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Today in Black History, 2/7/2012

• February 7, 1887 James Herbert “Eubie” Blake, composer, lyricist, and pianist, was born in Baltimore, Maryland. Blake began taking music lessons at the age of 7 and at 15 was playing piano in a bordello. In 1912, he began playing in vaudeville and shortly after World War I joined forces with Noble Sissle as the Dixie Duo. After vaudeville, the pair created “Shuffle Along” which premiered on Broadway in 1921 and became the first hit Broadway musical written by and about African Americans. It also introduced the hit songs “I’m Just Wild About Harry” and “Love Will Find a Way.” By 1975, Blake had been awarded honorary doctorates by a number of institutions, including Rutgers, the New England Conservatory, Pratt Institute, and Dartmouth. The 1978 Broadway musical “Eubie” featured the works of Blake. In 1981, Blake received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President Ronald Reagan and in 1983 he was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame. Blake died February 12, 1983 and in 1995 the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative postage stamp in his honor. In 1998, the James Hubert Blake High School opened in Silver Springs, Maryland. In 2006, the album “The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake” (1969) was included by the National Recording Preservation Board in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry as a recording of “cultural, historical, or aesthetical significance.” Blake’s biography, “Eubie Blake,” was published in 1979. “Reminiscing With Sissle and Blake” (2000) recounts the lives and music of Blake and Sissle.

 

• February 7, 1926 The first day of Negro History Week, originated by historian Carter G. Woodson. Woodson chose the second week of February because it marked the birthdays of former President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The week was later expanded and renamed Black History Month to celebrate important people and events in the history of the African diaspora. It is celebrated annually in February in the United States and Canada and in October in the United Kingdom.

 

• February 7, 1934 Curtis Ousley (King Curtis), saxophonist, band leader, and record producer, was born in Fort Worth, Texas. Curtis started playing the saxophone at the age of 12 and in 1950 he joined the Lionel Hampton Band. In 1952, he moved to New York City and worked as a session player until the mid-1960s. In 1967, Curtis recorded his most successful singles, “Memphis Soul Stew” and “Ode to Billie Joe.” Other recordings by Curtis include “Sweet Soul” (1968), “Instant Groove” (1969), and “Get Ready” (1970). In 1970, Curtis won the Grammy Award for Best R&B Instrumental Performance for “Games People Play.” On August 13, 1971, Curtis was killed and he was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.

 

• February 7, 1961 Allen B. West, the first black Republican Congressman from Florida since Reconstruction, was born in Atlanta, Georgia. West earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1983 from the University of Tennessee and his Master of Arts degree in 1986 from Kansas State University, both in political science. He entered the United States Army in 1983 and participated in Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. In 1997, West earned his Master of Military Arts and Sciences degree from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff Officer College. West retired from the army in 2004 as a lieutenant colonel. After retiring, he served as in Afghanistan as a civilian adviser to the Afghan Army. In November, 2010, West was elected to the United States House of Representatives where he serves on the House Committee on Small Business and the House Armed Services Committee.

 

• February 7, 1965 Chrisopher Julius “Chris” Rock III, comedian, actor, author, and screenwriter, was born in Andrews, South Carolina. Rock began doing stand-up comedy in 1985 and caught the eye of Eddie Murphy who became his mentor. Rock became a cast member of “Saturday Night Live” In 1990 and in 1991 released his first comedy album, “Born Suspect.” He authored “Rock This” in 1997. In 1998, Rock released “Roll with the New” which won the Grammy Award for Best Spoken Comedy Album. Rock has done five HBO comedy specials, including “Big Ass Jokes” (1994), “Bigger & Blacker” (1999), and “Kill the Messenger” (2008). His television work has earned him 15 Emmy nominations and 3 Emmy Awards. Rock has appeared in a number of films, including “Dogma” (1999), “Bad Company” (2002), and “The Longest Yard” (2005). He has also served as writer and director of “Head of State” (2003), “I Think I Love My Wife” (2007), and the 2009 documentary “Good Hair.” In 2005, the comedy series “Everybody Hates Chris” premiered with Rock as producer and narrator and. The show ran until 2009. In 2011, he appeared on Broadway in “The Motherf**ker with the Hat.” Rock was voted the fifth greatest stand-up comedian of all time by Comedy Central.

 

• February 7, 1968 Eugene Ashley, Jr., Medal of Honor recipient, died. Ashley was born October 12, 1931 in Wilmington, North Carolina, but raised in New York City. Ashley joined the United States Army in 1950 and served in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. On February 6, 1968, while serving as a sergeant first class in Company C of the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), 1st Special Forces, his actions earned him the medal. His citation partially reads, “During the ensuing battle, Sfc. Ashley led a total of 5 vigorous assaults against the enemy, continuously exposing himself to a voluminous hail of enemy grenades, machine gun and automatic weapons fire. Throughout these assaults, he was plagued by numerous booby-trapped satchel charges in all bunkers on his avenue of approach. During his fifth and final assault, he adjusted air strikes nearly on top of his assault element, forcing the enemy to withdraw and resulting in friendly control of the summit of the hill. While exposing himself to intense enemy fire, he was seriously wounded by machine gun fire but continued his mission without regard for his personal safety. After the fifth assault, he lost consciousness and was carried from the summit by his comrades only to suffer a fatal wound when an enemy artillery round landed in the area. Sfc. Ashley displayed extraordinary heroism in risking his life in an attempt to save the lives of his entrapped comrades and commanding officer.” The Medal of Honor, America’s highest military decoration, was posthumously presented to Ashley’s family on December 2, 1969. The Eugene Ashley High School in Wilmington is named in his honor.

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Founded in 1965 and located in the heart of Midtown Detroit’s Cultural Center, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History is the world's largest institution dedicated to the African American experience. The Museum provides learning opportunities, exhibitions, programs and events based on collections and research that explore the diverse history and culture of African Americans and their African origins.

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