Today in Black History, 08/08/2015 | Matthew Alexander Henson - The Charles H. Wright Museum Blog

Today in Black History, 08/08/2015 | Matthew Alexander Henson

August 8, 1866 Matthew Alexander Henson, the first person to reach the North Pole, was born in Charles County, Maryland. Henson went to sea as a cabin boy at 12 and sailed around the world over the next several years. He met Commander Robert Peary who recruited him as a colleague in 1887 and they made many expeditions, including their 1909 expedition to the North Pole. Although Peary received many honors, Henson was largely ignored and spent most of the next 30 years working as a clerk in New York City. In 1944, Congress belatedly awarded him a duplicate of the Silver medal awarded to Peary. Henson authored “A Negro Explorer at the North Pole” about his arctic exploration in 1912 and an autobiography, “Dark Companion,” in 1947. Henson died March 9, 1955. The United States Postal Service issued a commemorative postage stamp in his honor in 1986. The United States Navy launched the USNS Henson, an oceanographic survey ship, in his honor October 21, 1996 and the National Geographic Society posthumously awarded its most prestigious medal, the Hubbard Medal, to Henson in 2000. The Matthew Henson Earth Conservation Center in Washington D. C. is named in his honor as well as several schools in the state of Maryland. Henson’s story was told in the 1998 made-for-television movie “Glory & Honor.”


  • August 8, 1796 The African Society was formed in Boston, Massachusetts with 44 African American members. Their purpose was to provide a form of health insurance and funeral benefits, as well as spiritual brotherhood, to the members. They created a pamphlet titled “Laws of the African Society” that specified requirements for membership, dues and procedures for paying benefits to the families of sick or deceased members. That pamphlet is on display at the Massachusetts Historical Society.
  • August 8, 1906 Richard Ishmael McKinney, philosopher and educator, was born in Live Oak, Florida. McKinney earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy and religion from Morehouse College in 1931, Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1934 and Masters of Sacred Theology degree in 1937 from Newton Theological Seminary, and Ph. D. from Yale University in 1942. McKinney was assistant professor and director of religious activities at Virginia Union University from 1935 to 1944. He became the first African American president of Storer College in 1944. He left Storer in 1950 for Morgan State University where he served as chair of the Department of Philosophy and the Division of the Humanities until his retirement in 1978. After officially retiring, he continued to teach philosophy at Morgan State well into his 90s. He published “Mordecai, the Man and His Message: The Story of Mordecai Wyatt Johnson” in 1998. McKinney died October 28, 2005.
  • August 8, 1907 Bennett Lester “Benny” Carter, hall of fame jazz musician, composer, arranger and bandleader, was born in Harlem, New York. Largely self-taught, Carter was sitting in with some of New York’s top bands by 15. He formed his first big band in 1929 and led the McKinney’s Cotton Pickers from 1931 to 1932. During the 1930s, he was also noted for his arrangements, including “Keep a Song in Your Soul” (1930), “Lonesome Nights” (1933), and “Symphony in Riffs” (1933). Carter moved to Europe in 1935 and became staff arranger for the British Broadcasting Corporation dance orchestra. He returned to the United States in 1938 and beginning with “Stormy Weather” in 1943 began to arrange for feature films. Carter was one of the first African Americans to compose music for films. He won the 1963 Grammy Award for Best Background Arrangement for “Busted” by Ray Charles. Carter was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1977 and was designated a NEA Jazz Master, the highest honor the nation bestows on jazz artists, by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1986. He was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987 and won the 1994 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Solo for “Prelude to a Kiss.” Carter received Kennedy Center Honors in 1996 and President William J. Clinton presented him with the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor the nation bestows on an individual artist, December 20, 2000. He received honorary doctorate degrees from Princeton, Rutgers, and Harvard Universities and the New England Conservatory. Carter died July 12, 2003. His biography, “Benny Carter: A Life in Music,” was published in 1982.
  • August 8, 1911 Rosetta LeNoire, stage and television actress and theater producer, was born Rosetta Olive Burton in New York City. LeNoire joined the Time Steppers, the chorus line for Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, at 15 and began touring with Black musical companies. She made her acting debut in the 1939 production of “The Hot Mikado.” She later appeared in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Cabin in the Sky,” “Anna Lucasta,” and “The Sunshine Boys.” LeNoire is probably best known for her performance in the television series “Family Matters” which ran from 1989 to 1997. LeNoire founded the AMAS Repertory Theater Company in 1968 as an interracial theater dedicated to multi-ethnic productions. AMAS has produced over 60 original musicals, including “Bubbling Brown Sugar.” The Actors Equity Association established the Rosetta LeNoire Award in 1988 to recognize outstanding artistic contributions to the universality of the human experience in American theater. LeNoire was the first recipient of the award. She was presented the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor the nation bestows on an individual artist,, by President William J. Clinton September 29, 1999. LeNoire died March 17, 2002.
  • August 8, 1920 James “Jimmy” Witherspoon, hall of fame blues singer, was born in Gurdon, Arkansas. Witherspoon sang in the church choir as a child. He made his debut recording with the Jay McShann band in 1945 and had his first hit, “Ain’t Nobody’s Business, Pts. 1&2,” in 1949. That was followed by “In The Evening,” “No Rollin’ Blues,” and “Big Fine Girl” which were also hits. Witherspoon’s popularity decreased in the mid-1950s but he continued to record with albums such as “Evenin’ Blues” (1963), “Spoon’s Life” (1980), and “Taste of Swing Time” (1995). Witherspoon died September 18, 1997. He was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2008.
  • August 8, 1934 Julian Carey Dixon, politician, was born in Washington, D. C. Dixon served in the United States Army from 1957 to 1960 and earned his Bachelor of Science degree from California State University in 1962. He earned his Bachelor of Laws degree from Southwestern University School of Law in 1967. Dixon was elected to the California State Assembly in 1972 and served three terms before he was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1978. As a freshman member of the House, Dixon won an assignment to the coveted Appropriations Committee where he remained for the rest of his House career. He also chaired the Rules Committee at the 1984 Democratic National Convention. Dixon died in office December 8, 2000. The 7th Street/Metro Center transfer station in downtown Los Angeles is named in Dixon’s honor and Southwestern University School of Law opened the Julian C. Dixon Courtroom and Advocacy Center in 2004.
  • August 8, 1940 Johnny Dodds, hall of fame jazz clarinetist, died. Dodds was born April 12, 1892 in Waveland, Mississippi but raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. He received his first clarinet in his early teens and was largely self-taught. He played with Kid Ory’s band from 1912 to 1919. He moved to Chicago, Illinois in 1919 to join King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, with which he recorded in 1923. He also recorded with Louis Armstrong’s Hot 5 and Hot 7 and Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers. Due to ill health, Dodds did not record for most of the 1930s. His biography, “Johnny Dodds,” was published in 1961 and he was posthumously inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1987.
  • August 8, 1950 Richard Bowie Spikes of Stockton, California received patent number 2,517,936 for a horizontally swinging barber’s chair. His invention provided a seat which was revolvable and allowed the barber to select a convenient position. Little is known of Spikes’ life except that he was born December 4, 1884 and was an incredible inventor. He also received patent number 1,362,197 for a trolley pole arrester December 14, 1920, patent number 1,441,383 for a brake testing machine January 9, 1923, patent number 1,889,814 for an improved gear shift December 6, 1932, patent number 1,936,996 for improvements in transmission and shifting means November 28, 1933, and patent number 3,015,522 for an automatic safety brake system January 2, 1962. While working on the automatic safety brake system, Spikes lost his vision. As a result, he designed a drafting machine for blind people. Spikes died in 1962.
  • August 8, 1959 William Augustus Hinton, bacteriologist, pathologist and educator, died. Hinton was born December 15, 1883 in Chicago, Illinois. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree from Harvard University in 1905 and his Doctor of Medicine degree, with honors, from Harvard Medical School in 1912. Hinton returned to Harvard in 1918 as the first Black professor in the history of the university. He began teaching bacteriology and immunology in 1921 and taught the subjects until his retirement in 1950. Hinton became internationally known as an expert in the diagnosis and treatment of syphilis and published the first medical textbook by an African American, “Syphilis and Its Treatment,” in 1936. In recognition of his contributions as a serologist and public health bacteriologist, Hinton was elected a life member of the American Social Science Association in 1948. The William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts and the William Augustus Hinton Elementary School in Chicago, Illinois are named in his honor.
  • August 8, 1975 Julian Edwin “Cannonball” Adderley, hall of fame jazz alto saxophonist and band leader, died. Adderley was born September 15, 1928 in Tampa, Florida. He and his brother, Nat, played with Ray Charles during the early 1940s. Adderley moved to New York City in 1955, joined the Miles Davis sextet in 1957, and played on Davis’ recordings of “Milestones” (1958) and “Kind of Blue” (1959). The Cannonball Adderley Quintet/Sextet, which included his brother Nat, recorded a number of albums, including “Autumn Leaves” (1963), “Money in the Pocket” (1966), “Accent on Africa” (1968), and “Lovers” (1975). They won the 1967 Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Jazz Performance, Small Group or Soloist With Small Group for their recording “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! Live at the Club.” Adderley was posthumously inducted into the Downbeat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1975.
  • August 8, 1988 Kid Chocolate, hall of fame boxer, died. Kid Chocolate was born Eligio Sardinas Montalvo January 6, 1910 in Havana, Cuba. He never lost a fight as an amateur and turned professional in 1927. His first twelve fights were in Cuba before he moved to New York City in 1928. Montalvo became Cuba’s first world boxing champion when he won the World Junior Lightweight Boxing Championship in 1931. Montalvo lost the title in 1933 and retired in 1938 with a record of 136 wins, 10 losses, and 6 draws. After retiring, he returned to Cuba where his accomplishments were not recognized by the government until the late 1970s. Montalvo was posthumously inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991. That same year, the Kid Chocolate Boxing Hall was opened in Havana.
  • August 8, 1994 Barbara Charline Jordan received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President William J. Clinton. Jordan was born February 21, 1936 in Houston, Texas. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree, magna cum laude, from Texas Southern University in 1956 and her Juris Doctor degree from Boston University in 1959. Jordan was the first Black woman elected to the Texas State Senate in 1966 and served until 1972. That year, she was elected to the United States House of Representatives, the first African American woman to serve in the house from a southern state. During her time in Congress, she supported the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 that required financial institutions to lend and make services available to underserved poor and minority communities and the renewal of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Jordan became the first African American woman to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention July 12, 1976 and that speech is considered by many historians to be the best convention keynote speech in modern history. Jordan retired from politics in 1979 and became adjunct professor at the University of Texas. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1990 and was awarded the 1992 National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Spingarn Medal. She received the United States Military Academy’s Sylvanus Thayer Award in 1995, the second female recipient. Jordan died January 17, 1996. She was the first Black woman to be buried in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin. A statue of Jordan was unveiled at the University of Texas in Austin April 24, 2009. Several schools in Texas are named in her honor as is the main terminal at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. The United States Postal Service issued a commemorative postage stamp in her honor in 2011. Her biography, “Barbara Jordan” American Hero,” was published in 2000 and a collection of her speeches, “Barbara Jordan: Speaking the Truth with Eloquent Thunder,” was published in 2007. Her name is enshrined in the Ring of Genealogy at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan.
  • August 8, 1994 Dorothy Irene Height received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President William J. Clinton. Height was born March 24, 1912 in Richmond, Virginia. While in high school, Height was awarded a scholarship to Barnard College but when she enrolled she was denied admittance because at that time Barnard only admitted two African Americans per academic year and they had already admitted two. Height then pursued studies at New York University where she earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1932 and Master of Arts degree in psychology in 1933. Height started working as a case worker with the New York City Welfare Department and joined the national staff of the Young Women’s Christian Association in 1944. She also served as the national president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority from 1946 to 1957. Height was named president of the National Council of Negro Women in 1957, a position she held until 1997. Height served on numerous presidential committees, including the President’s Committee on the Employment of the Handicapped and the President’s Committee on the Status of Women. Height was named to the National Council for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research in 1974, established in response to the “Tuskegee Syphillis Study.” Height also served as chair of the Executive Committee of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. She received many awards and honors, including the Presidential Citizens Medal in 1989, the 1993 National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Spingarn Medal, and the Congressional Gold Medal from President George W. Bush in 2004. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993. Height died April 20, 2010. She published her autobiography, “Open Wide the Freedom Gates: A Memoir,” in 2005.
  • August 8, 2005 John Harold Johnson, hall of fame publisher and businessman, died. Johnson was born January 19, 1918 in Arkansas City, Arkansas. He moved to Chicago, Illinois with his family in 1933. After graduating from high school, Johnson took a job as an office boy at Supreme Life Insurance Company and within two years had moved up to assistant to the president. He used a $500 loan, secured by his mother’s furniture, in 1942 to publish the first edition of Negro Digest which covered African American history, literature, arts, and cultural issues. Within six months, circulation had reached 50,000. Johnson launched Ebony magazine in 1945 which emphasized the achievements of successful African Americans and it had a circulation of 2.3 million by 1985. He launched Tan magazine in 1950 and Jet magazine in 1951. In addition, Johnson developed a line of cosmetics, purchased three radio stations, and started book publishing and television production companies. He became the first African American to appear on Forbes magazine’s list of the 400 richest Americans in 1982. Johnson received the 1966 National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Spingarn Medal. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President William J. Clinton September 9, 1996 and was inducted into the Junior Achievement National Business Hall of Fame in 1997. Johnson was awarded honorary doctorate degrees by several universities, including Harvard University, the University of Southern California, and Wayne State University. The Johnson College Prep Charter School was opened in Chicago in 2010. The United States Postal Service issued a commemorative postage stamp in his honor in 2012. Johnson published his autobiography, “Succeeding Against the Odds: The Autobiography of a Great American Businessman,” in 1989. His 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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