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Abernathy, Ralph David (11 March 1926–17 April 1990), civil rights leader and minister, was born David Abernathy in Linden, Alabama, the son of William L. Abernathy and Louivery Valentine Bell, farmers. A sister’s favorite professor was the inspiration for the nickname “Ralph David,” and although Abernathy never made a legal change, the name remained with him from age twelve....

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Alexander, Raymond Pace (13 October 1898–24 November 1974), lawyer, judge, and civil rights leader, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the third son of Hillard Boone and Virginia Pace Alexander, both slaves in Virginia who were freed in 1865 and migrated to Philadelphia in 1880. His background was working-class poor and he grew up in Philadelphia's seventh ward, an all-black community made famous by W. E. B. Du Bois's seminal study ...

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Bright Eyes (1854–26 May 1903), Indian rights advocate and author, also known as Inshtatheamba or Susette La Flesche, was born on the Omaha Reservation near Bellevue, Nebraska, just south of present-day Omaha, the daughter of Joseph La Flesche, also known as Inshtamaza or Iron Eye, a chief of the Omaha, and his wife Mary Gale, a mixed-blood Omaha and Iowa whose Indian name was The One Woman. Susette’s paternal grandparents were a Frenchman, also named Joseph, who was a trader and trapper for the Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada, and either an Omaha or Ponca woman named Watunna. Because her husband often was away trading or trapping, Watunna left him and married a member of the Omaha tribe. For a while the younger Joseph La Flesche was raised by two aunts who spent part of their time among the Sioux. Later, when his father returned, the younger La Flesche joined him when he once again left on his trading expeditions....

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Bunche, Ralph Johnson (07 August 1904–09 December 1971), scholar and diplomat, was born in Detroit, Michigan, the son of Fred Bunch, a barber, and Olive Agnes Johnson. His grandmother added an “e” to the family’s last name following a move to Los Angeles, California. Because his family moved frequently, Bunche attended a number of public schools before graduating first in his class from Jefferson High School in Los Angeles in 1922. He majored in political science at the University of California, Southern Branch (now University of California at Los Angeles or UCLA). He graduated summa cum laude and served as class valedictorian in 1927. He continued his studies in political science at Harvard, receiving his M.A. in 1928, then taught at Howard University in Washington, D.C., while working toward his Ph.D. at Harvard. In 1930 he married Ruth Ethel Harris; they had three children. Bunche traveled to Europe and Africa researching his dissertation and received his Ph.D. from Harvard in February 1934....

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Cleaver, Eldridge (31 August 1935–01 May 1998), social activist and writer, was born Leroy Eldridge Cleaver in Wabbaseka, Arkansas, the son of Leroy Cleaver, a waiter and nightclub piano player, and Thelma Hattie Robinson Cleaver, an elementary school teacher. When Cleaver was ten the family moved to Phoenix, Arizona; three years later, they moved again, this time to Los Angeles, California. Soon after, his parents separated. At this time, Cleaver became involved in criminal activities. In 1949 he was arrested for stealing a bicycle and was sent to reform school. In 1952 he was arrested for selling marijuana and was sent back to reform school. In 1954, a few days after his release, Cleaver was again arrested for marijuana possession and was sent to Soledad State Prison for a term of two and a half years....

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Douglass, Frederick ( February 1818–20 February 1895), abolitionist, civil rights activist, and reform journalist, was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey near Easton, Maryland, the son of Harriet Bailey, a slave, and an unidentified white man. Although a slave, he spent the first six years of his life in the cabin of his maternal grandparents, with only a few stolen nighttime visits by his mother. His real introduction to bondage came in 1824, when he was brought to the nearby wheat plantation of Colonel ...

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Du Bois, W. E. B. (23 February 1868–27 August 1963), African-American activist, historian, and sociologist, was born William Edward Burghardt Du Bois in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, the son of Mary Silvina Burghardt, a domestic worker, and Alfred Du Bois, a barber and itinerant laborer. In later life Du Bois made a close study of his family origins, weaving them rhetorically and conceptually—if not always accurately—into almost everything he wrote. Born in Haiti and descended from Bahamian mulatto slaves, Alfred Du Bois enlisted during the Civil War as a private in a New York regiment of the Union army but appears to have deserted shortly afterward. He also deserted the family less than two years after his son’s birth, leaving him to be reared by his mother and the extended Burghardt kin. Long resident in New England, the Burghardts descended from a freedman of Dutch slave origin who had fought briefly in the American Revolution. Under the care of his mother and her relatives, young Will Du Bois spent his entire childhood in that small western Massachusetts town, where probably fewer than two-score of the 4,000 inhabitants were African American. He received a classical, college preparatory education in Great Barrington’s racially integrated high school, from whence, in June 1884, he became the first African-American graduate. A precocious youth, Du Bois not only excelled in his high school studies but contributed numerous articles to two regional newspapers, the Springfield ...

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Eastman, Charles Alexander (19 February 1858–08 January 1939), Indian author and reformer, was born near Redwood Falls, Minnesota, the son of Ite Wakanhdi Ota (Many Lightnings), a Wahpeton Sioux, and Wakantankanwin (Goddess), whose English name was Mary Nancy Eastman, the mixed-blood daughter of Captain Seth Eastman, the noted artist, and Wakan inajin win (Stands Sacred). Eastman’s mother died from complications as a result of his birth. His paternal grandmother and later his uncle raised him in the traditional ways of a Sioux boy. In 1862 he received the name Ohiyesa—meaning “the winner”—when his band defeated another in a lacrosse game. He used the name in conjunction with the English name he acquired later in his life....

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Evers, Medgar (02 July 1925–12 June 1963), civil rights activist, was born Medgar Wiley Evers in Decatur, Mississippi, the son of James Evers, a sawmill worker, and Jessie Wright, a domestic worker. He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943 and served in the invasion of Normandy and the French campaign. After the war ended Evers returned to Mississippi, where he attended Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College, a segregated land-grant institution, from which he graduated in 1952 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. While at Alcorn he met a nursing student, Myrlie Beasley, whom he married in 1951; the couple had three children....

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Farmer, James (12 January 1920–09 July 1999), founder and national director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), civil rights activist, and educator, founder and national director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), civil rights activist, and educator, was born James Leonard Farmer, Jr., in Marshall, Texas, the son of James Leonard Farmer (known as “J. Leonard”), a Methodist minister and the son of ex-slaves, and Pearl Houston Farmer, who had been a teacher. Farmer's father, who earned a doctorate of religion from Boston University, was one of the first blacks in Texas to hold a Ph.D. When Farmer was six months old the family, which included an older sister, moved to Holly Springs, Mississippi, where his father had accepted teaching and administrative posts at Rust College. Able to read, write, and count by the age of four and a half, Farmer was accepted into the first grade. The family soon moved again, as Professor Farmer joined the department of religion and philosophy at Samuel Houston College in Austin, Texas....

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Fortune, Timothy Thomas (03 October 1856–02 June 1928), militant newspaper editor, was born in Marianna, Florida, the son of Emanuel Fortune, a literate slave artisan, and Sarah Jane Moore, a slave. Fortune was raised amid tumultuous times in Reconstruction Florida. His father, one of two African Americans elected as delegates to the 1868 state’s constitutional convention and a member of the Florida House of Representatives, was targeted by the Ku Klux Klan and had to flee the area for months in 1869. Thirteen-year-old Timothy became the man of the house in his father’s absence. “The constant fear, the stories of outrage …, the sign of his once high-spirited mother gradually breaking under the strain of anxiety—all these had a lasting influence on the sensitive and imaginative boy” (Thornbrough, p. 17)....

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Hastie, William Henry (17 November 1904–14 April 1976), civil rights attorney, law school professor, and federal judge, was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, the son of Roberta Childs, a teacher, and William Henry Hastie, a clerk in the U.S. Pension Office (now the Veterans Administration). He was a superb student and athlete. His father’s transfer to Washington, D.C., in 1916 permitted Hastie to attend the nation’s best black secondary school, the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, from which he graduated as valedictorian in 1921. He attended Amherst College, where he majored in mathematics and graduated in 1925, valedictorian, Phi Beta Kappa, and magna cum laude. After teaching for two years in Bordentown, New Jersey, he studied law at Harvard University, where one instructor adopted the custom of saying after asking a question of the class, “Mr. Hastie, give them the answer” (Ware, p. 30). He worked on the ...

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Henry, Aaron E. (02 July 1922–19 May 1997), civil rights activist, politician, and pharmacist, was born in Dublin, in the Mississippi Delta. His sharecropping parents, Ed and Mattie Henry, strove to educate Aaron and his sister and shield them from the hardships of farm and manual labor. They moved to neighboring Coahoma County so that Henry could attend the segregated Coahoma Agricultural High School. Indeed his political awakening began in high school, where a few earnest teachers bravely schooled their students on civics and civil rights. With the coaxing of one young educator, Aaron and his classmates joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as at-large members in 1941....

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Johnson, James Weldon (17 June 1871–26 June 1938), civil-rights leader, poet, and novelist, was born in Jacksonville, Florida, the son of James Johnson, a resort hotel headwaiter, and Helen Dillet, a schoolteacher. He grew up in a secure, middle-class home in an era, Johnson recalled in ...

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King, Martin Luther (19 December 1897–11 November 1984), Baptist pastor and civil rights activist, was born Michael King in Stockbridge, Georgia, the son of James Albert King, an impoverished sharecropper, and Delia Linsey, a cleaning woman and laundress. As a boy King attended school from three to five months a year in an old frame building, where Mrs. Lowe, the wife of the pastor of Floyd’s Chapel Baptist Church, taught 234 children in all grades. At Floyd’s Chapel, King gained confidence as a singer and had a growing sense of a call to preach. At fifteen, when he delivered a trial sermon at Floyd’s Chapel and was licensed to preach, King had learned to read but could not yet write. As a young country preacher he occasionally visited Atlanta. At twenty he left Stockbridge and settled there. He lived in a rooming house and worked at various jobs, including making tires in a rubber plant, loading bales of cotton, and driving a barber-supply truck....

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King, Martin Luther, Jr. (15 January 1929–04 April 1968), Baptist minister and civil rights leader, was born Michael King, Jr., in Atlanta, Georgia, the son of the Reverend Michael King ( Martin Luther King) and Alberta Williams. Born to a family with deep roots in the African-American Baptist church and in the Atlanta black community, the younger King spent his first twelve years in the home on Auburn Avenue that his parents shared with his maternal grandparents. A block away, also on Auburn, was Ebenezer Baptist Church, where his grandfather, the Reverend Adam Daniel Williams, had served as pastor since 1894. Under Williams’s leadership, Ebenezer had grown from a small congregation without a building to become one of Atlanta’s prominent African-American churches. After Williams’s death in 1931, his son-in-law became Ebenezer’s new pastor and gradually established himself as a major figure in state and national Baptist groups. In 1934 the elder King, following the request of his own dying father, changed his name and that of his son to Martin Luther King....

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La Farge, Oliver Hazard Perry (19 December 1901–02 August 1963), anthropologist, author, and advocate of American Indian reform and welfare, was born in New York City, the son of Christopher Grant La Farge, an architect, and Florence Bayard Lockwood. A descendant and namesake of ...

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Langston, John Mercer (14 December 1829–15 November 1897), African-American political leader and intellectual, was born free in Louisa County, Virginia, the son of Ralph Quarles, a wealthy white slaveholding planter, and Lucy Jane Langston, a part–Native American, part-black slave emancipated by Quarles in 1806. After the deaths of both of their parents in 1834, Langston and his two brothers, well provided for by Quarles’s will but unprotected by Virginia law, moved to Ohio. There Langston lived on a farm near Chillicothe with a cultured white southern family who had been friends of his father and who treated him as a son. He was in effect orphaned again in 1839, however, when a court hearing, concluding that his guardian’s impending move to slave-state Missouri would imperil the boy’s freedom and inheritance, forced him to leave the family. Subsequently, he boarded in four different homes, white and black, in Chillicothe and Cincinnati, worked as a farmhand and bootblack, intermittently attended privately funded black schools since blacks were barred from public schools for whites, and in August 1841 was caught up in the violent white rioting against blacks and white abolitionists in Cincinnati....

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Malcolm X (19 May 1925–21 February 1965), African-American religious and political leader, also known as el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, the son of Earl Little and Louise (also Louisa) Norton, both activists in the Universal Negro Improvement Association established by ...

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Marshall, Thurgood (02 July 1908–24 January 1993), civil rights lawyer and U.S. Supreme Court justice, was born Thoroughgood Marshall in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of William Canfield Marshall, a dining-car waiter and club steward, and Norma Arica Williams, an elementary school teacher. Growing up in a solid middle-class environment, Marshall was an outgoing and sometimes rebellious student who first encountered the Constitution when he was required to read it as punishment for classroom misbehavior. Marshall’s parents wanted him to become a dentist, as his brother did, but Marshall was not interested in the science courses he took at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, from which he was graduated with honors in 1930. He married Vivian “Buster” Burey in 1929; they had no children....