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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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Kay Boyle. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-113309).

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Boyle, Kay (19 February 1902–27 December 1992), writer, educator, and political activist, was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, the daughter of Howard Peterson Boyle, a lawyer, and Katherine Evans, a literary and social activist. Her grandfather had founded the West Publishing Company, and the financial security afforded by this background allowed the Boyle family to travel extensively. Boyle’s education was sporadic, culminating in two years of architecture classes at the Ohio Mechanics’ Institute (1917–1919). In 1922 Boyle joined her sister Joan in New York City, where she began to work for ...

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Boyle, Sarah Patton (9 May 1906–20 Feb. 1994), civil rights activist and writer, was born Sarah Lindsay Patton in Lindsay, Virginia, to Janie Stringfellow Patton and Robert Williams Patton, both descendants of the Virginian slaveholding elite. Her father, an Episcopal minister, was a racial moderate by the standards of his time, but the young Patty, as Sarah was always referred to, was more influenced by her mother’s segregationist views. Patty, who had undiagnosed dyslexia, was educated at home before studying painting at the Corcoran School of Art, in Washington, D.C., from ...

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Bradwell, Myra Colby (12 February 1831–14 February 1894), publisher and political activist, was born in Manchester, Vermont, the daughter of Eben Colby and Abigail Willey. She spent her childhood in Vermont and western New York, and when she was twelve, her family moved to Illinois. She attended local schools in Wisconsin and Illinois and became a schoolteacher. In 1852 she married ...

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Casal, Lourdes (5 Apr. 1938–1 Feb. 1981), poet, literary critic, social psychologist, and political activist, was born Lourdes Emilia Irene de la Caridad Casal y Valdés in Havana, Cuba, the daughter of two professional parents, Pedro Casal, a doctor in medicine and a dentist, and Emilia Valdés, an elementary school teacher. Of mixed heritage, Casal’s family included black, white, and Chinese ancestry....

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Dunbar-Nelson, Alice (19 July 1875–18 September 1935), poet, journalist, and political activist, was born Alice Ruth Moore in New Orleans, Louisiana, the daughter of Joseph Moore, a seaman, and Patricia Wright, a seamstress. Dunbar-Nelson graduated from Straight College (now Dillard University) and began her teaching career at a New Orleans elementary school in 1892....

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Graham, Shirley (11 November 1896–27 March 1977), musical composer and director, author, and political activist, also known as Shirley Graham Du Bois, was born Lola Bell Graham in Indianapolis, Indiana, the daughter of the Reverend David A. Graham, an African Methodist Episcopal minister, and Etta Bell. She accompanied them when her father held pastorates in New Orleans, Colorado Springs, and Spokane. He delighted her with stories about important blacks in American history. In his churches, she learned to play the piano and the pipe organ and to conduct choirs. In 1914 she graduated from high school in Spokane, took business school courses, and worked in government offices in Spokane and Seattle. After she married Shadrach T. McCanns in 1921, she gave private music lessons and played the organ in white movie theaters, hidden backstage. She had two sons, Robert and David, and was either widowed in 1924 or obtained a divorce in 1929. (In many respects, biographical data concerning Graham are in dispute.)...

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Shirley Graham Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1946. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-117469).

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Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Courtesy of the National Afro-American Museum.

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Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins (1825–20 February 1911), political activist and author, was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the only child of free parents. She was orphaned at an early age and raised by an aunt. She attended a school for free blacks, which was run by her uncle, the Reverend William Watkins. Her formal education ended at age thirteen. Harper became a nursemaid and found additional employment as a seamstress, needlecraft teacher, and traveling abolitionist lecturer. She also lectured in support of woman suffrage. She later became a schoolteacher in Ohio and Pennsylvania....

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La Follette, Belle Case (21 April 1859–18 August 1931), political activist and magazine editor, was born in Juneau County, Wisconsin, the daughter of Anson Case and Mary Nesbit, farmers. She attended the University of Wisconsin in 1875, taking a modern classical course. She became a member of the Laurean Literary Society and represented it at the junior oratory exhibition. At graduation in 1879 she won the Lewis Oratorical Prize for the best commencement oration. She taught high school near Madison for two years after graduation....

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Le Sueur, Meridel (22 February 1900–14 November 1996), author, speaker, and political activist, was born Meridel Wharton in Murray, Iowa, to Marian Lucy Wharton ( Marian Le Sueur) and William Winston Wharton, a Church of Christ minister. Her parents met at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Her mother realized after a few years that life with her husband was going to be untenable, and she devised ways to earn money in order to leave. A staunch feminist, she established an exercise studio for women, using the methods of the physical culture enthusiast ...

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Lebron, Lolita (19 November 1919–01 August 2010), Puerto Rican nationalist, political activist, and poet, was born Dolores Lebrón Soto in Lares, Puerto Rico, one of five children of Gonzalo Lebrón Bernal and Rafaela Soto Luciano. Gonzalo Lebrón worked as a coffee plantation foreman. He and his family were ...

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McCall, Mary C., Jr. (4 Apr. 1904–3 Apr. 1986), screenwriter, labor activist, and novelist and short story writer, was born Mary Caldwell McCall Jr. in Manhattan, New York, the only daughter of Mary Caldwell Burke and Leo Horan McCall of Manhattan. Though she would be teased at school by the boys for the “Jr.” suffix in her name, at the time, it was not unusual for independent-minded mothers to name their firstborn daughters in this way. McCall’s future Hollywood colleagues, actress and executive Cobina Wright Jr. and writer Harriet Frank Jr., also maintained their “Jr.” status throughout their careers....

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Paley, Grace (11 Dec. 1922–22 Aug. 2007), short story writer, poet, antiwar activist, and feminist, was born Grace Goodside in the Bronx, the third child of Isaac Goodside and Manya Ridnyik. Grace was the baby of the family; her sister Jeanne and brother Victor were respectively fourteen and sixteen years older. Her parents, both Socialist activists, anglicized their name from Gutseit when they emigrated from the Ukraine in ...

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Ramírez, Sara Estela (1881–21 August 1910), poet, radical journalist, and political organizer, was born in Villa Progreso, Coahuila, Mexico. Little is known about her parents except that her mother died when Ramírez was two years old, and her father eventually immigrated to Laredo, Texas, to live with her. Ramírez attended public school in Monterrey, Nuevo León, and at seventeen years of age graduated from the teachers’ college, Ateneo Fuentes, in her home state of Coahuila. Upon receiving her teaching certificate, she immediately immigrated to Laredo to teach Spanish to Tex-Mex schoolchildren at the Seminario de Laredo. Although Ramírez studied English while in Laredo, she wrote in Spanish, and it was the Mexican proletariat to whom she remained devoted....