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Ralph Abernathy Photograph by Warren K. Leffler, 1968. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (U.S. News and World Report Collection: LC-U9-19265).

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Abernathy, Ralph David (11 March 1926–17 April 1990), civil rights leader and minister, was born David Abernathy in Linden, Alabama, the son of William L. Abernathy and Louivery Valentine Bell, farmers. A sister’s favorite professor was the inspiration for the nickname “Ralph David,” and although Abernathy never made a legal change, the name remained with him from age twelve....

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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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Adler, Felix (13 August 1851–24 April 1933), religious and social reformer, was born in Alzey, Germany, the son of Henrietta Frankfurter and Samuel Adler, a rabbi. At the age of six he came with the family to the United States when his father accepted an invitation to become rabbi of the Temple Emanuel in New York City. After attending public and private schools, he entered Columbia College, graduating in 1870. Plans for him to succeed his father as rabbi sent Adler to Europe, where he studied theology, philosophy, and linguistics under the tutelage of Abraham Geiger and Heymann Steinthal at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judenthums in Berlin. Alongside that work he also attended courses on philosophy, particularly Kantian ethics, and economics, especially the questions of labor and social reform, at the University of Berlin. In 1873 he received a Ph.D. from the University of Heidelberg and returned home to take up rabbinical duties. Those plans collapsed within the year because Adler had come to reject both theism and the divine origin of Hebrew Scriptures. After an amicable parting with Temple Emanuel, Adler lectured on Hebrew and Oriental literature at Cornell University from 1874 to 1876. In 1880 he married Helen Goldmark, and the couple had a family of five children....

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A. Bronson Alcott. At age fifty-three. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-54729).

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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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Raymond Pace Alexander At his desk in his law office, circa 1935-1940. Collections of the University of Pennsylvania Archives.

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Alexander, Raymond Pace (13 October 1898–24 November 1974), lawyer, judge, and civil rights leader, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the third son of Hillard Boone and Virginia Pace Alexander, both slaves in Virginia who were freed in 1865 and migrated to Philadelphia in 1880. His background was working-class poor and he grew up in Philadelphia's seventh ward, an all-black community made famous by W. E. B. Du Bois's seminal study ...

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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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Alinsky, Saul David (30 January 1909–12 June 1972), community organizer, was born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Benjamin Alinsky, a tailor, and Sarah Tannenbaum. The family lived in the predominantly Jewish Maxwell Street neighborhood when Alinsky was born, and after the age of six he grew up in the mostly pleasant West Side neighborhood of Douglas Park. His parents divorced when Saul was thirteen years old; he would visit his father in California in the summer but grew increasingly distant from him and close to the strong and contentious Sarah....

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Nathan Allen. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine (B01026).

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Allen, Nathan (25 April 1813–01 January 1889), physician, social reformer, and public health advocate, was born in Princeton, Massachusetts, the son of Moses Allen and Mehitable Oliver, farmers. He spent his first seventeen years on the family farm, learning to work hard and to follow the Christian principles of his parents. He could not afford a higher education, but a friend in Leicester helped pay his tuition at Amherst Academy and then at Amherst College, where he matriculated in 1832, graduating in 1836....

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Alston, Melvin Ovenus (07 October 1911–30 December 1985), educator, was born in Norfolk, Virginia, the son of William Henry “Sonnie” Alston, a drayman, and Mary Elizabeth “Lizzie” Smith, a laundress. Of middle-class background in terms of an African-American family in the urban South in the 1920s, he grew up in a house that his family owned, free of any mortgage. After attending Norfolk’s segregated black public schools and graduating from Booker T. Washington High School, he graduated from Virginia State College (B.S., 1935), honored for his debating and for excellence in scholarship, and began teaching math at Booker T. Washington High School in 1935. Beginning in 1937 he served as president of the Norfolk Teachers Association, and he also held local leadership positions in the Young Men’s Christian Association and the First Calvary Baptist Church....

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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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Anderson, Matthew (25 January 1845–11 January 1928), Presbyterian pastor, educator, and social reformer, was born in Greencastle, Pennsylvania, the son of Timothy Anderson and Mary Croog. One of fourteen children, he was raised in the comforts of a rural, middle-class home, less than thirty miles from historic Gettysburg. On a typical day of his youth, he faced the physical demands of farm life and experienced the movement back and forth between two cultures. One, dominated by commerce and materialism, was uncharacteristically open to the Andersons, who owned lumber mills and real estate at a time when most black Americans were dehumanized and disenfranchised by chattel slavery. The other was a culture defined by close family ties and Presbyterian piety. At home Matthew heard Bible stories and dramatic tales of runaway slaves; indeed, religious piety and the pursuit of racial freedom were dominant themes in his life. These early experiences inspired Anderson so deeply that, by the time he left Greencastle in 1863, he had decided on the ministry as his vocation. Study at Oberlin College was the first step toward serving his religious faith, his racial group, and his vision of social justice....

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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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Andrews, John Bertram (02 August 1880–04 January 1943), leader in the social insurance movement, was born in South Wayne, Wisconsin, the son of Philo Edmund Andrews and Sarah Jane Maddrell, farmers. He entered the University of Wisconsin in 1900, graduating with a B.A. in 1904. After receiving an M.A. in economics at Dartmouth in 1905, Andrews returned to Wisconsin to continue his studies under the economist and social activist ...

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Andrews, Stephen Pearl (22 March 1812–21 May 1886), eccentric philosopher and reformer, was born in Templeton, Massachusetts, the son of Elisha Andrews, a Baptist clergyman, and Wealthy Ann Lathrop. He attended the village school and, after the family moved to Hinsdale, New Hampshire, in 1816, was taught at home by his father. In 1828 and 1829 he studied in the classical department of Amherst Academy, where he was influenced by Professor ...

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Apess, William (31 January 1798–Apr. or May 1839), writer, Methodist minister, and Native-American activist, was born in Colrain, Franklin County, Massachusetts, the son of William Apes, a shoemaker and laborer, and Candace (surname unknown), probably a slave or indentured servant in the house of Captain Joseph Taylor of Colchester, Connecticut. According to Apess’s autobiographical accounts, his father was part Anglo-American and part Pequot and his mother “a female of the [same] tribe, in whose veins a single drop of the white man’s blood never flowed,” although some evidence indicates that she may have been part African American. Only in myth do such beginnings spawn great achievements. At age three, abandoned by his parents, he was nearly beaten to death by his maternal grandmother while she was in a drunken rage, a rage that Apess later understood as an effect of the theft by whites of Native American lands, culture, and pride. Bound out at four, he spent his youth as an indentured servant in three different white households in Connecticut and as an infantryman in a New York State militia company during the War of 1812. He received his only formal education, six winter terms of school, between the ages of six and eleven....

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Atkinson, Edward (10 February 1827–11 December 1905), businessman and reformer, was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, the son of Amos Atkinson II, a merchant, and Anna Greenleaf Sawyer. He was educated in private schools in both Brookline and Boston, but the family’s financial distress prevented him from attending Harvard as planned and propelled him instead at age fifteen into the world of business. After rising to the accounting department of a Boston dry goods firm, Atkinson in 1851 was appointed treasurer and agent of the textile company Ogden Mills....