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African-American Firsts: Scholarship

College graduate (B.A.): Alexander Lucius Twilight, 1823, Middlebury College; first black woman
to receive a B.A. degree: Mary Jane Patterson, 1862, Oberlin College.

Edward Alexander Bouchet

physicist, chemist
Born: 1852
Birthplace: New Haven, Conn.

Born in New Haven, Connecticut, Bouchet was the first African American to graduate (1874) from
Yale College. In 1876, upon receiving his Ph.D. in physics from Yale, he became the first African
American to earn a doctorate. Bouchet spent his career teaching college chemistry and physics.

Died: 1918

Alain Locke

writer, educator
Born: 1886
Birthplace: Philadelphia, Pa.

In addition to his long list of academic honors, Locke is credited with helping to initiate and propel
the Harlem Renaissance. Locke graduated from Harvard University in 1907 and became the first
black Rhodes scholar. He studied at Oxford from 1907 to 1910 and the University of Berlin from
1910 to 1911, then went on to receive a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard in 1918. Locke
developed a strong interest in African culture and began encouraging black artists and musicians
in America to explore their African roots through their work. Through his efforts, the Harlem
Renaissance movement gained national attention. He edited and wrote numerous magazines,
anthologies, and books about black life and culture. Locke taught at Howard University in
Washington, D.C., for nearly 40 years.

Died: 1954

Simmons, Ruth
Simmons, Ruth, 1945–, American educator and college president, b. Grapeland, Tex., grad.
Dillard Univ. (B.A., 1967) and Harvard (A.M., 1970; Ph.D., 1973). As a scholar she was primarily
concerned with the francophone literature of Africa and the Caribbean. On the faculty and in the
administration at Princeton Univ. from 1983 to 1990, she was associate dean of the faculty
(1986–90). From 1990 to 1991, she was provost of Spelman College. She returned to Princeton
in 1992, serving as vice provost. In 1995 she was named president of Smith College, becoming
the first African-American woman to head a top-ranked college or university. While there she
established the first women's college engineering program and founded Meridians, a journal
addressing the concerns of minority women. Simmons left Smith in 2001 to become president of
Brown Univ.

African-American Firsts: Literature

• Novelist: Harriet Wilson, Our Nig (1859).
• Poet: Lucy Terry, 1746, "Bar's Fight." It is her only surviving poem.

Wheatley, Phillis
Wheatley, Phillis, 1753?–1784, American poet, considered the first important black writer in the
United States. Brought from Africa in 1761, she became a house slave for the Boston merchant
John Wheatley and his wife Susanna, who, recognizing her intelligence and wit, educated her
and encouraged her talent. Her work, which was derivative, was published in the collection
Poems on Various Subjects (1773) and in various magazines. A second volume existed in
manuscript, but it was not published and was subsequently lost. Although Wheatley traveled to
England, where she was much admired, and soon thereafter obtained her freedom, she
eventually died in poverty.

See her Life and Works (1916, repr. 1969).

Brooks, Gwendolyn Elizabeth

Brooks, Gwendolyn Elizabeth, 1917–2000, American poet, b. Topeka, Kans. She grew up in
the slums of Chicago and lived in that city until her death. Brooks's poems, technically
accomplished and written in a variety of forms including quatrains, free verse, ballads, and
sonnets, deal with the experience of being black and often of being female in America. She
attracted critical attention with her first volume, A Street in Bronzeville (1945). Brooks went on to
win the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for Annie Allen (1949), becoming the first black woman to
win this award. Her verse was collected in The World of Gwendolyn Brooks (1970), which also
includes an earlier novelette, Maud Martha (1953). Her work took on a more radical tone
beginning with In the Mecca (1968); the subsequent poems in Riot (1970) are written in street
dialects. Her other writings include Primer for Blacks (1980) and To Disembark (1981).

Morrison, Toni
Morrison, Toni, 1931–, American writer, b. Lorain, Ohio, as Chloe Ardelia (later Anthony)
Wofford; grad. Howard Univ. (B.A., 1953), Cornell Univ. (M.F.A., 1955). Her fiction is noted for its
poetic language, lush detail, emotional intensity, and sensitive observation of American life as
viewed from a variety of African-American perspectives. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970),
is the story of a girl ruined by a racist society and its violence. Song of Solomon (1977; National
Book Award) established her as one of America's leading novelists. It concerns a middle-class
man who achieves self-knowledge through the discovery of his rural black heritage. Her later
fiction includes Beloved (1987; Pulitzer Prize), a powerful account of mother love, murder, and
the legacy of slavery; and Jazz (1992), a tale of love and murder set in Harlem in the 1920s. Her
other novels are Sula (1973), Tar Baby (1981), Paradise (1997), and Love (2003).

Among Morrison's other works are the essay collections Race-ing Justice, En-Gendering Power
and Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (both: 1992); several children's
books, including The Big Box (2000), written with her son, Slade; a play, Dreaming Emmett
(1986); a song cycle, Honey and Me (1992), written with André Previn; and an opera, Margaret
Garner (2003). Awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature, she is the first African American to
win the coveted prize. Morrison, who was an influential editor at Random House for nearly two
decades, has been a professor at Princeton Univ. since 1989 and is the founder (1994) of the
Princeton Atelier, a writers' and performers' workshop.

Hayden, Robert
Hayden, Robert (hā'dun) [key], 1913–80, American poet, b. Detroit. After earning his M.A. at the
Univ. of Michigan, he taught there and at Fisk Univ. Although the tone of his poems is quiet and
often loving, he has a considerable gift for irony and his insights can be shattering. His Ballad of
Remembrance (1962) was awarded a prize at the World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar,
Senegal, in 1966.

Dove, Rita
Dove, Rita, 1952–, American poet, b. Akron, Ohio. Her first poetry collection, Ten Poems, was
published in 1977. Her verse is at once concise, precise, and evocative. History as seen from an
African-American perspective is perhaps her most important theme: the history of her country, as
in the slavery poem sequence of The Yellow House on the Corner (1980), and the history of her
own family, as in the Pulitzer Prize–winning volume Thomas and Beulah (1986), her
grandparents' life story in verse. In her many collections, Dove also writes compellingly of
mother-daughter relations, e.g., Mother Love (1995), everyday life, travel, and the aesthetic
experience itself. From 1993 to 1995 she was U.S. poet laureate, the first African American to
hold the post. An English professor at the Univ. of Virginia, Dove has also written short stories, a
play, and a novel.

Todd Duncan
Age: 95

baritone who was the first black singer to join the New York City Opera. He created the role of
Porgy in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.

Died: Feb. 28, 1998.

Anderson, Marian
Anderson, Marian, 1897–1993, American contralto, b. Philadelphia. She was the first African
American to be named a permanent member of the Metropolitan Opera Company, as well as the
first to perform at the White House. Anderson first sang in Philadelphia church choirs, then
studied with Giuseppe Boghetti. She began her concert career in 1924 and achieved her first
great successes in Europe. Her rich, wide-ranged voice was superbly suited to opera, lieder, and
the spirituals that she included in her concerts and recordings. In 1939, when the Daughters of
the American Revolution (DAR) refused to allow her to perform at Constitution Hall in
Washington, D.C., Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her DAR membership in protest and sponsored
Anderson's concert at the Lincoln Memorial. In 1955 Anderson made her debut with the
Metropolitan Opera. She was appointed an alternate delegate to the United Nations in 1958 and
in 1963 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Count Basie
Pianist / Bandleader / Jazz Musician

Born: 21 August 1904

Died: 26 April 1984
Birthplace: Red Bank, New Jersey
Best known as: Swing bandleader and performer of "One O'Clock Jump"

Name at birth: William James Basie

William "Count" Basie started out playing piano and organ for theater and vaudeville in the 1920s.
Influenced by Fats Waller, Basie formed his own big band, playing swing jazz and emphasizing
hot soloists like saxophonist Lester Young. During the 1940s and '50s, Basie and his orchestra
were one of the most popular big bands in the U.S., with hits like "One O'Clock Jump" and
"Jumpin' at the Woodside." Even after the bop era of jazz had overwhelmed swing, Basie had
success with smaller bands, continuing to perform and record up to his death in 1984.

Extra credit: The story goes that an emcee or radio announcer dubbed him "Count," figuring
there was already a King (of swing, Benny Goodman), a Duke (Ellington) and an Earl (Hines)...
The popular 1966 live album Sinatra at the Sands featured Basie and his orchestra (conducted by
Quincy Jones) with Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas.
Ella Fitzgerald
Jazz Singer

Born: 25 April 1918

Died: 15 June 1996 (Complications from diabetes)
Birthplace: Newport News, Virginia
Best known as: Jazz vocalist known for scat singing
Ella Fitzgerald was a pop and jazz singer who had her first hit record in 1938 with the Chick
Webb Band's "A-Tisket, A-Tasket." Raised in New York City, she began recording with bands in
1935 and embarked on a solo career in 1942. Known primarily for her jazz-oriented approach in
phrasing and rhythm -- she's easily the most famous woman scat singer in history -- Fitzgerald
became a mainstream popular success on the strength of her Songbook recordings, a series of
interpretations of American songwriters. Her first in the series was a 1956 release of Cole Porter
songs; she went on to record songs by Duke Ellington, George Gershwin and others. Around the
same time she popped up on television and in the movies, most memorably in a highlight of the
film Pete Kelly's Blues (1955). Later in her career she recorded and performed with orchestras as
well as small combos, and by the time she retired in 1992 she had assumed the role of America's
grande dame of popular jazz. In nearly sixty years of recording she was the recipient of just about
every major award, including more than a dozen Grammys and a Presidential Medal of Freedom
(1992, presented by George H.W. Bush).

Mitchell, Arthur
Mitchell, Arthur, 1934–, American dancer, b. New York City. Mitchell studied in New York City
and appeared on Broadway and with various companies at home and abroad. He joined the New
York City Ballet in 1956, becoming a soloist in 1959. The first black principal dancer of a major
company in history, he remained with the company for 20 years. His performance as Puck in A
Midsummer Night's Dream (1964) was especially acclaimed. He also performed with distinction
in Western Symphony, Agon, Afternoon of a Faun, and Ebony Concerto. In 1968, Mitchell
founded a ballet school in Harlem, New York City, in order to provide classical academic training
to black students. By 1970 under his direction the school developed into the Dance Theatre of
Harlem, the first black classical ballet company. His works include Rhythmetron (1968) and Ode
to Otis (1969).

African-American Firsts: Film

• First Oscar: Hattie McDaniel, 1940, supporting actress, Gone with the Wind.
• Oscar, Best Actor/Actress: Sidney Poitier, 1963, Lilies of the Field; Halle Berry, 2001,
Monster's Ball.
• Oscar, Best Actress Nominee: Dorothy Dandridge, 1954, Carmen Jones.
• Film director: Oscar Micheaux, 1919, wrote, directed, and produced The Homesteader,
a feature film.
• Hollywood director: Gordon Parks directed and wrote The Learning Tree for Warner
Brothers in 1969.

African-American Firsts: Television

• Network television show host: Nat King Cole, 1956, "The Nat King Cole Show"; Oprah
Winfrey became the first black woman television host in 1986, "The Oprah Winfrey
• Star of a network television show: Bill Cosby, 1965, "I Spy".

African-American Firsts: Sports

• Major league baseball player: Jackie Robinson, 1947, Brooklyn Dodgers.
• Elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame: Jackie Robinson, 1962.
• NFL quarterback: Willie Thrower, 1953.
• NFL football coach: Fritz Pollard, 1922–1937.
• Golf champion: Tiger Woods, 1997, won the Masters golf tournament.
• NHL hockey player: Willie O'Ree, 1958, Boston Bruins.1
• World cycling champion: Marshall W. "Major" Taylor, 1899.
• Tennis champion: Althea Gibson became the first black person to play in and win
Wimbledon and the United States national tennis championship. She won both
tournaments twice, in 1957 and 1958. In all, Gibson won 56 tournaments, including five
Grand Slam singles events. The first black male champion was Arthur Ashe who won the
1968 U.S. Open, the 1970 Australian Open, and the 1975 Wimbledon championship.
• Heavyweight boxing champion: Jack Johnson, 1908.
• Olympic medalist (Summer games): George Poage, 1904, won two bronze medals in
the 200 m hurdles and 400 m hurdles.
• Olympic gold medalist (Summer games): John Baxter "Doc" Taylor, 1908, won a gold
medal as part of the 4 x 400 m relay team.
• Olympic gold medalist (Summer games; individual): DeHart Hubbard, 1924, for the
long jump; the first woman was Alice Coachman, who won the high jump in 1948.
• Olympic medalist (Winter games): Debi Thomas, 1988, won the bronze in figure
• Olympic gold medalist (Winter games): Vonetta Flowers, 2002, bobsled.
• Olympic gold medalist (Winter games; individual): Shani Davis, 2006, 1,000 m

Other African-American Firsts

• Licensed Pilot: Bessie Coleman, 1921.
• Millionaire: Madame C. J. Walker.
• Billionaire: Robert Johnson, 2001, owner of Black Entertainment Television; Oprah
Winfrey, 2003.
• Portrayal on a postage stamp: Booker T. Washington, 1940 (and also 1956).
• Miss America: Vanessa Williams, 1984, representing New York. When controversial
photos surfaced and Williams resigned, Suzette Charles, the runner-up and also an
African American, assumed the title. She represented New Jersey. Three additional
African Americans have been Miss Americas: Debbye Turner (1990), Marjorie Vincent
(1991), and Kimberly Aiken (1994).
• Explorer, North Pole: Matthew A. Henson, 1909, accompanied Robert E. Peary on the
first successful U.S. expedition to the North Pole.
• Explorer, South Pole: George Gibbs, 1939–1941 accompanied Richard Byrd.
• Flight around the world: Barrington Irving, 2007, from Miami Gardens, Florida, flew a
Columbia 400 plane named Inspiration around the world in 96 days, 150 hours (March
23-June 27).