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Today in Black History, 3/4/2012

• March 4, 1842 James Forten, abolitionist and businessman, died. Forten was born September 2, 1766 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At the age of 15, he served on a ship during the Revolutionary War and invented a device to handle ship sails. In 1786, he started a very successful sailmaking company and became one of the wealthiest blacks in post-colonial America. Forten, with the help of Rev. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, enlisted 2,500 African Americans to defend Philadelphia during the War of 1812. They also worked together to establish the Convention of Color in 1817. By the 1830s, Forten was one of the most powerful voices for people of color throughout the North. In 1833, he helped William Lloyd Garrison and Robert Purvis form the American Anti-Slavery Society and provided generous financial support to the organization over the years. When Forten died, he left behind an exemplary family, a sizable fortune, and a legacy of philanthropy and activism that inspired generations of black Philadelphians. In 1990, a historical marker was dedicated in his honor in Philadelphia and his biography, “A Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten,” was published in 2002.

 

• March 4, 1877 Garrett Augustus Morgan, Sr., inventor and entrepreneur, was born in Paris, Kentucky. In 1895, Morgan moved to Cleveland, Ohio where he worked repairing sewing machines for a clothing manufacturer. In 1907, he opened his own sewing machine and shoe repair shop and in 1908 he helped found the Cleveland Association of Colored Men. On October 13, 1914, Morgan received patent number 1,113,675 for the safety hood and smoke protector and became nationally known when he used it in 1916 to save several men in a tunnel explosion under Lake Erie. Morgan was awarded a Medal of Bravery by the citizens of Cleveland, but was denied the Carnegie Medal, which is awarded to civilians who risk their lives to an extraordinary degree saving or attempting to save the lives of others, due to his race. On November 20, 1923, Morgan received patent number 1,475,024 for his version of the traffic signal. Morgan died August 27, 1963 and in Cleveland the Garrett Morgan Treatment Plant and the Garrett A. Morgan Cleveland School of Science are named in his honor. “Garrett A. Morgan: American Negro Inventor” was published in 1969. Morgan’s name is enshrined in the Ring of Genealogy at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan.

 

• March 4, 1883 Sam Langford, hall of fame boxer and according to ESPN “the greatest fighter nobody knows,” was born in Weymouth Falls, Nova Scotia, Canada. Although he was only 5 feet 6 ½ inches tall and weighed 185 pounds, Langford fought greats from the lightweight division to the heavyweight division, beating many champions in the process. However, Langford was denied an opportunity to fight for a championship because of his race. In 1923, Langford fought and won boxing’s last fight to the finish for the Mexican Heavyweight Championship. Due to failing eyesight, he retired in 1926 with a record of 167 wins, 38 losses, and 37 draws. Heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey said “The hell I feared no man. There was one man I wouldn’t fight because I knew he would flatten me. I was afraid of Sam Langford.” Langford eventually went completely blind and died penniless on January 12, 1956. He was posthumously inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. Langford’s biography, “Sam Langford: Boxing’s Greatest Uncrowned Champion,” was published in 2008.

 

• March 4, 1897 William McKinley “Willie” Covan, tap-dancer, choreographer, and dance coach, was born in Savannah, Georgia, but raised in Chicago, Illinois. Covan began dancing in vaudeville at the age of 9 and at 16 won a Chicago dance contest that attracted entrants from throughout the Midwest. In his day, Covan was as well known as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, but he hung up his tap shoes and went to Hollywood, California. There, he opened a dance studio and became MGM Studio’s resident choreographer and dance coach for stars that included Ann Miller, Judy Garland, and Mickey Rooney. Covan died May 7, 1989.

 

• March 4, 1908 Theodore Roosevelt Mason Howard, surgeon, entrepreneur and civil rights leader, was born in Murray, Kentucky. Howard earned his Bachelor of Science degree in 1931 from Union College and his Doctor of Medicine degree in 1936 from the College of Medical Evangelists. In 1942, Howard became the first chief surgeon at the hospital of the International Order of Twelve Knights and Daughters of Tabor in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. While there, he founded an insurance company, restaurant, hospital, home construction firm, and a large farm. He also built a zoo, a park, and the first swimming pool for blacks in Mississippi. In 1951, Howard founded the Regional Council of Negro Leadership which mounted a successful boycott of service stations that denied restrooms to blacks. Howard moved into the national spotlight after the murder of Emmitt Till when he became heavily involved in the search for evidence and made his home the command center for witnesses and journalist. In late 1955, Howard was forced to move to Chicago, Illinois due to death threats and economic pressure. There, he founded the Howard Medical Center and served for one year as president of the National Medical Association. In 1971, Operation Push was founded in Howard’s home and he chaired the organization’s finance committee. In 1972, Howard founded Friendship Medical Center, the largest privately-owned black clinic in Chicago. Howard died May 1, 1976. His biography, “Black Maverick: T.R.M. Howard’s Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power,” was published in 2009.

 

• March 4, 1922 Egbert Austin “Bert” Williams, the pre-eminent black entertainer of his era, died. Williams was born November 12, 1875 in Nassau, Bahamas. He moved to San Francisco, California to study civil engineering, but instead joined a minstrel show. In 1893, he formed the team of Williams and Walker with his partner George Walker and they performed song and dance numbers, comic dialogues, and skits. In 1896, they headlined the Koster and Bial’s vaudeville house for 36 weeks and popularized the cakewalk dance. Williams and Walker appeared in a succession of hit shows, including “Sons of Ham” (1900), “In Dahomey” (1902), which in 1903 became the first black musical to open on Broadway, and “Abyssinia” (1906). Williams composed and recorded many songs, including “Nobody” which sold between 100,000 and 150,000 copies, a phenomenal total for the era. In 1909, Walker was forced to leave their partnership due to ill health and in 1910 Williams joined the Ziegfeld Follies as the featured performer amid an otherwise all-white show. By 1920, when 10,000 sales was considered a successful release, Williams had four songs that shipped between 180,000 and 250,000 copies and he was one of the three most highly paid recording artists in the world. On November 18, 1944, the U.S. liberty ship SS Bert Williams was launched in his honor and in 1996 he was posthumously inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame. The many books about Williams include “Nobody: The Story of Bert Williams” (1970), “The Last Darky: Bert Williams, Black-on-Black Minstrelsy, and the African Diaspora” (2005), and “Introducing Bert Williams: Burnt Cork, Broadway, and the Story of America’s First Black Star” (2008). Williams’ name is enshrined in the Ring of Genealogy at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan.

 

• March 4, 1932 Zenzile Miriam Makeba, singer and civil rights activist, was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. Makeba began her professional singing career in the 1950s with the Manhattan Brothers before she formed her own group, The Skylarks, singing a blend of jazz and traditional South African melodies. In 1959, Makeba appeared in an anti-apartheid documentary “Come Back, Africa” and in 1960 her South African passport was revoked by the government. After testifying against apartheid in 1963 before the United Nations, her South African citizenship and right to return to the country were revoked. In 1966, Makeba and Harry Belafonte received the Grammy Award for Best Folk Recording for “An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba” which dealt with the political plight of black South Africans under apartheid. Other albums by Makeba include “The Magic of Makeba” (1965), “Eyes on Tomorrow” (1991), and “Reflecting” (2004). In 1987, Makeba published her autobiography “Makeba: My Story” and in 1992 she starred in the movie “Sarafina!” In 1986, Makeba won the Dag Hammarskjold Peace Prize and in 2001 she was awarded the Gold Otto Hahn Peace Medal “for outstanding service to peace and international understanding.” Makeba died November 10, 2008.

 

• March 4, 1932 Andrew Jackson Smith, Medal of Honor recipient, died. Smith was born enslaved on September 3, 1843 in Kentucky. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Smith’s owner joined the Confederate military with the intention of taking Smith with him. When Smith learned of his intentions, he escaped and joined the Union Army. By November 30, 1864, Smith was serving as a corporal in the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. On that day, he participated in the Battle of Honey Hill in South Carolina and his actions during the battle earned him the medal, America’s highest military decoration. His citation partially reads, “Forced into a narrow gorge crossing a swamp in the face of the enemy position, the 55th’s Color-Sergeant was killed by an exploding shell, and Corporal Smith took the Regimental Colors from his hand and carried them through heavy grape and canister fire. Although half of the officers and a third of the enlisted men engaged in the fight were killed or wounded, Corporal Smith continued to expose himself to enemy fire by carrying the colors throughout the battle. Through his actions, the Regimental Colors of the 55th Infantry Regiment were not lost to the enemy.” Smith was promoted to color sergeant before leaving the army. Smith was initially nominated for the medal in 1916, but was denied. It was not until January 16, 2001 that President William Clinton presented the medal to Smith’s descendants at a White House ceremony.

 

• March 4, 1944 Robert Dwayne “Bobby” Womack, singer, songwriter, and musician, was born in Cleveland, Ohio. As a youngster, Womack and his four brothers formed a gospel group called the Womack Brothers and began touring the gospel circuit. In 1962, they were renamed the Valentinos and began to sing secular music. They had hits with “Looking for a Love” (1962) and “It’s All Over Now” (1964), which was written by Womack. Womack’s solo career began in 1968 and he had his first hit in 1971 with “That’s The Way I Feel About Cha.” That was followed by such hits as “A Woman’s Gotta Have It” (1972), “Nobody Wants You When You’re Down And Out” (1973), “If You Think You’re Lonely Now” (1982), and “I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So” (1985). As a songwriter, Womack wrote The Rolling Stones’ first United Kingdom number one hit, “It’s All Over Now” and New Birth’s “I Can Understand It,” among other songs. Womack was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009.

 

• March 4, 1962 Robb Armstrong, syndicated cartoonist and motivational speaker, was born in Wynnefield, Pennsylvania. Armstrong started drawing comics when he was three years old. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in art from Syracuse University in 1985. After graduating, he worked as an art director at a Philadelphia advertising agency while submitting comic strips for syndication. In 1988, his comic strip “Jump Start” first appeared and today it runs in more than 250 newspapers. In 1995, the strip won a Wilbur Award, for “excellence in the communication of religious issues, values, and themes.” Armstrong is also a motivational speaker, speaking to about 2,000 young people a month.

 

• March 4, 1967 Charles Wilber “Bullet” Rogan, Negro League hall of fame pitcher and outfielder, died. Rogan was born July 28, 1893 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He lied about his age to enlist in the United States Army in 1911. He was honorably discharged in 1914, but re-enlisted to play for the all-black army baseball team. He began his professional career in 1920 with the Kansas City Monarchs and played until 1938. Over that period he won more games than any other pitcher in Negro league history and compiled the fourth highest career batting average. Casey Stengel of the New York Yankees called him “one of the best, if not the best, pitcher that ever lived.” After retiring as a player, Rogan became an umpire in the Negro American League until 1946 and then worked for the United States Postal Service. Rogan was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998.

 

• March 4, 1982 Otis Frank Boykin, inventor, died. Boykin was born August 29, 1920 in Dallas, Texas. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Fisk College in 1941. He pursued graduate studies at the Illinois Institute of Technology, but had to drop out after two years because he was unable to afford tuition. Boykin took a special interest in working with resistors and began researching and inventing on his own. On June 16, 1959, he received patent number 2,891,227 for a wire precision resistor that would be used in radios and televisions. On February 21, 1961, he received patent number 2,972,726 for an improved electrical resistor which could be made more quickly and more cheaply and could withstand extreme changes in temperature and tolerate and withstand various levels of pressure and physical trauma without impairing its effectiveness. This device is used in electrical devices, including guided missiles, computers, and a control unit for artificial heart stimulators. Boykin created other important products, including a chemical air filter and a burglarproof cash register. In total, Boykin invented 28 different electronic devices and earned eleven patents.

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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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