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  • Black History is American History – February 26

    February 26, 2018 ~ Carolyn Matthews

    Nichelle Nichols (1932)

    Nichelle Nichols was born Grace Nichols on December 28, 1932, in Robbins, Illinois. Her father was both the town mayor and its chief magistrate. Her parents, Samuel Earl and Lishia (Parks) Nichols, encouraged her early interest in singing and acting. Nichols studied dance at the Chicago Ballet Academy and aspired to perform on Broadway; she admired African-American female vocalists such as Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt and Mahalia Jackson.

    In her early career, Nichols sang with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and the Lionel Hampton Orchestra. She made her film debut in 1959, as an uncredited dancer in a film adaptation of the opera “Porgy and Bess” starring Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, and Sammy Davis Jr. For her work in the theater, she was twice nominated for the “Sara Siddon Award” as best actress and is an accomplished dancer and singer. Her first “Siddon” nomination was for her portrayal of Hazel Sharp in “Kicks and Co.,” and the second for her performance in “The Blacks.” Nichols also began to work in television, including an appearance on the series “The Lieutenant” in 1964 where she met Gene Roddenberry which led to an offer from him to join the cast of “Star Trek.” She was ultimately cast in the now-legendary series as Lieutenant Uhura, communications officer for the Starship Enterprise. (The name “Uhura” was adapted from “uhuru,” the Swahili word for “freedom.”)

    Nichols’s groundbreaking television performance as an African-American woman in a confident, authoritative role drew immediate notice from Star Trek’s audience. Nichols, still envisioning herself as a theater performer, considered leaving the series after the first season. However, a conversation with the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr., during which he told her she couldn’t give up—that she was a vital role model for young black women in America. Needless to say, she changed her mind.

    Nichols appeared throughout the run of Star Trek, from 1966 to 1969. As Uhura, she enacted television’s first interracial kiss, with William Shatner’s Captain James T. Kirk in the 1968 episode “Plato’s Stepchildren.” Nichols also appeared in six Star Trek motion pictures released between 1979 and 1991.

    Nichols has added other movie credits to her resume, the film “Truck Turner” in 1974, the Disney comedy “Snow Dogs” in 2002, and the family comedy “Are We There Yet?” in 2005. She appeared as a recurring character in several episodes of the television series “Heroes” in 2007.

    Nichols also made occasional returns to live performance, as in her one-woman show Reflections, a tribute to women of jazz and blues. She showcased her singing in two albums, Down to Earth and Out of This World.

    Building on her name recognition from “Star Trek,” in the late 1970s and 1980s Nichols participated in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s efforts to recruit women and minorities for the space shuttle program. For her work, she received NASA’s distinguished Public Service Award. She has a consultant firm, “Women in Motion Inc.” through which she produced and starred in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum film “What’s in It for Me?”. Nichols flew aboard the C-141 Astronomy Observatory, which analyzed the atmospheres of Mars and Saturn, on an eight-hour, high-altitude mission. She was also special guest at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena on July 17, 1976 to view the Viking probe’s soft landing on Mars. Along with the other cast members from the original Star Trek, she attended the christening of the first space shuttle, Enterprise, at Cape Canaveral. With all this, she has not neglected her singing making a series of video albums. She has written two science-fiction novels, Saturn’s Child and Saturna’s Quest. In 1994 she published her autobiography, Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories.

  • Black History is American History – February 25

    February 25, 2018 ~ Carolyn Matthews

    Eartha Kitt (1927-2008)

    Born in North, South Carolina, famed singer and actress, Eartha Kitt, had a difficult childhood. Her mother abandoned her, and she was left in the care of relatives who mistreated her. Kitt was often teased and picked on because of her mixed-race heritage—her father was white, and her mother was African-American and Cherokee.

    As a child, Kitt moved to New York City to live with an aunt. There, she eventually enrolled in the New York School of Performing Arts. As a teen, she won a scholarship to study with Katherine Dunham, and later joined Dunham’s dance troupe and toured with the group for several years before going solo. In Paris, Kitt became a popular nightclub singer. She was discovered in Europe by actor-director Orson Welles. Welles, who reportedly called her “the most exciting woman alive,” cast her as Helen of Troy in his production of Dr. Faustus.

    Kitt became a rising star with her appearance in the Broadway review, “New Faces” of 1952. In the production, she sang “Monotonous.” Her performance helped launch her music career with the release of her first album in 1954. The recording featured such signature songs as “I Want To Be Evil” and “C’est Si Bon,” as well as the holiday classic “Santa Baby.”

    On the big screen, Kitt starred opposite Nat “King” Cole in the W. C. Handy biopic St. Louis Blues (1958). She netted her one and only Academy Award nomination the following year, for her role as the title character in Anna Lucasta. In the film, Kitt plays a sassy young woman who is forced to use her womanly wiles to survive. She stars opposite Sammy Davis Jr.

    In the late 1960s, Kitt played one of her most famous parts—the villainous vixen “Catwoman.” She took over the role, on the TV series Batman, from Julie Newmar. Kitt only played Catwoman on a handful of episodes of the short-lived campy crime show, but she made the role her own with her lithe, cat-like frame and her distinctive voice. The series found a second life in reruns.

    Always outspoken, Kitt was able to channel her celebrity into activism. In May 1967, she testified before Congress along with Washington D.C. youth group, “Rebels with a Cause,” on behalf of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s juvenile delinquency bill.

    Lady Bird Johnson subsequently invited Kitt to her “Women Doers’ Luncheon” on Jan. 18, 1968, for a discussion of what women could do to help eradicate crime on the streets. Towards the end of the luncheon, Lady Bird asked the room of 50 women, from groups such as the Association of Colored Women’s Club and the League of Women Voters, including a few governor’s wives, for their comments. Kitt raised her hand and told the first lady of the United States exactly what she thought — juvenile crime was in part a pushback against being drafted to serve in the Vietnam War.

    “Boys I know across the nation feel it doesn’t pay to be a good guy,” Kitt said. “They figure with a record they don’t have to go off to Vietnam. You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. They rebel in the street. They will take pot and they will get high. They don’t want to go to school because they’re going to be snatched off from their mothers to be shot in Vietnam.” Kitt continued: “Mrs. Johnson, you are a mother too, although you have had daughters and not sons. I am a mother and I know the feeling of having a baby come out of my guts. I have a baby and then you send him off to war. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot. And, Mrs. Johnson, in case you don’t understand the lingo that’s marijuana.”

    The cultural and political backlash was swift. The Washington Post reported at the time that President Johnson had Kitt blacklisted.  According to Broadly, Kitt alleged that the White House, which had sent a car for her, didn’t arrange a car for her departure and she had to catch a cab.

    Unable to get jobs in the United States, Kitt was forced to perform in Europe until she returned to America in 1978 to headline the Broadway musical Timbuktu! It was later unveiled by the New York Times that the CIA, prompted by the Secret Service in 1968, had kept a dossier on her. “It was really heart-breaking to her and very upsetting that her own government turned on her for something as simple as just giving an honest response to a question,” said Kitt Shapiro, Eartha Kitt’s daughter. “And that was really something, I think, that she really never let go of, that disappointment.” Kitt enjoyed a career renaissance with her performance on Broadway in “Timbuktu!” She earned a Tony Award nomination for her role in the play, and received an invitation to the White House by President Jimmy Carter. In 1984, Kitt returned to the music charts with “Where Is My Man.” She continued to win acclaim for her music, including scoring a Grammy Award nomination for 1994’s “Back in Business.”

    Throughout her adult life, Kitt had a tremendous work ethic. She kept up a busy work schedule well into her 70s. In 2000, Kitt netted a Tony Award nomination for her work in “The Wild Party” with Toni Collette. She picked up a Daytime Emmy Award for her vocal performance on the animated children’s series “The Emperor’s New School” that same year, and again in 2007.

    For many years, Kitt performed her cabaret act at New York’s Cafe Carlyle. She continued to wow audiences as she had so many decades before, when she was the toast of Paris. With her voice, charm and sex appeal, Kitt knew how to win over a crowd. Kitt learned that she had colon cancer in 2006, a disease that ended up taking her life on December 25, 2008.

  • Black History is American History – February 24

    February 24, 2018 ~ Carolyn Matthews

    Anna Julia Haywood Cooper (1858 – 1964)

    “I speak for the colored women of the South, because it is there that the millions of blacks in this country have watered the soil with blood and tears, and it is there too that the colored woman of America has made her characteristic history and there her destiny is evolving.”
    Anna Julia Cooper, World’s Congress of Representative Women, 1893 Chicago World Fair

    Anna Julia Haywood Cooper was a writer, teacher, and activist who championed education for African Americans and women. Born into bondage in 1858 in Raleigh, North Carolina, she was the daughter of an enslaved woman, Hannah Stanley, and her owner, George Washington Haywood. In 1867 Anna began her formal education. In 1877 she married George A.G. Cooper, a teacher of theology. When her husband died in 1879, Cooper decided to pursue a college degree. She attended Oberlin College in Ohio on a tuition scholarship, earning a BA in 1884 and a Masters in Mathematics in 1887. After graduation Cooper worked at Wilberforce University and Saint Augustine’s before moving to Washington, D.C. to teach at Washington Colored High School.

    Cooper published her first book, A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South, in 1892. In addition to calling for equal education for women, A Voice from the South advanced Cooper’s assertion that educated African American women were necessary for uplifting the entire black race. The book of essays gained national attention. In 1902, Cooper began a controversial stint as principal of M Street High School (formerly Washington Colored High). The white Washington, D.C. school board disagreed with her educational approach for black students, which focused on college preparation, and she resigned in 1906.

    In addition to working to advance African American educational opportunities, Cooper also established and co-founded several organizations to promote black civil rights causes. Since the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) did not accept African American members, she created “colored” branches to provide support for young black migrants moving from the South into Washington, D.C.

    Cooper resumed graduate study in 1911 at Columbia University in New York City. When her brother died she postponed her doctoral studies to raise his five grandchildren. She returned to school in 1924 when she enrolled at the University of Paris in France. In 1925, at the age of 67, Cooper became the fourth African American woman to obtain a PhD.

    In 1930, Cooper retired from teaching to assume the presidency of Frelinghuysen University, a school for black adults. She served as the school’s registrar after it was reorganized into the Frelinghuysen Group of Schools for Colored People. Cooper remained in that position until the school closed in the 1950s. Anna Julia Cooper died in 1964 in Washington, D.C. at the age of 105.

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  • Black History is American History – February 23

    February 23, 2018 ~ Carolyn Matthews

    Percy Julian (1899 – 1975)

    This is another repeat from last year, but his contributions are so important they bear repeating. Percy Julian’s story brings to mind the question, “How farther along would we be, or what has the world lost in the way of knowledge and invention because some child who held a future cure or discovery was kept from reaching his/her full potential?” It is a strange and painful feeling (disconcerting?) to read about someone who has the ability and temperament to advance in a field but is told not to try – because of other folks’ issues. What he eventually was able to give to the world benefits all humankind – including those folks who set fire to his house.

    Percy Julian was born April 11, 1899 in Montgomery, Alabama. He attended elementary school in Birmingham and moved back to Montgomery, Alabama where he attended high school at the State Normal School for Negroes. Upon graduation in 1916, Julian applied to and was accepted into DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. At DePauw, he began as a probationary student, having to take higher level high school classes along with his freshman and sophomore course load. He proved himself well, going on to be named a member of the Sigma Xi honorary society as well as a Phi Beta Kappa member. Finally, upon graduation from DePauw in 1920, he was selected as the class valedictorian. Although he graduated at the top of his class, he was discouraged from seeking admission into graduate school because of potential racial sentiment on the part of his future coworkers and employers. Instead, he took the advice of an advisor and took a position as a chemistry teacher at Fisk University, a Black college in Nashville, Tennessee.

    After two years at Fisk, Julian was awarded the Austin Fellowship in Chemistry and moved to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Finally given an opportunity at graduate level work, Julian excelled. He achieved straight A’s, finishing at the top of his class and received a Masters Degree in 1923. Even with this success, Julian was unable to obtain a position as a teaching assistant at any major universities because of the perception that White students would refuse to learn under a Black instructor. Thus, he moved on to a teaching position at West Virginia State College for Negroes. He left West Virginia and served as an associate professor of chemistry at Howard University in Washington, D.C. for two years.

    In late 1935, Percy Julian decided to leave the world of academics and entered the corporate world by accepting a position with the Glidden Company as chief chemist and the Director of the Soya Product Division. This was a significant development as he was the first Black scientist hired for such a position and would pave the way for other Blacks in the future. The Glidden Company was a leading manufacturer of paint and varnish and was counting on Julian to develop compounds from soy-based products which could be used to make paints and other products. Julian did not disappoint, coming up with products such as aero-foam which worked as a flame retardant and was used by the United States Navy and saved the lives of countless sailors during World War II.

    Percy continued his success as he next developed a way to inexpensively develop male and female hormones from soy beans. These hormones would help to prevent miscarriages in pregnant women and would be used to fight cancer and other ailments. He next set out to provide a synthetic version of cortisone, a product which greatly relieved the pain of those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. The real cortisone was extremely expensive and only rich people could afford it. With Julian’s discovery of the soy-based substitute, millions of sufferers around the world found relief at a reasonable price. So significant was his work that in 1950 the City of Chicago named him Chicagoan of the Year. While the honor should have signaled Julian’s acceptance by his white counterparts in his field and community, when he soon after purchased a home for his family in nearby Oak Park, the home was set afire by an arsonist on Thanksgiving Day 1950. A year later, dynamite was thrown from a passing car and exploded outside the bedroom window of Percy’s children. Despite the fact that many residents of the town relied upon his methods to relieve their pains and provide for their safety, some still could not stand to have him as their neighbor simply because he was Black.

    In 1954, Julian left the Glidden Company to establish Julian Laboratories which specialized in producing his synthetic cortisone. When he discovered that wild yams in Mexico were even more effective than soya beans for some of his products, he opened the Laboratorios Julian de Mexico in Mexico City, Mexico which cultivated the yams and shipped them to Oak Park for refinement. In 1961 he sold the Oak Park plant to Smith, Kline and French, a giant pharmaceutical company and received a sum of 2.3 million dollars (nearly 16 million dollars today).

    Percy Julian received more than 130 chemical patents. He was one of the first African Americans to receive a doctorate in chemistry; was the first African American chemist inducted into the National Academy of Sciences and the second African American scientist inducted (behind David Blackwell) from any field. Percy Julian was an active fundraiser for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for their project to sue to enforce civil rights legislation. Julian died on April 19, 1975 in Waukegan, IL.

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