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Dorothy Donegan was born in Chicago on April 6, 1922. Her father, Donazell Donegan, was a cook, and her mother, Ella Donegan, rented out rooms in the family’s large apartment. Donegan’s mother used the rent money to support her daughter’s music studies. Donegan readily admitted that it was her mother who truly appreciated her talent, listened to her, and encouraged her to put feeling into her music. Her mother even served as her first business manager.

With her mother’s encouragement, Donegan began taking piano lessons when she was five years old and obtained her musical education in Chicago’s public schools. By the age of ten, she was already performing as a church organist, and began playing jazz professionally in local nightclubs during her high-school years. At 14 years old, she became the first African American to perform at Costello’s Grill in Chicago. At the age of 17, she graduated from Chicago's DuSable High School, and was hired to play jazz piano with The Bob Tinsley Band.

In 1942, Donegan recorded her first album of blues and boogie-woogie on the Bluebird label. However, despite her early jazz success, she still aspired to be a classical pianist. Consequently, she continued her classical music education, studying piano at the Chicago Musical College and later attending the University of Southern California. One year after releasing her first jazz album, Donegan became the first African-American performer and first jazz pianist to perform in concert at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall. The concert earned Donegan a frontpage review in the Chicago Tribune and caught the attention of legendary jazz pianist Art Tatum. Blessed with an enormous orchestral capacity at the keyboard, Donegan was fluent in several styles of jazz, as well as with European classical music.

In the 1950s, she developed her flamboyant performance style, which at times tended to obscure her extraordinary piano playing, deep sense of swing, and wide-ranging repertoire. She would often spice her performances with uncanny impressions of other pianists and singers, skills that enhanced her abilities as an entertainer. She spent the bulk of her career performing in trios with bass and drums. Her appearance at the Sheraton Centre Hotel in 1980 broke all previous attendance records.

Unfortunately, her first six albums proved to be obscure compared to her successes in performance. In 1987, a recorded appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival and her live albums from 1991 were met with acclaim. Even so, she remained best known for her live performances. Ben Ratliff argued in The New York Times that "her flamboyance helped her find work in a field that was largely hostile to women.

Donegan was often referred to as “the wild one,” “the triumphantly unfettered, “the shoulder-shaking, finger-popping, hip-slapping lioness of piano rooms.” At the same time, however, critics also were quick to add that Donegan was, “wild but polished,” “possessor of enormous technical skill,” and “brilliant, ridiculously talented.” Donegan was outspoken about her view that sexism, along with her insistence on being paid the same rates as male musicians, had limited her career.

As Donegan entered the last decade of her life, she finally seemed to be earning recognition commensurate with her talent. She was awarded a Jazz Masters fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1992 and played at the White House in 1993. The following year she received an honorary doctorate from Roosevelt University, and in 1995 she made a guest appearance on Sesame Street, playing the blues with Hoots the Owl. During this period Donegan also lectured at several universities, including Harvard, Northeastern, and the Manhattan School of Music. Her last big show was in 1997 at the Concord Jazz Festival in the Bay Area.

Despite being underrated during her lifetime, Donegan was an exceptional pianist with a rich harmonic sense who broke race and gender barriers. She was a musical genius who was ahead of her time.

or looking for the silver lining in a bad situation. Practicing gratitude means acknowledging what is still good alongside the mess."

Heidi Barr

Sometimes good things do not come in the packaging that we expect.

I have come to notice that in my own life when things I have prayed or worked for come to pass, but are presented in a form or in a manner that I did not expect, I often run the risk of missing the blessing.

I think this is because we build up in our minds how our dreams will come to pass, how our requests will be granted, and how our problems will be resolved. We develop an expectation of how things will look in the end—the proverbial ‘happily ever after.’ We get so singularly focused on what we expect to see, that we often miss the moment that is right in front of us. We miss opportunities for celebration and thanksgiving.

I have a track record of being a first-rate offender in this regard. Over the years, I’ve had many situations where I have wanted specific changes to occur and/or certain opportunities to come to pass. I’ve prayed for everything from job promotions, to the healing of a loved one, to financial stability, to the reconciliation of relationships. The list goes on and on. I have waited expectantly for the answers and when the answers did not come in the packaging I expected, I was not happy. In fact, in times when the answers ultimately did come in the form or manner that I originally expected, but I had to go through an uncomfortable or challenging process beforehand, I wasn’t exactly oozing with gratitude after experiencing the additional adversity.

I am sure I am not alone.

Have you felt (or would you feel) disheartened when your prayer for promotion at work comes not in the form of a new job title and increased salary, but instead in the form of an assignment to lead a project consisting of a team of your peers with difficult personalities and subpar work ethic?

Have you felt (or would you feel) disappointed when your desire for a reliable mode of transportation to and from work comes not in the form of a new car, but instead in the form of a free metro pass?

Have you ever wanted to reconcile with a friend who despite your best efforts never reciprocated your efforts to rekindle the friendship?

Some iteration of these types of scenarios have likely happened to all of us at some point.

After years of missing the blessings in such situations, I have come to learn that I must keep my eyes wide open and learn how to discern and appreciate the good amidst the bad. Often, alongside the mess, is a whole lot of good. Of course, there are situations where it is difficult to find the blessing, but even in the most difficult challenges of our lives, the blessings will, at some point, become apparent, and we will be able to discern how we grew through each experience.

The next time the answer to what you’ve been waiting for doesn’t come in the packaging you visualized or would have preferred, I challenge you to first take a moment to express gratitude for the answer, and second, think about how the answer actually does benefit you, bless you and/or position you better moving forward. If you do these two things, I believe that you will experience more contentment and peace in your navigation of the life you’ve been gifted.

I certainly have.

Born in 1855 in Trenton, Kentucky, Josephine Leavell was an accomplished pianist, organist and music teacher. She attended Roger Williams University in Nashville, Tennessee where she met prominent Baptist minister, Lieutenant Colonel Allen Allensworth, the first African American to reach the rank of lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. The couple married in 1877. They had two daughters, Eva and Nella.

Upon Rev. Allenwsorth’s retirement from the military in 1906, the family settled in Los Angeles, California. During that time, they became inspired by the idea of establishing a self-sufficient, all-Black California community where African Americans could live free of the racial discrimination that pervaded post-Reconstruction America. Their dream was to build a community where Black people might live and create “sentiment favorable to intellectual and industrial liberty.”

On June 30, 1908, the Allensworths and their business partner Professor William Alexander Payne established the California Colony and Home Promoting Association. The Association purchased 20 acres of land from the Pacific Farming Company with the goal of establishing a town for Black soldiers. The land, situated in Tulare County, about 40 miles north of Bakersfield, in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, was divided into individual parcels, forming “a colony of orderly and industrious African Americans who could control their own destiny.”

Allensworth's reputation drew people from all over the country, causing some to buy property sight-unseen in order to support the efforts. California's first African American school district was established there in 1910. Soontherafter, residents elected the first African-American Justice of the Peace in post-Mexican California. By 1914, the Allensworth community had grown to 900 acres of deeded land.

An activist and leader in her own right, Josephine founded the town’s Women’s Improvement League, sat on the school board, and donated the property for the Mary Dickinson Memorial Library, the town’s public library which was named for her mother.

Allensworth’s prosperity peaked in 1925, after which time the lack of water available for irrigation began to plague the town. The water needed for irrigation was never supplied in the amount promised by the Pacific Farming Company, the land development firm that handled the original purchase. As a result, town leaders became engrossed in lengthy and expensive legal battles with the company, expending scarce financial resources on a battle they would not win.

By 1930 the town’s population had dropped below 300 people, as residents and nearby farmers began to leave in search of other employment. The deficient water supply would no longer sustain the town’s agricultural and ranching enterprises. By 1966, the town was scheduled for demolition when arsenic was found in the water supply. The state of California eventually stepped in and preserved the land and the buildings, designating the area as the “Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park.”

To this day, Allensworth remains the only California community to be founded, financed and governed by African Americans. One historian described Allensworth as “a planned experiment in civic power that had significant impact around the state and meaning for all…Just as the town touched diverse peoples and places around California, today Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park attracts a wide array of visitors of all ethnic groups—drawn to this symbol of the universal dream of freedom.”

This text is excerpted from:

Monthly Words of Encouragement

World Changers of the Month Archive

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