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Today in Black History, 5/27/2013

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• May 27, 1935 Ramsey Emmanuel Lewis, Jr., jazz composer, pianist, and radio personality, was born in Chicago, Illinois. Lewis began taking piano lessons at the age of four and at 15 joined his first jazz band. In 1956, he released his first album, “Ramsey Lewis and The Gentlemen of Swing,” and after releasing such hits as “The In Crowd” (1965), which won the Grammy Award for Best Small Group Jazz Recording, “Hang on Sloopy” (1966), and “Wade in the Water” (1966), Lewis was recognized as one of the most successful jazz pianist. Lewis has recorded over 80 albums, received five gold records, and won two additional Grammy Awards. His most recent album was “Taking Another Look” (2011). From 1990 to 2009, he hosted a weekly syndicated radio program, “Legends of Jazz,” and in 2006 he hosted a television series of the same name. In 2005, the Ramsey Lewis Foundation was established to help connect at-risk children to the world of music. In 2007, Lewis was designated a NEA Jazz Master, the highest honor that the nation bestows on a jazz artist, by the National Endowment for the Arts. He received an honorary doctorate degree from Loyola University Chicago in 2008. Lewis serves on the board of the Merit School of Music, a Chicago inner-city music program, and the Chicago High School for the Arts.

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Today in Black History, 5/26/2013

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• May 26, 1883 Mamie Robinson Smith, vaudeville singer, dancer, pianist, and actress, was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. As a teenager, Smith danced in Salem Tutt Whitney’s Smart Set and in 1920 she recorded a set of songs, including “Crazy Blues” and “It’s Right Here For You (If You Don’t Get It, T’ain’t No Fault of Mine).” These were the first recordings of vocal blues by an African American singer and sold over a million copies in one year. “Crazy Blues” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1994 as a recording of “qualitative or historical significance” and selected to be part of the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress in 2005 as a recording of “cultural, historical, or aesthetical importance.” Smith continued to record throughout the 1920s and toured the United States and Europe. She appeared in a number of motion pictures, including “Jail House Blues” (1929), “Paradise in Harlem” (1939), and “Murder on Lennox Avenue” (1941). Smith died September 16, 1946.

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Today in Black History, 5/25/2013

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• May 25, 1849 Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins, autistic savant and piano music prodigy, was born enslaved and blind in Harris County, Georgia. By the age of four, Wiggins had acquired piano skills based solely on hearing and at the age of five composed his first tune, “The Rain Storm.” At the age of eight, Wiggins was licensed to a traveling show and marketed as a “Barnum style freak.” In 1860, Wiggins performed at the White House for President James Buchanan and in 1866 was taken on a European concert tour. It was said that his memory was prodigious and he never forgot anything, he was often called “a human parrot.” During the latter part of the 19th century, he was one of the most well known American pianists. Despite his fame, Wiggins was exploited, deceived, and robbed of the money he earned by his white guardians. Wiggins died June 14, 1908. His biography, “The Ballad of Blind Tom, Slave Pianist” was published in 2009.

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Today in Black History, 5/24/2013

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• May 24, 1911 John Ward, Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, died. Ward was born in 1847 in Arkansas. He was a Black Seminole and served as a sergeant in the 24th United States Army Infantry during the Indian Wars. On April 25, 1875, he and three other men “participated in a charge against 25 hostiles while on a scouting patrol” by the Pecos River in Texas. Not much else is known of Ward’s life.

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Today in Black History, 5/23/2013

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• May 23, 1832 Samuel Sharpe, national hero of Jamaica, was hanged for leading the Christmas Rebellion. Sharpe was born enslaved in 1801 in St. James, Jamaica. Although enslaved, Sharpe was allowed to be educated and became a preacher and leader in the enslaved community. On December 25, 1831, he organized a peaceful strike of several estates in western Jamaica during sugar cane harvest time. As a result of reprisals by the plantation owners, the strikers burned the crops. This caused the peaceful protest to turn into Jamaica’s largest slave rebellion, resulting in hundreds of black and 14 white deaths. The Jamaican military ended the rebellion within two weeks and many of the leaders, including Sharpe were hanged. Just before he was hanged, Sharpe stated “I would rather die among yonder gallows, than live in slavery.” In 1975, the government of Jamaica proclaimed Sharpe a National Hero and Sam Sharpe Teachers’ College was founded. Sam Sharpe Square is located in downtown Montego Bay, Jamaica. Sharpe’s image is also on the Jamaican $50 bill.

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Today in Black History, 5/22/2013

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• May 22, 1914 Sun Ra, hall of fame jazz pianist, composer, bandleader, and poet, was born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Alabama. Sun Ra was a skilled pianist as a child and by the age of 12 was writing original music. As a teenager, he would see big band performances and produce full transcriptions of the music from memory. By his mid-teens, he was performing professionally as a solo pianist or as a member of various jazz and R&B groups. In 1934, Sun Ra took over leadership of a group and renamed it the Sonny Blount Orchestra. From the mid-1950s to his death May 30, 1993, Sun Ra led The Arkestra. He was one of the first jazz leaders to use two basses and electronic instruments. In 1982, he was designated a NEA Jazz Master, the highest honor the nation bestows on a jazz artist, by the National Endowment for the Arts and in 1984 he was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame. Sun Ra’s poetry and prose is available in “Sun Ra, The Immeasurable Equation,” published in 2005. His biography, “Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra,” was published in 1998.

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Today in Black History, 5/21/2013

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• May 21, 1879 John Jones, businessman and civil rights activist, died. Jones was born November 3, 1816 in Greene County, North Carolina. He was trained as a tailor and in 1845 moved to Chicago, Illinois and opened a tailoring shop. His business thrived and he invested in real estate. By 1860, Jones was one of the wealthiest African Americans in the nation. Jones was an outspoken civil rights activist and a leader in the fight to repeal Illinois’ black laws. In 1864, he published a pamphlet, “The Black Laws of Illinois and Why They Should Be Repealed.” Jones also served as a vice president of the Colored National Convention and president of the first Black Illinois State Convention. In 1871, Jones was elected the first black Cook County Commissioner. He was re-elected to a three-year term in 1872.

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Today in Black History, 5/20/2013

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• May 20, 1743 Francois-Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture, Haitian patriot and revolutionary leader, was born enslaved in Saint-Domingue, Hispaniola (now Haiti). At an early age, Toussaint’s master recognized his superior intelligence and taught him French, gave him duties which allowed him to educate himself, and freed him at age 33. Beginning in 1791, Toussaint led enslaved black people in a long struggle for independence from French colonizers, to abolish slavery, and secure native control over the colony. By 1796, Toussaint was the dominant figure in Haiti and tried to rebuild the collapsed economy and reestablish commercial contacts with the United States and Britain. However, in 1802 he was kidnapped by the French and died in a French prison April 7, 1803. Toussaint figures importantly in the early 19th century writings of several authors as a symbol and exemplar of resistance to slavery and as an example of the potential of the black race. He also inspired a number of 20th century works, including Leslie Pinckey Hill’s “Toussaint L’Ouverture: A Dramatic History” (1928), Arna Bontemps’ “Drums at Dusk” (1939), and Aime Cesaire’s “Toussaint Louverture” (1960). Toussaint’s name is enshrined in the Ring of Genealogy at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan.

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Today in Black History, 5/19/2013

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• May 19, 1885 John Percial Parker received patent number 318,285 for a Portable Screw Press, popularly known as the Parker Pulverizer. Parker was born in 1827 in Norfolk, Virginia. At the age of eight, he was sold into slavery. By 1845, he had earned enough money to buy his freedom for $1,800. As a free man, he became involved in abolitionist activities and aided in the freeing of over a thousand enslaved people. During the Civil War, Parker served as a recruiter for the Union Army and supplied castings for the war effort. In 1854, Parker established the Ripley Foundry and Machine Company and on September 2, 1884 received patent number 304,552 for the Follower-Screw for Tobacco Presses. Parker’s foundry employed more than 25 workers and remained in operation until 1918, well after his death February 4, 1900. His home in Ripley, Ohio was designated a National Historic Landmark February 18, 1997. Parker’s autobiography, “His Promised Land: The Autobiography of John Parker, Former Slave and Conductor on the Underground Railroad,” was published in 1996.

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Today in Black History, 5/18/2013

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• May 18, 1848 William Alexander Leidesdorff, one of the earliest black settlers in California and often called the first black millionaire, died. Leidesdorff was born October 23, 1810 in St. Croix, Virgin Islands. He left St. Croix when he was 15 for schooling in Denmark and after that went to New Orleans, Louisiana where he worked as a ship captain from 1834 to 1840. In 1841, he moved to California where he launched the first steamboat to operate on San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento River. He also built the first hotel and the first shipping warehouse. In 1844, Leidesdorff became a naturalized Mexican citizen and received a land grant of 35,521 acres. He went on to establish extensive commercial relations throughout Hawaii, Alaska, and Mexican California. When the United States took over California, Leidesdorff was one of three members on the first San Francisco school board and was later elected city treasurer. He also donated the land for the first public school. In 1845, President James Polk hired him as the United States Vice Consul to Mexico. When Leidesdorff died, he was one of the wealthiest men in California and on the day of his burial, flags were flown at half-mast, business was suspended, and the schools were closed. When his estate was auctioned in 1856, it was valued at more than $1,445,000. Leidesdorff streets in San Francisco and Folsom, California are named in his honor. His biography, “William Alexander Leidesdorff: First Black Millionaire, American Consul and California Pioneer,” was published in 2005.

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Today in Black History, 5/17/2013

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• May 17, 1864 John William “Blind” Boone, pianist and ragtime music composer, was born near Miami, Missouri. When he was six months old, doctors removed his eyes in an attempt to cure his brain fever. Boone’s musical talents were recognized early and in 1872 he was sent to the St. Louis School for the Blind to study piano. In 1880, his professional career was launched after he played in a concert with the famous pianist, Blind Tom. After that, Boone played thousands of concerts in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. During his lifetime, Boone was a committed philanthropist who supported local causes and opened his home to the community. He donated generously to several churches and gave his time and talent to local youth. Boone died October 4, 1927. His home in Columbia, Missouri was listed on the National Register of Historic Places September 4, 1980. The John William Boone Heritage Foundation was founded to preserve the history of Blind Boone and Blind Boone Park in Warrensburg, Missouri is named in his honor. His biography, “Blind Boone: Missouri’s Ragtime Pioneer,” was published in 1998.

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Today in Black History, 5/16/2013

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• May 16, 1840 James Milton Turner, politician and Consul to Liberia, was born enslaved in St. Louis, Missouri. Turner and his parents were freed when he was young, but he still had limited educational opportunities because Missouri laws restricted black people from learning to read. Despite the legal obstacles, Turner learned to read and briefly attended Oberlin College. After the Civil War, he became a prominent politician known for his speaking ability. He worked for the Missouri Department of Education, establishing over 30 new schools in the state for African Americans and providing support for Lincoln Institute (now Lincoln University). In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Turner United States Minister to Liberia, the first African American to hold that position. After returning from Liberia in 1878, Turner organized the Colored Emigration Aid Association to provide assistance to black people migrating from the South. Turner died November 1, 1915. His biography, “James Milton Turner and the Promise of America: The Public Life of a Post-Civil War Leader,” was published in 1991.

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Today in Black History, 5/15/2013

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• May 15, 1868 George Henry Wanton, Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, was born in Paterson, New Jersey. By June 30, 1898, he was serving as a private in the 10th Calvary Regiment (Buffalo Soldiers) in the Spanish – American War. On that day, American forces aboard the USS Florida near Tayacoba, Cuba dispatched a small landing party to provide reconnaissance on Spanish outposts in the area. The party was discovered and came under heavy fire. Their boats were sunk, leaving them stranded on shore. After four failed attempts, Wanton and three other members of the 10th Calvary successfully found and rescued the surviving members of the landing party. In recognition of his actions, on June 23, 1899 Wanton was awarded the medal, America’s highest military decoration. Wanton continued to serve in the military and reached the rank of master sergeant and served in the Quartermaster Corps before retiring. Wanton died November 27, 1940 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

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Today in Black History, 5/14/2013

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• May 14, 1890 Rosa Jinsey Young, “the mother of Black Lutheranism in Alabama,” was born in Rosebud, Alabama. Young earned her bachelor’s degree from Payne University, and was the valedictorian of her class, in 1909. After receiving her teaching certificate, she taught at various schools for African Americans across Alabama. In 1912, Young established the Rosebud Literary and Industrial School. However, by 1915 the school was on the brink of closure due to financial problems. The Lutheran Church provided financial support to keep the school open and added Lutheran based instruction to the school’s curriculum. Young went on to help found five other Lutheran based schools across Alabama, including Alabama Lutheran Academy and College (now Concordia College) which was founded in 1922 and where she served on the faculty from 1946 to 1961. In 1930, Young published her autobiography, “Light in the Dark Belt,” and in 1961 received an honorary doctorate from Concordia Theological Seminary for her dedicated service. Young died June 30, 1971.

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Today in Black History, 5/13/2013

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• May 13, 1862 Robert Smalls, an enslaved African American serving as a helmsman on a Confederate military transport during the Civil War, and other black crewmen took over the ship and handed it over to the Union Navy. Smalls was born April 5, 1839 in Beaufort, South Carolina. His actions on the ship made him famous in the North and Congress passed a bill rewarding Smalls and his crewmen prize money for the captured ship. Smalls returned to Beaufort and purchased the estate of his former master. Smalls served as a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives from 1865 to 1870, the South Carolina Senate from 1871 to 1874, and the United States House of Representatives from 1875 to 1879 and 1882 to 1883. Smalls also served as the U.S. Collector of Customs from 1889 to 1911. Smalls died February 23, 1915.

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Today in Black History, 5/12/2013

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• May 12, 1906 William “Gorilla” Jones, hall of fame boxer, was born in Memphis, Tennessee. Jones started boxing professionally in 1923 and won the World Middleweight Boxing Championship in 1925. He retired in 1940 with a record of 101 wins, 24 losses, and 13 draws. After retiring, he served as a chauffeur and bodyguard for the movie star Mae West and from the late 1940s to the 1970s trained other boxers. Jones died January 4, 1982 and was posthumously inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2009.

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Today in Black History, 5/11/2013

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• May 11, 1895 William Grant Still, “the dean” of African American classical composers, was born in Woodville, Mississippi, but raised in Little Rock, Arkansas. Still started taking violin lessons at the age of 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 “Shuffle Along”. In 1934, Still was the recipient of the first Guggenheim Fellowship. On July 23, 1936, he conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, becoming 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 reason why. Still eventually moved to Los Angeles, California where he arranged music for films, including “Pennies from Heaven” (1936) and “Lost Horizon” (1937). Still 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. Still died December 3, 1978. 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 Our Lifetime”, was published in 1984.

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Today in Black History, 5/10/2013

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• May 10, 1815 Henry Walton Bibb, author and abolitionist, was born enslaved in Shelby County, Kentucky. In 1837, Bibb escaped to Cincinnati, Ohio, but was recaptured when he returned to free his wife. In 1842, he escaped to Detroit, Michigan. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required Northerners to cooperate in the capture of previously enslaved people, Bibb moved to Windsor, Canada. In 1851, he established the first black newspaper in Canada, “The Voice of the Fugitive.” The paper promoted the abolitionist movement and provided information to parties on the Underground Railroad. Bibb and his wife also helped establish the Refugee Home Society which created settlements and assisted previously enslaved black people who escaped to Canada. Bibb published his autobiography, “Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave,” in 1848. Bibb died in 1854.

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Today in Black History, 5/9/2013

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• May 9, 1919 James Reese Europe, ragtime and jazz bandleader, arranger, and composer, died. Europe was born February 22, 1881 in Mobile, Alabama and moved to New York City in 1904. In 1910, Europe organized the Clef Club, a society for African Americans in the music industry. In 1912, they made history as the first band to play proto-jazz at Carnegie Hall when they played a concert for the benefit of the Colored Music Settlement School. The band played music written solely by black composers. In 1913 and 1914, Europe made a series of recordings that are some of the best examples of the pre-jazz ragtime style of the 1910s. During World War I, Europe saw combat as a lieutenant with the Harlem Hellfighters and went on to direct the regimental band to great acclaim. After his return to the United States in 1919, he stated “I have come from France more firmly convinced than ever that Negros should write Negro music. We have our own racial feelings and if we try to copy Whites we will make bad copies.” At the time of his death, Europe was the best known African American bandleader in the U.S. and was granted the first ever public funeral for an African American in New York City. His biography, “A Lifetime in Ragtime: A Biography of James Reese Europe,” was published in 1995.

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Today in Black History, 5/8/2013

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• May 8, 1753 Phillis Wheatley, the first African American woman to have her work published, was born in Senegal, West Africa. Wheatley was enslaved at the age of seven. She was tutored by her owners and learned to read and write. In 1773, her book “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” was published in London, England and immediately brought her fame. As a result of her fame, she was emancipated by her owners and went on to publish other poems. Wheatley died December 5, 1784. Today there is a building named in her honor at the University of Massachusetts and a statue of her is one of three included in the Boston Women’s Memorial unveiled October 25, 2003. Her biography, “Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley, a Native African and Slave,” was published in 1834. In 2012, Robert Morris University named their School of Communications and Information Systems building in her honor. Wheatley’s name is enshrined in the Ring of Genealogy at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan.

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