· May 17, 1875 Oliver Lewis won the inaugural Kentucky Derby. He was one of 13 black jockeys in the field of 15. Little is known of Lewis’s life other than he was born in 1856 in Fayette County, Kentucky and he died in 1924. Blacks dominated horse racing in the late 1800s, winning 15 of the first 28 Kentucky Derbies and training 6 of the first 17 winners. However, after 1921 there were no black jockeys in the Derby until Marlon S. Julien in 2000.
· May 17, 1885 Vertner Woodson Tandy, architect and one of the founders of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, was born in Lexington, Kentucky. While attending Cornell University, in 1906 Tandy was one of the seven founders of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, the first African American Greek letter fraternity. Tandy earned his degree in architecture from Cornell in 1909 and became the State of New York’s first registered black architect. Tandy’s most famous commission was Villa Lewaro, the mansion of millionaire Madam C. J. Walker. Other works include the Ivey Delph Apartments and St. Phillip’s Episcopal Church. Tandy was also the first African American to pass the military commissioning examination and was commissioned first lieutenant in the New York State National Guard. Tandy died November 7, 1949.
· May 17, 1893 Frederick McKinley Jones, inventor and businessman, was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. Jones was orphaned at the age of nine and boosted his natural mechanical ability and inventive mind with independent reading and study. In 1912, Jones moved to Hallock, Minnesota and after serving in the United States Army during World War I, taught himself electronics and built a transmitter for the town’s radio station. Around 1935, Jones designed a portable air-cooling unit for trucks carrying perishable food and received patent number 2,303,857 for it on July 12, 1940. His air-coolers made it possible for the first time to ship perishable food long distances during any time to the year. His units were also important during World War II, preserving blood, medicine, and food. During his lifetime, Jones was awarded 61 patents, mostly for refrigeration equipment but also for portable X-ray machines, sound equipment, and gasoline engines. In 1944, Jones became the first African American to be elected into the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers. Jones died February 21, 1961 and in 1991 he was posthumously awarded the National Medal of Technology by President George H. W. Bush, the first African American to receive the award. Biographies of Jones include “Man with a Million Ideas: Fred Jones, Genius/Inventor” (1976) and “I’ve Got an Idea: The Story of Frederick McKinley Jones” (1994).
· May 17, 1903 James Thomas Nichols (Cool Papa Bell), Negro League baseball player, was born in Starkville, Mississippi. Bell joined the St. Louis Stars in 1922 as a pitcher. By 1924, he had become an outfielder and was considered the fastest man in the league. Over his 24 year playing career, he had a lifetime batting average of .337 and he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974. Bell died March 7, 1991 and in his honor, St. Louis renamed Dickerson Street to James Cool Papa Bell Avenue. Also the road leading to the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame is named Cool Papa Bell Drive. His biography, “Cool Papa Bell,” was published in 2002.
· May 17, 1925 Ira Tucker, Sr., lead singer for the Dixie Hummingbirds, was born in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Tucker joined the Hummingbirds in 1938 at the age of 13. In addition to his vocal skills, he introduced energetic showmanship, including running through the aisles, jumping off the stage, and falling to his knees. Tucker performed with the group for 70 years, right up to his death on June 24, 2008. The Dixie Hummingbirds won Grammy Awards for Best Soul Gospel Performance in 1973 for “Love Me Like a Rock” and Best Traditional Gospel Album in 2007 for “Still Keeping It Real.” Their 1946 recording of “Amazing Grace” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2000 as a recording of “qualitative or historical significance”. The group was inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2000 and the Christian Music Hall of Fame in 2007. In 2003, the Dixie Hummingbirds were the subject of the book “Great God A’Mighty! The Dixie Hummingbirds: Celebrating the Rise of Soul Gospel Music” and in 2008 the documentary “The Dixie Hummingbirds: Eighty Years Young”.
· May 17, 1931 John Lenwood “Jackie” McLean, Jr., jazz alto saxophonist, composer, bandleader, and educator, was born in New York City. During high school, McLean played in a band that included Kenny Drew, Sonny Rollins, and Andy Kirk, Jr. and at the age of 19 he played on Miles Davis’ “Dig” album. He also recorded with Gene Ammons, Charlie Mingus, and as a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. As a leader, McLean recorded more than 35 albums, including “Lights Out!” (1956), “Let Freedom Ring” (1962), and “Nature Boy” (2000). In 1968, he began teaching at the University of Hartford where he established the African American Music Department (now the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz) and the Bachelor of Music degree in Jazz Studies program. In 1970, he founded the Artists Collective, Inc. of Hartford, an organization dedicated to preserving the art and culture of the African Diaspora. It provides educational programs and instruction in dance, theater, music, and the visual arts. In 2001, McLean was designated a NEA Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts and he died March 31, 2006.
· May 17, 1954 The Supreme Court of the United States in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decided unanimously that state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students and denying black children equal educational opportunities unconstitutional and a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U. S. Constitution. The case originated from a 1951 class action suit filed against the Board of Education of the City of Topeka, Kansas and combined four other similar suits filed in other states. A key holding of the court was that, even if segregated black and white schools were of equal quality in facilities and teachers, segregation by itself was harmful to black students and unconstitutional. The decision overturned earlier rulings going back to Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896.
· May 17, 1956 Ray Charles “Sugar Ray” Leonard, hall of fame boxer, was born in Wilmington, North Carolina. Before he was 20 years old, Leonard had won three National Golden Gloves titles, two AAU Championships, and the Gold medal at the 1975 Pan-American Games. He also won the Gold medal for the Light Welterweight class at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games. After the Olympic Games, Leonard started his professional career and in 1979 won his first world championship. Also that year, he was named Fighter of the Year by Ring Magazine. Leonard retired from boxing and came back multiple times, but he retired for good in 1997 having won six world championship titles in 5 different weight classes and a record of 36 wins, 3 losses, and 1 draw. It is estimated that he earned more than $100 million over his career. In 1997, he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. After retiring from boxing, Leonard served as a boxing broadcaster and as CEO of Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing, LLC.
· May 17, 1957 The Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom was held in Washington, D. C. to urge the federal government to force local and state governments to abide by the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Many local governments had created obstacles to the process of desegregation. The march was organized by A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin and approximately 25,000 people participated. Martin Luther King gave his “Give Us the Ballot” speech and the march laid the foundation for future Civil Rights marches in Washington.
· May 17, 1962 Edward Franklin Frazier, sociologist, died. Frazier was born September 24, 1894 in Baltimore, Maryland. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree cum laude from Howard University in 1916, his Master of Arts degree in sociology from Clark University in 1920, and his Ph. D. from the University of Chicago in 1931. Frazier began his career as a teacher and in 1922 accepted a position as the director of the Atlanta School of Social Work at Morehouse College. However, in 1927 he published the article “The Pathology of Race Prejudice” which argued that racial prejudice was analogous to insanity which stirred such strong reactions that he was removed from his position. In 1948, Frazier was elected the first African American president of the American Sociological Society. Frazier’s 1957 work “Black Bourgeoisie” was a critical examination of the adoption by middle-class African Americans of a subservient conservatism that derived from the cultural style and traditional religion of the white middle-class. His other works include “The Negro Family in the United States” (1939) and “The Negro Church in America” (1963). In 1995, the E. Franklin Frazier Center for Social Work Research was established at Howard University.
· May 17, 1988 Patricia Era Bath, ophthalmologist, received patent number 4,744,360 for an apparatus for ablating and removing cataract lenses, making her the first African American woman doctor to receive a patent for a medical purpose. Bath was born November 4, 1942 in Harlem, New York. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Hunter College in 1964 and from Howard University School of Medicine in 1968. Bath was the first female ophthalmologist at the prestigious Jules Stein Eye Institute and the first female African American surgeon at the UCLA Medical Center. In 1977, Bath co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness to protect, preserve and restore the sense of sight. Bath was inducted into the International Women in Medicine Hall of Fame in 2001.
· May 17, 2002 Joseph Black, the first black pitcher to win a World Series game, died. Black was born February 8, 1924 in Plainfield, New Jersey. He won a baseball scholarship to Morgan State University and graduated in 1950. Black was called up to the major leagues in 1952 and was chosen National League Rookie of the Year after winning 15 games and saving 15 others. On October 1, 1952, Black became the first black pitcher to win a World Series game when he pitched the Brooklyn Dodgers to a 4 to 2 victory over the New York Yankees. That year was the highlight of his five year major league career and he retired with a record of 30 wins and 12 losses. After his playing career in baseball ended, Black worked in the baseball commissioner’s office advising players on career choices and became an executive with the Greyhound Bus Company. Black’s biography, “Meet the Real Joe Black,” was published in 2010. Also in 2010, the Washington Nationals began to annually present the Joe Black Award to a Washington area organization chosen for its work promoting baseball in African American communities. The award recognizes Black as the first African American player on the Washington Senators.