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Clark, Septima Poinsette (03 May 1898–15 December 1987), educator and civil rights activist, was born in Charleston, South Carolina, the daughter of Peter Porcher Poinsette, a caterer who was a former slave, and Victoria Warren Anderson, who took in laundry to supplement the family income. Septima’s mother, who had been raised in black-governed Haiti, instilled in her daughter a determination to succeed in spite of white racism....

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Cook, Vivian E. J. (06 October 1889–28 July 1977), educator, was born Vivian Elma Johnson in Colliersville, Tennessee, the daughter of Spencer Johnson, a farmer, and Caroline Alley, a teacher. One of eight children, she grew up under the enterprising spirit of her parents, both of whom were born in slavery. The fact that her mother was the first black schoolteacher in the Tennessee community of Fayette County set a special standard of achievement for her and her seven siblings. The family moved to Memphis when she was very young and the decision was made to favor the girls with a higher education. All four were to graduate from college, but Vivian, thanks to the financial assistance of a brother, inventor and railway postal clerk Thomas W. Johnson, was able to attend Howard University and later earn a master’s degree in English from Columbia University....

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Cooper, Anna Julia Haywood (1858?–27 February 1964), author, educator, and human rights activist, was born, probably on 10 August 1858, in Raleigh, North Carolina, the daughter of Hannah Stanley, a slave. Though her paternity is uncertain, she believed her mother’s master, Dr. Fabius J. Haywood, to have been her father. She later described her ancestry: “The part of my ancestors that did not come over in the Mayflower in 1620 arrived … a year earlier in the fateful Dutch trader that put in at Jamestown in 1619… . I believe that the third source of my individual stream comes … from the vanishing Red Men, which … make[s] me a genuine F.F.A. (First Family of America).”...

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Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher Seated right, with J. E. Fellows, dean of admissions at the University of Oklahoma, seated left, and, standing left to right, Thurgood Marshall and Amos T. Hall, 1948. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-84479).

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Fisher, Ada Lois Sipuel (08 February 1924–18 October 1995), civil rights pioneer, lawyer, and educator, was born in Chickasha, Oklahoma, the daughter of Travis B. Sipuel, a minister and later bishop of the Church of Christ in God, one of the largest black Pentecostal churches in the United States, and Martha Bell Smith, the child of a former slave. Her parents moved to Chickasaw, Oklahoma, shortly after the Tulsa race riot of 1921....

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Hope, Lugenia D. Burns (19 February 1871–14 August 1947), community organizer and educator, was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of Ferdinand Burns, a well-to-do carpenter, and Louisa M. Bertha. Lugenia was raised in a Grace Presbyterian, middle-class family. Her father’s sudden death forced her mother to move the family to Chicago to maintain their class standing and provide Lugenia, or “Genie” as she was called, with educational opportunities lacking in St. Louis. From 1890 to 1893, while her older siblings worked to support the family, Lugenia attended high school and special classes, the Chicago School of Design, the Chicago Business College, and the Chicago Art Institute....

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Hundley, Mary Gibson Brewer (18 October 1897–01 January 1986), educator and civil rights activist, was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the daughter of Malachi Gibson, a lawyer and graduate of Howard University, and Mary Matilda Syphax, a teacher. Hundley was the granddaughter of William Syphax, first superintendent of Colored Public Schools in Washington and Georgetown after the Civil War, and, according to family tradition, a descendant of ...

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Matthews, Victoria Earle (27 May 1861–10 March 1907), writer, civil rights advocate, and social reformer, was born in Fort Valley, Georgia, the daughter of Caroline Smith, a slave, and, according to family legend, her mother's white master, although her obituary in the New York Times...

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Robinson, Jo Ann (17 April 1912–29 August 1992), educator and civil rights leader, was born Jo Ann Gibson in Culloden, Georgia, the twelfth and youngest child of Owen Boston Gibson and Dollie Webb Gibson, farmers. Her father died when she was six years old, and her mother subsequently sold the farm and moved the family to nearby Macon. After graduating as valedictorian from her high school, she became the first in her family to graduate from college when she earned a B.S. degree from Fort Valley State College in 1934. She then returned to Macon, where she taught for five years in the public schools. She married a man named Wilbur Robinson, but the marriage ended soon after the death of the couple's infant child....

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Betty Shabazz wife of the late Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X, shown in 1972. Associated Press

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Shabazz, Betty (28 May 1936?–23 June 1997), civil rights activist, educator, nurse, mother, was born Betty Dean Sanders, the daughter of Shelman Sandlin, a construction worker, and the teenager Ollie Mae Sanders from Pinehurst, Michigan. (Because her birth certificate is lost, scholars are uncertain about her place of birth.) Her young parents were unmarried—this was a social stigma in 1930s America—and her relationship with her mother was stormy. When she was eleven years old, she was adopted by Helen and Lorenzo Malloy, affluent, middle-class African American Methodists from Detroit, Michigan. Providing Shabazz with many social and material advantages, the Malloys also valued educational attainment, and they pushed her to excel in her classes and study hard. After graduating from high school, Shabazz enrolled in Alabama's Tuskegee University, then known as Tuskegee Institute, one of the nation's most distinguished places of higher education for African Americans. However, she was not happy there. Unaccustomed to the blatant racism of Jim Crow laws, she quickly decamped to New York City in 1956 to continue her studies....

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Smith, Lucy Harth (24 January 1888–20 September 1955), racial activist and educator, was born in Roanoke, Virginia, the daughter of Daniel Washington Harth, Jr., a minister and lawyer, and Rachel Emma Brockington. In 1904 she attended the normal department of the Hampton Institute in Virginia, completing both the high school and college courses in four years. Subsequently, she accepted an elementary school teaching post in Roanoke. Two years later, following her marriage to Paul Smith, a school administrator, she left the labor force; the couple had five children....

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Stanley, Sara G. (1836–1918), African-American teacher of freedmen, was born in New Bern, North Carolina, the daughter of John Stuart Stanley and Frances Griffith, teachers, who ran an antebellum private school in New Bern patronized by free blacks throughout North Carolina. The Stanleys, free blacks related to a prominent slave-owning family of the same name, identified with their African-American community. As a youth, Sara Stanley would correct people who mistook her for a white woman by explaining “I am a colored woman having a slight admixture of negro blood in my veins.”...

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Stewart, Maria W. (1803–17 December 1879), writer, black activist, and teacher, was born Maria Miller in Hartford, Connecticut (information about her date of birth and parentage is not known). Orphaned at five years old and indentured to a clergyman’s family until she was fifteen, Maria Miller supported herself as a domestic servant and gained a rudimentary education by attending “Sabbath schools.” Miller’s marriage on 10 August 1826 to James W. Stewart, a Boston shipping agent, placed her in the small and vibrant free black Boston community that had established organizations and institutions in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries for northern blacks coming out of bondage. Stewart’s brief period of financial security ended when unscrupulous executors cheated the young widow out of her inheritance following the death of her husband in 1829....

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Mary Church Terrell. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-84496).

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Terrell, Mary Eliza Church (23 September 1863–24 July 1954), educator and social activist, was born in Memphis, Tennessee, the daughter of Robert Reed Church, a businessman, and Louisa Ayres, a beautician and hair salon owner. Her father, a former slave, used his business acumen to become the first black millionaire in the South....

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Walker, Maggie L. (15 July 1867–15 December 1934), educator, social activist, and bank president, was born Maggie Lena Draper in Richmond, Virginia, the daughter of Elizabeth Draper, a former slave, and Eccles Cuthbert, an Irish-American journalist. Her natural parents could not marry. (The Virginia law prohibiting the marriage of mixed-race couples was overturned in 1967, a century after Maggie's birth.) In 1868 Elizabeth Draper married William Mitchell, a mulatto butler who, like herself, was employed by the wealthy abolitionist and Union spy ...

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Washington, Margaret Murray (09 March 1861–04 June 1925), educator and activist, was born Margaret James Murray in Macon, Mississippi, the daughter of Lucy Murray, a washerwoman and possibly an ex-slave, and an Irish immigrant whose name is unknown. The year of her birth is also uncertain. The 1870 census lists it as 1861, but on her tombstone the date is 1865. It is known that Margaret's father died when she was seven. The next day she moved in with a Quaker brother and sister named Sanders. Although she remained close to her mother and four siblings, Margaret's adoptive parents greatly influenced her life....

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Wright, Muriel Hazel (31 March 1889–27 February 1975), historian and Choctaw activist, was born in Lehigh, Choctaw Nation, Indian Territory, the daughter of Eliphalet Nott Wright, a doctor, and Ida Belle Richards, a Presbyterian missionary teacher. Wright’s one-fourth Choctaw descent was through her paternal grandfather, the Reverend Allen Wright, principal chief of the Choctaw Nation from 1866 to 1870, who proposed the name of Oklahoma for Indian Territory. Her father practiced medicine in the Choctaw Nation and served as company physician for the Missouri-Pacific Coal Mines. Throughout Wright’s youth, her father held several influential positions as a Choctaw delegate to the U.S. government during the allotment and disposition of Indian lands and the abolition of tribal governments prior to Oklahoma statehood in 1907....