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Henry Walton Bibb. Lithograph on paper, 1847, by Unidentified Artist. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

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Bibb, Henry Walton (10 May 1815–1854), author, editor, and antislavery lecturer, was born into slavery on the plantation of David White of Shelby County, Kentucky, the son of James Bibb, a slaveholding planter and state senator, and Mildred Jackson. White began hiring Bibb out as a laborer on several neighboring plantations before the age of ten. The constant change in living situations throughout his childhood, combined with the inhumane treatment he often received at the hands of strangers, set a pattern for life that he would later refer to in his autobiography as “my manner of living on the road.” Bibb was sold more than six times between 1832 and 1840 and was forced to relocate to at least seven states throughout the South; later, as a free man, his campaign for abolition took him throughout eastern Canada and the northern United States. But such early instability also made the young Bibb both self-sufficient and resourceful, two characteristics that were useful against the day-to-day assault of slavery: “The only weapon of self defense that I could use successfully,” he wrote, “was that of deception.”...

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Bowen, Henry Chandler (11 September 1813–24 February 1896), editor-publisher and merchant, was born in Woodstock, Connecticut, the son of George Bowen, a store and tavern keeper, and Lydia Wolcott Eaton. He received his formal education at schools in Woodstock and nearby Dudley, Massachusetts, and worked for four years in his father’s store. At age twenty he went to New York and became a clerk in the firm of ...

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Browne, Carl (1846–16 January 1914), political agitator, reform journalist, and organizer of "Coxey's Army", political agitator, reform journalist, and organizer of “Coxey’s Army,” was born in Springfield, Illinois. (The date and place of his birth are sometimes less reliably given as 4 July 1849 in Newton, Iowa). Browne was working as a sign painter in western Iowa in 1869 when he suddenly decided to move to California. At that time he desired more than anything else to paint a gargantuan panorama of the Yosemite Valley. He later exhibited this painting up and down the Pacific Coast, such panoramas being a popular form of folk art in the nineteenth century. One unfriendly critic observed, “As an artist Carl Browne belongs to a distinct school. In fact, he constitutes the entire school.” Browne’s response to critics was to affirm that as a young man he had apprenticed with a carriage and house painter (an experience that probably accounted for his love of huge panoramic images and garish colors such as might adorn a circus wagon)....

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Bush, John Edward (15 November 1856–11 December 1916), businessman and politician, was born a slave in Moscow, Tennessee. In 1862 his master moved him and his mother to Arkansas to keep them from being freed when the Union army moved into western Tennessee. His mother died when Bush was only seven years old. He was educated in the freedmen’s and public schools of Little Rock and was considered a good student by his teachers. He paid his school tuition by molding bricks. In 1876 he graduated from high school with honors and was immediately appointed principal of Capital Hill School, a public institution for African Americans in Little Rock. In 1878 he moved to Hot Springs, where he was named to head that city’s African-American high school....

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Cameron, Andrew Carr (28 September 1836–28 May 1892), labor leader and editor, was born in Berwick-on-Tweed, England, the son of a Scots printer (his father’s occupation and nationality are all that are known about his parents). After only a brief time in school, Cameron went to work in his father’s shop. In 1851 he emigrated with his parents to the United States, settling just outside of Chicago....

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Chaplin, Ralph Hosea (30 August 1887–23 May 1961), radical labor editor and artist, was born in Cloud County, Kansas, the son of Edgar Chaplin and Clara Bradford, farmers. Hard times forced his family to leave Kansas when Chaplin was an infant, and he was raised in Chicago, where his family moved frequently and struggled against poverty....

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Claiborne, Craig (04 September 1920–22 January 2000), food journalist and restaurant critic, was born in Sunflower, Mississippi, the son of Lewis Edmond Claiborne, a cotton grower and local bank officer, and Mary Kathleen Craig Claiborne. His father lost his lands and fortune shortly after Craig's birth and never again held gainful employment. His mother moved the family to the larger town of Indianola and opened a boarding house. She became famous for her high-quality meals, prepared by black cooks using her recipes. Craig grew up savoring outstanding southern cooking. After graduating from Indianola High School, he attended Mississippi State College before moving to the University of Missouri, where he received a B.A. in journalism in 1942....

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Copley, Ira Clifton (25 October 1864–02 November 1947), newspaper publisher, congressman, public utilities executive, and philanthropist, was born in Copley Township, Knox County, Illinois, the son of Ira Birdsall Copley and Ellen Madeline Whiting, farmers. When Copley was two he was struck with scarlet fever, which left him blind. When he was three, the family moved to Aurora, Illinois, where he received treatment for his eyes. Even with the care of an eye specialist, his complete blindness lasted five years. With the move to Aurora, his father and his mother’s brother assumed ownership of the Aurora Illinois Gas Light Company, the beginning of a large utility company that Ira would one day manage....

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Frederick Douglass Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-19288).

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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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Eagleson, William Lewis (09 August 1835–22 June 1899), editor and political activist, was born a slave in St. Louis, Missouri. The names of his parents and details about his early life are unknown. He married Elizabeth McKinney in 1865 in St. Louis; they had nine children. As a young man, he learned both printing and barbering, trades that he practiced intermittently throughout his life. In the 1870s, he settled in Fort Scott, Kansas, and started a newspaper, the ...

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Evans, George Henry (25 March 1805–02 February 1856), labor editor and land reformer, was born in Bromyard, in Herefordshire, England, the son of George Evans, who served in the British army during the Napoleonic Wars, and Sarah White, who came from the modestly landed gentry. When she died in 1815 George Henry remained with his father to receive a “scholastic” education while his younger brother Frederick William was sent to live with relatives. In 1820 Evans immigrated to the United States with his father and brother; he was apprenticed to a printer in Ithaca, New York, where the family settled. The Evans brothers studied the writings of ...

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Gaine, Hugh (1726–25 April 1807), printer-editor and bookseller, was born in Portglenone in the parish of Ahoghill, Ireland, the son of Hugh Gaine and his wife (name unknown). At age fourteen he began his apprenticeship to Samuel Wilson and James Magee, Belfast printers. When the partnership split in 1744, Gaine left Ireland for America and settled in New York City, where he became a printer’s journeyman for ...

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Arturo Giovannitti Right, with Joseph J. Ettor, center, and Joseph Caruso. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-108488).

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Giovannitti, Arturo Massimo (07 January 1884–31 December 1959), poet, journalist, and labor leader, was born in Ripabottoni (Molise), Italy, the son of Domenico Giovannitti, a physician and pharmacist, and Adelaide Levante. Raised in a family of middle-class professionals in southern Italy, Arturo Giovannitti was educated at the Collegio Mario Pagano in Campobasso, the regional capital, where he first demonstrated his literary ability by winning a national contest for poetry. Rather than attend university in Italy, Giovannitti decided to “visit the world,” immigrating to Canada by himself at age sixteen or seventeen. Little is known about Giovannitti’s activities in Canada before he enrolled in a theological seminary affiliated with McGill University in Montreal and became a pastor’s assistant at a Presbyterian mission for Italians. His early attraction to Protestantism has never been adequately explained....

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Gresham, Newt (20 February 1858–10 April 1906), labor organizer and editor, was born Isaac Newton Gresham in Lauderdale County, near Florence, Alabama, the son of Henry Gresham and Marcipia Narcissa Wilcoxon, tenant farmers. The family moved to Kaufman County, Texas, in 1859 (though some sources claim they moved after the Civil War). After his parents’ deaths in 1868, Gresham lived with his older brother Ben....

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Haessler, Carl (05 August 1888–01 December 1972), journalist and socialist trade unionist, was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the son of Herman F. Haessler and Elizabeth Wagner. The political life of that city was dominated at that time by immigrant German social democrats. Haessler earned a B.A. at the University of Milwaukee, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University, where he studied for two years. He completed his formal education with a Ph.D. degree from the University of Illinois, where he also taught. In 1917 he married Mildred Barnes; they had two children....

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Hall, William Covington (25 August 1871–21 February 1952), labor organizer, newspaper editor, and educator, was born in Woodville, Mississippi, the son of William A. Hall, a Presbyterian minister and educator, and Mary Elizabeth Pierce. When his parents separated, Hall—who went by his middle name Covington—moved to Rural Retreat Plantation, a family estate located in the sugarcane district of Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, to live with his uncle Dr. A. V. “Ami” Woods. Although Hall was raised and educated for a life of privilege among the southern planter elite, he grew up in a household that teetered on the brink of financial ruin. In the fall of 1887 some 10,000 of the region’s mostly African American plantation workers organized under the auspices of the Knights of Labor and went on strike. The only planter to concede to the workers’ wage demands was Hall’s uncle, who did so not out of sympathy with the union but to prevent the loss of his crop and to preserve the solvency of his estate. Unsympathetic to the Hall family’s circumstances, the region’s wealthiest planters accused Hall’s uncle of disloyalty to his class interests and broke the union. The restoration of labor order did little to promote the Halls’ financial recovery. By 1891 the bank foreclosed on Rural Retreat Plantation, forcing its sale at a sheriff’s auction....

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Harrison, Hubert Henry (27 April 1883–17 December 1927), black intellectual and radical political activist, was born in Concordia, St. Croix, Danish West Indies (now U.S. Virgin Islands), the son of William Adolphus Harrison and Cecilia Elizabeth Haines. Little is known of his father. His mother had at least three other children and, in 1889, married a laborer. Harrison received a primary education in St. Croix. In September 1900, after his mother died, he immigrated to New York City, where he worked low-paying jobs, attended evening high school, did some writing, editing, and lecturing, and read voraciously. In 1907 he obtained postal employment and moved to Harlem. The following year he taught at the White Rose Home, where he was deeply influenced by social worker Frances Reynolds Keyser, a future founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1909 he married Irene Louise Horton, with whom he had five children....