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Today in Black History, 3/7/2012

• March 7, 1917 Janet Faye Collins, ballet dancer, choreographer, and educator, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. In 1932, Collins successfully auditioned for the prestigious Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, but refused the role because it required her to paint her face and skin white in order to perform. In 1951, Collins won the Donaldson Award for best dancer on Broadway for work in “Out of This World” and that same year she became the first African American prima ballerina of the Metropolitan Opera. Collins remained with the Met until 1954. She also taught at several colleges and dance institutions from 1950 to her retirement in the mid-1970s. Collins died May 28, 2003 and in recognition of her work and dedication, the Janet Collins Fellowship was established to assist aspiring ballet dancers. Her biography, “Night’s Dancer: The Life of Janet Collins,” was published in 2011.

 

• March 7, 1927 The United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Nixon v. Herndon that a Texas law prohibiting blacks from voting in the Texas Democratic Party primary violated the 14th Amendment. The Texas legislature quickly enacted a new provision to continue restrictions on black voter participation, granting authority to political parties to determine who should vote in their primaries. Within four months, the Democratic Party passed a resolution that “all White Democrats …….and none other” be allowed to participate. On May 2, 1932 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled five to four in Nixon v. Condon to overturn that provision.

 

• March 7, 1950 Franco Harris, hall of fame football player and businessman, was born in Fort Dix, New Jersey. Harris played college football for Pennsylvania State University and was selected in the 1972 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers. During his 13 season NFL career, Harris was a nine-time Pro Bowl selection, four-time Super Bowl champion, and in 1976 won the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award which annually honors a player’s volunteer and charity work, as well as his excellence on the field. Harris retired after the 1984 season and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990. Since retiring Harris has been involved in a number of business ventures, including the 1996 acquisition of Parks Sausage Company, the first black-owned business in the United States to offer public stock.

 

• March 7, 1952 Lynn Curtis Swann, hall of fame football player, sportscaster and politician, was born in Alcoa, Tennessee. Swann played college football for the University of Southern California where he was an All-American and earned his Bachelor of Arts Degree in public relations in 1974. He was selected in the 1974 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers and over his nine-season NFL career was a three-time Pro Bowl selection and four-time Super Bowl champion. Swann was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1991 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001. In 1996, Swann was named the Walter Camp Man of the Year which annually honors an individual who has been closely associated with football as a player or coach. The individual must have attained a measure of success and been a leader in their chosen profession. After retiring from football, Swann was a sports broadcaster for ABC Sports from 1983 to 2006. He also served as chairman of the United States President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports from 2002 to 2005. In 2006, he unsuccessfully ran for Governor of Pennsylvania.

 

• March 7, 1964 Denyce Graves, mezzo-soprano opera singer, was born in Washington, D.C. Graves graduated from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, studied voice at the Oberlin Conservatory, and earned her Bachelor of Music degree from the New England Conservatory in 1988. She made her debut in a lead role in the 1989 production of “Hansel and Gretel.” Graves made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1995. In 2001, Graves sang at the Washington National Cathedral during a memorial service for the victims of 9/11. In 2005, she sang at the inauguration of President George W. Bush for his second term and in 2009 she performed a tribute concert to Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial. In 2003, Graves performed on a television special, “Denyce Graves: Breaking the Rules.” Graves was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Oberlin College Conservatory in 1998. Since 2005, she has hosted the radio show “Voce di Donna” (Voice of a Lady) on the classical music channel of XM Satellite Radio. Graves continues to perform periodically at special events.

 

• March 7, 1965 The first Selma to Montgomery march, led by John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Reverend Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), with approximately 600 marchers was attacked by state and local police with billy clubs and tear gas at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The televised images of the “Bloody Sunday” attack galvanized support for the Civil Rights Movement and on March 24 approximately 8,000 marchers successfully completed the 54 mile march to Montgomery, protected by 2,000 soldiers of the United States Army and 1,900 members of the Alabama National Guard under federal command. In 1996, the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights Trail, a U.S. National Historic Trail, was created by Congress as an original route of national significance in American history.

 

• March 7, 1969 Clarence Eugene Sasser received the Medal of Honor, America’s highest military decoration, from President Richard M. Nixon. Sasser was born September 12, 1947 in Chenanago, Texas. He was drafted into the United States Army in 1967 and by January 10, 1968 was serving as a private first class combat medic in Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 60th Infantry, 9th Infantry Division during the Vietnam War. His actions that date earned him the medal. His citation partially reads, “His company was making an air assault when suddenly it was taken under heavy small arms, recoilless rifle, machine gun and rocket fire from well fortified enemy positions on three sides of the landing zone. During the first few minutes, over 30 casualties were sustained. Without hesitation, Sp5c. Sasser ran across an open rice paddy through a hail of fire to assist the wounded. After helping one man to safety, was painfully wounded in the left shoulder by fragments of an exploding rocket. Refusing medical attention, he ran through a barrage of rocket and automatic weapons fire to aid casualties of the initial attack and, after giving them urgently needed treatment, continued to search for other wounded. Despite two additional wounds immobilizing his legs, he dragged himself through the mud toward another soldier 100 meters away. Although in agonizing pain and faint from loss of blood, Spc5. Sasser reached the man, treated him, and proceeded on to encourage another group of soldiers to crawl 200 meters to relative safety. There he attended their wounds for five hours until they were evacuated.” After leaving the army, Sasser returned to college as a chemistry student. He then worked for an oil refinery for more than five years before being employed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. A statue depicting Sasser in Vietnam was unveiled in 2010 in front of the Brazoria County, Texas courthouse.

 

• March 7, 1985 The recording “We Are the World” was released and became the fastest selling American pop single in history. It topped music charts around the world and earned four Grammy Awards, including Record of the Year and Song of the Year. More than 20 million units have been sold and it has raised more than $63 million for humanitarian aid for Africa. The idea for the creation of a song to benefit African famine relief came from Harry Belafonte and was co-written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie. It was co-produced by Quincy Jones and performed by USA for Africa, a group of 47 predominantly American artists.

 

• March 7, 1991 James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell, hall of fame Negro League baseball player, died. Bell was born James Thomas Nichols on May 17, 1903 in Starkville, Mississippi. He joined the Negro league 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 was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974. In his honor, St. Louis renamed Dickerson Street, James Cool Papa Bell Avenue and 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.

 

• March 7, 2002 Charles Howard Wright, physician, author, and museum founder, died. Wright was born September 20, 1918 in Dothan, Alabama. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree from Alabama State College in 1939 and his Doctor of Medicine degree from Meharry Medical College in 1943. Wright served two residencies in pathology prior to practicing general medicine in Detroit, Michigan from 1946 to 1950. He completed his residency in obstetrics and gynecology in 1953 and was certified as a general surgeon and OB/GYN specialist in 1955. Wright served as a physician at Hutzel Hospital from 1955 to his retirement in 1986 and during that time delivered more than 7,000 babies. He also served as assistant clinical professor of OB/GYN at Wayne State University Medical School from 1969 to 1983. In 1960, Wright led the African Medical Education Fund to raise funds to train African medical students in America. He also served as a physician during the civil rights marches of the mid-1960s. In 1965, Wright founded an African American museum which is now named the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in his honor. The Charles H. Wright Academy in Detroit is also named in his honor. Wright was the author of “Robeson: Labour’s Forgotten Champion” (1975) and “Medical Association Demands Equal Opportunity” (1995).

 

• March 7, 2004 Paul Edward Winfield, television, film and stage actor, died. Winfield was born May 22, 1939 in Los Angeles, California. Six credits short of a bachelor’s degree, Winfield left UCLA to appear in the stage productions of “The Dutchman” and “The Toilet.” Beginning in 1968, he appeared for several years on the television series “Julia.” His first major role on film was in 1969’s “The Lost Man.” In 1973, Winfield was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the 1972 film “Sounder.” In 1978, he was nominated for the Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Special for his portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the miniseries “King” and in 1979 he was again nominated for that Emmy Award for his role in “Roots: The Next Generations.” He won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series in 1995 for an appearance in the drama “Picket Fences.” Other films in which Winfield appeared include “Huckleberry Finn” (1974) and “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982).

 

• March 7, 2006 Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks, photographer, musician, poet, film director, and activist, died. Parks was born November 30, 1912 in Fort Scott, Kansas. He bought his first camera at the age of 25 and began to work as a freelance portrait and fashion photographer. In 1941, an exhibition of his photographs of Chicago’s South Side won him a fellowship with the Farm Security Administration. After the FSA disbanded, Parks photographed fashion for Vogue Magazine and in 1948 became the first African American to work at Life Magazine where over the next 20 years he produced photos on fashion, sports, poverty, racial segregation, and celebrities. A self-taught pianist, Parks composed “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra” (1953) and “Tree Symphony” (1967). In 1989, he composed and choreographed “Martin,” a ballet dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1963, Parks wrote “The Learning Tree” which in 1969 he adapted into a film of the same title, making him Hollywood’s first major black film director. He subsequently directed “Shaft” (1971), “Shaft’s Big Score” (1972), and “Leadbelly” (1976). In 1997, the Corcoran Gallery of Art mounted a career retrospective on Parks, “Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks,” which has been exhibited at a number of museums, including the Norton Museum of Art, the Oakland Museum of California, and the Detroit Institute of Art. In 1972, Parks was awarded the NAACP Spingarn Medal and in 1988 he received the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor bestowed on an individual artist by the United States, from President Ronald Reagan. In 2008, an alternative learning center in Saint Paul, Minnesota was renamed Gordon Parks High School. A number of books have been published about Parks, including “Gordon Parks: Black Photographer and Film Maker” (1972), “Gordon Parks: Photographer, Writer, Composer, Film Maker” (1993), and “Gordon Parks: No Excuses” (2006).

 

• March 7, 2006 Ali Ibrahim “Farka” Toure, guitarist, singer, and one of Africa’s most internationally renowned musicians, died. Toure was born October 31, 1939 in Timbuktu, Mali. He was the first African bluesman to achieve widespread popularity in Africa and was often called “the African John Lee Hooker.” He appeared in the 2003 documentary “Feel Like Going Home” which traced the roots of the blues back to its genesis in West Africa. Toure won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional World Music Album in 1994 for “Talking Timbuktu” and in 2005 for “In the Heart of the Moon.” In 2004, Toure became mayor of the 53 villages of the Niafunke region of Mali and used his own money to grade the roads, put in sewer canals, and provide the fuel for the generator that provided electricity. In Mali, he was considered a national hero and when he died the government radio stations suspended regular programming to play his music. His last album, “Savane,” was released posthumously and was chosen Album of the Year in 2006 by a panel of experts from the World Music Chart Europe.

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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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