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Adams, John Quincy (04 May 1848–03 September 1922), newspaper editor and publisher, civil rights leader, and Republican party activist, was born in Louisville, Kentucky, the son of Henry Adams, a prominent minister and educator, and Margaret Corbin. Both his parents were free persons of color. Following private schooling in Wisconsin and Ohio, Adams graduated from Oberlin College. After a brief teaching stint in Louisville, in 1870 he followed his uncle, Joseph C. Corbin, to work in Arkansas in the Reconstruction. By 1874 he had risen from schoolteacher to assistant superintendent of public instruction. His lifelong activism in the Republican party began in Arkansas; there he twice served as secretary to Republican state conventions, was elected as justice of the peace on the party ticket, and held the offices of engrossing clerk of the state senate and deputy commissioner of public works. The defeat of the Arkansas Republican party in 1874 and the racial repression that followed led Adams to return to Louisville, where he again engaged in teaching....

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Alexander, Will Winton (15 July 1884–13 January 1956), leading southern liberal, expert on race relations, and member of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal administration, leading southern liberal, expert on race relations, and member of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal administration, was born near Morrisville, Missouri, the son of William Baxter Alexander, a farmer, and Arabella A. Winton, a schoolteacher. Alexander received a B.A. from Scarritt-Morrisville College in 1908 and continued his studies at Vanderbilt University, where he received a Bachelor of Divinity in 1912. Ordained a Methodist minister in 1911, Alexander held pastorates at Nashville (1911–1916) and Murfreesboro, Tennessee (1916–1917). In 1914 he married Mabelle A. Kinkead; they had three sons....

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Altgeld, John Peter (30 December 1847–12 March 1902), governor of Illinois and leader of midwestern reform forces in the 1890s, was born in Nieder Selters in Nassau, Germany, the son of John Peter Altgeld, a wagon maker and farmer, and Mary (maiden name unknown). He was three months old when he and his parents immigrated to the United States and settled in Newville or Mansfield, Ohio. Raised in poverty by a stern and parochial father who saw no benefit in education, Altgeld received instruction only in a few terms of public school and Methodist Sunday school. Seeking to escape his father’s control, in 1864 he joined the Ohio Home Guards for a 100-day stint. This experience confirmed his desire for advancement, but he also contracted a disease, probably malaria, which recurred throughout his life....

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Andrew, John Albion (31 May 1818–30 October 1867), reformer, antislavery advocate, and Civil War governor of Massachusetts, was born in Windham, Maine, the son of Jonathan Andrew, a farmer and general store owner, and Nancy Green Pierce, a schoolteacher. Educated at private academies and then at Bowdoin College, from which he graduated in 1837, Andrews learned early about the evils of slavery and the religious necessity to oppose it. One of his contemporaries at Bowdoin was ...

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Bates, Barnabas (1785–11 October 1853), reformer and activist, was born in Edmonton, England. Soon after his birth he immigrated to New England with his parents, whose names are not known. Educated for the Baptist ministry, Bates began his career in Hyannis, Massachusetts, in 1808, and then relocated to Bristol, Rhode Island, in 1814. Within a year he became master of the local Masonic lodge, and his sermons began to drift toward Unitarianism. Unhappy with these developments, his small congregation attempted to depose their pastor in 1816, but the coup was only a partial success: Bates lost his salary but kept the church, which remained empty for the next eight years. During this time, Bates parlayed his reputation as an “undeviating Republican” into government appointments as the Bristol postmaster and then as port collector. He used the latter office to thwart the efforts of some reputed local slave smugglers and thereby earned the enmity of Bristol’s powerful deWolf family. At the urging of Senator James deWolf, the Senate rejected Bates’s 1824 renomination as port collector....

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Bayne, Thomas (1824–1889), dentist and politician, was born into slavery in North Carolina and was known as Samuel Nixon before his escape from bondage in 1855. He was sold several times before being purchased by C. F. Martin, a dentist in Norfolk, Virginia. As the slave of Martin, Bayne learned sufficient dentistry to serve as the doctor’s assistant and to make dental house calls. Bayne also developed bookkeeping skills and monitored the doctor’s accounts....

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Belmont, Alva Erskine Smith Vanderbilt (17 January 1853–26 January 1933), social leader and suffragist, was born Alva Erskine Smith in Mobile, Alabama, the daughter of Murray Forbes Smith, a cotton merchant, and Phoebe Ann Desha. As a child, Alva summered with her parents in Newport, Rhode Island, and accompanied them on European vacations. In 1857 the Smiths moved to New York City, where they settled in Madison Square. Murray Smith later went to Liverpool, England, to conduct his business, and Alva, her mother, and her sisters moved to Paris. Alva attended a private boarding school in Neuilly, France, for one year....

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Bird, Francis William (22 October 1809–23 May 1894), radical reformer and antislavery politician, was born in Dedham, Massachusetts, the son of George Bird, a paper mill superintendent, and Martha C. Newell. Bird graduated from Brown College in 1831. He took an active interest in the welfare of his hometown of East Walpole, Massachusetts, where he continued the family paper manufacturing business. Bird lost his first wife and infant daughter to illness after one year of marriage. He married Abby Frances Newell in 1843; they had at least two children....

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Brisbane, Albert (22 August 1809–01 May 1890), utopian socialist, was born in Batavia, New York, the son of James Brisbane, a merchant and landowner, and Mary Stevens. His father, a former agent of the Holland Land Company, amassed a fortune in real estate; his mother was an amateur scholar....

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Ralph Bunche Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1951. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-109113).

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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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Burlingham, Charles Culp (31 August 1858–06 June 1959), attorney, civic leader, and social and political reformer, was born in Plainfield, New Jersey, the son of the Reverend Aaron Hale Burlingham, a Baptist minister, and Emma Starr. Reverend Burlingham was a minister in New York City. C. C. B., as he was known by friends, lived in France for a time, after his father became minister of the American Chapel in Paris in 1863. In 1866 the family returned to the United States, and Charles’s father accepted a position as a pastor in St. Louis, Missouri, where Charles lived until he enrolled in Harvard University in 1875. He graduated in 1879 with an A.B. He then entered Columbia Law School, from which he received an LL.B. in 1881, the same year he was admitted to the New York bar. Two years later he married Louisa W. Lawrence; they had two sons and a daughter....

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Burnham, Louis Everett (29 September 1915–12 February 1960), journalist, activist, and radical, was born in Harlem, New York, the son of Charles Breechford Burnham, a building superintendent, and Louise St. Clair Williams Burnham, a hairdresser. His parents had emigrated from Barbados to the United States in search of a better livelihood, and they bought their own property in Harlem and began providing rooms for new Caribbean immigrants. Burnham attended New York City public schools and graduated from Townsend High School in 1932. In the fall of 1932 he enrolled in City College. He became actively involved in student political activities, serving as president of the Frederick Douglass Society and vice president of the student council. Affable, charismatic, and a powerful orator, he often spoke on campus about racial injustice, the threat of fascism to world peace, unemployment, and the plight of American youth. He graduated from City College in 1936....

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Burritt, Elihu (08 December 1810–06 March 1879), reformer, was born in New Britain, Connecticut, the son of Elihu Burritt, a farmer and cobbler, and Elizabeth Hinsdale. Burritt’s mother made the Bible and the religion of John Calvin the basis of the Christian nurture of her ten children. Elihu attended the local district school and showed a marked aptitude for scholarship. After his father’s death in 1827, he apprenticed himself to a local blacksmith and independently continued his studies, particularly in languages....

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Oscar L. Chapman Testifying before Senate Interior Committee, 1950. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-94480).

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Chapman, Oscar Littleton (22 October 1896–06 February 1978), humanitarian, politician, and secretary of the interior, was born in Halifax County, Virginia, the son of James Jackson Chapman and Rosa Blount, farmers. Portending his future liberalism, young Chapman rebelled against his southern heritage, choosing a picture of ...

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Church, Robert Reed, Jr. (26 October 1885–17 April 1952), politician and businessman, was born in Memphis, Tennessee, the son of Robert Reed Church, Sr., a banker and businessman, and Anna Sue Wright, a school principal. The wealth and prestige of his father afforded young Church opportunities not available to most African-American children of his day. After attending a parochial school in Memphis and Oberlin Academy in Oberlin, Ohio, Church studied at Morgan Park Military Academy in Chicago, Illinois, and then enrolled in the Packard School of Business in New York City. He completed the business course and worked on Wall Street for several years before returning to Memphis in 1909 to help his father in the management of the Solvent Savings Bank and Trust Company and other family enterprises. In 1911 he married Sara Paroda Johnson, a schoolteacher; they had one child....

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Clark, Peter Humphries (1829–21 June 1925), educator, politician, and civil rights leader, was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, the son of Michael Clark, a barber, and his wife (name unknown). Clark was the product of a complex, mixed racial ancestry that provided the basis for a lifelong struggle to find a place for himself in both the white and African-American worlds. The oral tradition of Peter Clark’s family and of the Cincinnati African-American community contends that Michael Clark was the son of explorer ...

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Collins, John Anderson (1810–1879), abolitionist and social reformer, was born in Manchester, Vermont. Little is known of his early years. He attended Middlebury College, then left to enter Andover Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. Caught up in the enthusiasm of the early abolitionist movement, Collins left the seminary and became general agent of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, conducting lecture tours in the late 1830s. He became a loyal lieutenant of abolitionist ...

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Coolidge, Albert Sprague (23 January 1894–31 August 1977), chemical physicist, political activist, and civil libertarian, was born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Frederic Shurtleff Coolidge, an orthopedic surgeon, and Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. His mother was the daughter of Albert Arnold Sprague, a pioneer merchant of Chicago, which made it possible for Sprague Coolidge to be financially independent. He was directly descended from John Coolidge of Watertown, Massachusetts, who emigrated from England in 1630 and whose farm occupied almost all of what is now Cambridge, Massachusetts. His college preparatory education was at the Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. He graduated summa cum laude with an A.B. from Harvard College in 1915. That year he married Margaret Stewart Coit. They had five children....