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Alcott, A. Bronson (29 November 1799–04 March 1888), Transcendentalist and reformer, was born Amos Bronson Alcox in Wolcott, Connecticut, the son of Joseph Chatfield Alcox and Anna Bronson, farmers. Farming the rocky Connecticut soil was not lucrative, and Alcott worked hard with his parents to help support seven younger siblings, thereby limiting his opportunities for a formal education. He attended the local district school until age ten, but thereafter his intellectual growth largely depended on his own reading and discussions with friends of a similar scholarly bent, the first being his cousin William Andrus Alcott. William later attended Yale College and established a career as a physician and popular author of health manuals, but continuing poverty prevented Bronson from obtaining a college education. At age fifteen he, like many of his young Connecticut contemporaries, began peddling small manufactured goods, first in Massachusetts and New York, then in Virginia and the Carolinas....

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Benjamin, Harry (12 January 1885–24 August 1986), physician, endocrinologist, and sex researcher, was born in Berlin, Germany, the son of Julius Benjamin, a banker, and Bertha Hoffman. He became interested in human sexuality at the age of twenty, when he read August Forel’s ...

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Billings, John Shaw (12 April 1838–11 March 1913), army medical officer, library organizer, and public health activist, was born near Allensville, Indiana, the son of James Billings, a farmer and storekeeper, and Abby Shaw. Despite spotty secondary schooling, he ultimately went to Miami College (Ohio), where he earned his B.A. in 1857. He was awarded the M.D. by the Medical College of Ohio in 1860. Billings remained with the latter institution for a year as an anatomical demonstrator, but after the outbreak of the Civil War he joined the U.S. Army as a contract surgeon. In 1862 he was commissioned first lieutenant and assistant surgeon and went on to make army service his career. Also in 1862 he married Katharine Mary Stevens; they had five children....

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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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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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Grinnell, George Bird (20 September 1849–11 April 1938), conservationist and ethnographer, was born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of George Blake Grinnell, a businessman, and Helen Alvord Lansing. Grinnell grew up in an upper-class home and lived in several locations in his earliest years: Brooklyn, lower Manhattan, and Weehawken, New Jersey. In 1857 the family moved to “Audubon Park,” the former estate of artist-naturalist ...

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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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Mann, Horace (04 May 1796–02 August 1859), educator and social reformer, was born in Franklin, Massachusetts, the son of Thomas Mann and Rebecca Stanley, farmers. Although earlier historical accounts that described his childhood as impoverished are inaccurate (his family was moderately prosperous), they are correct in their assertion that Mann’s values were shaped during childhood by his family, his community, and in no small part by his relations with the local Congregationalist preacher, ...

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Marsh, George Perkins (15 March 1801–23 July 1882), scholar, politician, and diplomat, was born in Woodstock, Vermont, the son of Charles Marsh, a prominent lawyer, and Susan Perkins. The Marshes were among New England’s aristocracy of Puritan intellectuals. Woodstock, unlike western Vermont of the free-spirited Green Mountain Boys, was a town of law-abiding, substantial settlers, conservative in religion and politics. George, in a milieu of book lovers, became an avid reader, although a lifelong eye ailment periodically forced him to turn from the printed page to the outdoor world. As a child, with his father or friends, he observed firsthand the effects of deforestation in early Vermont settlements, the decline of fish in the rivers, and the destruction of precious topsoil....

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Mays, Benjamin Elijah (1 Aug. 1894 or 1895–28 March 1984), educator, college president, and civil rights activist, was born near Rambo (now Epworth), South Carolina, the son of Hezekiah Mays and Louvenia Carter, tenant farmers who had been enslaved. Benjamin, the youngest of eight children, grew up in the rural South when whites segregated and disfranchised African Americans by law (he himself was not allowed to vote until 1945, when he was fifty-one years old). His first childhood memory was the 1898 Phoenix Riot in South Carolina where, he recalled, white vigilantes murdered his cousin....

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Seldes, Gilbert Vivian (03 January 1893–29 September 1970), critic and writer, was born in Alliance, New Jersey, the son of George Sergei Seldes, a pharmacist, and Anna Saphro, who died when Gilbert was three. His only sibling, George Seldes, became a distinguished journalist known for his coverage of European affairs between the world wars. Their father, a freethinker of Russian Jewish descent, sought to convert his farm into an anarchist utopian colony. When that did not succeed, he entered the drugstore business. He enjoyed friendships with ...

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Simmons, William James (26 June 1849–30 October 1890), Baptist leader, educator, and race advocate, was born in Charleston, South Carolina, the son of enslaved parents, Edward Simmons and Esther (maiden name unknown). During his youth, Simmons’s mother escaped slavery with him and two of his siblings, relocating in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Simmons’s uncle, Alexander Tardieu (or Tardiff), a shoemaker, became a father for the children and a protector and provider for the fugitive slave family. He moved them among the cities of Philadelphia, Roxbury, Massachusetts, and Chester, Pennsylvania, constantly eluding persistent “slave catchers,” before permanently taking residence in Bordentown, New Jersey. While Simmons never received formal elementary or secondary school education, his uncle made a point of teaching the children to read and write. As a youth Simmons served as an assistant to a white dentist in Bordentown. At the age of fifteen he joined the Union army, participating in a number of major battles in Virginia and finding himself at Appomattox in 1865. After the war, Simmons once again worked briefly as a dental assistant. He converted and affiliated with the white Baptist church in Bordentown in 1867, announced his call to the ministry, and ventured to college with the financial support of church friends....

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Van Hise, Charles Richard (29 May 1857–19 November 1918), geologist, conservationist, and university president, was born near Fulton, in southern Wisconsin, the son of William Henry Van Hise, a farmer and storekeeper, and Mary Goodrich. The family moved to nearby Evansville in 1870. In 1874 Van Hise entered the University of Wisconsin, beginning a lifelong association with this institution. He received four degrees, bachelor of metallurgical engineering (1879), B.S. (1880), M.S. (1882), and in 1892 the first Ph.D. awarded at the University of Wisconsin. In 1879 he joined the faculty as an instructor. Two years later he married Alice Ring, also of Evansville; they had three children....

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Washington, Booker T. (05 April 1856?–14 November 1915), educator and race leader, was born on the plantation of James Burroughs, near Hale’s Ford in Franklin County, Virginia, the son of an unknown white father and Jane, a slave cook owned by Burroughs. Washington was never certain of the date of his birth and showed little interest in who his father might have been. His mother gave him his first and middle names, Booker Taliaferro; he took his last name in 1870 from his stepfather, Washington Ferguson, a slave whom his mother had married. In his autobiography ...

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Weaver, Robert C. (29 December 1907–17 July 1997), economist, political administrator, and educator, was born Robert Clifton Weaver in Washington, D.C., the son of Mortimer Grover Weaver, a postal clerk, and Florence Freeman Weaver. Weaver grew up in a middle-class and educated family, one of seven African-American families in a Washington suburb. His father worked for the post office. (One grandfather, ...