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Black Facts for May 26th

1949 - Pam Grier

American actress Pamela Suzette Grier was born on May 26, 1949, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Her parents were Gwendolyn Sylvia who worked as a nurse, and Clarence Ransom Grier, Jr. who worked as a mechanic in U.S. Air Force. As a result, the family travelled a lot, and Grier lived in several places including England, before finally settling in Denver, Colorado. She received an old-fashioned, conservative upbringing where she learned to rough it – skills that came in handy when she enrolled at East High School in Denver. She recalls the tough environment she  had to deal with as a teenager, with rampant bullying and physical abuse by older students. Although she had lived a relatively sheltered life until then, she was quick to adapt to her new environment and learned to and fend for herself.

Grier was a conscientious student and aspired to become a doctor. However, her career took a different turn when she earned third place Colorado state competition for the Miss Universe Beauty Pageant in 1967. Here she was discovered by an agent named Dave Baumgarten who invited her to try her hand at acting. Grier had no plans to pursue this line of work, and initially rejected the offer. On her mother’s insistence, however, she agreed to Baumgarten’s suggestion of touring Hollywood. She moved to Los Angeles and enrolled in acting classes, while working as a switchboard operator to help pay the bills.

She made her film debut at the age of 22 in the 1971 film “Big Doll House” where she played a prison inmate. Several other roles followed such as “Hit Man” in 1972 and “Black Mama, White Mama” in 1973. Her most acclaimed role to date came in 1973, as the star of the film “Coffy” followed by another memorable and acclaimed performance in the 1974 film “Foxy Brown” in which she played the role of a prostitute out to get revenge. In 1975, she starred in another hit film “Sheba Baby”. She established her reputation as a star of “blackploitation” films, that is, predominantly African American movies that depicted the grim

1928 - The 1928 Bunion Derby: America’s Brush with Integrated Sports

In the following account sports historian Charles Kastner describes the Bunion Derby, the 1928 cross country footrace that captured the nation’s attention in the spring of 1928 and the remarkable group of black runners who participated in that event. For a detailed discussion of the race, see Kastner’s Bunion Derby: The First Footrace Across America.

From March 4 to May 26, 1928, a unique event grabbed the attention of the American public—an eighty-four day, 3,400-mile footrace from Los Angeles to New York City, nicknamed the bunion derby. The 199 starters included five African Americans, a Jamaican-born Canadian, and perhaps as many as fifteen Latinos, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders, representing about ten percent of the competitors.  The rest were white.  The derby consisted of daily town-to-town stage races that took the men across the length of Route 66 to Chicago, then on other roads to the finish in Madison Square Garden. All were chasing a $25,000 first prize, a small fortune in 1928 dollars.  

Given the racial climate of 1928, black participation in the bunion derby seemed a risky venture, better suited for more tolerate racial times, either the 1870’s when professional distance racing was the rage and men of all races were accepted in to its fold, or our modern age, when the sight of African runners leading endurance events is an everyday occurrence. The 1928 race would take the men into the Jim Crow segregated South, where most whites believed blacks lacked the ability to concentrate for anything longer than the sprint distances, and had no business competing against whites.

Bunion derby organizer Charles C. Pyle looked back, longingly, to the 1870’s when the craze for professional distance running gripped the land, and sports promoters could make a fortune sponsoring these events.  In those days, most towns and cities had their own indoor tracks, where “pedestrians” raced in six day “go as you please” contests of endurance.  Participants were free to run, walk, or crawl around these tracks

1975 - Lauryn Hill

Lauryn Hill is a singer, songwriter and actress who shot to fame in the 1990s with her R&B band “The Fugees” and later as a solo performer. She was born on May 26, 1975 in New Jersey to Valerie and Mal Hill. Her mother was an English teacher and her father was a management consultant. Hill grew up surrounded by music – her father sang at local nightclubs and her mother played piano. She grew up listening to the greats like Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye. She began to sing during her school years and was a go-getter from the start. She was a member of the track and cheerleading team, took violin and dance lessons, and founded the school’s gospel choir.

Hill took acting lessons during her childhood and began her acting career in 1991 in an off-Broadway production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”. During this performance, she was noticed by an agent who got her a role on the television soap opera “As the World Turns”. In 1993, she was cast in the hit movie “Sister Act 2” alongside Whoopi Goldberg for which she also performed the songs “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” and “Joyful, Joyful”. She also had a small but important role in Steven Soderbergh’s 1993 film “King of the Hill” for which she received praise from critics. The same year she graduated from high school.

During her high school years, Hill formed a band with her friend Prakazrel Michel and his cousin Wyclef Jean. The band was initially named “Tranzlator Crew” but the name was later changed to “The Fugees” which was a derived from the word “refugee” – a deprecating title given to Haitian-Americans. The band signed an album deal with Columbia/Ruffhouse Records in 1993 and released their first album titled “Blunted on Reality” in 1994. The album reached No. 62 on the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart, but did not achieve very high sales overall. However it helped to highlight Hill’s talent as a singer, particularly the song “Some Seek Stardom” which is often praised as the album’s best single.

The Fugees released their second album in

1867 - First Congregational Church, Atlanta, Georgia (1867- )

The First Congregational Church of Atlanta, Georgia, the largest Congregational church in the South, began as a “gathered church” on May 26, 1867. After being baptized, local formerly enslaved African Americans joined members of the mostly white congregation that met at the Storrs School Chapel. The American Missionary Association (AMA) established the Storrs School in 1865, in Atlanta, which provided classes, worship, and social services for former slaves and whites impoverished by the Civil War. Inspired by the worship services offered at the Storrs School, the ex-slaves petitioned for a church of their own. Land was donated to the congregation on the corner of Houston and Courtland Street, and a new “little red church” was built. Over the next decade, the congregation became primarily African American, while white members formed their own church.

In 1894, First Congregational Church called its first African American pastor, Dr. Henry Hugh Proctor, a graduate of Fisk University and Yale Divinity School, and former Elder at First African Presbyterian Church. Under Dr. Proctor’s leadership the present church building was completed in 1908. The groundbreaking ceremony was marked by the attendance of Booker T. Washington as guest of honor and former President Theodore Roosevelt visited the church in March 1911. The church structure is listed as a landmark on the National Register of Historic Places and is noted as a Georgia Historical site.

Over time First Congregational Church developed facilities and programs to meet the special needs of the surrounding neighborhood. They provided the first and for many years only gymnasium available to Atlanta blacks. Their home for young black single women was the only one of its kind in the city. The church’s employment bureau served blacks and whites. A water fountain outside the church available to all races, was the first public water fountain opened in the city. The trouble bureau was a clinic for medical ailments and a prison mission, one of the first in the nation,

1933 - Jimmie Rodgers

Jimmie Rodgers , byname of James Charles Rodgers, also called the Singing Brakeman and America’s Blue Yodeler (born September 8, 1897, Pine Springs Community, near Meridian, Mississippi, U.S.—died May 26, 1933, New York, New York), American singer, songwriter, and guitarist, one of the principal figures in the emergence of the country and western style of popular music.

Rodgers, whose mother died when he was a young boy, was the son of an itinerant railroad gang foreman, and his youth was spent in a variety of southern towns and cities. Having already run away with a medicine show by age 13, he left school for good at age 14. He began working on his father’s railroad crews, initially as a water carrier, and during this time was likely exposed to the work songs and early blues of African American labourers. As a young man, he held a number of jobs with the railroad, including those of baggage master, flagman, and brakeman, crisscrossing the Southwest but especially working the line between New Orleans and Meridian, Mississippi. Early on, Rodgers aspired to be an entertainer, and the life of the railroad worker provided him ample opportunity to develop and exercise his musical skills, to absorb a mixture of musical styles, and to catalogue the experiences of working people and southern small-town life that would later be at the heart of so many of his songs. He learned to play the guitar and banjo, honing what became his characteristic sound—a blend of traditional country, work, blues, hobo, and cowboy songs.

After contracting tuberculosis, Rodgers was forced to give up railroad work in 1924 or 1925 and began pursuing a performing career, playing everything from tent shows to street corners but with little success. He relocated to Asheville, North Carolina, and began appearing on local radio in 1927, backed by a string band formerly known as the Tenneva Ramblers. The group (renamed the Jimmie Rodgers Entertainers) also performed at resorts and traveled to nearby Bristol, Tennessee, in the hope of making a field

1926 - Miles Davis

Miles Dewey Davis III was a famous American jazz musician. He was born on May 26, 1926 to a wealthy African American family in Alton, Illinois. His father was a dentist who also owned a ranch in Arkansas. Davis developed an appreciation for music at an early age after listening to gospel music at his local church. His mother wanted him to learn to play the piano as she herself was a talented musician. His father enrolled him for trumpet lessons with a local musician named Elwood Buchanan who taught Davis to play the trumpet without vibrato, which was against the musical norms of the time. He was influenced by the music of the American trumpeter Clark Terry.

Davis began gaining a reputation as a talented musician from a very young age. He was a member of the music society at school and also began to play at clubs such as the local Elks Club. He briefly joined a band named the “Blue Devils” and also performed alongside acclaimed jazz musicians Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. He graduated from high school in 1944 after which he moved to New York to study at the Julliard School of Music. Once there, he reestablished contact with Charlie Parker, and became one of his posse, which also included other famous musicians such as Fats Navarro, Freddie Webster, J. J. Johnson, Thelonious Monk and Kenny Clarke.

Davis then dropped out of Julliard because he felt he was not being fulfilled musically. He did acknowledge its role in improving his trumpeting skills and providing a valuable education in musical theory. After leaving Julliard, he began playing small time gigs professionally such as with Coleman Hawkins and Eddie Davis. In 1945, he became a member of Herbie Fields’s group and began recording with them. He then became a trumpeter in Gillespie’s quintet and began touring with them. He also began composing with the Canadian composer Gil Evans which gave birth to a distinctive sound known as “Birth of the Cool”. He became heavily involved with drugs and became a heroin addict. His new group included