DCS: shirley hemphill

Can I take your order?

Born in North Carolina, Shirley Hemphill was an aspiring comedian while she supported herself with a job in a factory. She sent a cassette recording of her routine to popular comedian Flip Wilson. Impressed by the tape, Wilson sent Shirley a new cassette recorder, a dozen roses and an invitation to visit the set of his television show. She was so motivated and inspired by her meeting with Wilson, she quit her job and bought a one-way bus ticket to Los Angeles. She performed evenings at The Comedy Store, while she waited tables during the day.

In 1976, a casting agent in the audience at The Comedy Store was so taken by Shirley’s act, she offered her a guest role on the sitcom Good Times. Producer Norman Lear offered Shirley her own show, but she declined. Instead, she auditioned for, and eventually won, the role of “Shirley,” the sarcastic waitress on What’s Happening!, a comedy loosely based on the 1975 film Cooley High. What’s Happening! was a fairly successful series for ABC, but tensions and demands among the cast members – not including Shirley – forced a cancellation after three seasons.

Shirley auditioned, unsuccessfully, for the role of the cook on the continuation sitcom Archie Bunker’s Place. The role went to actress-comedian Anne Meara. One day after losing that part, Shirley was given her own show, One in a Million. The series, after failing to attract an audience, was cancelled six months into its initial run. She returned to the stages of comedy clubs and made infrequent guest appearances on episodic television. She made her motion picture debut in 1993 in CB4, co-starring with Chris Rock. She followed that with a role in the comedy Shoot the Moon. She continued to perform stand-up, making appearances on The Tonight Show, Evening at the Improv, and BET’s Black Comedy Showcase. She was a regular at The Laugh Factory comedy club in Los Angeles.

In December 1999, a gardener working outside of Shirley’s West Covina, California home, saw her lying on the floor of her bedroom. An autopsy revealed that she had died from renal failure. She was dead for nearly two weeks when she was discovered. Shirley was 52 years old.

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IF: house

AKA mr. proper

In the 1950s, Linwood Burton ran a successful ship cleaning business with accounts up and down the east coast of the United States. His workers, however, suffered regular injuries from the caustic nature of the cleansers they used. A concerned Burton, using his basic knowledge of chemistry, began formulating a solution that could cut through grime without the danger of injury to his workers. He developed Mr. Clean.

In 1958, Burton sold his invention to consumer goods giant Proctor & Gamble. Within six months, it was one of the best selling cleansers on the market. Proctor & Gamble began marketing Mr. Clean as a household cleaning agent. As a part of their advertising campaign, they hired actor House Peters Jr., who had been featured in numerous B Westerns and episodic television, to be the embodiment of the Mr. Clean character. House Peters portrayed Mr. Clean in television commercials for the better part of two decades.

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DCS: tammi terrell

aint no mountain high enough

A teenage Tammi Terrell, still using her birth name of Montgomery, signed on as a back-up singer with soul legend James Brown in 1963. While on tour, she entered into a sexual, yet physically abusive, relationship with the singer. Tammi eventually left Brown after he beat her for not watching his entire performance.

Following a brief and unsuccessful stint with Checker Records, Tammi enrolled in a pre-med program at the University of Pennsylvania in her hometown of Philadelphia. She was approached by singer Jerry Butler who asked the young ingenue to accompany him on some nightclub dates, a performance schedule that would still allow her to continue her studies. After a performance in Detroit, Motown Records founder and producer Berry Gordy offered Tammi a contract. Tammi signed with Motown just prior to her 20th birthday. She joined the “Motortown Revue” tour and became the opening act for The Temptations. She also began a heated romance with Temptations singer David Ruffin. Ruffin proposed marriage, but Tammi soon discovered that he already had a wife and three children, in addition to another girlfriend. Ruffin became abusive and once even hit Tammi in the head with his motorcycle helmet. There is speculation that this action aggravated a pre-existing condition that had earlier surfaced as the migraines Tammi suffered as an adolescent.

Motown later paired Tammi up with singer Marvin Gaye. The duo recorded separate versions of the song “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Motown engineers edited the two versions together and released it to high praise. In the spring of 1967,  it reached Number 19 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Number 3 on the R&B charts, thus making Tammi a star. The pair’s follow-up tunes, “Your Precious Love,” “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You,” and “If This World Were Mine” were all hits, as well. Tammi and Gaye went out on a promotional tour, despite Gaye’s reluctance to give live performances. During a show at Virginia’s  Hampden–Sydney College, Tammi fell and Gaye was able to catch her. She was helped off the stage and was later diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.

Tammi went through surgery and recovery, returning to Motown to record a pair of songs with Marvin Gaye, including “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” which hit Number 1 on the charts. Her condition, however, worsened and Tammi was subjected to additional surgeries. She was confined to a wheelchair and suffered from blindness and substantial hair loss. Following her eighth operation in January 1970, Tammi went into a coma, never to regain consciousness. She died on March 16, one month before turning 25. Marvin Gaye was devastated and never fully recovered, emotionally, from the loss. His 1971 album What’s Going On, was inspired, in part, by Tammi’s death.

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IF: olympics

the greatest 45 minutes ever in sports

At the 1936 Summer Olympics, held in Nazi-controlled Berlin, Germany, Jesse Owens single-handedly crushed Adolf Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy. Jesse, an African-American son of sharecroppers, won four gold medals in track and field in Berlin before an astonished crowd. Despite his achievements and the accolades he received, he was not offered an invitation to the White House upon his return to the United States.

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DCS: lorraine hansberry

first

When A Raisin in the Sun opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in 1959, it was the first Broadway show written by an African-American playwright. Lorraine Hansberry, at 29, was also the youngest to win a New York Critics’ Circle award.

Lorraine grew up in Chicago’s South Side, where her father, a successful real estate broker, regularly incurred the wrath of his white neighbors. Lorraine, however, benefited from the wealth of intellect brought into the home by family friends Paul Robeson and W.E.B DuBois. When she enrolled in the University of Wisconsin’s writing program, she became politically active and her writing took the same course.

At 23, Lorraine married producer-songwriter Robert Nemiroff and the couple moved to New York City. Nemiroff wrote “Cindy, Oh Cindy,” which was a hit in 1956 by Vince Martin and the Tarriers, and later covered by Eddie Fisher. This sudden income for the couple allowed Lorraine to write full-time.

Based on discovered writings, it is believed that Lorraine was a closeted lesbian. She contributed pieces to The Ladder, the magazine of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the United States. Lorraine was a vocal activist for gay rights and often wrote about feminism and homophobia.

In 1957, Lorraine completed her most famous work, A Raisin in the Sun. It was produced on Broadway two years later and featured a nearly exclusive African-American cast, including Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Louis Gossett, Ivan Dixon and Glynn Turman, with John Fiedler being the sole white cast member. Based on the play’s success, NBC tapped Lorraine to write a program about slavery. She presented the network with a script called The Drinking Gourd. Although NBC executives were pleased by the piece, the show was never produced.

Lorraine was selected to direct the 1961 interracial musical Kicks and Co., but after a lukewarm reception in previews, the production never made it to Broadway as intended.

A heavy smoker for most of her life, Lorraine was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1963. She underwent two unsuccessful operations. Her show, the controversial (for its time) The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, which was currently running on Broadway, closed the night of her death. Lorraine was 34.

After her death, Robert Nemiroff adapted a number of Lorraine’s unpublished works into the play To Be Young, Gifted and Black, which became the longest-running Off-Broadway play of the 1968–69 season.

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IF: mythology

I love me and you love me

In Greek mythology, Liriope, a nymph, was raped by Cephissus, the river god. A mystical seer told Liriope that their son, Narcissus, would live a long life, as long as he never recognized his own beauty.

Narcissus discovered his reflection in the waters of a spring and stared at himself for eternity.

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DCS: recy taylor

strong, invincible

Recy Taylor died on December 28, 2017 at the age of 97.

In September 1944, Recy Taylor, a newly married 25-year old sharecropper was walking home from church with her friend Fannie Daniel and Daniel’s teenage son. The trio was accosted by a car with Hugo Wilson behind the wheel. One of the passengers, US Army Private Herbert Lovett, drew a gun and began yelling false, hate-filled and racist accusations at Recy. He forced her into the car and then sped away. Lovett guided the vehicle to a secluded, wooded area where he focred Recy to undress. One by one, Lovett, Wilson and four of the other men brutally raped Recy as she pleaded for mercy. The sixth man, Billy Howerton, recognized Recy and did not participate in the attack.

Fannie Daniel reported Recy’s abduction to the police. Wilson was questioned and fined $250, but no one else was called for interrogation, despite the word of three eyewitness. The black community of Abbeville, Alabama was outraged. The NAACP of Montgomery sent an investigator, Rosa Parks, to Abbeville. Parks’ investigations led her to form a defense team with support from national labor unions, African-American organizations, and women’s groups.

The trial took place in the first week of October 1944, with an all-white, all-male jury. However, none of the assailants had been arrested  and the Abbeville sheriff never arranged a police line-up. The only witnesses were Recy’s family and friends. The case was dismissed within five minutes. A grand jury indictment was needed to reopen the case.

In the meantime, Recy received death threats and her home was firebombed. The angry black community petitioned Alabama Governor Chauncey Sparks to launch an investigation. It came to light that the Abbeville sheriff made false statements regarding arrests. Interviews with the assailants yielded wild stories of consensual sex and that Recy was a known prostitute. Even after rapist Joe Culpepper admitted that he and his cohorts were “looking for a woman to attack,” a county jury still failed to present an indictment.

Recy and her family lived in fear for two decades in Abbeville, before moving to Florida. After a divorce and the accidental death of her daughter, failing health brought Recy back to Abbeville.

In 2011, the Alabama House of Representatives apologized to Recy Taylor on behalf of the state for its failure to prosecute her attackers. The apology was delivered by Abbeville Mayor Ryan Blalock as Recy visited Rock Hill Holiness Church, the house of worship from which she was kidnapped in 1944.

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DCS: jean porter

second banana

Jean Porter was one of those actresses that appeared in over three dozen films but you never knew her name. The button-cute, petite blonde was fourteen when she made her motion picture debut in an uncredited role in Song and Dance Man with Claire Trevor. She went on to land bit parts in numerous films throughout the 30s and 40s, including One Million B.C. as Carole Landis‘ sister and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. She signed with MGM and appeared alongside the studio’s top stars like Mickey Rooney, Esther Williams and Abbott & Costello. Several of her film roles showcased Jean’s singing talents, as well as her dancing ability. On television, Jean made guest appearances on Sea Hunt, 77 Sunset Strip and The Abbott & Costello Show.

On the set of the 1946 World War II drama Till The End of Time, she met director Edward Dmytryk, whom she would marry two years later. Dmytryk was named part of the “Hollywood Ten,” a group of writers and directors accused by the House Un-American Activities Committee of Communist activity and sympathy. Jean and Dmytryk, along with their children, moved to England to escape persecution. They eventually returned to the U. S. and, after serving minimal jail time, Dmytryk directed Left Hand of God, Jean’s final theatrical film.

Jean retired from show business in 1961, keeping busy with her family. She published a biography of Jess Stacy, a pianist in Benny Goodman’s band. Stacy was also a neighbor of Jean’s. Jean regularly made appearances at autograph shows and contributed to “Classic Images Magazine,” catering to film fans and their love of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Jean passed away in January 2018 at the age of 95.

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