Today in Black History, 12/26/2014 - The Charles H. Wright Museum Blog

Today in Black History, 12/26/2014

• December 26, 1894 Nathan Pinchback “Jean” Toomer, poet and novelist, was born in Washington, D. C. Toomer attended six institutions of higher education between 1914 and 1917, studying agriculture, fitness, biology, sociology, and history but never earned a degree. After college, he published some short stories and served as principal of a school in Georgia. Toomer published “Cane,” a series of poems and short stories about the Black experience in America, in 1923. Critics hailed it as an important work of the Harlem Renaissance. The years between 1925 and 1935 were the most productive of Toomer’s literary career. He completed the novel “The Gallonwerps” and the play “The Sacred Factory” in 1927. His long poem “The Blue Meridian” (1931) dramatically foreshadowed the racial discourse of the 21st century. Toomer stopped writing after 1950 and died March 30, 1967. His biography, “The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness,” was published in 1987.

• December 26, 1908 John Arthur “Jack” Johnson became the first Black World Heavyweight Boxing Champion with a 14th round technical knockout of Tommy Burns. Johnson was born March 31, 1878 in Galveston, Texas. By 1902, he had http://hobdragon.gdyerwebsolution.netdna-cdn.com/reel/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/jack-johnson-the-warrior.jpgwon at least 50 fights against White and Black opponents and won the World “Colored” Heavyweight Boxing Championship in 1903. After Johnson won the world heavyweight title, former undefeated champion James Jeffries came out of retirement “for the purpose of proving that a White man is better than a Negro.” On July 4, 1910, Johnson knocked out Jeffries in the 15th round of the “Fight of the Century.” Johnson’s win triggered riots in more than 50 cities. Johnson lost his title in 1915 but continued fighting professionally until 1938. He retired with a record of 73 wins, 13 losses, and 9 draws. On April 18, 1922, Johnson received patent number 1,413,121 for an improved wrench for tightening loosened fastening devices. Johnson died June 10, 1946. He was posthumously inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. His life is the basis for the play and subsequent 1970 movie “The Great White Hope” and the 2005 documentary “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.” Johnson’s biography, “Jack Johnson, In the Ring and Out,” was published in 1977. A memoir by Johnson that was published in French was translated and published as “My Life and Battles” in 2009.

• December 26, 1931 John Lee Love, inventor, died. Not much is known of Love’s life except that he was the recipient of two patents. He received patent number 542,419 for an improved plasterer’s hawk July 9, 1895. A plasterer’s hawk is a flat square piece of board made of wood or metal upon which plaster or mortar is placed and then spread by plasterers or masons. Love designed one that was more portable with a detachable handle and foldable board made of aluminum. On November 23, 1897, he received patent number 594,114 for a pencil sharpener that used a crank to shave off thin slices of wood from the pencil until a point was formed. The shavings from the wood would stay inside the sharpener much like the sharpeners we use today.

• December 26, 1934 Rudolph John Chauncey Fisher, physician and author, died. Fisher was born May 9, 1897 in Washington, D. C. but raised in Providence, Rhode Island. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in English and biology in 1919 and his Master of Arts degree in 1920 from Brown University. During his time at Brown, Fisher won public speaking contests, including first place at an intercollegiate contest at Harvard in 1917. He also was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Fisher earned his medical degree from Howard University Medical School, with highest honors, in 1924. He moved to New York City in 1925 and established a private medical practice. Fisher published his first short story, “City of Refuge,” that same year. He went on to write two acclaimed novels, “The Walls of Jericho” (1928) and “The Conjure-Man Dies” (1932) which was the first published detective novel with a Black detective. Fisher is considered one of the major literary figures of the Harlem Renaissance. An anthology of his short stories, “City of Refuge: The Collected Stories of Rudolph Fisher,” was published in 1991.

• December 26, 1944 John Robert Fox, Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, died in action. Fox was born May 18, 1915 in Cincinnati, Ohio. He graduated from Wilberforce University in 1940 with a Reserve Officer Training Corps commission of second lieutenant. In December, 1944, Fox was part of a small forward observer party that volunteered to stay behind in the Italian village of Sommocolonia. American forces had withdrawn from the village after it was overrun by German forces. Fox directed defensive artillery fire from his position on the second floor of a house. When the Germans attacked the small group of remaining Americans, Fox ordered artillery fire on his own position, killing him but delaying the advance of the enemy. His action permitted United States forces to organize a counterattack and regain control of the village. After the war, the citizens of Sommocolonia erected a monument to the nine men killed during the artillery barrage, eight Italian soldiers and Fox. For his actions, Fox was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, America’s second highest military decoration. 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 Medal of Honor had been awarded to Black soldiers who served in the war. After a review of files, 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. Fox’s widow received the medal from President William J. Clinton January 13, 1997. Hasbro introduced an action figure commemorating Lt. John R. Fox in 2005.

• December 26, 1954 Osborne Earl “Ozzie” Smith, hall of fame baseball player, was born in Mobile, Alabama. Smith made his major league debut in 1978 with the San Diego Padres but spent most of his career with the St. Louis Cardinals. Over his 18 season professional career, he was a 15-time All-Star and 13-time Gold Glove Award winner. After retiring from baseball in 1996, Smith served as host of the television show “This Week in Baseball” from 1997 to 1999. Smith has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the 1994 Branch Rickey Award for personifying service above self, the 1995 Roberto Clemente Award for best exemplifying the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and contribution to his team, and the Cardinals retired his uniform number 1 in 1996. Smith was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2002 and a statue of Smith was unveiled at Busch Memorial Stadium in St. Louis August 11, 2002. Since retiring, Smith has been involved in a number of entrepreneurial ventures and authored a children’s book, “Hello, Fredbird!” (2006). He received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from California Polytechnic State University in 2003. He has published two autobiographies, “Wizard” (1988) and “Ozzie Smith – The Road to Cooperstown” (2002). The Ozzie Smith Sports Complex in O’Fallon, Missouri is named in his honor.

• December 26, 1966 Kwanzaa, a week-long celebration honoring universal African heritage and culture, was first practiced in the United States. Kwanzaa was created by Maulana Karenga and is observed annually from December 26 to January 1. Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa is dedicated to one of the following seven principles; Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity), and imani (faith). The first Kwanzaa stamp was issued by the United States Postal Service in 1997 and a second stamp was issued in 2004.

• December 26, 1985 Jackie Ormes, the first African American female cartoonist, died. Ormes was born Zelda Mavin Jackson August 1, 1911 in Monongahela, Pennsylvania. She started in journalism as a proofreader for the Pittsburgh Courier. Her one-panel comic strip “Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem” first appeared in the Courier in 1937. Ormes moved to Chicago, Illinois in 1942 and began writing articles and a social column for the Chicago Defender. At the end of World War II, her one-panel cartoon “Candy” appeared in the Defender for a few months. In August, 1945, Ormes returned to the Courier with the cartoon “Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger” which ran for eleven years. She contracted to have a Patty-Jo doll produced in 1947. It was the first African American doll to have an extensive upscale wardrobe. Today, the dolls are highly sought after collectors’ items. In 1950, she developed a multi-panel comic strip “Torchy in Heartbeats” which ran until 1954. Ormes retired from cartooning in 1956 and devoted the remainder of her life to the Southside Chicago community, including being a founding member of the board of directors of the DuSable Museum of African American History. Her biography, “Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist,” was published in 2008.

• December 26, 1999 Curtis Lee Mayfield, hall of fame singer, songwriter and record producer, died. Mayfield was born June 3, 1942 in Chicago, Illinois. He dropped out of school in 1956 and joined The Roosters who two years later became The Impressions. When Jerry Butler left the group, Mayfield became the lead singer. The Impressions were successful with a string of Mayfield composions, including “Gypsy Woman” (1961), “Keep on Pushing” (1964), “People Get Ready” (1965), and “Check Out Your Mind” (1970). Mayfield also wrote and produced scores of hits for other artists, including Jerry Butler’s “He Will Break Your Heart” (1960), Gene Chandler’s “Bless Our Love” (1964), The Staple Singers’ “Let’s Do It Again” (1975), and Aretha Franklin’s “Something He Can Feel” (1976). Mayfield left The Impressions in 1970 to begin a solo career and to found an independent record label. In 1972, he released the album “Super Fly” which was the soundtrack for the film of the same title and one of the most influential albums in history. It is listed at 69 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. This led to other movie soundtracks, including “Claudine” (1974), “Sparkle” (1976), and “A Piece of the Action” (1977). On August 13, 1990, Mayfield was paralyzed after stage lighting fell on him at an outdoor concert. Mayfield received the Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Award in 1990, Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. He was posthumously inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2000 and as a member of The Impressions was inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2003.

• December 26, 2004 Reginald Howard White, hall of fame football player, died. White was born December 19, 1961 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. From 1980 to 1983, he played for the University of Tennessee where he was an All-American. After earning his Bachelor of Arts degree in human services, he signed with the Memphis Showboats of the United States Football League and after that league folded in 1985 signed with the Philadelphia Eagles of the National Football League. Over the next fifteen seasons, White was a 12-time All Pro selection and the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1987 and 1998. Because of his strong Christian beliefs and his play on the field, White was known as “the Minister of Defense.” After retiring from football, White served as an associate minister at a church in Knoxville, Tennessee. During the 2005 football season the University of Tennessee, Philadelphia Eagles, and Green Bay Packers all retired White’s uniform number and he was posthumously inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006. Reggie White Boulevard in Chattanooga and Reggie White Way in Green Bay, Wisconsin are named in his honor.

• December 26, 2009 Percy Ellis Sutton, lawyer, civil rights activist and political and business leader, died. Sutton was born November 24, 1920 in San Antonio, Texas. During World War II, Sutton served as an intelligence officer with the Tuskegee Airmen. He attended Prairie View University, Tuskegee Institute, and Hampton Institute before earning his law degree in 1950 from Brooklyn Law School. Sutton represented Malcolm X until his death in 1965 and Betty Shabazz until her death in 1997. From 1964 to 1966, he served in the New York State Assembly where he was instrumental in getting funding to establish the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. From 1966 to 1977, he served as Manhattan Borough President. In 1971, Sutton co-founded the Inner City Broadcasting Corporation which purchased New York City’s first African American owned radio station. Sutton served as president of the corporation from 1972 to 1991. He purchased and initiated the revitalization of the Apollo Theater in Harlem in 1980 and began producing the television show, “Showtime at the Apollo” in 1987. That same year, Sutton was awarded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Spingarn Medal.

• December 26, 2012 Fontella Bass, soul singer, died. Bass was born July 3, 1940 in St. Louis, Missouri. She showed great musical talent at an early age. At five, she was providing piano accompaniment for her grandmother’s singing and by nine was accompanying her mother on gospel tours through the South. At 17, Bass started her professional career, working in clubs in her hometown. In 1961, she was hired to back Little Milton on piano for concerts and recordings. She signed with Chess Records in 1965 and recorded “Rescue Me” which sold over a million copies. Other more moderate hits by Bass released in 1966 include “Recovery,” “I Can’t Rest,” and “You’ll Never Know.” Bass retired from music in 1972 to concentrate on raising her family. However in 1990, she returned with a gospel album with her mother and brother titled “Promises: A Family Portrait of Faith.” Her 1995 album “No Ways Tired” was nominated for the Best Traditional Soul Gospel Grammy Award. Her last album, “Travelin,” was recorded in 2001. Bass was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame in 2000 and received the Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Award in 2001.

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