Today in Black History, 12/23/2014 - The Charles H. Wright Museum Blog

Today in Black History, 12/23/2014

• December 23, 1867 Madam C. J. Walker, hall of fame businesswoman and philanthropist, was born Sarah Breedlove in Delta, Louisiana. Walker founded the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company in 1906 to manufacture and sell hair care products and cosmetics and by 1917 it was the largest business in the nation owned by a Black person. 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 achievements. 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 May 25, 1919 left two-thirds of her estate to educational institutions and charities, including the 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. 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.

• December 23, 1883 Dixie Kid, hall of fame boxer, was born Aaron Lister Brown in Fulton, Missouri. Kid won the World Welterweight Boxing Championship in 1904 and held the title until 1908. He retired from boxing in 1920 with a record of 80 wins, 29 losses, and 12 draws. Little is known of his life after retiring. Kid died April 6, 1934. He was posthumously inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2002.

• December 23, 1919 Alice H. Parker of Morristown, New Jersey received patent number 1,325,905 for a new and improved heating furnace for houses and other buildings. Her furnace used gas as the fuel and employed multiple heating units which allowed the heating of rooms or floors to be regulated as required. Not much else is known of Parker’s life.

• December 23, 1930 Herman Jerome Russell, entrepreneur, philanthropist and community leader, was born in Atlanta, Georgia. Russell bought his first property while still in high school and used it to provide funding to attend Tuskegee Institute (now University) where he earned his Bachelor of Science degree in building construction in 1953. He returned to Atlanta and in 1957 inherited his father’s plastering business. Russell expanded the business throughout the 1960s and 1970s to include home building, real estate investments, and other large scale projects such as Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the Georgia Dome, and Turner Field. H. J. Russell and Company is today the largest minority owned real estate firm in the United States. Russell was also active in the Civil Rights Movement, although usually behind the scenes, providing advice and funding and serving on the board of the Atlanta Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He was the first Black member and second Black president of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. The Herman J. Russell Sr. International Center for Entrepreneurship at Georgia State University is named in his honor. He received the Horatio Alger Award in 1991. Russell died November 15, 2014.

• December 23, 1935 Esther Mae Jones Phillips, R&B vocalist, was born in Galveston, Texas. Phillips won an amateur talent contest in 1949 and began touring as Little Esther Phillips. In 1950, she recorded her first hit record, “Double Crossing Blues,” 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. In 1972, she released the album “From a Whisper to a Scream,” which 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 Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance - Female. Phillips died August 7, 1984.

• December 23, 1936 William Vernell “Willie” Wood, Sr., hall of fame football player, was born in Washington, D. C. Wood played college football at the University of Southern California where he was the first African American quarterback in Pacific-10 Conference history. Wood was not selected in the 1960 National Football League Draft but was signed by the Green Bay Packers as a free agent defensive back. Over his 12 season professional career, Wood was an eight-time Pro Bowl selection. Wood was selected to the NFL 1960s All – Decade Team and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989. Wood was named head coach of the Philadelphia Bell of the World Football League in 1973, the first African American head coach in the modern era of professional football. He was hired as head coach of the Toronto Argonauts in 1980, the first Black head coach in the Canadian Football League. He held that position for two seasons. Wood is currently disabled and living in an assisted living facility. Willie Wood Way in Washington, D. C. is named in his honor.

• December 23, 1987 Healy Hall, the flagship building on the main campus of Georgetown University, was declared a National Historic Landmark. The building is named for Patrick Francis Healy, the first American of African ancestry to be president of a predominantly White college. Healy oversaw the construction of the building between 1877 and 1879 and it is still in use. Healy was born enslaved February 27, 1830 in Macon, Georgia. Although he was at least three-quarters European in ancestry, he was legally considered a slave and Georgia law prohibited the education of slaves. Therefore Healy’s father arranged for him to move north to obtain an education. Healy graduated from the College of the Holy Cross in 1850 and entered the Jesuit order. The order sent him to Europe to study in 1858 because his African ancestry had become an issue in the United States. He earned his doctorate from the University of Leuven in Belgium, the first American of African descent to earn a Ph.D. Healy was ordained to the priesthood September 3, 1864, the first Jesuit priest of African descent. Healy returned to the U. S. in 1866 and began teaching at Georgetown. On July 31, 1874, he was named president of the institution. During his tenure, he helped transform the small 19th century college into a major university for the 20th century. He modernized the curriculum and expanded and upgraded the schools of law and medicine. He left the college in 1882. Healy died January 10, 1910. The Georgetown Alumni Association established the Patrick Healy Award in 1969 to recognize people who have ‘distinguished themselves by a lifetime of outstanding achievement and service to Georgetown, the community and his or her profession.” Patrick Francis Healy High School in East Orange, New Jersey is named in his honor. “Passing for White: Race, Religion, and the Healy Family, 1820-1920” was published in 2003.

• December 23, 1990 Wendell Oliver Scott, stock car racer and the first African American to obtain a racing license from the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, died. Scott was born August 29, 1921 in Danville, Virginia. As a boy, he learned auto mechanics from his father and later earned his reputation for speed driving as a taxi cab driver and bootlegger. From 1943 to 1945, he served in the United States Army in Europe. On May 23, 1952, Scott broke the color barrier in Southern stock car racing at the Danville Fairgrounds Speedway. He earned his NASCAR racing license in 1953 and won his only race December 1, 1963 at Speedway Park in Jacksonville, Florida. From 1965 to 1969, Scott consistently finished in the top ten in the drivers’ point standings. Scott was forced to retire in 1973 due to injuries with one win and 147 top ten finishes in 495 career races. After retiring, he ran Scott’s Garage until his death. The 1977 movie “Greased Lightning” was loosely based on his story and his biography, “Hard Driving: The American Odyssey of NASCAR’s First Black Driver,” was published in 2008.

• December 23, 2007 Oscar Emmanuel Peterson, hall of fame jazz pianist and composer, died. Peterson was born August 15, 1925 in Montreal, Canada. At five, he began honing his skills with the trumpet and piano. At 14, he won the national music competition sponsored by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. After that, he dropped out of school and became a professional pianist. Over a career spanning more than 65 years, Peterson released more than 200 recordings and won eight Grammy Awards, including the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997. Peterson also composed many pieces, including “Hymn to Freedom” (1962) and “Canadian Suite” (1964). Peterson was called the “Maharaja of the Keyboard” by Duke Ellington and is generally considered to have been one of the greatest pianist of all time. He was regarded in Canada as a distinguished public figure and was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1972, the country’s highest civilian order for talent and service. Additionally, Peterson was awarded honorary doctorate degrees by 13 Canadian universities and inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1978. He was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1984. Weeks after his death, the Province of Ontario announced a $4 million scholarship for the Oscar Peterson Chair for Jazz Performance at York University. Peterson’s biography, “Oscar Peterson: The Will to Swing,” was published in 1990 and his autobiography, “A Jazz Odyssey,” was published in 2002.

• December 23, 2013 Yusef Lateef, jazz multi-instumentalist, composer, educator and author, died. Lateef was born William Emanuel Huddleston October 9, 1920 in Chattanooga, Tennessee but raised in Detroit, Michigan. By the time he graduated from high school, Lateef was a proficient enough saxophonist that he launched his professional career and began touring with a number of bands. He began recording as a leader in 1957 with the release of “The Sounds of Yusef.” As a leader, he released more than 35 albums, including “Eastern Sounds” (1961), “Yusef Lateef’s Detroit” (1969), “In a Temple Garden” (1979), “10 Years Hence” (2008), and “Roots Run Deep” (2012). His 1987 album “Yusef Lateef’s Little Symphony” won the Grammy Award for Best New Age Album. Lateef earned his Bachelor of Music degree in 1969 and his Master of Music Education degree in 1970 from the Manhattan School of Music. He earned his Doctor of Education degree from the University of Massachusetts in 1975. Lateef founded YAL Records in 1992 and was commissioned to compose “The African American Epic Suite,” a four part work for orchestra and quartet based on themes of slavery and disfranchisement in the United States, in 1993. Lateef authored several books, including his autobiography, “The Gentle Giant,” which was published in 2006. He was designated a NEA Jazz Master, the highest honor the nation bestows on a jazz artist, by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2010.

Today in Black History, 12/22/2014
Today in Black History, 12/24/2014
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