On this date in 1799, fossil hunter Mary Anning was born. At age twelve or thirteen, she and her brother unearthed a 17-foot-long fish skeleton near their home on the southern coast of England. The prehistoric fish, called an Ichthyosaurus (pronounced IK-thee-oh-SAWR-us), or “fish lizard,” had “flippers like a dolphin, a mouth like a crocodile, and a pointed snout like a swordfish,” wrote Shelley Emling in The Fossil Hunter.
The discovery of the Ichthyosaurus launched the greatest fossil-finding career of the 19th century. Anning later uncovered a complete nine-foot Plesiosaurus (pronounced PLEH-see-oh-SORE-us), or “near lizard.” Despite her discoveries, she was prevented from presenting her work to the Geological Society of London, which prohibited women as members or guests, and the geologists who purchased her skeletons often gave Anning no credit when publishing their findings. “Even when her first Ichthyosaur was cited in scholarly journals, her part in its retrieval was omitted,” Emling wrote.
BOBBY CAIN was “the victim of some of the most angry racial vituperation in recent American history,” a Collier’s reporter wrote in a 1956 story about the 12 African American students who integrated a school in Clinton, Tennessee. The eldest of the Clinton 12, Cain survived a school year scarred by vicious slurs, hate-mongering, and physical violence to become the first black graduate of a formerly all-white public school in the South on May 17, 1957.
Even graduation day simmered with danger: Fearing for Cain’s life, the principal assigned a group of football players to look out for the seventeen year old, who was nonetheless struck in the face by an unknown aggressor when changing out of his cap and gown.
The troubles for Cain and the other 11 African-American students attempting to integrate Clinton High began after a peaceful first day of school. In the middle of that first week a pair of white supremacists stirred up an angry anti-integration mob. Arriving at school one morning, the black students saw racially insulting signs carried by screaming protesters. “Let me tell you, it definitely wasn’t a good time with all those people calling us the n-word,” Alfred Williams recalled 50 years later.
Cain was ready to call it quits but his mother told him, “You’ve got to take it.”
His make-or-break moment came one day when he found himself and another black student followed off-campus at lunchtime by 200 or so white antagonists. Pushed off a sidewalk into a street, Cain pulled out his pocketknife and confronted the mob. “After that day, I found a little courage of my own,” he told George McMillan of Collier’s. “That night I determined to stick it out for Bobby Cain, and not for anybody else.”
Cain later graduated from Tennessee State University and worked for many years for the State of Tennessee Department of Human Services. In October of 1957, Clinton High School was bombed and severely damaged by white supremacists. It was rebuilt and reopened in 1960.
ON THIS DATE in 1766, Dicey Langston was born. At sixteen in 1781, she learned that the pro-British “Bloody Scouts” were planning to attack a band of Whigs (pro-Revolution Americans) at a spot near Spartanburg, South Carolina. Langston made a nighttime journey through woods, swamplands, and the Tyger River in time to inform the small Patriot force, which included her brother, of the impending ambush. When the Bloody Scouts arrived, the Whigs were long gone, their lives saved by the young woman’s courage and fortitude.
Langston cemented her status as a Revolutionary War heroine with two other acts of valor. Refusing to divulge Whig secrets when accosted by a Loyalist company, she was reported to have said, “Shoot me if you dare! I will not tell you.” She later challenged an enemy, this time a drunken British officer, to shoot her instead of her crippled father. The officer spared them both.
ON THIS DATE in 1926, nineteen-year-old Dmitri Shostakovich debuted his Symphony No. 1 to rave reviews at the Leningrad Philharmonic. “Few left the concert without a keen awareness of having participated in a very special event,” wrote biographer Laurel E. Fay, “the debut of a major new symphonic composer.”
Shostakovich may have been as young as sixteen when he began composing his Symphony No. 1 in F Minor. Described as “a brilliant, talented, serious, yet irreverent student” at the Petrograd Conservatory, he initially approached the project with doubts, claiming in a letter that his symphony was starting out “quite bad, but I have to write it so I can have done with the conservatory this year.” Shostakovich gathered enthusiasm as the work progressed, even clashing with a teacher who thought the third movement “unperformable in tempo”; confident in his talent and instincts, the student refused to make changes based on the opinions of others.
Shostakovich believed the enthusiastic reception to his First Symphony vindicated his willfulness, although some critics thought the third movement weak and artificial. He would compose 15 symphonies and 15 quartets, but some believe Shostakovich never topped his first effort; a New York magazine critic wrote in 1972 that the composer’s “first symphony said it all, succinctly and brilliantly.” Said music scholar Gerard McBurney, “From its sinewy sinister opening for solo trumpet and bassoon, through its helter-skelter piano-dominated scherzo and somberly thoughtful slow movement right to its strident blast of trumpets and trombones at the very end, this piece … still keeps audiences amazed and on the edge of their seats.”