“Hidden Figures” of American History – Paving the Way Forward

 

Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson

(August 26, 1918 – February 24, 2020)

 

Imagine, a little “colored girl” (the term at the time) born in White Sulphur Springs, Greenbrier County, West Virginia, in 1918, excelling as a mathematician at NASA and charting John Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission in 1962, making him the first American to orbit the Earth; rocketing the United States to the top spot in the race for space.

During the segregation era of the 1950s and ’60s, that’s just what Katherine Johnson did. Breaking barriers not only as an African-American woman but as a respected mathematician at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

 

Young Katherine  

From an early age, Katherine’s brilliance with numbers was recognized by her parents, Joshua and Joylette Coleman. But, because Greenbrier County did not offer public schooling for African-American students past the eighth grade, the Colemans arranged for 10-year-old Katherine to attend high school at nearby town Institute, West Virginia.

Katherine graduated from high school at 14 and entered West Virginia State College (now West Virginia State University), a historically black college. Taking every math course offered, Katherine graduated summa cum laude at 18 in 1937, with degrees in Mathematics and French.

 

Reading her story I reflected on the importance of the United States Supreme Court ruling Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938). The court held that states that provided public higher education to white students also had to provide it to black students, to be satisfied either by establishing black colleges and universities or by admitting black students to previously white-only universities.

 

 

This ruling demonstrates why we must stay vigilant and keep the doors open for everyone, lest we go back in time. Think about it, without Katherine’s expertise at NASA, who knows how the space program would have evolved.

John Glenn, not trusting his life to the new electronic calculating machines, requested Katherine to plot the trajectory for his Friendship 7 mission the old fashioned way, by hand on her desktop mechanical calculating machine.

 

Katherine Johnson calculating at her desk

 

Katherine remembers:

“If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.” John Glenn

 

John Glenn (July 18, 1921 – December 8, 2016)

 

Glenn’s flight was a success and marked a turning point in the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Katherine’s skill and accuracy in computerized celestial navigation spanned decades at NASA and were critical to the success of their missions. She calculated the trajectories, launch windows, and emergency back-up return paths for many flights from Project Mercury, including the early NASA missions of John Glenn and Alan Shepard, the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon, through the Space Shuttle program. Johnson also performed calculations for a planned mission to Mars.

One of the highlights of Katherine’s life was In 2015 when President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

 

 

Katherine Johnson Presidential Medal of Freedom

 

Hidden Figures, the 2016 Oscar-nominated biographical drama is an inspiring history lesson about Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, 3 brilliant African-American women whose careers represent one of the most remarkable, untold stories in American history.

 

Jannelle Monae, Taraji B. Henson, Octavia Spencer

I’m a black woman in my 60’s and before this film had never heard of these amazing women and their contributions to our country.

 

 

I wept with pride during the final credits at the realization of what they were able to accomplish in a time where their very presence was suspect and their gifts underestimated.

 

(L-R) Janelle Monae, Katherine Johnson, Taraji B. Henson, Octavia Spencer

 

I loved the racial mix of the crowd in the theatre and how the white couple next to me drew closer together as Kevin Costner’s character tore down the colored bathroom sign, symbolically standing up for the equality of Katherine and her role on his team.

 

 

Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson, an unsung hero of the space agency’s early days, made her transition on February 24, 2020. An inspiring trailblazer, she is integral to our shared American history and I encourage everyone to learn more about the incredible women who prove that we are capable of achieving great feats even when the odds say it’s impossible.

 

Believe in infinite possibilities!

Josephine Baker – Beyond “Bronze Venus”

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Josephine Baker 1920’s

Josephine Baker is most celebrated as the “Bronze Venus” and her infamous “Banana Dance” in Paris c. 1927. However, the sum of her life is so much more! I was blown away by her boldness and sexual freedom, but it wasn’t until I saw the 1991 HBO movie starring Lynn Whitfield as Josephine Baker that I started doing research on her life. Whitfield won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Special—becoming the first Black actress to win the award in this category which seems apropos since Josephine Baker was The Lady of firsts.

 

Lynn Whitfield - Josephine Baker Story 1991

I’ve always been intrigued by Baker’s provocative reputation but had no idea of her involvement in the fight for justice, racial equality, and the civil-rights movement.

Born  Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, (June 3, 1906 – April 12, 1975) she was an American-born French dancer, singer, and actress who came to be known in various circles as the “Black Pearl,” “Bronze Venus” and even the “Creole Goddess”. Her parents were Carrie McDonald and Vaudeville drummer Eddie Carson. Growing up poor she started working early cleaning homes and babysitting for wealthy white families.

josephine baker baby

Baker dropped out of school at the age of 13 and lived as a street child in the slums of St. Louis. Her street-corner dancing attracted attention from the Dixie Steppers which lead to her opportunity to appear in the groundbreaking and hugely successful Broadway revue Shuffle Along (1921). She performed as the last dancer in the chorus line, a position where, traditionally, the dancer performed in a comic manner, as if she were unable to remember the dance, until the encore, at which point she would perform it not only correctly but with additional complexity. Baker’s act set in motion the career which would make her an international star.

 

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Josephine Baker dancing the Charleston, 1926

 

Josephine traveled to Paris, France, for a new venture, and opened in “La Revue Nègre” on October 2, 1925, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Her erotic dancing and performing in next to nothing made her a sensation in Paris. The bohemian culture of interwar Paris embraced Baker’s skin color, allowing her to catapult to stardom. At the Folies Bergère, she performed the Danse Sauvage, wearing a costume consisting of a skirt made of a string of artificial bananas – voila! – a star is born.

 

 

Josephine Baker became the most successful and highest paid American entertainer working in France and the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture. Baker starred in three films which found success only in Europe: the silent film Siren of the Tropics (1927), Zouzou (1934) and Princesse Tam Tam (1935). She also starred in Fausse Alerte in 1940.

However, despite her acclaim in Europe, upon returning to New York in 1936  to star in the Ziegfeld Follies, she walked right back into good ole American racism. Audiences rejected the idea that a black woman could be so sophisticated and she was replaced by stripper Gypsy Rose Lee later in the run. Time magazine referred to her as a “Negro wench”. She returned to Europe heartbroken.

 

Josephine Baker and the French Resistance of World War II

Josephine returned to Paris in 1937, married a Jewish Frenchman, Jean Lion, and became a French citizen. In September 1939, when France declared war on Germany she was recruited by Deuxième Bureau, French military intelligence, as an “honorable correspondent”. Baker collected what information she could about German troop locations from officials she met at parties. She was awarded the Legion of Honor and given a Medal of Resistance for her work during World War II. She was also the first American woman to receive the Croix du Guerre, a notable French military honor.

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Josephine Baker Legion of Honor

 

 Josephine Baker and the Civil Rights Movement

Though based in France, Baker fought for American civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. When she arrived in New York with her fourth husband French composer and conductor Jo Bouillon, they were refused reservations at 36 hotels because she was black. In 1951 when the famous New York Stork Club refused to serve Baker because she was black, she wrote letters to President Truman and enlisted the aid of the NAACP which focused a spotlight on the issues of inequality and racism in popular establishments.

josephine bakerstork-club-furor

(Stork Club Controversy)

Josephine Baker was one of the few female speakers at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, introducing “Negro Women Fighters for Freedom”, including Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Congressman John Lewis. The NAACP, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, named May 20th Josephine Baker Day in her honor.

 

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Josephine Baker in French uniform March on Washington 1963

 

“The Rainbow Tribe”

Long before Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s multicultural family, there was Josephine Baker and her “Rainbow Tribe”. Josephine wanted to prove that “children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers.” Baker raised two daughters, French-born Marianne and Moroccan-born Stellina, and ten sons; Korean-born Jeannot (or Janot), Japanese-born Akio, Colombian-born Luis, Finnish-born Jari (now Jarry), French-born Jean-Claude and Noël, Israeli-born Moïse, Algerian-born Brahim, Ivorian-born Koffi, and Venezuelan-born Mara.

 

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Josephine Baker and “The Rainbow Tribe”

 

On April 12, 1975, we lost Josephine after she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, she was 68 years old. She performed right up to her death, starring in a retrospective revue at the Bobino in Paris, Joséphine à Bobino 1975, celebrating her 50 years in show business. The opening night audience included Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, (best known for recording the theme song to the James Bond film Goldfinger (1964), Diana Ross, and Liza Minnelli.

20,000 people lined the streets of Paris to watch her funeral procession. She received a 21 gun salute, making her the first Black American female to be buried with military honors in France. Josephine Baker leaves behind a legacy of accomplishments including breaking color barriers and fighting for justice and equality around the world. I thank her for channeling her celebrity into championing the rights of all.

 

A celebration of Josephine’s Life and Legacy

“You Can’t Take it With You” 1938

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I enjoy classic television just like classic films so I’m hooked on a tv station called METV. Perry Mason with Raymond Burr is one of my favorites so I usually catch an episode daily. I love the convoluted storylines and the less than plausible show ending of the murderer jumping up in court and hysterically coping to the charge; a full confession no less.

I say all this because an episode the other day featured the scenario of the rich father trying to eliminate his son’s less than a suitable new bride; “There’s $50,000 in the safe for you to fly to Paris and get a divorce.” That’s quite the offer.

Anyhoo, that got me thinking about the brilliant, “You Can’t Take it With You” the 1938 American romantic comedy film directed by Frank Capra, and starring Jean ArthurLionel BarrymoreJames Stewart and Edward Arnold.

 

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Cast with Director Frank Capra

 

Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hartthe film is about a man (Jimmy Stewart) from a family of rich snobs who becomes engaged to a woman (Jean Arthur) who speaks her mind and is from a good-natured but decidedly eccentric family.

The film received two Academy Awards from seven nominations: Best Picture and Best Director for Frank Capra. An iconic director, this was Capra’s third Oscar for Best Director in just five years, following It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936). It was also the highest-grossing picture of the year.

I love Jean Arthur’s character (Alice) because she is a strong woman who knows who she is and isn’t afraid to tell Jimmy Stewart (Tony) that his family can go to the blazes because they aren’t better than hers; as a matter of fact, her family understands what Jimmy’s doesn’t, that money isn’t everything and you can’t take it with you. Friends and family are what gives your life worth.

 

Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur

 

Alice, sensing that her engagement to Tony will not be well received by his parents informs Tony that if their engagement is to go forward, he must invite his parents to the house to meet her family. I’m not sure what Tony was trying to prove but, he gives his parents the wrong date so the house is in disarray with the usual family “madness” in full view. (I said they were eccentric.)

 

Just another Tuesday night at the Sycamore house.

For me, the lesson of the movie is to live life to the fullest and cherish your family and friends. Don’t worry about being judged by others, they’re probably just jealous of how happy you are and how miserable they feel.

 

In the words of “Auntie Mame” from the 1958 movie.

Forrest Gump Gratitude 🏃

Forrest_Gump_poster

“Forrest Gump” (1994)

“Run Forrest, Run!”

Every time I think of the movie “Forrest Gump”, that’s the first quote I hear. Then, “Life’s like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.”

 

forrestgumpchocolate

 

Quotes galore plus Lieutenant Dan (Gary Sinise) and Bubba (Mykelti Williamson). Love this movie!

Forrest Gump’s (Tom Hanks) life is a testimony to gratitude. He understands his challenges but is not hesitant to live his life to the fullest, including telling his childhood love, Jenny (Robin Wright) how he feels about her.

He gets it. Life gives you what you get, so don’t whine, go for it and make the most of your journey. Thank God for his mother, (Sally Field), she didn’t listen to what the”experts” had to say. She did whatever she had to do to provide Forrest with the foundation that he could do anything. With his braces, he had “magic” legs. Turn every so-called obstacle into an advantage. Once again, attitude is everything!

 

 

Forrest is a true inspiration and proof that with support and love we can overcome adversity. Love and compassion make the difference.

Mama, Jenny, Bubba, and Lieutenant Dan. Forrest loved and was deeply loved by those whose lives he touched.

forrestgumpallihavetosay

Die Hard 30th Anniversary

 

Die Hard

IN THEATERS NOV 11th, NOV 14th

New York City Detective John McClane becomes the only hope for a small group of hostages, trapped in a Los Angeles high-rise office building when it is seized by terrorists on Christmas Eve. This 30th Anniversary event includes exclusive insight from Turner Classic Movies.

I have fond memories of the energy and excitement in the theater upon Die Hard’s release and it has remained one of my favorite movies of all time. Although premiering on July 12th,1988, it’s the perfect Christmas themed movie which our family always ends up watching during the Holidays.

The plot of the story takes place on Christmas Eve with NYPD detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) arriving in Los Angeles, intending to reconcile with his estranged wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), at the Christmas party of her employer, the Nakatomi Corporation.

While McClane changes clothes at the festivities, the party is disrupted by the arrival of a German terrorist, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), and his heavily armed team: Karl, Tony, Franco, Theo, Alexander, Marco, Kristoff, Eddie, Uli, Heinrich, Fritz, and James. The group seizes the tower and secures those inside as hostages except for McClane, who slips away, and Argyle, (his limo driver) who gets trapped in the garage. (Wikipedia)

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Let the games begin because McClane is a tough New York cop to his very core and is bound and determined to foil the terrorist takeover as captioned on the movie poster.

“Twelve terrorists. One cop. The odds are against John McClane…That’s just the way he likes it.”

This highly successful American action thriller was directed by John McTiernan and written by Steven E. de Souza and Jeb Stuart. It was produced by the Gordon Company and Silver Pictures and distributed by 20th Century Fox.

Made for $28 million, Die Hard grossed over $140 million theatrically worldwide, with the film turning Willis into an action star, and became a metonym for an action film in which a lone hero fights overwhelming odds. The film’s success created the Die Hard franchise, which includes four sequels, a number of video games, and a comic book, and later in 2017 was selected for preservation in the United States National Film RegistryDie Hard has been named one of the best action and Christmas-themed films ever made. The film also ranks No. 20 on Empires 2017 list of the 100 greatest movies of all time. (Wikipedia)

I didn’t really care for the sequels, but I highly recommend checking out the original on the big screen at this 30th Anniversary screening. Find out where it’s showing in your area here.

“Here ’tis, Mama’s Favorite 285 lbs of Jam, Jive and Everything!”🎶

Fats suffer

Fats Waller 

(May 21, 1904 – December 15, 1943)

The title sums it up. “Jam, Jive and Everything!.”  Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller is one of the most charming, talented and prolific artists to ever tickle the ivories of a stride piano.

We share a birthday – May 21st.  His last recording session was in Detroit, Michigan – home of my birth. I guess it was destiny that his music and spirit would come to bring me such joy!

What excites me about Fats?

When I was a kid and first saw the groundbreaking musical Stormy Weather (1943) I was familiar with its star Lena Horne because my father loved him some Miss Lena. But for me, the wonderful surprise of the film was Fats Waller.

Fats Waller and Lena Horne

When you see him you’re totally invested.  His personality jumps off the screen.  People talk about presence.  Fats created “presence!”

Fats is credited with advancing the musical style – stride piano.  Although known for his two most famous compositions:  “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and “Honeysuckle Rose”, he penned many more uncredited hits such as “I Can’t Give You Anything but love, Baby” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street”.

Waller copyrighted over 400 songs and began his professional career as a pianist at the age of 15, working in cabarets and theaters.

His life and artistry became the Broadway musical revue “Ain’t Misbehavin‘ produced in 1978.  (The show and star Nell Carter won Tony Awards.)

Aintmisbehavin

Recordings of Fats Waller were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame which is a special Grammy Award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least 25 years old and that have “qualitative or historical significance”.

 

Here ’tis, a tribute to Fats’ brilliance and charm:

 

Fats Waller – Ain’t Misbehavin’ – Stormy Weather (1943)

 

This song cracks me up!

Fats Waller – Your Feet’s Too Big! (1936)

 

Fats Waller – Honeysuckle Rose (1929)

 

Thanks, Fats for the jam, jive, and everything!

R.E.S.P.E.C.T – Aretha Franklin – Queen of Soul RIH💜🎶

Aretha Louise Franklin (March 25, 1942 – August 16, 2018)

 

Growing up in Detroit, Michigan in the 1960’s, every day on my radio I jammed to the greatest music of all time; Motown, Sam Cooke, the Godfather of Soul James Brown, and, the incomparable Aretha Franklin. She sang from the very depths of her soul becoming an icon and forever soundtrack of our lives.

Aretha began her career as a child singing gospel at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, where her father, C. L. Franklin, was the minister. In 1960, at the age of 18, she embarked on a secular career, recording for Columbia Records.

After signing to Atlantic Records in 1967, Ms. Franklin achieved commercial acclaim and success with songs such as “Respect”, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, “Spanish Harlem” and “Think”. By the end of the 1960s, she was being called “the Queen of Soul“.

Recording 112 charted singles on Billboard, including 77 Hot 100 entries, 17 top ten pop singles, 100 R&B entries and 20 number-one R&B singles, Aretha became the most charted female artist in the chart’s history. She won 18 Grammy Awards and is one of the best-selling musical artists of all time, having sold over 75 million records worldwide.

Aretha received numerous honors throughout her career including a 1987 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in which she became the first female performer to be inducted. She was inducted to the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2005.

In August 2012, Aretha was inducted into the GMA Gospel Music Hall of Fame and listed in at least two all-time lists on Rolling Stone magazine, including the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, and the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.

Today we both mourn and celebrate the life of a musical pioneer, Civil Rights Activist, and without dispute the reigning Queen of Soul.

Let’s take a look back at her remarkable career and journey through the soul-stirring music of Ms. Aretha “Queen of Soul” Franklin.