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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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Brown, William Wells (1814?–06 November 1884), author and reformer, was born near Lexington, Kentucky, the son of George Higgins, a relative of his master, and Elizabeth, a slave. Dr. John Young, Brown’s master, migrated with his family from Kentucky to the Missouri Territory in 1816. Eleven years later the Youngs moved to St. Louis. Although Brown never experienced the hardship of plantation slavery, he was hired out regularly and separated from his family. He worked for a while in the printing office of abolitionist ...

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Clarke, Lewis G. (1815–1897), author and antislavery lecturer, was born into slavery on the plantation of his maternal grandfather, Samuel Campbell, in Madison County, Kentucky, the son of Campbell’s mixed-race slave daughter Letitia and her white, Scottish-immigrant husband, Daniel Clarke, a soldier in the American Revolution. Lewis Clarke’s middle name is variously recorded as either George or Garrand. Clarke’s family history, which he traced back to the founding of the nation, inspired his quest for freedom and his subsequent dedication to the abolition cause in the North....

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Cook, George William (07 January 1855–20 August 1931), educator and civil rights leader, was born a slave in Winchester, Virginia. The names of his parents are unknown. In May 1862 the Cook family, which included seven children, became war refugees after the Union capture of Winchester. The family eventually settled in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where young George Cook’s most important early experience as a free person was working as a servant for David D. Mumma, a Pennsylvania state legislator. Permitted to use the Mumma family library, Cook developed the ambition to seek higher education, which would have remained beyond his grasp except for several fortunate events. After he moved to New York in 1871, Cook learned of Howard University from the Reverend ...

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Craft, William (1824–28 January 1900), runaway slave and abolitionist lecturer, was born in Georgia, where he was a slave for the first twenty-four years of his life. In 1841 his owner, also named Craft, mortgaged William and his sister Sarah to a Macon bank. Later, when the slaveholder could not make the payments, the bank sold the slaves at an auction. Craft’s new owner permitted him to hire himself out as a carpenter, and Craft was allowed to keep earnings over $220 annually. In 1846 William married Ellen ( ...

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William James Simmons. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-90544).

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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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Turner, James Milton (22 August 1839?–01 November 1915), educator and diplomat, was born a slave in St. Louis County, Missouri, the son of John Turner, a free black farrier, and Hannah Turner, the slave of Aaron and Theodosia Young, formerly of Kentucky. Mother and son were freed by Theodosia Young on 12 March 1844. Educated in clandestinely operated schools in St. Louis, in defiance of Missouri law, Turner was sent by his parents to preparatory school at Oberlin College in Ohio during the mid-1850s. He remained there for no more than two years and returned to St. Louis during the late 1850s. He worked as a porter until the outbreak of the Civil War, when he joined the war effort as a body servant to Colonel Madison Miller, a Union officer....

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Booker T. Washington. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-25624).

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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 ...