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Albert, Octavia Victoria Rogers (24 December 1853–1890?), author and activist, was born in Oglethorpe, Georgia, the daughter of slaves. Details of her life are sketchy. Little is known of her parents or her childhood beyond the date and place of her birth and the fact that she was born into bondage; thus, it is particularly intriguing that in 1870, only five years after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery and one year after Atlanta University opened, seventeen-year-old Octavia was among the 170 students enrolled at that institution. Further details of her life are equally sketchy. Most of what we know is culled from information in ...

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Coppin, Fanny Jackson (1837–21 January 1913), educator, civic and religious leader, and feminist, was born a slave in Washington, D.C., the daughter of Lucy Jackson. Her father’s name and the details of her early childhood are unknown. However, by the time she was age ten, her aunt Sarah Orr Clark had purchased her freedom, and Jackson went to live with relatives in New Bedford, Massachusetts. By 1851 she and her relatives had moved to Newport, Rhode Island, where Jackson was employed as a domestic by ...

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Craft, Ellen (1826?–1891), abolitionist and educator, was born on a plantation in Clinton, Georgia, the daughter of Major James Smith, a wealthy cotton planter, and Maria, his slave. At the age of eleven Ellen was given by her mistress (whose “incessant cruelty” Craft was later to recall) as a wedding present to Ellen’s half sister Eliza on the young woman’s marriage to Robert Collins of Macon, Georgia. Ellen became a skilled seamstress and ladies’ maid, esteemed for her grace, intelligence, and sweetness of temper. In Macon she met another slave two years her senior, ...

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Ferguson, Katy (1779?–11 July 1854), child welfare worker and school founder, was born a slave on board a schooner en route from Virginia to New York City. Her formal name was Catherine Williams, but she was known as “Katy.” Separated from her mother at the age of eight after the woman was sold by their master, a Presbyterian elder, Katy never saw her mother again. Although she never learned to read or write, Katy was allowed to attend church services, and before she was sold, her mother taught her the Scriptures from memory. Katy was deeply religious and a strong adherent of the Presbyterian faith. At the age of ten she promised her master that she would dedicate her life to God’s service if given her freedom. This request was denied, but Katy eventually obtained her freedom; she was purchased for $200 by an abolitionist sympathizer when she was fifteen or sixteen years old. Originally she was given six years to repay this debt, but eventually her benefactor accepted eleven months of service and $100 from a New York merchant for her freedom. Thereafter, as a free woman, Katy supported herself by catering parties for wealthy white families and by cleaning linens and other delicate fabrics....

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Jacobs, Harriet (1813–07 March 1897), autobiographer and reformer, was born into slavery in Edenton, North Carolina, the daughter of Elijah, a skilled slave carpenter, and Delilah, a house slave. In her slave narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself...

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Sojourner Truth. From a carte de visite, possibly made in 1864, with an inscription below the picture: "I sell the shadow to support the substance." Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-119343).

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Truth, Sojourner (1799–26 November 1883), black abolitionist and women's rights advocate, black abolitionist and women’s rights advocate, was born in Hurley, Ulster County, New York, the daughter of James and Elizabeth Baumfree, who were slaves. Named Isabella by her parents, she took the name Sojourner Truth in 1843. As a child, Isabella belonged to a series of owners, the most memorable of whom were the John Dumont family of Esopus, Ulster County, to whom she belonged for approximately seventeen years and with whom she remained close until their migration to the West in 1849. About 1815 she married another of Dumont’s slaves, Thomas, who was much older than she; they had five children. Isabella left Thomas in Ulster County after their emancipation under New York state law in 1827, but she did not marry again....

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Harriet Tubman. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-7816).

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Tubman, Harriet (1820–10 March 1913), legendary Underground Railroad conductor, was born Araminta “Minty” Ross in Dorchester County, Maryland, the daughter of Benjamin Ross and Harriet Greene, slaves. Often a hired-out worker, at age five she did household chores and child-tending. At seven she ran away to avoid a beating for stealing a lump of sugar. After taking refuge for five days in a pigpen, where she competed unsuccessfully for food, Minty returned and accepted her flogging. As a child nurse and housekeeper at nine, Minty was disabled by physical abuse and starvation. Placed in the fields at thirteen, she was glad to be among the folk and taking in the wonders of nature....

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Ida B. Wells. Illustration in The Afro-American Press and Its Editors, by I. Garland Penn, 1891. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-107756).

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Wells-Barnett, Ida Bell (16 July 1862–25 March 1931), editor and antilynching activist, was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, the daughter of James Wells and Elizabeth Warrenton, slaves. Son of his master, James Wells was a carpenter’s apprentice and opened his own shop after emancipation. The eldest of eight children, Ida attended Rust College in Holly Springs until 1878, when a yellow fever epidemic killed her parents and one of her six siblings (another had died some years before). Determined to keep her family together, Wells began teaching in surrounding areas. In 1881 she moved her youngest siblings to Memphis to live with an aunt and took a job as a schoolteacher in nearby Woodstock....