W.E.B. DuBois, american civil rights activist, scholar and founding father of NAACP, died on this date, August 27, 1963. Du Bois was born and raised in Massachusetts. Du Bois, pictured, was the first African American to receive a Ph. D. in History from Harvard University. He was the co-founder of the NAACP and was an advocate for African American civil rights and equality. DuBois adamantly spoke in favor of higher education and political office for blacks. DuBois was also a supporter of Pan-Africanism and worked to help African colonies under European rule. Around the time of his death, he had been working on an encyclopedia called “The Encyclopedia Africana,” in Ghana. He was 95.
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Valerie Simpson, singer, composer and producer, was born on this day, August 26, 1946 in the Bronx, New York. Simpson, on the right, rose to fame alongside her husband Nicholas Ashford, left, who she met in New York city in 1963. They wrote for artists such as Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles with hits “Cry Like a Baby” and “Let’s Go Get Stoned.” They later joined Motown Records and wrote “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “You’re All I Need to Get By” and among many other big hits. Ashford & Simpson, as they were known collectively, continued to have hits with Teddy Pendergrass, Chaka Khan, Rufus, Smokey Robinson and others. Together they also had their own albums, four of which were certified gold. Simpson, herself, had three solo albums in the 70s. They were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2002. In 2011, Ashford died of complications due to throat cancer. Simpson has since released a solo album, “Dinosaurs Are Coming Back Again.”
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Althea Gibson, tennis player and the first African American to compete in the U.S. Nationals, was born on this day, August 25, 1927. Gibson showed an appreciation for sports at a young age, playing basketball and paddle tennis. After joining the American Tennis Association, Gibson began her networking and career as a tennis player. At the age of 29, Gibson became the first black person to win the French championships.She was also the first African American to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals in 1957 and then won again in 1958. Gibson faced a lot of racism at first, some of which included not being allowed to compete despite her skill level and being denied rooms at hotels but eventually, she was allowed to take the world by storm. Gibson won 11 Grand Slam events which placed her in the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame.
On this day, August 24, 1950, Edith Sampson, pictured on the right with Eleanor Roosevelt on the left, was named the first black delegate to the United Nations. Sampson held this position for three years. Sampson’s first degree was in social work and then she went to John Marshall for Law School, graduating with a dean’s commendation. She received her master of law degree from Loyola University and became one of the first African American women to join the Chicago chapter of the National Association of Women Lawyers and to practice law before the U.S. Supreme Court. Sampson later became a judge elected to a Municipal Court.
On August 23, 1900, Booker T. Washington formed the National Negro Business League in Boston. The goal of the organization was to better the commercial and financial progression of African Americans. In 1901, the league was formally recognized and then established many more chapters all over the nation. Washington noticed a need to create a network for business that would encourage financial development for African Americans. The organization aided African Americans struggling with merchandising and promotions. The league contained members who were African American business owners and professionals. In 1966, the National Negro Business League was renamed the National Business League.
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On this date, August 22, 1989, Black Panther Party co-founder, Huey P. Newton died. He was shot to death in Oakland, California. Tyrone Robinson, a drug dealer and member of the Black Guerilla Family confessed to the crime three days after. Newton was a controversial prominent figure in the 1960s. He and Bobby Seale were known for their fight for African American equality. The Black Panthers also aided the community by providing meals, self defense classes, medical clinics and first aid to those in need. The Black Panthers, however, organized and militant, garnered negative attention from the FBI with cases accusing the party of violent actions against people, including law enforcement. But, despite the negative image of violent activism that followed the Black Panthers and Newton, he and the party’s positive principal views and actions for the black community continue to be remembered.
The Howard Theatre opened on August 22, 1910. It was one of the first prominent theatres open to African Americans, as pictured in a photograph from 1917. In the 20th century, the theatre had many big black music artists perform such as, Sarah Vaughn, James Brown and Stevie Wonder. During the Great Depression, the theatre was a church and then in 1931, Duke Ellington and his band performed at the Howard, transforming it into a major entertainment center. In 1970, the Howard Theatre was closed due to the riots and desegregation. The theatre opened again in 1973 and in 1974, it became a historic landmark. The theatre was a host to go-go bands and others in the 70s and the 80s. Then, in 1980, it closed once again. The theatre reopened after a $29 million renovation on April 9, 2012. Despite the theatre’s history, struggling to remain open, many current big names such as Esperanza Spalding, Sheila E. The Roots, Drake, and Chaka Khan have performed at the theatre since the reopening.
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William “Count” Basie, American jazz pianist, organist, bandleader and composer, was born on this date, August 21, 1904 in Red Bank, New Jersey. His father was Harvey Basie, a mellophonist. His mother, Lillian, was a pianist who taught Basie the basics of the piano. Before he had his own band, he played piano for vaudeville. He stormed the world of music with talent and composition skill. Basie was the first African American male to receive a Grammy Award in 1958. Basie won several more Grammys later in his life and is known as one of the most influential Jazz musicians in history.
Stephanie Tubbs Jones, the first African American woman elected to the House of Representatives from Ohio, was born September 10, 1949 in Cleveland. She received her law degree from Case Western Reserve University in 1971. She was an assistant Cuyahoga County prosecutor for three years. In 1981, she was elected a Cleveland Municipal Court Judge and then became a chief prosecutor. She was an active supporter of broader health care coverage for low and middle income individuals and assistance for re-entry of convicts into their communities. She also fought against predatory lending practices. In 1998, Jones was involved in the controversy of reopening the investigation of the murder of Dr. Sam Sheppard’s wife in 1954. In her later years, Jones was against additional financing for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Jones passed away in August 20, 2008, due to a ruptured brain aneurysm.
On August 19, 1989, Desmond Tutu, a South African social rights activist and now retired Anglican bishop, defied apartheid laws by walking on a Cape Town whites-only beach. In protest, he and other demonstrators entered the beach at Cape Town’s False Bay. The police used dogs, whips, tear gas and had set up roadblocks to deter demonstrators from getting to the beach. The policeman in charge threatened the protesters by saying he would have the other officers fire into the crowd. Tutu walked on the beach for a moment and then after, the police sent their dogs on whoever stayed on the beach and fired rubber bullets at unarmed protesters. This was one event of many to come in defying apartheid laws.
Gail Fisher, who broke many racial barriers for black women on American television, was born August 18, 1935. Her mother raised her and her siblings with her own hair styling business in Edison, New Jersey. During her teenage years, Fisher had showed an interest in entertainment through her participation in various beauty contests, acting in her High School’s plays and as a cheerleader. Fisher studied acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, after winning a contest sponsored by Coca-Cola, and later became a member of the Repertory Theater at Lincoln Center. She did many television commercials and declared herself “the first black female— no, make that black, period— to make a national TV commercial, on camera, with lines.” Her most well known and one of the first major roles for black women was as the secretary “Peggy Fair” on the show Mannix from 1968 until 1975. Fisher, pictured with Mark Stewart, as her son in Mannix (1970), won two Golden Globes and an Emmy Award for the role. She was the first black woman to win an Emmy Award.
Robert Leroy Johnson, Hall of Fame American blues singer and musician, died on this date, August 16, 1938 at the age of 27. Some of his greatest hits included, “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” and “Sweet Home Chicago.” Johnson was born on May 8, 1911, in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. Growing up he showed musical inclinations on the harmonica and the jaw harp. A rumor surrounds Johnson about a pact with the devil in exchange for mastery of the guitar. He was said to be able to reproduce a tune after only having heard it once. Son House, who had seen Johnson’s poor guitar skills after Johnson lost both his wife and child, was convinced of the pact when Johnson displayed his musical prowess later. Johnson only truly rose to fame after his death with the release of King of the Delta Blues Singers in 1961. He won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006 that was accepted by Claud Johnson, his son.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born in London on this day, August 15, 1875. He was raised by his mother, an english woman and never knew his father, a doctor and native of Sierra Leone. He studied violin at the Royal College of Music and in 1898, he wrote his most famous piece, “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast.” Coleridge-Taylor became a worldwide success. He toured the United States in 1904, having a 200-voice chorus in Washington, D.C. named after him. He had managed to mix traditional african music with concert music and produced compositions such as African Suite and Twenty Four Negro Melodies. Having fought against racism throughout his career and proving himself to be a talented composer, Coleridge-Taylor died at the young age of 37 in 1912 due to pneumonia.
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Ernest Everett Just was born August 14, 1883 in Charleston, South Carolina. He graduated magna cum laude from Dartmouth College in 1907 and was the only black man in his class. Just taught at Howard University and was head of the Department of Zoology and Physiology. He received the first Spingarn Medal from the NAACP in 1915 for his work as a scientist. In 1916, Just received his doctorate in experimental embryology. Just published his book “Basic Methods for Experiments on Eggs of Marine Animals” after conducting research on the fertilization of marine animal cells. Just faced a lot of racism and prejudice as an African American in the U.S. and therefore moved to study in Europe in 1930. There he published “The Biology of the Cell Surface” and gave several lectures on cell cytoplasm.
Just challenged many theories of leading biologists of the day and worked diligently to understand the world around him. Due to his research, we now have a better understanding of experimental parthenogenesis and the physiology of cell development.
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James Benton Parsons, the first African American to serve as a United States federal judge, was born on this day, August 13, 1911 in Kansas City, Missouri. Before he was a Judge, Parsons was a musician and a teacher. He taught public school and was a supervisor for two years in Greensboro, N.C. He then taught constitutional law at John Marshall Law School in Chicago and political science and music at Lincoln University. Parsons was the first African American to be a part of the U.S. District Court with life tenure appointed by President Kennedy in 1961. He was known to be an outspoken and controversial jurist and received a lot of criticism for his words and actions, as well as awards throughout his life as a judge. He served as chief judge from 1975 until 1981 and then had senior status in 1981 until his death in 1993, Chicago.