Black History Month: A Salute to Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson

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Shirley Ann Jackson, born in 1946 in Washington, D.C., has achieved numerous firsts for African American women.  She was the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.); to receive a Ph.D. in theoretical solid state physics; to be elected president and then chairman of the board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS); to be president of a major research university, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York; and to be elected to the National Academy of Engineering.  Jackson was also both the first African American and the first woman to chair the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Jackson’s parents and teachers recognized her natural talent for science and nurtured her interest from a young age.  In 1964, after graduating as valedictorian from her high school, Jackson was accepted at M.I.T., where she was one of very few women and even fewer black students.  Despite discouraging remarks from her professors about the appropriateness of science for a black woman, she chose to major in physics and earned her B.S. in 1968.  Jackson continued at M.I.T. for graduate school, studying under the first black physics professor in her department, James Young.  In 1973, she earned her Ph.D.

Shirley Jackson completed several years of postdoctoral research at various laboratories, such as Fermi in Illinois, before being hired by AT&T Bell Laboratories in 1976, where she worked for 15 years.  She conducted research on the optical and electronic properties of layered materials, surface electrons of liquid helium films, strained-layer semiconductor superlattices, and most notably, the polaronic aspects of electrons in two-dimensional systems.

After teaching at Rutgers University from 1991-1995, Jackson was appointed chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission by Bill Clinton.  In 1999, Jackson became President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where she still serves today.  In 2004, she was elected president of AAAS and in 2005 she served as chairman of the board for the Society.  Dr. Shirley Jackson is married to a physicist and has one son.

Salute to a fellow QUEEN.👑

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Black History Month: A Salute to Eartha Kitt

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Born in North, a small town in Orangeburg County near Columbia, 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.

Around the age of 8, Kitt moved to New York City to live with an aunt. There, she eventually enrolled in the New York School of Performing Arts. Around the age of 16, Kitt won a scholarship to study with Katherine Dunham, and later joined Dunham’s dance troupe. She 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 perennially 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. Remarkably, Kitt only played Catwoman on a handful of episodes of the short-lived campy crime show, starring Adam West and Burt Ward, 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, and it remains on the air today.

Known for being blunt and short-tempered at times, Kitt found herself in a media firestorm in 1968. She attended a luncheon on the subject on juvenile delinquency and crime hosted by Lady Bird Johnson at the White House. At the event, Kitt shared her thoughts on the matter, telling the First Lady that “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed,” according to the Washington Post. “No wonder the kids rebel and take pot.” Her remarks against the Vietnam War offended Johnson, and made headlines. Her popularity took a significant hit after that, and she spent several years mostly performing abroad.

In 1978, 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.

Salute to a fellow QUEEN.👑

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Black History Month: A Salute to Serena Williams

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American tennis player Serena Jameka Williams was born on September 26, 1981 in Saginaw, Michigan. The youngest of Richard and Oracene Williams’s five daughters, Serena Williams, along with her sister Venus, would eventually dominate the sport at various times throughout her career, capturing 15 Grand Slam singles and 13 Grand Slam doubles titles.

Serena’s father—a former sharecropper from Louisiana determined to see his two youngest girls succeed—used what he’d gleaned from tennis books and videos to instruct Serena and Venus on how to play the game. At the age of 3, practicing on a court not far from the family’s new Compton, California, home, Serena withstood the rigors of daily two-hour practices from her father.

The fact that the family had relocated to Compton was no accident. With its high rate of gang activity, Richard Williams wanted to expose his daughters to the ugly possibilities of life “if they did not work hard and get an education.” In this setting, on courts that were riddled with potholes and sometimes missing nets, Serena and Venus cut their teeth on the game of tennis and the requirements for persevering in a tough climate.

By 1991, Serena was 46-3 on the junior United States Tennis Association tour, and ranked first in the 10-and-under division. Sensing his girls needed better instruction to become successful professionals, he moved his family again—this time to Florida. There, Richard let go of some of his coaching responsibilities, but not the management of Serena’s and Venus’s career. Wary of his daughters burning out too quickly, he scaled back their junior tournament schedule.

In 1995, Serena turned pro. Two years later, she was already No. 99 in the world rankings—up from 304 just 12 months before. A year later, she graduated high school, and almost immediately inked a $12 million shoe deal with Puma. In 1999, she beat out her sister in their race to the family’s first Grand Slam win, when she captured the U.S. Open title.

It set the stage for a run of high-powered, high profile victories for both Williams sisters. Over the next decade, Serena alone would win 23 Grand Slam titles—including 10 doubles championships with her sister, Venus Williams.

With their signature style and play, Venus and Serena changed the look of their sport as well. Their sheer power and athletic ability overwhelmed opponents, and their sense of style and presence made them stand-out celebrities on the court.

Proving to have much more than just tennis clout, Serena expanded her brand into film, television, and fashion. She developed her own “Aneres” line of clothing, and in 2002 People magazine selected her as one of its 25 Most Intriguing People. Essence magazine later called her one of the country’s 50 Most Inspiring African-Americans. She’s also made television appearances, and lent her voice to shows such as The Simpsons.

In 2002, she won the French Open, the U.S. Open, and Wimbledon, defeating Venus in the finals of each tournament. She captured her first Australian Open in 2003, making her one of only five women players to have complete grand slam sets. The win also fulfilled her desire to finish off what she’d dubbed “The Serena Slam.” In 2008, she won the U.S. Open and teamed with Venus to capture a second women’s doubles Olympic gold medal at the Beijing Games.

But Serena has had her scrapes and losses. In 2003, her sister Yetunde Price was murdered in Los Angeles, California. Three years later, Serena seemed burned out. Bitten by injuries, and just a general lack of motivation to stay fit or compete at the same level she once had, Serena saw her tennis ranking slump to 139.

Serena credits her faith as a Jehovah’s Witness, as well as a life-changing journey she made to West Africa for renewing her pride and competitive fire. By 2009, Williams had released a new autobiography, Queen of the Court, and won her place back atop the world’s rankings, winning both the 2009 Australian Open singles (for the fourth time) and Wimbledon 2009 singles (for the third time). She also won the doubles matches at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon that year.

But not everything went smoothly. Williams made headlines in September of that year, when she blasted a lineswomen for a foot-fault called near the end of a semi-final loss to eventual champion Kim Clijsters at the U.S. Open. The profanity-laced outburst included finger pointing and, according to the lineswoman, an alleged threat from Serena against her life.

Williams downplayed what happened, refuting the allegation that she’d threatened the woman. But the incident did not go over well with the tennis viewing public, nor the U.S. Tennis Association, which fined her $10,000 on the spot. Two months later, she was placed on two-year probation and ordered to pay another $82,500 to the Grand Slam committee for the episode&mdashthe largest punishment ever levied against a tennis player.

By early 2010, however, Serena was doing her best to move past the incident, gearing up for the upcoming Australian Open. Sure enough, in 2010, she won the Australian Open singles and doubles matches, as well as her fourth Wimbledon singles championship.

In 2011, Williams suffered a series of health scares, after doctors found a blood clot in one of her lungs, which kept her away from tennis for several months. Following several procedures, including one to remove a hematoma, speculation rose as to whether Williams would retire from the sport. Her health had improved by September 2011, however, and Williams competed at the U.S. Open, beating Victoria Azarenka to place second overall in the singles tournament.

Several months later, Williams beat Victoria Azarenka again in the Wimbledon 2012 semfinals, and went on to defeat 23-year-old Agnieszka Radwanska in an emotional three sets at Wimbledon 2012, claiming her fifth Wimbledon singles title. Following the win, Williams rushed to her family in the stands, with tears in her eyes, and hugged them for several seconds. In a post-Wimbledon interview with ESPN, she was asked whether she thought she could top the win, and answered: “Are you kidding? The [2012] U.S. Open, the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon 2013.”

Williams continued her winning streak to her next Grand Slam event. In September 2012, she beat out rival Victoria Azarenka to take the singles title at the U.S. Open. According to USA Today, Williams wasn’t sure that she’d emerge victorious. “I honestly can’t believe I won. I was really reparing my runner-up speech, because I thought, ‘Man, she’s playing so great.'”

By this time, Williams had captured 15 Grand Slam singles titles—surpassing tennis star Pete Sampras’s record of 14 titles—as well as 13 Grand Slam doubles titles. “I would like to leave a mark,” Williams once said about her standing in the tennis world. “I think obviously I will, due to the fact that I’m doing something different in tennis. But I don’t think I could ever reach something like a Martina Navratilova—I don’t think I’d ever play that long—but who knows? I think I’ll leave a mark regardless.”

In August 2012, at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, Williams defeated Maria Sharapova to take her first gold medal in women’s singles. The next day, she and sister Venus won gold in women’s doubles, against Czech Republic tennis stars Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka. Williams is now a four-time Olympic gold medalist.

In June 2013, Williams took her second French Open title—as well as her 16th Grand Slam singles title—in a 6-4, 6-4 victory over defending champion Sharapova. “I’m still a little bit upset about that loss last year,” Williams said in an interview with ESPN following the match. “But it’s all about, for me, how you recover. I think I’ve always said a champion isn’t about how much they win, but it’s about how they recover from their downs, whether it’s an injury or whether it’s a loss.”

Nearly one month later, Williams competed at Wimbledon, where she suffered a shocking loss (6-2, 1-6, 6-4) in the fourth round against German player Sabine Lisicki on July 1, 2013. The upset marked the end of a 34-match winning streak by Williams, a five-time champion. Of the defeat, Williams told Sports Illustrated, “I don’t think it’s a huge shock. [Lisicki] is a great player. Her ranking has no effect on what she should be. She should be ranked higher. She just has a super, super game to play well on grass.”

At the U.S. Open, Williams made a strong showing. She knocked out her younger rival Sloane Stephens in the fourth round to advance to the quarterfinals. Williams had lost to Stephens earlier in the year at the Australian Open. Continuing her winning streak, she defeated Victoria Azarenka to clinch the U.S. Open title. It was the second year in a row that the pair had faced off in the finals.

Williams won her third straight and sixth U.S. Open title in 2014 against Caroline Wozniacki. The victory was Williams’ 18th singles Grand Slam championship win.

Williams lives in Palm Beach, Florida with her sister, Venus, and their two dogs, a Jack Russell terrier and a Maltese.

Salute to a fellow QUEEN.👑

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Black History Month: A Salute to Sarah E. Goode

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Born into slavery in 1850, inventor and entrepreneur Sarah E. Goode went on to become the first African-American woman to be granted a patent by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, for her invention of a folding cabinet bed in 1885.

After receiving her freedom at the end of the Civil War, Goode moved to Chicago and eventually became an entrepreneur. Along with her husband Archibald, a carpenter, she owned a furniture store. Many of her customers, who were mostly working-class, lived in small apartments and didn’t have much space for furniture, including beds.

As a solution to the problem, Goode invented a cabinet bed, which she described as a “folding bed,” similar to what nowadays would be called a Murphy bed. When the bed was not being used, it could also serve as a roll-top desk, complete with compartments for stationery and other writing supplies.

Goode received a patent for her invention on July 14, 1885. She died in 1905.

Salute to a fellow QUEEN.👑

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Black History Month: A Salute to Charlotta Bass

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Charlotta Spears Bass was a journalist and activist who, as editor of the California Eagle, championed African-American equality and freedom.

Born on February 14, 1874, in Sumter, South Carolina, Charlotta Spears Bass worked as managing editor of the African-American newspaper The California Eagle. She and husband Joseph Bass called for an end to segregation and denounced groups like the Klu Klux Klan, among a host of other issues. Bass would later become the first black woman to run for U.S. vice president.

She migrated first to Rhode Island, and in 1910, to Los Angeles, California.  She sold subscriptions for the Eagle, a black newspaper founded by John Neimore in 1879. After Neimore’s death Bass bought the newspaper and became editor, renaming it the California Eagle. In 1914 she married Joseph Blackburn Bass, who was the newspaper’s editor until his death in 1934.

Prior to 1930, Bass was a staunch Republican, whose targets included the southern California Ku Klux Klan, as well as officials of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.  With the rise of fascism in Europe, she became convinced that the most effective opposition to Hitlerism lay in the Soviet Union.  Although never an avowed Marxist or a member of the Communist Party, USA, her editorials reflected her conviction that democracy, both at home and abroad, was in greater peril from the political right than from the left.

A dedicated supporter of Henry Wallace in 1948, she ran as the Progressive Party candidate for Vice President in the Presidential Election of 1952.  Bass was the first African American woman to be nominated for Vice President. Beginning in the mid-1940s she came under FBI surveillance which compiled an extensive file on her.  By the late 1940s, she worked with trade union leaders in the Los Angeles area, as well as political activists such as Paul Robeson.  Political persecution, along with competition from a rival black community newspaper, the Los Angeles Sentinel, prompted Bass to sell the Eagle, and focus on political activism, which she continued until her death in 1969.

Salute to a fellow QUEEN.👑

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Black History Month: A Salute to Ruby Dee

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Born Ruby Ann Wallace in Cleveland, Ohio, on October 27, 1922, African-American actress Ruby Dee has enjoyed a tremendous career on the stage, on television and in film. She grew up in New York’s Harlem neighborhood, and got involved in acting as a teenager. Dee began studying her craft at the American Negro Theatre, a company that also educated talents like Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte. Dee also attended Hunter College.

Dee had her first major career breakthrough in 1946, when she took the title role in the ANT’s Broadway production of Anna Lucasta. That same year, she met actor Ossie Davis while performing in the play Jeb. The couple married two years later and eventually had three children together. Dee soon landed some film roles, including playing the wife to a baseball great in The Jackie Robinson Story (1950).

Dee landed a starring role on Broadway in Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun in 1959. She earned great acclaim for her portrayal of Ruth Younger in this drama about a struggling African-American family. Sidney Poitier played her husband. Two years later, Dee reprised her role in the film version of the play.

Around this time, Dee joined forces with her husband to appear in the playPurlie Victorious. Davis wrote this southern comedy and he and Dee co-starred in it together. The pair reprised their roles for the 1963 film adaptation. Over the years, the couple worked on a number of projects together. They were also very active in the Civil Rights Movement, participating in marches and speaking out for racial equality. Both Dee and Davis were friends of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1968, Dee worked behind the scenes, co-writing the screenplay for Up Tight!. She also starred in this drama. On the small screen, Dee appeared on the popular primetime soap opera Peyton Place, and later had her own series on public television with her husband: With Ossie & Ruby.

Through the 1970s and ’80s, Dee gave a number of stellar performances. She picked up Drama Desk and Obie awards for the 1970 play Boesman and Lena, and an Emmy Award nomination for her role in the 1979 miniseriesRoots: The Next Generation. That same year, Dee starred in a family theatrical effort. She wrote the book and lyrics for the musical Take It from the Top!, for which her son, Guy, composed the music. Her husband directed the production.

In the early 1980s, Dee starred as author Zora Neale Hurston in the play Zora Is My Name, which later aired on PBS. She and her husband both won positive notices for their work with director Spike Lee on his film Do the Right Thing (1989). In 1991, Dee won an Emmy Award for her work on the television movie Decoration Day.

In 1998, Dee and her husband published With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together, a look at their life experiences during their 50 years of marriage. The book received warm reviews for its humor and candor. Dee also wrote and performed the one-woman show My One Good Nerve around this time.

Dee suffered a tremendous loss in 2005, when her husband, Ossie Davis, died unexpectedly. She had been away, filming a movie in New Zealand, at the time of his death; Davis had been working on a film entitled Retirement. That same year, Dee and Davis won a Grammy Award (best spoken word album) for the audio version of With Ossie and Ruby.

Continuing to work, despite her grief, Dee delivered one of her great performances in 2007’s American Gangster. She played the mother of notorious crime figure Frank Lucas, played by Denzel Washington, in the film. For her work, she received an Academy Award nomination and won a Screen Actors Guild Award.

Dee continued to perform into her 90s. Among her recent work, Dee was hired to narrate the Lifetime original movie Betty and Coretta (2013), which followed the lives of Coretta Scott King, played by Angela Bassett, and Betty Shabazz, played by Mary J. Blige, after the assassinations of their husbands.

On June 11, 2014, Dee died of natural causes at her home in New Rochelle, New York, at the age of 91.

Salute to a fellow QUEEN.👑

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Black History Month: A Salute to Madame C.J. Walker

06-11-2008-FP-History2Madam C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867, on a cotton plantation near Delta, Louisiana. Her parents, Owen and Minerva, were recently freed slaves, and Sarah, who was their fifth child, was the first in her family to be free-born. Minerva Breedlove died in 1874 and Owen passed away the following year, both due to unknown causes, and Sarah became an orphan at the age of 7. After her parents’ passing, Sarah was sent to live with her sister, Louvinia, and her brother-in-law. The three moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1877, where Sarah picked cotton and was likely employed doing household work, although no documentation exists verifying her employment at the time.

At age 14, to escape both her oppressive working environment and the frequent mistreatment she endured at the hands of her brother-in-law, Sarah married a man named Moses McWilliams. On June 6, 1885, Sarah gave birth to a daughter, A’Lelia. When Moses died two years later, Sarah and A’Lelia moved to St. Louis, where Sarah’s brothers had established themselves as barbers. There, Sarah found work as a washerwoman, earning $1.50 a day—enough to send her daughter to the city’s public schools. She also attended public night school whenever she could. While in St. Louis, Breedlove met her second husband Charles J. Walker, who worked in advertising and would later help promote her hair care business.

During the 1890s, Sarah Breedlove developed a scalp disorder that caused her to lose much of her hair, and she began to experiment with both home remedies and store-bought hair care treatments in an attempt to improve her condition. In 1905, Breedlove was hired as a commission agent by Annie Turnbo Malone—a successful, black, hair care product entrepreneur—and she moved to Denver, Colorado. While there, Breedlove’s husband Charles helped her create advertisements for a hair care treatment for African Americans that she was perfecting. Her husband also encouraged her to use the more recognizable name “Madam C.J. Walker,” by which she was thereafter known.

In 1907, Walker and her husband traveled around the South and Southeast promoting her products and giving lecture demonstrations of her “Walker Method”—involving her own formula for pomade, brushing and the use of heated combs.

As profits continued to grow, in 1908 Walker opened a factory and a beauty school in Pittsburgh, and by 1910, when Walker transferred her business operations to Indianapolis, the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company had become wildly successful, with profits that were the modern-day equivalent of several million dollars. In Indianapolis, the company not only manufactured cosmetics, but trained sales beauticians. These “Walker Agents” became well known throughout the black communities of the United States. In turn, they promoted Walker’s philosophy of “cleanliness and loveliness” as a means of advancing the status of African-Americans. An innovator, Walker organized clubs and conventions for her representatives, which recognized not only successful sales, but also philanthropic and educational efforts among African-Americans.

In 1913, Walker and Charles divorced, and she traveled throughout Latin America and the Caribbean promoting her business and recruiting others to teach her hair care methods. While her mother traveled, A’Lelia Walker helped facilitate the purchase of property in Harlem, New York, recognizing that the area would be an important base for future business operations. In 1916, upon returning from her travels, Walker moved to her new townhouse in Harlem. From there, she would continue to operate her business, while leaving the day-to-day operations of her factory in Indianapolis to its forelady.

Walker quickly immersed herself in Harlem’s social and political culture. She founded philanthropies that included educational scholarships and donations to homes for the elderly, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the National Conference on Lynching, among other organizations focused on improving the lives of African-Americans. She also donated the largest amount of money by an African-American toward the construction of an Indianapolis YMCA in 1913.

Madam C.J. Walker died of hypertension on May 25, 1919, at age 51, at the estate home she had built for herself in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. At the time of her death, Walker was sole owner of her business, which was valued at more than $1 million. Her personal fortune was estimated at between $600,000 and $700,000. Today, Walker is widely credited as one of the first American women to become a self-made millionaire.

Walker left one-third of her estate to her daughter, A’Lelia Walker—who would also become well-known as an important part of the cultural Harlem Renaissance—and the remainder to various charities. Walker’s funeral took place at her home, Villa Lewaro, in Irvington-on-Hudson, which was designated a National Historic Landmark, and she was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York.

In 1927, the Walker Building, an arts center that Walker had begun work on before her death, was opened in Indianapolis. An important African-American cultural center for decades, it is now a registered National Historic Landmark. In 1998, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp of Madam C.J. Walker as part of its “Black Heritage” series.

Salute to a fellow QUEEN.👑

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