Today in Black History, 12/3/2014 - The Charles H. Wright Museum Blog

Today in Black History, 12/3/2014

• December 3, 1866 John Sweat Rock, teacher, doctor, dentist, lawyer and abolitionist, died. Rock was born October 13, 1825 in Salem, New Jersey. He taught school in New Jersey from 1844 to 1848 and while teaching, studied medicine. He opened a dental practice in 1850 and graduated from American Medical College in 1852. He received a silver medal in 1851 for the creation of an improved variety of artificial teeth. Rock was a passionate abolitionist and civil rights leader and was known as one of the most brilliant speakers in the anti-slavery movement. In 1860, he gave up his dental and medical practices and began to study law. He gained admittance to the Massachusetts Bar in 1861 and became the first Black person admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court of the United States in 1865. In 1863, Rock helped assemble the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the first officially recognized African American unit in the Union Army during the Civil War.

• December 3, 1900 William Howard Day, editor, educator and minister, died. Day was born October 16, 1825 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. As a young man, he apprenticed as a printer. He earned his bachelor’s degree, the only Black student in a class of 50, in 1847 and his Master of Arts degree in 1859 from Oberlin College. Day moved to Cleveland, Ohio in 1847 where he edited the Cleveland True Democrat from 1851 to 1853 and published the Aliened American, Cleveland’s first Black newspaper, from 1853 to 1854. He also taught Latin, Greek, Mathematics, and rhetoric. Day worked to repeal Ohio’s Black laws, chaired the National Convention of Freemen, and helped to organize the Negro Suffrage Society. In 1856, he moved to Buxton, Canada to teach previously enslaved Black people. Day visited England in 1859 where he preached and raised over $35,000 for schools and churches serving Black people in Canada. After returning to the United States, he served as inspector-general of Freedmen’s Bureau schools for four years. In 1878, Day was elected to the Harrisburg school board where he served for six terms, including two years as president. He was ordained a minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1866 and earned his Doctor of Divinity degree from Livingstone College in 1887. The William Howard Day Cemetery in Steelton, Pennsylvania and William Howard Day Homes in Harrisburg are named in his honor.

• December 3, 1911 Helen Gray Edmonds, educator and author, was born in Lawrenceville, Virginia. Edmonds earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in history from Morgan State University in 1933 and her Master of Arts degree in 1938 and Ph.D. in 1946 from Ohio State University. She was the first African American woman to receive a Ph.D. in history from Ohio State. She joined the faculty of North Carolina Central University in 1940 where she worked until her retirement in 1971. She also served as chair of the history department and dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science. Author of two books and numerous scholarly articles, Edmonds was the first recipient of the Candice Award from the Coalition of 100 Black Women and won the Oliver Max Gardner Award in 1975 from the University of North Carolina for the “greatest contribution to the human race.” Edmonds also served as special emissary in Liberia and as an alternate delegate to the United Nations during the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. She also served as national president of The Links, Incorporated from 1970 to 1974. North Carolina Central established the Helen G. Edmonds Graduate Colloquium of History in 1977 and renamed the social science and history building in her honor in 1989. Edmonds died May 9, 1995.

• December 3, 1922 Ralph Alexander Gardner, scientist who specialized in the development of hard plastics, was born in Cleveland, Ohio. Gardner earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois School of Chemistry in 1943. He took a research job with the Argonne National Laboratory where he worked on the Manhattan Project which resulted in the development of the atomic bomb. Despite his work on the atomic bomb, Gardner could not find an academic position in his field when he left Argonne in 1947 and as a result worked as a waiter until 1949. That year, he became a research chemist and project leader at Standard Oil Company. He earned his master’s degree in 1952 and his Ph.D. in 1959, both in chemistry from Case Western University. He currently holds emeritus status at Cleveland State University.

• December 3, 1935 Eddie Bernice Johnson, registered nurse and congresswoman, was born in Waco, Texas. Johnson earned her Bachelor of Science degree in nursing in 1987 from Texas Christian University and Master of Public Administration degree in 1976 from Southern Methodist University. She served as the chief psychiatric nurse at the Dallas Veterans Administration Hospital for 16 years. In 1972, Johnson was elected to the Texas House of Representatives, the first Black woman elected to public office from Dallas, where she served until 1977 when she was appointed regional director for the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, the first African American woman to hold that position. She served in that position until 1981. Johnson was elected to the Texas State Senate in 1986 and served there until 1992 when she was elected to the United States House of Representatives. She has been re-elected eleven times. During her time in Congress, Johnson has been credited with authoring or co-authoring more than 150 bills that have been signed into law. She also served as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus from 2001 to 2003. She currently serves on the Committees on Science and Technology and Transportation and Infrastructure.

• December 3, 1941 Mary Alice, hall of fame stage, film and television actress, was born Mary Alice Smith in Indianola, Mississippi but raised in Chicago, Illinois. Alice graduated from Teachers College, Chicago State University and began her professional career as a teacher. She moved to New York City in the mid-1960s and made her Off-Broadway debut in 1967 in “Trials of Jero” and “The Strong Breed.” Alice made her Broadway debut in “No Place to Be Somebody” in 1971 and her film debut in “The Education of Sonny Carson” in 1974. Alice won the 1987 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play for her performance in “Fences” and the 1993 Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for “I’ll Fly Away.” She has appeared in a number of television shows, including “Sanford and Son,” “All My Children,” “A Different World,” and “Law and Order.” Other films in which she has appeared include “Malcolm X” (1992), “The Matrix Revolutions” (2003), and “The Matrix Recalibrated” (2004). Alice was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 2000.

• December 3, 1944 Roderick L. Ireland, the first African American associate justice and chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, was born in Springfield, Massachusetts. Ireland earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1966 from Lincoln University, his Juris Doctor degree in 1969 from Columbia Law School, his Master of Laws degree in 1975 from Harvard Law School, and his Doctor of Philosophy in Law, Policy, and Society in 1998 from Northeastern University. He served as the chief attorney, deputy director, and executive director of the Roxbury Defenders Committee from 1971 to 1974. Ireland served on the Boston Juvenile Court from 1977 to 1990 and the Massachusetts Court of Appeals from 1990 to 1997. He was appointed to the Massachusetts Supreme Court in 1997 and sworn in as chief justice December 20, 2010. Ireland retired from the court in 2014. He has been an adjunct faculty member at the Northeastern University School of Criminology and Criminal Justice since 1978 and on the faculty of the Appellate Judges Seminar at New York University since 2001. He has received a number of honorary Doctor of Laws degrees.

• December 3, 1970 Jennifer Josephine Hosten from St. George’s, Grenada became the first Black person to win the Miss World contest. Hosten was born March 12, 1948. After winning the contest, she earned her Masters of Arts degree in political science and international relations from Carleton University and served as High Commissioner to Canada for Granada from 1978 to 1981. Hosten published “The Effect of a North American Free Trade Agreement on the Commonwealth Caribbean” in 1992. She served as technical adviser on trade to the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States in 1998 and was appointed national director of the Miss Grenada World Contest in 2006. Hosten published her autobiography, “Beyond Miss World,” in 2008. She is presently involved in a project that proposes to create a worldwide television station to give voice to those not commonly heard.

• December 3, 1978 William Grant Still, “the dean” of African American classical composers, died. Still was born May 11, 1895 in Woodville, Mississippi but raised in Little Rock, Arkansas. He started taking violin lessons at 15 and taught himself to play a number of other instruments. Still attended Wilberforce University where he conducted the university band and started to compose. He also studied at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. After serving in the United States Navy during World War I, he worked as an arranger for W. C. Handy and later played in the pit orchestra for the musical “Shuffling Along.” Still was the recipient of the first Guggenheim Fellowship in 1934. On July 23, 1936, he conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, the first African American to conduct a major American orchestra. On March 31, 1949, his opera “Troubled Island” (1939) was performed by the New York City Opera, the first opera by an African American to be performed by a major opera company. Despite selling out the first three nights and receiving 22 curtain calls on opening night, the opera was shut down, never to be staged again. ”Just Tell the Story: Troubled Island” (2006) delves into some of the reasons why. Still eventually moved to Los Angeles, California where he arranged music for films, including “Pennies from Heaven” (1936) and “Lost Horizon” (1937). He received honorary doctorate degrees from a number of institutions, including Oberlin College, Howard University, the New England Conservatory of Music, and the University of Southern California. On June 15, 1981, his opera “A Bayou Legend” became the first opera by an African American to be performed on national television when it premiered on PBS. His biography, “In One Lifetime: A Biography of William Grant Still,” was published in 1984.

• December 3, 2000 Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks, hall of fame poet and novelist, died. Brooks was born June 7, 1917 in Topeka, Kansas but raised in Chicago, Illinois. She published her first poem in a children’s magazine at 13 and by 16 had a portfolio of 75 published poems. Brooks’ first book of poetry, “A Street in Bronzeville,” was published in 1945 and brought her critical acclaim and she was selected one of Mademoiselle Magazine’s Ten Young Women of the Year. She also won her first Guggenheim Fellowship and became a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her second book of poetry, “Annie Allen,” was published in 1949 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the first given to an African American, May 5, 1950. Brooks began teaching creative writing at several institutions in 1962, including Northeastern Illinois University and Columbia University. Her book length poem “In the Mecca” (1968) was nominated for the National Book Award for Poetry. Brooks was appointed Poet Laureate of Illinois in 1968 and was selected the Library of Congress’ Consultant in Poetry (now titled Poet Laureate) in 1985. Brooks was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1988 and was chosen as the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Jefferson Lecturer, the highest honor in the humanities given by the federal government in 1994. She was presented the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor bestowed on an individual artist by the United States, by President William J. Clinton October 5, 1995. Brooks was awarded more than 75 honorary doctorate degrees from colleges and universities worldwide and there are a number of schools in Illinois named in her honor. Brooks’ biography, “A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks,” was published in 1990.

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