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Josephine Baker Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1949. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-93000).

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Baker, Josephine (03 June 1906–12 April 1975), dancer, singer, and civil rights activist, was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of Eddie Carson, a musician, and Carrie Macdonald. Her parents parted when Josephine was still an infant, and her mother married Arthur Martin, which has led to some confusion about her maiden name. Very little is known about her childhood, except that she was a witness to the East St. Louis riot in 1917. This event was often a feature of her talks in the 1950s and 1960s about racism and the fight for equality, which fostered the oft-repeated assertion that the family was resident in East St. Louis. Before the age of eighteen Josephine had been married twice, first to Willie Wells and then to William Baker, to whom she was married in Camden, New Jersey, in September 1921....

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Dee, Ruby (27 Oct. 1922–11 June 2014), actor, author, and civil rights activist, was born Ruby Anne Wallace in Cleveland, Ohio, to Edward Nathaniel Wallace, who held various positions with the Pennsylvania Railroad, and Gladys Hightower. When the unstable Gladys left the family, her father married Emma Amelia Benson, a former teacher....

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Furness, Betty (03 January 1916–02 April 1994), actress, product spokesperson, and consumer advocate, was born Elizabeth Mary (Betty) Furness in New York City to George Choate Furness, an executive with the Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation, and Florence Sturtevant, who later became an interior decorator. Betty was educated at New York City’s elite Brearley School and then attended the Bennett School for Girls in Millbrook, New York, where one of her classmates predicted she would become an actress. That prophecy made sense because Betty had long shown an interest in performing. Her introduction to the media came at age seven, when she accompanied her father to the studio to watch him produce informational radio talks about the care and use of batteries. She got her first job at age fourteen, modeling for the John Robert Powers Modeling Agency during summer vacation. Several years later she caught the eye of a well-known photographer named Hal Phyfe, who was taking graduation pictures at the Bennett School. He too was impressed by how personable and photogenic she was, and he made sure her photos got to the right people....

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Johnson, Osa (14 March 1894–07 January 1953), author, lecturer, and film producer, was born Osa Helen Leighty in Chanute, Kansas, the daughter of William Sherman Leighty, a railroad engineer, and Ruby Isabel Holman. In 1910 she left high school to marry Martin Johnson, whom she had met eleven years earlier when he visited Chanute as an eighteen-year-old itinerant photographer. In the meantime he had visited Europe alone and traveled with ...

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La Follette, Fola (10 September 1882–17 February 1970), actress and feminist, was born in Madison, Wisconsin, the daughter of Robert Marion La Follette, a progressive politician, and Belle Case La Follette, a lawyer and suffragist. Though named Flora at birth, she used her childhood nickname throughout her life. A history major at the University of Wisconsin (1900–1904), La Follette studied under historian of the American West ...

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Lewisohn, Irene (05 September 1892–04 April 1944), theater patron and practitioner and philanthropist, was born in New York City, the daughter of Rosalie Jacobs and Leonard Lewisohn, a German-Jewish immigrant who made his fortune in the mining and processing of copper and other minerals. The deaths of Lewisohn’s parents before she was ten years old left her older sister Alice and her with considerable wealth—and the social burden of such wealth. The daughter of a philanthropist, Lewisohn was impressed by the Henry Street Settlement, one of her father’s causes. After attending the Finch School in New York, she studied dance independently and eventually found her calling in the unique combination of social service and the arts....

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Washington, Fredi (23 December 1903–28 June 1994), actress, dancer, and civil rights activist, was born Fredericka Carolyn Washington in Savannah, Georgia, the second child and eldest daughter of Hattie Walker Ward and Robert T. Washington, a porter, part-time barber, and postal worker. Their neighborhood on the outskirts of Savannah was racially mixed, and Fredi remembered being bullied by white children because of her race. Even as a young girl she fought back when a neighbor’s son hurled derogatory epithets at her....