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Angelou, Maya (4 Apr. 1928–28 May 2014), writer, performer, and activist, was born Marguerite Ann Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, the second child of Bailey Johnson, Sr., a doorman and Navy dietitian, and Vivian Baxter, a registered nurse, cocktail hostess, and Merchant Marine. Her brother, Bailey, Jr., nicknamed her Maya, and the name stuck. After their parents’ divorce, the two young children were sent alone on a train from San Francisco to Stamps, Arkansas, to be met and raised by their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, and their father’s brother, Uncle Willie, who was disabled. Grandmother Henderson had managed to build and own a general store with living quarters in the back, and it was also a safe black community gathering place in the segregated town. Uncle Willie provided a steady stream of good reading and high scholastic expectations, and their grandmother, “Momma,” taught them no-nonsense life skills, took them to church, and loved them....

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Helen Gahagan Douglas. Before her marriage to Melvyn Douglas. Photograph by Arnold Genthe. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-G401-T-4775-002).

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Douglas, Helen Gahagan (25 November 1900–28 June 1980), actress and politician, was born in Boonton, New Jersey, the daughter of Walter Hamer Gahagan, a civil and contracting engineer, and Lillian Rose Mussen. In 1905 the family moved to an exclusive neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. Helen’s authoritarian father made all the family decisions; her mother stressed education and the religious values of the Episcopal church. She also had a penchant for the opera and took Helen to every performance of the Metropolitan Opera. As a child Helen often staged dramatic presentations atop her father’s billiard table for siblings and friends. Although bright, she was a poor student and dreamed of being an actress, a career choice neither parent found acceptable....

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Gray, James Harrison (17 May 1916–19 September 1986), newspaper publisher, broadcast executive, and politician, was born in Westfield, Massachusetts, the son of Lyman Gray, an attorney, and Clara (maiden name unknown). James Gray spent his childhood in Springfield, Massachusetts, where his father served as district attorney. He received his A.B. in English from Dartmouth College in 1937, lettering in several sports and earning Phi Beta Kappa honors. After graduating Gray enrolled at the University of Heidelberg in Germany to study world history. While there in 1939 he contributed news articles about Nazi Germany to the ...

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Hapgood, Norman (28 March 1868–29 April 1937), journalist, critic, and reformer, was born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Charles Hutchins Hapgood, a farm implement manufacturer, and Fanny Louise Powers. He grew up in wealth in Alton, Illinois. In 1890 he graduated with an A.B. from Harvard University, where he was strongly influenced by Professor ...

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Hays, Lee Elhardt (14 March 1914–26 August 1981), songwriter, singer, and political activist, was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, the son of the Reverend William Benjamin Hays, a Methodist minister, and Ellen Reinhardt, a court reporter. The youngest of four children, Lee Hays left home at age fourteen for Emory Junior College Academy in Oxford, Georgia, a Methodist prep school from which he graduated in 1930. He had hoped to take a bachelor’s degree, but during the depression none of his family members could help with tuition....

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Loy, Myrna (02 August 1905–12 December 1993), actress and political activist, was born Myrna Adele Williams in Radersburg, Montana, the daughter of David Franklin Williams, a cattle rancher, and Della Mae Johnson, a singer. After her father’s death in the 1918 influenza epidemic, the family moved to Culver City, California. While attending high school, Loy auditioned for movie studios and helped support her family by teaching children’s dancing classes and working as an assistant film cutter at Horsley Studios. She also danced in the prefeature chorus line at Grauman’s Chinese Theater before coming under contract to Warner Brothers. Her first role was a “human chandelier” in ...

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Means, Russell Charles (10 November 1939–22 October 2012), Oglala/Yankton activist, American Indian Movement leader, and actor, was born on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the eldest son of Walter “Hank” Means (Oglala Lakota) of Pine Ridge and Theodora Louise Feather (Yankton), of the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. His father worked as an auto mechanic for the Bureau of Indian Affairs at Pine Ridge. His mother served as secretary to the superintendent of the Pine Ridge Reservation. Following the matrilineal ways of the Sioux (the term used to refer collectively to the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota), Russell Means was raised by his mother’s extended family. The Means family relocated to Vallejo, California, in 1942. They moved to Huron, South Dakota, at the end of World War II, only to return to Vallejo soon thereafter, where Walter worked as a welder in the navy shipyards, and Theodora took a position as a secretary at an air force base. In 1954 the Means family bought a home in the Oakland area....

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Carl Sagan. Courtesy of Cornell University.

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Sagan, Carl (09 November 1934–20 December 1996), space scientist, author, science popularizer, TV personality, and antinuclear weapons activist, was born Carl Edward Sagan in Brooklyn, New York. He was the son of Rachel Molly Gruber Sagan and garment industry worker Samuel Sagan, an immigrant from the Ukraine. Carl Sagan's Jewish background encouraged him “to ask questions early,” as he later observed (Davidson, p. 57); so did his mother's skeptical, sometimes acidic personality. At age five, he became interested in astronomy when he read in a library book that the stars are distant versions of our sun. His interest in science soared when his parents took him to the New York World's Fair of 1939–1940, which offered an optimistic and (as he later acknowledged) “extremely technocratic” view of the future (Davidson, p. 14)....

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Terkel, Studs (16 May 1912–31 Oct. 2008), oral historian, radio broadcaster, and political activist, was born Louis Terkel in the Bronx, New York. He was the third son of Samuel Terkel, a tailor, and Anna (Annie) Finkel, a seamstress, who had immigrated from Russia in ...