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Ralph Abernathy Photograph by Warren K. Leffler, 1968. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (U.S. News and World Report Collection: LC-U9-19265).

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Abernathy, Ralph David (11 March 1926–17 April 1990), civil rights leader and minister, was born David Abernathy in Linden, Alabama, the son of William L. Abernathy and Louivery Valentine Bell, farmers. A sister’s favorite professor was the inspiration for the nickname “Ralph David,” and although Abernathy never made a legal change, the name remained with him from age twelve....

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A. Bronson Alcott. At age fifty-three. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-54729).

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Alcott, A. Bronson (29 November 1799–04 March 1888), Transcendentalist and reformer, was born Amos Bronson Alcox in Wolcott, Connecticut, the son of Joseph Chatfield Alcox and Anna Bronson, farmers. Farming the rocky Connecticut soil was not lucrative, and Alcott worked hard with his parents to help support seven younger siblings, thereby limiting his opportunities for a formal education. He attended the local district school until age ten, but thereafter his intellectual growth largely depended on his own reading and discussions with friends of a similar scholarly bent, the first being his cousin William Andrus Alcott. William later attended Yale College and established a career as a physician and popular author of health manuals, but continuing poverty prevented Bronson from obtaining a college education. At age fifteen he, like many of his young Connecticut contemporaries, began peddling small manufactured goods, first in Massachusetts and New York, then in Virginia and the Carolinas....

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Anderson, Matthew (25 January 1845–11 January 1928), Presbyterian pastor, educator, and social reformer, was born in Greencastle, Pennsylvania, the son of Timothy Anderson and Mary Croog. One of fourteen children, he was raised in the comforts of a rural, middle-class home, less than thirty miles from historic Gettysburg. On a typical day of his youth, he faced the physical demands of farm life and experienced the movement back and forth between two cultures. One, dominated by commerce and materialism, was uncharacteristically open to the Andersons, who owned lumber mills and real estate at a time when most black Americans were dehumanized and disenfranchised by chattel slavery. The other was a culture defined by close family ties and Presbyterian piety. At home Matthew heard Bible stories and dramatic tales of runaway slaves; indeed, religious piety and the pursuit of racial freedom were dominant themes in his life. These early experiences inspired Anderson so deeply that, by the time he left Greencastle in 1863, he had decided on the ministry as his vocation. Study at Oberlin College was the first step toward serving his religious faith, his racial group, and his vision of social justice....

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Apess, William (31 January 1798–Apr. or May 1839), writer, Methodist minister, and Native-American activist, was born in Colrain, Franklin County, Massachusetts, the son of William Apes, a shoemaker and laborer, and Candace (surname unknown), probably a slave or indentured servant in the house of Captain Joseph Taylor of Colchester, Connecticut. According to Apess’s autobiographical accounts, his father was part Anglo-American and part Pequot and his mother “a female of the [same] tribe, in whose veins a single drop of the white man’s blood never flowed,” although some evidence indicates that she may have been part African American. Only in myth do such beginnings spawn great achievements. At age three, abandoned by his parents, he was nearly beaten to death by his maternal grandmother while she was in a drunken rage, a rage that Apess later understood as an effect of the theft by whites of Native American lands, culture, and pride. Bound out at four, he spent his youth as an indentured servant in three different white households in Connecticut and as an infantryman in a New York State militia company during the War of 1812. He received his only formal education, six winter terms of school, between the ages of six and eleven....

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Barrows, Samuel June (26 May 1845–21 April 1909), minister, reformer, and editor, was born in New York City, the son of Richard Barrows, a printer, and Jane Weekes. He was four when his father died and nine when his mother asked her husband’s cousin, printing-press innovator ...

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Blackwell, Antoinette Louisa Brown (20 May 1825–05 November 1921), minister, reformer, and author, was born in Henrietta, New York, the daughter of Joseph Brown, a farmer and justice of the peace, and Abigail Morse. Antoinette proved a precocious child, following her older siblings to school at the age of three. The preaching of evangelist ...

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Bliss, William Dwight Porter (20 August 1856–08 October 1926), clergyman and reformer, was born in Constantinople (now Istanbul), the son of Edwin Elisha Bliss and Isabella Holmes Porter, Congregationalist missionaries from New England. A graduate of Amherst College (1878) and the Hartford Theological Seminary (1882), he served Congregational churches in Denver, Colorado, and South Natick, Massachusetts, from 1882 until 1885. In 1884 he married Mary Pangalo of Constantinople; they had two children....

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Cameron, Donaldina Mackenzie (26 July 1869–04 January 1968), missionary and social reformer, was born on the South Island of New Zealand, the daughter of Allan Cameron and Isabella Mackenzie, sheep ranchers. The family relocated to the San Joaquin Valley in California in 1871 and began raising sheep. After his wife’s death in 1874, Allan Cameron and his children moved to the San Jose area, where he worked for other ranchers and his older daughters kept house. Donaldina attended a local girls’ school, and after the Camerons moved to Oakland she went to high school. Her father became manager of a sheep ranch near Los Angeles, and the family relocated once again when Donaldina was age fifteen. She then began studying to become a teacher at Los Angeles Normal School, but in 1887 she discontinued her studies after the death of her father....

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Channing, William Henry (25 May 1810–23 December 1884), Unitarian minister and reformer, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Francis Dana Channing, an attorney, and Susan Higginson. Although his father died in 1810, Channing was well-connected with influential New England families through both parents and was raised in an atmosphere of privilege. He grew up in the household of his maternal grandfather Stephen Higginson, a merchant, and his education was directed to a significant extent by his uncle ...

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Cheney, Ednah Dow Littlehale (27 June 1824–19 November 1904), social reformer and author, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the daughter of Sargent Smith Littlehale, a partner in a successful grocery business, and Ednah Parker Dow. By Cheney’s own admission she was precocious and undisciplined as a young girl, attending several private schools without distinguishing herself at any of them. Her religious upbringing was unorthodox if not unusual for the times. She described her father as a Universalist, liberal in both politics and religion. An early supporter of woman suffrage, her father was, however, a firm “Unionist” who found the fiery, abolitionist sermons of ...

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Coffin, William Sloane, Jr. (01 June 1924–12 April 2006), minister and civil rights and peace activist, was born in New York City, the second child of William Sloane Coffin, Sr., a businessman and philanthropist, and Catherine Butterfield. When his father died suddenly in 1933 at the depths of the Great Depression, most of the family fortune evaporated, and the Coffin family’s life at the pinnacle of metropolitan society changed irrevocably. Catherine Coffin took her children to Carmel, California, and young William, who was called Bill, left his duplex penthouse on East Sixty-Eighth Street and the Buckley School for a modest bungalow and public schools. Four years later his uncle, the eminent Presbyterian minister ...

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Comstock, Elizabeth Leslie Rous Wright (30 October 1815–03 August 1891), Quaker minister and reformer, was born in Maidenhead, Berkshire, England, the daughter of William Rous, a shopkeeper, and Mary Kekwick. Her parents were Quakers with family ties to the Society of Friends going back to the seventeenth century. They reared her in a strict Quaker atmosphere, an upbringing reinforced by education in Quaker schools at Islington and Croyden. In 1839 Elizabeth Rous returned to Croyden as a teacher; in 1842 she joined the staff of the Friends school at Ackworth. She remained there until her marriage in 1848 to Leslie Wright, a Quaker market gardener of Walthamstow in Essex. They had one child. After her husband’s death in 1851, Elizabeth Wright kept a shop for a time at Bakewell in Devonshire. In 1854 she immigrated with her daughter and an unmarried sister to Belleville, Ontario. Four years later she married John T. Comstock, a prosperous Quaker farmer of Rollin, Michigan, where Elizabeth Comstock and her daughter moved....

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Conway, Moncure Daniel (17 March 1832–15 November 1907), reformer, minister, and author, was born in Stafford County, Virginia, the son of Walker Peyton Conway, a planter and judge, and Margaret Eleanor Daniel, a self-taught homeopathic doctor. Born to privilege, Conway was expected to emulate powerful, prominent male relatives. But his desire to please his father was exceeded by the influence of his remarkable mother and other female relatives. Together, these women emphasized sharing over hierarchy, personal fulfillment as well as duty, and encouraged, despite his father’s disapproval, Conway’s love of literature....

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Dorothy Day. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-111099).

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Day, Dorothy (08 November 1897–29 November 1980), founder of the Catholic Worker movement and Catholic Worker, a monthly newspaper, founder of the Catholic Worker movement and Catholic Worker, a monthly newspaper, was born in Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of John Day, a newspaperman, and Grace Satterlee. Her father was a frustrated novelist and horseracing writer whose work took the family to Oakland and Chicago. While in Chicago, Day won a scholarship to the University of Illinois in 1914. She dropped out after two years to return to New York with her family, but she had become a socialist in college and was soon estranged from her father. She lived on the Lower East Side, where she wrote for the ...

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De Baptiste, Richard (11 November 1831–21 April 1901), Baptist leader and race advocate, was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, to free parents, Eliza (maiden name unknown) and William De Baptiste. Born in a slave state when individuals were fined and incarcerated for teaching blacks, enslaved or free, De Baptiste was fortunate to have parents who earnestly sought to educate their children and some relatives in their home, despite the law and heavy surveillance. In 1846 the De Baptistes moved to Detroit, Michigan. De Baptiste then received additional education and for some time attended classes at the University of Chicago. Having been the leading building and manufacturing contractor in Fredericksburg, the elder De Baptiste, after an unsuccessful partnership in a grocery enterprise, returned to his earlier work. Richard De Baptiste became a partner in the business before his twenty-first birthday and served for some years as its manager. From 1858 to about 1861 he also taught black youth in the public schools of Mount Pleasant, Hamilton County, Ohio....

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Doherty, Catherine de Hueck (15 August 1896–14 December 1985), Catholic social activist and author, was born Catherine Federovna Kolyschkine in Nizhni Novgorod (now Gorki), Russia, the daughter of Theodore Kolyschkine, a businessman and diplomat, and Emma Thomson. Catherine’s mother, immersed in the Russian Orthodox faith, taught her to “see the faith of Christ in the poor” while warning her that she was “born under the shadow on the Cross.” Born into Russian nobility, she was educated in a Catholic school in Alexandria, Egypt, from 1903 until 1906, when her father’s career in international business necessitated the relocation of his family. This early sojourn was a portent of things to come, for her wanderings around the world and her interest in Roman Catholicism led to a fervent desire to bridge the gap separating the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity....

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Drumgoole, John Christopher (15 August 1816–28 March 1888), founder of Catholic orphanages in New York City, was born in Granard, County Longford, Ireland, the son of John Drumgoole and Bridget (maiden name unknown). His father died when John was six years old, and his mother emigrated to the United States in 1823. John joined her in New York the following year....