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  • Black History is American History – February 22

    February 22, 2018 ~ Carolyn Matthews

    Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner (1912-2006)

    There are some things we use that we probably never give much thought to as to where they came from or how they were developed. Yet, they have some significance in how we move about in our lives on a daily basis. What is presented here would fit in that category.

    Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner was born in Monroe, North Carolina and credited her father, Sidney Nathaniel Davidson, with giving her a thirst for discovering things. Her sister, Mildred Davidson Austin Smith was also an inventor.

    Kenner invented a sanitary belt in 1956, with a moisture-proof napkin pocket, and a bathroom tissue holder in 1982 (among other hygienic inventions). The sanitary belt gave women a better alternative for handling their periods. It was patented 30 years after she invented it, because the company who was initially interested in her creation rejected it when they learned that Kenner was African American.

    Although tampons were available to women, they were discouraged from using them because it was considered “indecent.” Another alternative was to use a cloth or rag, but this method was often unsanitary and inconvenient. Women and girls who opted for cloth usually needed to stay indoors during their cycle. Sanitary belts were not only more practical, they were more liberating. It wasn’t until the 1960s that maxi pads became more readily available.

    As for the bathroom tissue holder, Kenner’s design was an improved version of the common holder that allowed the loose end of a bathroom tissue roll to be accessible at all times. She received patent #4,354,643, on October 19, 1982 for this device. Kenner’s prolific creations also include a mountable back washer, patented in 1987, and a carrier attachment for an invalid walker which was patented in 1976. Kenner was sensitive to the needs of the elderly, sick, and physically challenged. The pocket for the walker could hold things such as other medical equipment, papers, or a purse.

    Kenner worked as a professional floral arranger and had her own business in the Washington DC area. Her intent, with her inventions, was to make people’s lives easier.


    Black Stars: African American Women Scientists and Inventors by Otha Richard Sullivan

  • Black History is American History – February 21

    February 21, 2018 ~ Carolyn Matthews

    Septima Poinsette Clark (1898 – 1987)

    Septima Poinsette Clark was born in Charleston, South Carolina, May 3, 1898, the second of eight children. Her father Peter Poinsette – who had been born into slavery – and his wife Victoria Warren Anderson, a laundress encouraged her to get an education. Clark attended public school, then worked to earn the money needed to attend the Avery Normal Institute, a private school for African Americans.

    Clark qualified as a teacher, but Charleston did not hire African Americans to teach in its public schools. Instead, she became an instructor on South Carolina’s Johns Island in 1916. In 1919, Clark returned to Charleston to teach at the Avery Institute. She also joined with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in trying to get the city to hire African-American teachers. By gathering signatures in favor of the change, Clark helped ensure that the effort was successful.

    Clark married Nerie Clark in 1920. Her husband died of kidney failure five years later. She then moved to Columbia, South Carolina, where she continued teaching and also joined the local chapter of the NAACP. Clark worked with the organization—and with Thurgood Marshall—on a 1945 case that sought equal pay for black and white teachers. She described it as her “first effort in a social action challenging the status quo.” Her salary increased threefold when the case was won. Going back to Charleston in 1947, Clark took up another teaching post, while maintaining her NAACP membership. However, in 1956, South Carolina made it illegal for public employees to belong to civil rights groups. Clark refused to renounce the NAACP and, as a result, lost her job.

    Clark was next hired by Tennessee’s Highlander Folk School, an institution that supported integration and the Civil Rights Movement. She had previously participated in and led workshops there during breaks from school (Rosa Parks had attended one of her workshops in 1955).

    Clark soon was directing Highlander’s Citizenship School program. These schools helped regular people learn how to instruct others in their communities in basic literacy and math skills. One particular benefit of this teaching was that more people were then able to register to vote (at the time, many states used literacy tests to disenfranchise African Americans). In 1961, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference took over this education project. Clark then joined the SCLC as its director of education and teaching. Under her leadership, more than 800 citizenship schools were created. . Dr. King acknowledged Clark when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 by insisting that she accompany him to Sweden.

    Clark retired from the SCLC in 1970. In 1979, Jimmy Carter honored her with a Living Legacy Award. She received the Order of the Palmetto, South Carolina’s highest civilian honor, in 1982. In 1987, Clark’s second autobiography, Ready from Within: Septima Clark and Civil Rights, won an American Book Award (her first autobiography, Echo in My Soul, had been published in 1962).

    Clark was 89 when she died on Johns Island on December 15, 1987. Over her long career of teaching and civil rights activism, she helped many African Americans begin to take control of their lives and discover their full rights as citizens.

    Quotes attributed to Clark:

    I believe unconditionally in the ability of people to respond when they are told the truth. We need to be taught to study rather than believe, to inquire rather than to affirm.

    My philosophy is such that I am not going to vote against the oppressed. I have been oppressed, and so I am always going to have a vote for the oppressed, regardless of whether that oppressed is black or white or yellow or the people of the Middle East. I have that feeling.

    I just tried to create a little chaos. Chaos is a good thing. God created the whole world out of it. Change is what comes of it.

  • Black History is American History – February 20

    February 20, 2018 ~ Carolyn Matthews

    Eddie South (1904 – 1962)

    Eddie South (Edward Otha South) was an American jazz violinist and bandleader born (in Louisiana, Missouri) on November 27, 1904. He is known for having achieved legendary status only after he died. One of the top violinists of the pre-bop era, Eddie South was a brilliant technician who, were it not for the universal racism of the time, would probably have been a top classical violinist. He began his violin studies at a very early age and by age 10, was studying at the Chicago Music College, from which he graduated. Since classical positions were not open to black violinists, he entered the world of jazz in 1921, with assistance from Darnell Howard (a leading jazz violinist of that era), playing with Erskine Tate and Mae Brady. In 1923, he was musical director of Jimmy Wade’s Syncopators in Chicago.

    South’s first recording came in 1923 with Wade’s Moulin Rouge Orchestra. He formed his own band, the Alabamians, in 1927. The group was named after the place they performed in, the Club Alabam, on the corner of Rush and Chicago Streets, a section of Chicago then known as Chicago’s Bohemia.

    Along the way, South also worked with bandleaders Charles Elgar, Henry Crowder, and Freddie Keppard, as well as bassist Milt Hinton, and pianist Billy Taylor. He toured Europe with this band between 1928 and 1930. Having arrived in Europe, he also studied at the Paris Conservatory. While in Budapest, Hungary, in 1929, South took a liking to Gypsy (Roma) music and eventually made it a part of his improvisations. During a tour of Europe in 1937, he performed and recorded with jazz legends Stephane Grappelli, Michel Warlop, and Django Reinhardt (who famously played with his two usable fingers only) in Paris. Among the tunes recorded was Bach’s concerto for two violins – in jazz style.

    Besides recording, he also played on radio and television. From 1947 to 1949 he played in the big bands led by Earl Hines. South also worked in New York and Los Angeles. Nevertheless, despite the exposure he got from working with the biggest names in Jazz, as far as the public was concerned, he stayed unknown for the remainder of his life. He recorded for the Chess and Mercury labels among others. One of his last recordings was produced in 1951, though he last recorded in 1959. South died in Chicago on April 25, 1962, at age 57.

  • Black History is American History – February 19

    February 19, 2018 ~ Carolyn Matthews

    Henry (Harry) Thacker Burleigh (1866 – 1949)

    This is another repeat from last year. While reading through it recently I was reminded, once again, of the influence African American culture has had in various areas of American culture including the arts. A shout out to my seminary music professor, Dr. Singleton, for introducing me to the Burleigh hymn tune, McKee, used for the hymn, “In Christ There is No East or West,” which has become my standard for this hymn.

    Henry Thacker Burleigh was born in Erie, Pennsylvania, on December 2, 1866, the second son of Henry Thacker Burleigh and Elizabeth (Waters) Burleigh. His father was a laborer while his mother worked as a domestic servant because she was unable to get a teaching position despite her college education and fluency in French and Greek. Burleigh acquired his knowledge of Negro Spirituals from his maternal grandfather, Hamilton Waters, who had been born in slavery but was freed after being beaten and partially blinded. He worked as Erie’s town crier and lamplighter and Burleigh, known throughout his life as “Harry,” would accompany him. As he performed his duties, he sang plantation songs to young Harry, thus passing on a music–the Negro spiritual–that his grandson would one day make known around the world.

    Burleigh’s mother, who he credited as his strongest supporter, recognized his strong desire to hear music. She gained permission from her employer, Mrs. Elizabeth Russell to have Harry answer the door when guests arrived for concerts. Young Burleigh heard several prominent performers who gave recitals at the home of Mrs. Russell.

    Growing up, Burleigh took several jobs as a laborer to help support his family. Music, however, was his steady companion. He sang while at work, and he took advantage of any opportunity to hear musicians who came to town. He sang at school and in the choirs at St. Paul’s and Park Presbyterian churches and the Reform Jewish Temple. After graduating from high school in 1887, Burleigh continued to improve his skills as a musician while he was employed as a stenographer for two area businesses.

    In 1892, at the age of 26, Burleigh heard that the National Conservatory of Music was holding auditions for a scholarship. Burleigh journeyed to New York, departing Erie with only $30, which he had acquired through gifts and loans, and a letter of recommendation from Mrs. Russell. The adjudicators at his audition concluded that he fell just below the standards required to receive the scholarship. However, Frances MacDowell, the school’s registrar and an acquaintance of Mrs. Russell’s, intervened, and Burleigh eventually received a scholarship.

    The subjects that Burleigh studied at the conservatory included voice, harmony, and counterpoint. He also played in the orchestra and was its librarian. Because his scholarship only covered his tuition, he also had to work just to survive. Among the contacts that Burleigh made during his years at the conservatory were composer Edward MacDowell, son of Burleigh’s benefactor, and composer/conductor Victor Herbert. However, it was his association with Czech composer Antonin Dvořák that most strongly influenced Burleigh’s career as a composer.

    Dvořák came to the United States in 1892 as the new director of the conservatory. He learned of the spiritual through his contacts with Burleigh. During Dvořák’s term as director, he used the melodies he heard Burleigh sing in his compositions. His major work of this period was his “Symphony no. 9 From the New World,” which premiered in December 1893. He used portions of one of the spirituals, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” as a theme within the symphony’s first movement. Burleigh spent many evenings singing the spirituals of his youth for Dvořák as well as manuscript copying for the composer.

    Two significant events occurred in 1894. The first, Burleigh, along with soprano Sissieretta Jones, were the featured soloists in Dvořák’s arrangement of “Old Folks at Home,” presented in New York’s Madison Square Garden. The second event had a major impact on Burleigh’s life. He auditioned for the baritone soloist position at St. George’s Episcopal Church of New York. Although there was much debate about hiring a Negro to sing in the affluent parish, he was selected for the post over numerous other applicants. The beginning of this 52-year relationship marked the first time that Burleigh’s income allowed him to concentrate on his studies. He made several influential contacts, including entrepreneur J. Pierpont Morgan, who arranged additional engagements for Burleigh.

    The next six years were very busy for Burleigh, both professionally and personally. In addition to his work as a singer, he completed his studies at the conservatory and taught sight-singing there from 1895 until 1898. He married poet Louise Alston in 1898; their son, Alston, was born the following year. This was also the year that three of Burleigh’s early songs, on texts by his wife, were first published by G. Schirmer. In 1900, he became an editor for G. Ricordi, and he was selected as the first African-American to serve as soloist for Temple Emanu-El, an affluent New York synagogue.

    Burleigh continued and expanded his contacts with the Black musical and academic community. He was a guest lecturer and performer at Black colleges and universities. He became acquainted with celebrated personalities such as composers Will Marion Cook, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and Robert Nathaniel Dett, and academicians Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. By 1916, Burleigh had published several works, mostly art songs. Most notable amongst these were “Jean” (1903), “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors” (1915), and the song cycles “Saracen Songs” (1914) and “Five Songs” by Laurence Hope (1915). He also wrote a few vocal and instrumental works based on the plantation melodies he had learned as a child. However, his 1916 setting of the spiritual, “Deep River,” is considered the first work of that genre to be written in art song form specifically for performance by a trained singer. Burleigh commented on his motivation for setting spirituals,

    “. . . In Negro spirituals my race has pure gold, and they should be taken as the Negro’s contribution to artistic possessions. In them we show a spiritual security as old as the ages. . . . These songs always denote a personal relationship. It is ‘my Saviour,’ ‘my sorrow,’ ‘my kingdom.’ The personal note is ever present. America’s only original and distinctive style of music is destined to be appreciated more and more.”

    “Deep River,” and other spiritual settings became very popular to concert performers and recording artists, both black and white. It was soon normal for recitals to end with a group of spirituals. Musicians such as Roland Hayes, Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson made these songs a part of their repertoires.

    There are various estimates of the number of songs Burleigh wrote. In all Burleigh made almost 190 choral arrangements and composed over 260 works for solo voice. The revenue from publication of Burleigh’s works helped pay for his extensive travels, including several trips to Europe, and his studies of languages. Over the years he performed for such dignitaries as the king and queen of England and President Theodore Roosevelt. He encouraged the careers of young musicians:  like Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Carol Brice, Margaret Bonds, and William Grant Still, to name a few.

    Burleigh was a charter member of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) when it formed in 1914 and became a member of its board of directors in 1941. He received a number of honors, including the Spingarn Medal in 1917, and honorary degrees from Atlanta University and Howard University for his contributions as a vocalist and composer. In 1944, members of St. George’s recognized his many years of service as soloist with gifts of $1,500 and a silver-banded cane. Later that year, he gave the fiftieth annual performance of Jean-Baptiste Faure’s “The Palms” at both morning and afternoon services, and he did a special performance of the work, broadcast over a local radio station, for New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia.

    Illness forced Burleigh to retire as soloist in 1946. On September 12, 1949, Harry Burleigh died of heart failure at the age of 82. His funeral was held at St. George’s and was attended by 2,000 mourners. Some of his choral and solo settings were sung during the service, and the pall bearers included composers Hall Johnson, Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, William C. Handy, and Cameron White.