Today in Black History, 4/18/2012 - The Charles H. Wright Museum Blog

Today in Black History, 4/18/2012


• April 18, 1922 John Arthur “Jack” Johnson, the first black World Heavyweight Boxing Champion, received patent number 1,413,121 for an improved wrench for tightening loosened fastening devices. Johnson was born March 31, 1878 in Galveston, Texas. By 1902, he had won at least 50 fights against white and black opponents and in 1903 he won the World Colored Heavyweight Championship. Johnson won the World Heavyweight Championship in 1908. In 1910, former undefeated heavyweight champion James Jeffries came out of retirement “for the purpose of proving that a White man is better than a Negro.” The “Fight of the Century” ended with Johnson knocking Jeffries out. Johnson’s win triggered riots in more than 50 cities. Johnson lost his title in 1915 but continued boxing professionally until 1938. He retired with a record of 73 wins, 13 losses, and 9 draws. Johnson died in a car accident on June 10, 1946 and was posthumously inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954. Johnson’s 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.”


• April 18, 1924 Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, blues musician, was born in Vinton, Louisiana. Brown began his professional career in 1945 and made his recording debut in 1949 with “Mary is Fine” and “My Time is Expensive.” During the 1960s, Brown made several appearances on the television show “Hee Haw” and beginning in 1971 toured Europe 12 times, including several tours sponsored by the United States State Department. In 1982, Brown won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album for “Alright Again!” In 1997, Brown was honored with the Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Award and in 1999 he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. Brown died September 10, 2005.


• April 18, 1949 Needham Roberts, one of the first Americans to receive the French Croix de Guerre medal, died. Roberts was born April 28, 1901 in Trenton, New Jersey. He enlisted in the United States Army in 1917 and was assigned to the New York Fifteenth Infantry which later became the 369th Infantry Harlem Hellfighters. They were sent to France during World War I and put under the command of the French Army. On May 14, 1918, Roberts and fellow African American Henry Johnson were on watch in the Argonne Forest when they were attacked by about 20 German soldiers. Despite being wounded several times, they fought off the attack and defended the French line. For their actions, both Roberts and Johnson were awarded the French Croix de Guerre medal, the first Americans to receive the medal. However, when they returned home neither received any recognition from the United States government until Roberts was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart in 1996.


• April 18, 1973 Haile Gebrselassie, long distance track and road runner, was born in Asella, Ethiopia. Gebrselassie gained international recognition in 1992 when he won the 5,000 and 10,000 meter races at the Junior World Championships in Seoul, Korea. In 1993, Gebrselassie won the first of four consecutive world championship titles in the men’s 10,000 meters and he won the Gold medal at that distance at both the 1996 Atlanta and the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. In 1999, he starred as himself in the movie “Endurance” which chronicled his quest for gold in Atlanta. After the 2004 Olympics, Gebrselassie began to focus on road racing at various distances and the marathon. In 2005, he went undefeated in all of his road races and set records at a couple of distances. In 2008, he set the then world record time for the marathon in Berlin, Germany.


• April 18, 1974 John Henry Lewis, hall of fame boxer, died. Lewis was born May 1, 1914 in Los Angeles, California, but grew up in Phoenix, Arizona where his father owned a boxing gym. Lewis began his professional boxing career in 1928 at the age of 14. In 1935, Lewis won the World Light Heavyweight Boxing Championship, the first African American to hold that title. Lewis held the title until an eye problem forced him to retire in 1939 with a record of 103 wins, 8 losses, and 6 draws. Lewis was posthumously inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1994.


• April 18, 2005 Clarence Edward “Big House” Gaines, Sr., hall of fame college basketball coach, died. Gaines was born May 21, 1923 in Paducah, Kentucky. He attended Lincoln High School where he excelled academically and athletically, graduating as class salutatorian in 1941. Gaines earned his Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry from Morgan State College in 1945 and in 1950 earned his Master of Arts degree in education from Columbia University. In 1946, Gaines became the head coach for football and basketball at Winston Salem Teachers College. In 1950, he dropped football to concentrate on basketball which he coached until 1993. In 1967, he led Winston Salem to the Division II NCAA Championship, the first basketball program from a historically black college or university to capture an NCAA national championship. For that he was named the Division II College Coach of the Year. In 1982, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, the only African American inducted as a coach. The C.E. Gaines Center, the athletic complex at Winston Salem, is named in his honor and in 2006 he was posthumously inducted as part of the inaugural class into the College Basketball Hall of Fame. His autobiography, “They Call Me Big House,” was published in 2004.

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