in Harlem grew, he was reassigned there. Battle later became the first African American sergeant and lieutenant on the force and became the first African American parole commissioner in 1941. In that capacity, he worked with delinquent youth in Harlem, overseeing summer camps and sports activities. Battle retired in 1951 but remained active in the Harlem community until his death. His biography, “One Righteous Man: Samuel Battle and the Shattering of the Color Line in New York,” was published in 2015.
  • August 7, 1984 Esther Mae Jones Phillips, R&B vocalist, died. Phillips was born December 23, 1935 in Galveston, Texas. She won an amateur talent contest in 1949 and began touring as Little Esther Phillips. She recorded her first hit record, “Double Crossing Blues,” in 1950 and that was followed by other hits such as “Mistrusting Blues,” “Misery,” and “Wedding Boogie.” Few female artists had ever enjoyed such success in their debut year of recording. But just as quickly as the hits started, the hits stopped. Phillips launched a comeback in 1962 with the release of “Release Me” which went to number one on the R&B charts. She released the album “From a Whisper to a Scream” in 1972 and it was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Rhythm & Blues Vocal Performance – Female, with the lead track “Home is Where the Hatred Is.” Phillips scored her biggest hit single in 1975 with “What a Difference a Day Makes,” which was nominated for the 1975 Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance - Female.
  • August 7, 1989 George Thomas “Mickey” Leland, former congressman, died along with 14 others in a plane crash during a mission to Gambela, Ethiopia. Leland was born November 27, 1944 in Lubbock, Texas. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree from Texas Southern University in 1970.  Leland was elected to the Texas State Legislature in 1972 and the United States House of Representatives in 1979, where he served until his death. Although considered by some as controversial, Leland was an effective advocate on hunger and public health issues. A Federal building and the international terminal at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas are named in his honor. The United States Agency for International Development Leland Initiative to improve internet connectivity in Africa is also named in his honor. The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s humanitarian award was renamed in his memory in 1989.
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