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Anderson, Florence Lunt (29 October 1910–16 December 1985), foundation executive, was born in Brooklyn, New York, the eldest child of physician Charles A. Anderson and Florence Gould Anderson. For ten years Anderson attended the private preparatory Berkeley Institute (later Berkeley Carroll School), graduating in 1927. Although she performed well in school, especially in mathematics, Anderson focused on extracurricular activities, including swimming, canoeing, polo, drama, and basketball. Riding was a lifelong interest, and she successfully competed in horse shows....

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Bambara, Toni Cade (29 March 1939–09 December 1995), writer, activist, and filmmaker, was born Miltona Mirken Cade in New York City, the second child of Helen Brehon Cade, a native of Georgia, and Walter Cade, a New Yorker. She was named for the employer at the Winchester Hat Factory where her father worked as a hat packer before becoming a New York City subway transit worker. Around kindergarten age she informed her mother that she was renaming herself Toni. She credited her mother, a classical piano teacher who worked in civil service, with fostering her fierce race pride and giving her space to dream. Her father introduced her to the authentic rhythms and vocabulary of Black English as spoken in northern urban communities at the time. Before she completed elementary school, her parents divorced....

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Borlaug, Norman Ernest (25 March 1914–12 September 2009), biologist, agronomist, and humanitarian, was born in Saude, Iowa, to grandchildren of Norwegian immigrants. He grew up on his family’s working farm, where he learned to fish, hunt, raise corn and oats, and tend livestock. His grandfather encouraged him to pursue education, so Norman left the family farm in 1933 to enroll in the University of Minnesota. His college years coincided with the depths of the Great Depression. To earn money, Borlaug left school in 1935 and found employment with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). In the CCC he saw the effect of starvation first hand, and this experience affected him deeply. Long before “food security” became a common phrase, Borlaug knew its significance. In 1937 he graduated with a B.S. in forestry from the College of Agriculture and secured a job with the United States Forest Service. In 1938 he married former classmate Margaret Gibson. The couple had three children....

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Brown, James (03 May 1933–25 December 2006), soul singer, dancer, songwriter, and bandleader, was born in Barnwell, South Carolina, the son of Joe Gardner, an itinerant laborer, and Susie Behling. In his first autobiography he explains that his father took the surname Brown from the woman who raised him, and he claims that his own name was James Joe Junior Brown, then James Joe Brown, Jr., and finally, James Brown. But his birth certificate gives Joseph James Brown. He was raised mainly by his father in a physically abusive relationship, and by his father’s aunt Minnie Walker. His mother was present intermittently, apparently driven away by his father’s beatings. This was a pattern that Brown himself would reproduce in countless relationships with women....

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Byrne , Jane (24 May 1933–14 November 2014), mayor of Chicago, was born Jane Margaret Burke in Chicago, Illinois. The second of six children of William Patrick Burke and Katherine Marie Nolan, she came from a well-heeled family (her father was a vice president of Inland Steel). She was raised in a devoutly Catholic household; two of her uncles were priests. The Burke family was also politically aware. Among her earliest “radio memories” were the voices of President ...

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Chamberlain, Mariam K. (24 April 1918–02 April 2013), feminist economist, foundation officer, and women’s studies advocate, was born Mariam Kenosian in Chelsea, Massachusetts, the second child and only daughter of Avack Kenosian, a factory worker, and Zabel Kenosian, a homemaker. Her parents immigrated to the United States in 1912 and 1913 in the midst of ongoing Turkish violence against the Armenian community. Despite her parents’ poverty and lack of support for women’s higher education, Mariam was the valedictorian of her class at Chelsea High School. She was accepted to Radcliffe College in 1936, paying her deposit with a $50 prize she had won as the first girl marbles champion of Chelsea. Living at home, Mariam won scholarships, borrowed, and worked as a secretary, completing a B.A. in economics in June 1940. In 1941 she was accepted for the Ph.D. program in economics at Harvard University....

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Christian, Barbara (12 December 1943–25 July 2000), pioneering scholar in black feminist literary criticism, was born Barbara Theresa Christian in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, one of six children of Ruth Christian and Judge Alphonso A. Christian. A precocious scholar from a young age, Christian graduated as high school valedictorian from Saints Peter and Paul Catholic School in St. Thomas at the age of fifteen. She matriculated to Marquette University, a Jesuit Catholic university located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she earned a B.A. cum laude in 1963. She planned to become a medical doctor and declared a major in chemistry but changed course during her sophomore year when she discovered T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Wasteland.” Christian pursued her doctorate at Columbia University in New York City, in part because of its close proximity to Harlem. She studied contemporary British and American literature, obtaining an M.A. in 1964 and a Ph.D. with distinction in 1970. Her dissertation, “Spirit Bloom in Harlem. The Search for a Black Aesthetic during the Harlem Renaissance: The Poetry of Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, and Jean Toomer,” foreshadowed Christian’s lifelong commitment to illuminating and promoting the rich African American literary canon....

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Cleveland, James (05 December 1932–09 February 1991), gospel singer, songwriter, and musician was born in Chicago, Illinois, to Ben Cleveland and Rosie Lee during the Great Depression. His father worked on a WPA project while his mother was a day worker. James worked as a paper boy to supplement the family income; he first met ...

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Clifton, Lucille (27 June 1936–13 February 2010), (27 June 1936–13 Feb. 2010), poet, author of children’s books, memoirist, and college professor, was born Thelma Lucille Sayles in Depew, New York. Her parents, Thelma Moore Sayles and Samuel Louis Sayles, moved north during the Great Migration, Thelma coming from Georgia and Samuel from Virginia. Strong-willed and proud of his family roots going back to Dahomey, Africa, Samuel Sayles was a steelworker and widower who had a daughter by his first wife. In 1937, a year after Lucille’s birth, he fathered a third daughter by a neighbor woman. He and Thelma Sayles, a laborer turned homemaker, then had a son in 1938. The family moved to nearby Buffalo when Lucille was a young child. Although neither parent had attended school for more than a few years, both were avid readers. Her father was a storyteller, and Thelma Sayles enjoyed writing poems. Their daughter frequently told the story of sharing one of her early free-verse poems with her mother, who responded, “Baby, that ain’t no poem!,” and proceeded to show her daughter how to write rhymed, metrical verse....

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Coleman, Wanda (13 November 1946–22 November 2013), poet and essayist, was born Wanda Evans in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, the eldest child of George Evans, a janitor and typesetter, and Lewana Scott Evans, a seamstress and housekeeper. Her father had moved to Los Angeles after witnessing a lynching in his hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas; her mother cleaned houses for several celebrities, including Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman. Their experiences motivated their daughter to read literature and history and to seek out opportunities for political activism. She always placed a high value on education, often choosing to pursue her studies on her own terms. After finding that she was only allowed to check out “girls’ literature” at the library, for instance, she brought her father with her so she could read such boy-centered offerings as ...

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Commoner, Barry (28 May 1917–30 September 2012), scientist-activist, biologist, and environmentalist, was born Barry Commoner in Brooklyn, New York, to Isaac (Isador) and Gussie Commoner, Russian immigrants. His uncle, the Slavonic scholar Avrahm Yarmolinsky, recommended the family adopt a more anglicized spelling of their last name. Commoner attended Brooklyn’s James Madison High School, where he discovered his passion for biology. Assisted by his wife, the poet ...

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Coplon, Judith (17 May 1921–26 February 2011), Soviet spy during the Cold War, was born in Brooklyn, New York. Her father Samuel Coplon was a respected toy merchant; her mother Rebecca Moroh Coplon was a milliner. She and her older brother Bertram were raised in modest but comfortable circumstances. The petite Judith (just over five feet tall as an adult) was vivacious, pretty, and smart. At Brooklyn’s James Madison High School, she won awards, and her brilliant academic record earned her a scholarship to Barnard College. She threw herself into extracurricular activities, joined a communist youth group, and became an editor of the school newspaper. A history major fascinated by the development of the Soviet state, she compiled a superior academic record and graduated cum laude in 1943....

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Creeley, Robert White (21 May 1926–30 March 2005), poet and prose writer, was born Robert White Creeley in Arlington, Massachusetts, to Dr. Oscar Slade Creeley and Genevieve Jules Creeley. His childhood was marked by two tragedies, the loss of an eye in an accident and the death of his father, both by age five. His father had been a successful physician and ran a clinic, but his death at the onset of the Great Depression left Robert and his sister, Helen, to be raised in greatly reduced circumstances by their mother, who worked as a nurse, and other female relatives. In later life Creeley attributed an uncertainty about “manliness” to the dearth of male role models in his household; and to his family’s resolute puritanism he attributed both an early confusion toward sexuality and a sense of moral responsibility. As a teenager he attended Holderness School, a prep school in New Hampshire, and then entered Harvard in 1943. After a difficult year as a student he left to join the American Field Service as an ambulance driver in India and Southeast Asia, returning to Harvard following the war but leaving just short of a degree....

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DeCrow, Karen (18 December 1937–06 June 2014), feminist activist, author, and civil rights attorney, was born Karen Lipschultz in Chicago, the older of two daughters of businessman Samuel Meyer Lipschultz and Juliette Abt Lipschultz, a former professional ballet dancer. Educated in the city’s public schools, as a teenager she composed and submitted short stories to national magazines, and she pursued her interest in writing in college as well. She graduated from Sullivan High School in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood in 1955 and received a bachelor’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 1959....

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Du Bois, Cora Alice (26 October 1903–07 April 1991), anthropologist and government official, was born in Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of Jean Jules Philippe Du Bois, a Swiss entrepreneur, and Gertrude Martha Schreiber, a first-generation German American. When Cora was four, the Du Boises moved to St. Quentin, France, where her father managed a chemical factory and she attended French schools. She was reared in a multilingual home—English, French, and German—but her first language was French. When World War I forced her family to return to the United States (Perth Amboy, New Jersey), she had to learn English and repeat grades. These abrupt transitions in cultures, languages, and schools, combined with her mother’s preoccupation with a problematic older brother, contributed to Du Bois’s early emotional distancing from others. She became, she reported, “a distant observer of human affairs” who focused on doing well in school and engaging in outdoor sports, mostly with boys (Seymour, p. 26)....

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Dunham, Katherine (22 June 1909–21 May 2006), dancer, choreographer, and anthropologist, was born Katherine Mary Dunham in Chicago, the daughter of Albert Millard Dunham, a tailor and later the owner of a dry-cleaning business, and Fanny June Taylor, a school administrator of mixed African, Native American, and French-Canadian descent. The family lived in Glen Ellyn, Illinois until 1913, when Katherine’s mother died. Katherine and her brother then lived with their aunt Lulu in the impoverished south side of Chicago until 1917. In that year her father married Annette Poindexter, a former schoolteacher, and the family moved to Joliet, where Katherine attended public schools. The niece of Arthur Dunham, a voice coach and choral leader, Katherine was drawn to dance early; at the age of fifteen she organized a group of classmates to form a dance revue to help fund her church. In high school she was an active member of the Terpsichorean Club as well as an accomplished athlete....

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Katherine Dunham. Katherine Dunham, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front. 1956. World Telegram photo by Phyllis Twachtman. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-DIG-ppmsca-05791).

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Fierro de Bright, Josefina ( September 1914–02 February 1998), Mexican American civil rights activist, was born in Mexicali, Baja California, near the US border. Her father, Rodolfo Fierro, was major general in the northern revolutionary army of Francisco “Pancho” Villa, and her mother, Josefa Amador Fierro, was a follower of Ricardo Flores Magón, a leftist who opposed the dictatorship of President Porfirio Díaz. After General Fierro’s death during the revolution, Josefina moved with her mother and younger brother to Arizona, and later to various California towns and cities. Raised by her mother to stand up for one’s rights in the face of discrimination, at a young age Fierro embarked on an unprecedented organizing career advocating for opportunities and equality for California’s largest racial minority population, people of Mexican origin....

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Foley, Thomas S. (06 March 1929–18 October 2013), speaker of the US House of Representatives and US Ambassador to Japan, was born in Spokane, Washington, to Ralph Foley, a county prosecutor and later a Superior Court judge whose reputation for fairness and integrity made a lasting impression on the young Tom, and Helen Higgins, a teacher, both of Irish Catholic background. Tom Foley and his younger sister, Maureen, grew up in a household that staunchly supported ...

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Friedman, Milton (31 July 1912–16 November 2006), statistician, economist, and public intellectual, was born in Brooklyn, New York, the youngest child of Sarah Landau and Jeno S. Friedman, who emigrated to the United States from an eastern part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which became part of the Ukraine. Reared in Rahway, New Jersey, in a lower-middle class Jewish family, his father died during his senior year at Rahway High School. Friedman attended Rutgers College, a private college that would become part of the state university system, on a scholarship awarded by the state of New Jersey to outstanding students with financial needs, where he studied mathematics and economics. Two of his professors at Rutgers would become well-known economists: Homer Jones, later the vice president in charge of research of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, and ...