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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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Barber, Jesse Max (05 July 1878–23 September 1949), African-American journalist, dentist, and civil rights activist, was born in Blackstock, South Carolina, the son of Jesse Max Barber and Susan Crawford, former slaves. Barber studied in public schools for African-American students and at Friendship Institute in Rock Hill, South Carolina, where he graduated as valedictorian. In 1901 he completed the normal school course for teachers at Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, and afterward entered Virginia Union University in Richmond. There Barber was president of the literary society and edited the ...

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Barrows, Samuel June (26 May 1845–21 April 1909), minister, reformer, and editor, was born in New York City, the son of Richard Barrows, a printer, and Jane Weekes. He was four when his father died and nine when his mother asked her husband’s cousin, printing-press innovator ...

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Blackwell, Henry Browne (04 May 1825–07 September 1909), social reformer, editor, and entrepreneur, was born in Bristol, England, the son of Samuel Blackwell, a sugar refiner and antislavery reformer, and Hannah Lane. After business reversals the family moved in 1832 to New York, where their household became a haven for abolitionists, women’s rights advocates, and self-emancipated slaves. In 1838 the debt-ridden Blackwells moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. When his father died a few months later, thirteen-year-old Henry went to work to support the family, initially as a clerk in a flour mill. In 1845 he joined the two illiterate millers as a partner, and two years later his brother made him a partner in a hardware firm. Within a few years the enterprising Henry (“Harry” to his friends) had his finger in many economic pies—among them an agricultural publishing firm, land speculation, and sugar beet production (perhaps after his father, who had sought an alternative to slave-based sugar cane). At the same time Harry moved to the forefront of women’s rights agitation and abolitionism....

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Bowker, R. R. (04 September 1848–12 November 1933), editor, publisher, and reformer, was born Richard Rogers Bowker in Salem, Massachusetts, the son of Daniel Rogers Bowker, a manufacturer of barrel machinery, and Theresa Maria Savory. Although Bowker’s education began in Salem, the majority of it took place in New York City, where his parents moved in 1857 after the failure of a family business. He attended the College of the City of New York, becoming the editor of ...

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Braden, Carl James (1914–18 February 1975), journalist and social justice activist, was born in New Albany, Indiana, the son of James Braden, a railroadman and auto worker, and Elizabeth Braden. He attended Catholic schools in Louisville and was for two years a proseminary student at Mount Saint Francis College in Indiana. In 1930, at the age of sixteen, he left Mount Saint Francis for a job as a reporter for the ...

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Bruce, John Edward (22 February 1856–07 August 1924), journalist and historian, was born in Piscataway, Maryland, the son of Martha Allen Clark and Robert Bruce, who were both enslaved Africans. In 1859 Major Harvey Griffin, Robert Bruce’s slaveholder, sold him to a Georgia slaveholder. Raised by his mother, Bruce lived in Maryland until 1861 when Union troops marching through Maryland freed him and his mother, taking them to Washington, D.C., where Bruce lived until 1892. In 1865 Bruce’s mother worked as a domestic in Stratford, Connecticut, where Bruce received his early education in an integrated school. One year later they returned to Washington, where Bruce continued his education. Although he did not complete high school, he enrolled in a course at Howard University in 1872. Bruce married Lucy Pinkwood, an opera singer from Washington, D.C. They had no children. In 1895 Bruce married Florence Adelaide Bishop, with whom he had one child....

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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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Eldridge Cleaver Photograph by Marion S. Trikosko, 1968. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (U.S. News and World Report Collection: LC-U9-20018).

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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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Conway, Moncure Daniel (17 March 1832–15 November 1907), reformer, minister, and author, was born in Stafford County, Virginia, the son of Walker Peyton Conway, a planter and judge, and Margaret Eleanor Daniel, a self-taught homeopathic doctor. Born to privilege, Conway was expected to emulate powerful, prominent male relatives. But his desire to please his father was exceeded by the influence of his remarkable mother and other female relatives. Together, these women emphasized sharing over hierarchy, personal fulfillment as well as duty, and encouraged, despite his father’s disapproval, Conway’s love of literature....

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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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Durham, John Stephens (18 July 1861–16 October 1919), diplomat, lawyer, and journalist, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Samuel Durham and Elizabeth Stephens. Two of his uncles, Clayton Durham and Jeremiah Durham, were noted clergymen who helped Bishop Richard Allen establish the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. A mulatto, Durham studied in the Philadelphia public schools, graduating from the Institute for Colored Youth in 1876....

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Flower, Benjamin Orange (19 October 1858–24 December 1918), editor and social reformer, was born near Albion, Illinois, the son of Alfred Flower and Elizabeth Orange. Albion was founded in 1818 by Alfred Flower’s father, George Flower, an immigrant from England. Benjamin Orange Flower studied at a private school near Albion on the farm of his father, a Disciples of Christ minister. At eleven he had already compiled a self-illustrated primary schoolbook and a long moral novel. Later, young Flower moved with his family to Evansville, Indiana, where he attended high school. Intending to become a minister like his father and an older brother, George Edward Flower, Benjamin Orange Flower attended the Disciples of Christ’s School of the Bible at Kentucky University in Lexington. Changing theological perspectives, which ultimately led him to Unitarianism, sent Flower back to Albion, Illinois. There he won control of a local four-page newsletter, the ...

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Timothy Thomas Fortune. Courtesy of the National Afro-American Museum.

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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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Green, Ely (11 September 1893–27 April 1968), author, black activist, and clairvoyant, was born near Sewanee, Tennessee, the son of a college student, Edward H. Wicks, later a Texas attorney, and Lena Green, a fourteen-year-old kitchen servant and daughter of a privy cleaner who had been a slave. In Green’s own words, he “was a half-white bastard.” His mother died when he was eight. He was reared by Mattie Davis, a sympathetic neighbor who worked as a domestic. He did not finish the second grade but was largely self-taught. His phenomenal vocabulary came about because, so he said, “I studied from every man who would talk to me.”...

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Paul Green Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-112304).

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Green, Paul (17 March 1894–04 May 1981), playwright and champion of human rights, was born Paul Eliot Green on his family’s farm in Harnett County, North Carolina, the son of William A. Green and Bettie Lorine Byrd. The farm lay along the Cape Fear River, and cotton was the principal crop. The Greens also had tobacco acreage, raised hogs commercially, and grew corn for feed. Usually three or four black tenant families helped with the farm, and Paul’s closest childhood friend was a tenant boy. When the boy died, Paul felt it like a death in the family but realized that his father looked on the death as merely the loss of useful farm labor. Awareness of this difference between himself and his father was an early step in the development of his identity....