Today in Black History, 12/17/2015 | Charles Vernon Bush - The Charles H. Wright Museum Blog

Today in Black History, 12/17/2015 | Charles Vernon Bush

December 17, 1939 Charles Vernon Bush, the first African American to graduate from the United States Air Force Academy, was born in Washington, D. C. Bush became the first African American to serve as a page of the U. S. Supreme Court in 1954. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree from the USAFA in 1963 and his Master of Arts degree in international relations from Georgetown University in 1964. Following his commissioning in 1963, Bush served as an intelligence officer, including a year in Vietnam where he was responsible for the operations of six intelligence teams. Bush resigned from the air force in 1970 and earned his Master of Business Administration degree in finance from Harvard University in 1972. He then served as an executive officer for several corporations and directed a number of entrepreneurial efforts. He also served on the board of Mutual Life Insurance Company. Bush died November 5, 2012.

December 17, 1663 Nzinga Mbande, queen of the Ndongo and Maamba Kingdoms in southwestern Africa, died. Nzinga was born in 1583 in what is now Angola in southwestern Africa. She assumed the title of Queen of Ndongo after the death of her brother in 1623. She led her troops in battle against the Portuguese colonizers from 1624 to 1657. After signing a peace treaty with Portugal, Nzinga devoted her efforts to resettling formerly enslaved Africans. After her death, the Portuguese accelerated their occupation of southwest Africa and significantly expanded the slave trade. A major street in Luanda, Angola is named in her honor and a statue of her sits on an impressive square. A biography, "Nzinga: Warrior Queen of Matamba, Angola, Africa, 1595," was published in 2000 and a play, "Nzinga, the Warrior Queen," was produced in 2006. Her name is enshrined in the Ring of Genealogy at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan.

December 17, 1879 Maria W. Stewart, orator, abolitionist and feminist, died. Stewart was born June 20, 1803 and orphaned at five. She was deprived of an education until she was 20 when she began to attend Sabbath School. Stewart published pamphlets entitled "Religion and the pure principles of Morality, the Sure Foundation on which We Build" in 1831 and "The Meditation from the pen of Mrs. Maria Stewart" in 1832. She was the first Black woman to lecture on women's rights, particularly the rights of Black women, religion, and social justice. Four of her speeches were published in the anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator. Stewart moved to Washington, D. C. during the Civil War and established a school for children of families that had escaped slavery and later became matron of Freedman's Hospital. Stewart is honored with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church on her birthday. Her biography, "Maria W. Stewart, America's First Black Woman Political Writer: Essays and Speeches," was published in 1987.

December 17, 1905 Nellie Stone Johnson, union organizer and civil rights activist, was born in Dakota County, Minnesota. Johnson joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as a teenager and moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1922 where she worked as an elevator operator. She joined the Hotel and Restaurant Workers union in 1936 and later became their first female vice president. Johnson led the drive to create the Minneapolis Fair Employment Practices department, the first of its kind in the nation, in the 1940s and later led the effort to create a statewide version, the Employment Practices Act of 1955. Johnson became the first Black person elected to a citywide office when she was elected to the Minneapolis Library Board in 1945. She opened Nellie's Alterations, a sewing and alterations business that she operated for 30 years, in 1963. She served for eight years on the Minnesota State University Board and two terms on the Democratic National Committee in the 1980s. The Nellie Stone Johnson Scholarship Program was established in 1989 to offer scholarships to minority students from union families. Johnson received an honorary doctorate degree from St. Cloud State University in 1995 and published her autobiography, "Nellie Stone Johnson: The Life of an Activist," in 2000. Johnson died April 2, 2002. Nellie Stone Johnson Elementary School in Minneapolis is named in her honor.

December 17, 1913 James P. Thomas, businessman, died. Thomas was born enslaved in 1827 in Nashville, Tennessee. He was emancipated in 1851 but Tennessee law required that freed men leave the state. Thomas petitioned to stay and his petition was granted, making him the only freed Black man in Nashville. He moved to St. Louis, Missouri in 1857 and began to invest in real estate and railroad and insurance company stocks. Thomas was one of the wealthiest men in Missouri, White or Black by 1870. He controlled an estate worth an estimated $250,000 at its height. His autobiography "From Tennessee Slave to St. Louis Entrepreneur: The Autobiography of James Thomas" was published in 1904.

December 17, 1919 Vernon Joseph Baker, Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Baker enlisted in the United States Army in 1941. After completing Officer Candidate School, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1943. Baker was sent to Italy with the all-Black 92nd Infantry Division in 1944. On April 5, 1945, he participated in an attack on the German stronghold of Castle Aghinolfi. During the assault, he led his heavy weapons platoon through German defenses to within sight of the castle, personally destroying three machine gun nests, two observation posts, two bunkers, and a network of German telephone lines. It was for these actions that he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, America's second highest military decoration. Baker retired from the military in 1968 as a first lieutenant. A study commissioned by the U. S. Army in 1993 described systematic racial discrimination in the criteria for awarding medals during World War II. No Congressional Medals of Honor had been awarded to Black soldiers who served in the war. The study recommended that seven Black Distinguished Service Cross recipients have their awards upgraded to the Congressional Medal of Honor, America's highest military decoration. President William J. Clinton presented the medals January 13, 1997. Baker was the only recipient still living. Baker died July 13, 2010.

December 17, 1919 Es'kia Mphahlele, author, educator and activist, was born in Pretoria, South Africa. Mphahlele earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1945 and Master of Arts degrees in 1952 from the University of South Africa. He taught high school from 1945 to 1952 and published his first book of short stories, "Man Must Live," in 1947. Banned from teaching by the apartheid government after publicly agitating against the Bantu Education Act, he left South Africa in 1957 and spent the next twenty years in exile. During that time, he earned his Ph. D. from the University of Denver in 1968 and taught at the University of Pennsylvania. Mphahlele returned to South Africa in 1977 and joined the faculty of the University of Witwatersrand. He authored a number of other books, including "The African Image" (1962), "The Wanderers" (1969), and "Father Come Home" (1984). He also authored two autobiographies, "Down Second Avenue" (1959) and "Afrika My Music: An Autobiography 1957-1983" (1984). Mphahlele died October 27, 2008. The Es'kia Institute was founded in 2002 in Rivonia, South Africa "nurture, support and develop community initiatives in Arts, Culture, Education and Literature in an effort to advance and preserve Afrikan heritage."

December 17, 1927 Hubert Henry Harrison, writer, orator and political activist, died. Harrison was born April 27, 1883 in St. Croix, Danish West Indies (now U. S. Virgin Islands). He moved to New York City in 1900 and started writing letters to the editor of the New York Times on topics such as lynching, Charles Darwin, and literary criticism. He also began lecturing on a wide variety of topics and his outdoor speeches were instrumental in developing the Harlem tradition of militant street corner oratory. He began working for the Socialist Party of America in 1911 and founded the Colored Socialist Club in 1912 and became America's leading Black socialist. Harrison founded the New Negro Movement in 1916 as a race conscious, internationalist, radical movement for equality, justice, opportunity, and economic power. His movement became the basis for Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association. Harrison also founded the Liberty League as a radical alternative to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Harrison became the editor of the Negro World, the newspaper of the UNIA, in 1920 and soon developed it into the leading race conscious, radical, and literary publication of the day. His book and theater reviews and other writings appeared in many of the leading publications during the 1920s. Harrison founded the International Colored Unity League in 1924 which sought political rights, economic power, and social justice and urged self-reliance, self-sufficiency, and cooperative efforts. They also called for a Negro state in the United States. Harrison wrote "The Negro and the Nation" (1917) and "When Africa Awakes" (1920). A sampling of his varied work and poetry is included in "A Hubert Harrison Reader" (2001). His biography, "The Voice of Harlem Radicalism," was published in 2008.

December 17, 1939 Edward James "Eddie" Kendricks, member of the hall of fame The Temptations and songwriter, was born in Union Springs, Alabama. Kendricks and three friends formed a group called The Cavaliers in 1955. They moved to Detroit, Michigan in 1957 and changed their name to The Primes. Kendricks joined The Elgins in 1961 and they signed with Motown Records as The Temptations. The Temptations quickly became the most successful male vocal group of the 1960s with Kendricks singing lead on "Dream Come True" (1962), their first single on the charts, "The Way You Do the Things You Do" (1964), their first top 20 hit, "The Girls Alright With Me" (1964), which Kendricks co-wrote, and "Just My Imagination" (1971). Kendricks quit The Temptations in 1971 and embarked on a solo career. He scored a number one hit with "Keep on Truckin" in 1973. Other hits include "Boogie Down" (1974) and "He's a Friend" (1976). Kendricks and the original Temptations were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. Kendricks died October 5, 1992. Eddie Kendrick Memorial Park in Birmingham, Alabama was dedicated in 1999.

December 17, 1954 Kenneth Carleton Frazier, the first African American to lead a major United States pharmaceutical company, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Frazier earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from Pennsylvania State University in 1975 and his Juris Doctor degree from Harvard Law School in 1978. He was in private practice for 16 years prior to joining Merck & Co. in 1992. He took four summer sabbaticals during that time to teach trial advocacy in South Africa. Frazier was appointed senior vice president and general counsel of Merck in 1999 and served as executive vice president and president of the global human health unit from 2007 to 2010. Frazier was appointed president of the company in 2010 and Chief Executive Officer December 1, 2011. He serves on the boards of Penn State and Exxon Mobil Corporation and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

December 17, 1956 The United States Supreme Court in Browder v. Gayle upheld the ruling of a lower court that "the enforced segregation of Black and White passengers on motor buses operated in the City of Montgomery, Alabama violates the Constitution and laws of the United States" because the conditions deprived people of equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Aurelia Browder, Claudette Colvin, and Susie McDonald, all women who had been discriminated against by drivers enforcing segregation policy in the Montgomery bus system.

December 17, 1961 Marion Perkins, self-taught sculptor, died. Perkins was born in January, 1908 on a farm outside of Little Rock, Arkansas but grew up in Chicago, Illinois. He quit school before his senior year of high school and for several years worked menial jobs. Despite not finishing school, Perkins was well read and built a network of friends that included intellectuals and artists such as W. E. B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, and Richard Wright. Perkins began to carve stone salvaged from abandoned buildings in the late 1930s and participated in his first exhibition in October, 1938. His sculpture "John Henry" was shown at The Art Institute of Chicago's "53rd Annual Exhibition of American Paintings and Sculptures" in 1942. IBM Corporation bought his "Figure at Rest" and he won his first sculpture prize from The Art Institute of Chicago for "Ethiopia Awakening" in 1947. Perkins' most famous sculpture, "Man of Sorrows" debuted at The Art Institute of Chicago in 1951.

December 17, 1972 Cora Mae Brown, the first African American woman elected to the Michigan State Senate, died. Brown was born April 16, 1914 in Bessemer, Alabama but raised in Detroit, Michigan. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology from Fisk University in 1935. Brown participated in demonstrations after the 1933 lynching of a young African American accused of attempted rape. It was the beginning of her life long campaign against injustice and inhumanity. Brown returned to Detroit and worked as a social worker and a policewoman from 1941 to 1946. She earned her Bachelor of Laws degree from Wayne State University School of Law in 1948 and passed the bar within two weeks of graduation and entered into private practice. After two unsuccessful attempts, Brown was elected to the Michigan State Senate November 4, 1952 and served two terms, leaving office in 1957. Brown co-sponsored a bill that would revoke or suspend all state and local licenses held by business that discriminated on the basis of race. That bill passed in 1956, the same year that she was selected as the Outstanding Woman Legislator. Brown was appointed special associate general counsel of the United States Postal Service in 1957, the first Black woman on the post office's legal staff. She held that position until 1960 when she moved to Los Angeles, California. Brown returned to Detroit in 1970 and was appointed to the Michigan Employment Security Commission, the first Black woman referee in 35 years. Brown was posthumously inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame in 1992.

December 17, 1975 Noble Sissle, composer, lyricist, bandleader and playwright, died. Sissle was born July 10, 1889 in Indianapolis, Indiana. He started singing in the church choir at an early age and toured the Midwest as part of a gospel quartet as a teenager. He met Eubie Blake in 1915 and they formed a vaudeville musical duo, The Dixie Duo. Although their act contained some of the stereotypes of the day, they refused to wear blackface. They premiered "Shuffle Along" May 23, 1921 and it became the first hit musical on Broadway written by and about African Americans. They also produced the musical "Chocolate Dandies" in 1924. Sissle and Blake then toured Europe as the American Ambassadors of Syncopation. After breaking up with Blake, Sissle enjoyed a successful career as a bandleader of several bands during the 1930s and 1940s. "Reminiscing With Sissle and Blake" was published in 1973 and recounts the lives and music of the men.

December 17, 1975 Theodore Roosevelt "Hound Dog" Taylor, hall of fame blues guitarist and singer, died. Taylor was born April 12, 1915 in Natchez, Mississippi. He originally played the piano but started playing the guitar at 20. He moved to Chicago, Illinois in 1942 and became a full-time musician in 1957, playing in small clubs around the city. Taylor recorded his debut album, "Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers," in 1971. The only other album released during his lifetime was "Natural Boogie" (1974). Several albums of his music were released after his death, including "Beware of the Dog!" (1976) and "Release The Hound" (2004). Taylor was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1984.

December 17, 1978 The Eartha M. M. White Memorial Art and Historical Resources Center in Jacksonville, Florida was dedicated. Eartha Mary Magealene White was born November 8, 1876 in Jacksonville. After high school, she attended the National Conservatory of Music and became an opera singer with the Oriental American Opera Company, the first African American opera company. After traveling throughout the United States and Europe, she returned to Florida in 1896 and taught for 16 years. White and her mother founded the Colored Old Folks Home in 1902 which became the Eartha White Nursing Home and is now Eartha M. M. White Health Care, Inc. White was a licensed real estate broker, owned a dry goods store, a taxi company, and a steam laundry and was the first female employee of the Afro American Life Insurance Company. It is estimated that she accumulated more than $1 million in assets during her lifetime, using most of it for her humanitarian work. These included the Clara White Mission to serve daily meals to the needy, the Boy's Improvement Club to reduce delinquency, a home for unwed mothers, an orphanage and adoption agency, and a program for released prisoners to help re-enter society. White was awarded the Lane Bryant Award for Voluntary Action in 1971. White died January 18, 1974. The Eartha M. M. White Legacy Fund "works to encourage and grow giving among African Americans in Jacksonville in order to strengthen and sustain resources and institutions that are important to the community."

December 17, 1982 Joseph Lee "Big Joe" Williams, hall of fame blues guitarist and singer, died. Williams was born October 16, 1903 in Crawford, Mississippi. He left home in his teens and began wandering the United States playing in bars and work camps. He was in St. Louis, Missouri by 1934 where he recorded such blues hits as "Baby, Please Don't Go" (1935) and "Crawlin' King Snake" (1941). His guitar style and vocals had become popular with folk-blues fans by the late 1950s and he became a regular on the concert circuit, touring throughout the U. S., Europe, and Japan. Williams recorded almost 20 albums, including "Piney Woods Blues" (1958), "Back to the Country" (1964), and "Malvina My Sweet Woman" (1974). He was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1992.

December 17, 1993 Moses Gunn, stage, film and television actor, died. Gunn was born October 2, 1929 in St. Louis, Missouri. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Tennessee State University in 1959. He then studied at the University of Kansas from 1959 to 1961 in their graduate program for speech and drama. Gunn made his New York stage debut in 1962 in "The Blacks" and went on to win Off-Broadway Theater (OBIE) Awards for his performances in "First Breeze of Summer" (1975) and "Titus Andronicus" (1987). He also was nominated for the 1976 Tony Award for Best Actor for "The Poison Tree." Gunn was co-founder of the Negro Ensemble Company in 1967. He also appeared on film with roles in "Shaft" (1971) and "Shaft's Big Score" (1972) and in 1977 was nominated for the Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor for a Single Appearance in a Drama or Comedy Series for his role in the television mini-series "Roots."

December 17, 1995 Dorothy Porter Wesley, librarian and curator, died. Wesley was born May 25, 1905 in Warrenton, Virginia. She 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. Wesley assembled and catalogued an invaluable collection of materials from the African diaspora between 1928 and her retirement in 1973. 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 also 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. The Dorothy Porter Wesley Research Center in Fort Lauderdale, Florida is named in her honor.

December 17, 2000 Condoleeza Rice became the first female to hold the position of United States National Security Advisor. Rice was born November 14, 1954 in Birmingham, Alabama. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree, magna cum laude, in political science from the University of Denver in 1974, her Master of Arts degree from the University of Notre Dame in 1975, and her Ph. D. in political science from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies in 1981. Rice served as a professor at Stanford University from 1981 to 1987 and from 1991 to 1992 before being named provost of the university, the first female, first minority, and the youngest provost in Stanford history. Rice served as National Security Advisor until January 26, 2005 when she was confirmed as Secretary of State, the first African American female to hold that position. She was ranked the most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine in 2004 and 2005 and number two in 2006. After her tenure as secretary of state, Rice returned to Stanford as a political science professor and the Thomas and Barbara Stephenson Senior Fellow on Public Policy at the Hoover Institute. She became a faculty member of the Stanford Graduate School of Business and a director of the Global Center for Business and the Economy in 2010. Also that year, Rice published a family history, "Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family," and "No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington" in 2011. Rice became one of the first two women to be admitted as members of Augusta National Golf Club August 20, 2012 and she was selected an inaugural member of the College Football Playoff Selection Committee in 2013.

December 17, 2011 Cesaria Evora, Grammy Award winning singer, died. Evora was born August 27, 1941 in Mindelo, Cape Verde. She began singing at a young age but her early recordings were unsuccessful. She went to Paris, France in 1988 and released her debut album, "La Diva Aux Pieds Nus (The Barefoot Diva)." Evora continued to record in Paris and released her first smash hit "Miss Perfumado" in 1993 which was nominated for the 1999 Grammy Award for Best World Music Album. Other Grammy nominated albums by Evora include "Cesaria" (1995), "Cabo Verde" (1997), "Café Atlantico" (1999), and "Sao Vicente di Longe" (2001). She won the 2004 Grammy Award for Best World Music Album for "Voz d'Amor."

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