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Bly, Nellie (05 May 1864–27 January 1922), reporter and manufacturer, was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania, the daughter of Michael Cochran, a mill owner and associate justice of Armstrong County, Pennsylvania, and Mary Jane Kennedy Cummings. Judge Cochran, the father of fifteen children by two wives, died suddenly without a will in 1870, leaving Mary Jane with little money. Mary Jane’s abusive third marriage to John Jackson Ford ended in divorce in 1878, and “Pink,” as Elizabeth Jane was known, at age fifteen, went off to Indiana (Pa.) Normal School, adding a final ...

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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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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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Heco, Joseph (1837–1897), government interpreter, merchant, and publisher, was born Hamada Hikozō in the village of Komiya, near Kobe, Japan, on the eastern shore of the Inland Sea, the second son of a well-to-do farmer. After his father’s death his mother remarried, to a sea captain who adopted him. While on what should have been a brief internal voyage in late 1850, his ship was blown into the Pacific. He and sixteen other persons, after drifting for fifty-two days, were picked up by a U.S. ship that landed at San Francisco in February 1851. The American authorities, planning for Commodore ...

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Henson, Josiah (15 June 1789–05 May 1883), escaped slave and preacher, was born in Charles County, Maryland, on a farm owned by Francis Newman. As a child, Henson frequently saw his parents abused and severely beaten. On one occasion, as a punishment for defending his wife, Henson’s father was sentenced to a physical mutilation that left him permanently scarred. Although he was raised without religion, Henson was immediately converted to Christianity after his first exposure to it at a revivalist camp meeting. As a young boy, he was sold to Isaac Riley....

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Mesta, Perle (12 Oct. 1889 or 1891–16 March 1975), political activist, businesswoman, diplomat, and hostess, was born Pearl Skirvin in Sturgis, Michigan, the daughter of William Balser Skirvin, a salesman, and Harriet Reid. The actual year of her birth was one of her best-kept secrets. Early in the twentieth century her father left Michigan for the oil fields of South Texas, where he made a fortune in the famed Spindletop field. The feisty “Billy” Skirvin moved to Oklahoma City, where he founded the American Oil and Refinery Company and built the luxurious fourteen-floor Skirvin Hotel. Pearl was educated in private schools in Galveston and studied voice and piano at the Sherwood School of Music in Chicago. In 1917 she married 54-year-old George Mesta, founder and president of the Mesta Machine Company located in Pittsburgh. During her years living in the nation’s steel capital she changed her name to the distinctive “Perle.”...

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Parks, Lillian Rogers (01 February 1897–06 November 1997), White House seamstress and author, was born Lillian Adele Rogers, the daughter of Emmett E. Rogers, Sr., a waiter, and Margaret “Maggie” Williams Rogers. Source information is sketchy regarding her early years, but her godchild, Peggy Holly, believes that Lillian Parks was born in the District of Columbia and as a child spent summers with relatives in Virginia. Her father—by Parks's account an alcoholic unable to hold a job—left his family when she was a child; in 1909 her mother took a job at the White House at the beginning of ...

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Toklas, Alice B. (30 April 1877–07 March 1967), writer, author of cookbooks, and Gertrude Stein's companion, writer, author of cookbooks, and Gertrude Stein’s companion, was born Alice Babette Toklas in San Francisco, California, the daughter of Ferdinand Toklas, a store owner, and Emma Levinsky. She lived a middle-class Jewish life of intellectual and artistic pursuits in the homes of her maternal grandparents in San Francisco and her family homes both there and in Seattle, Washington. Her father’s clothing business was prosperous much of the time. She attended private school and spent many years at piano study. At eight she was taken to France and England as well as to Poland to visit her father’s relatives. In 1893 she entered the music conservatory of the University of Washington....

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Wells-Barnett, Ida Bell (16 July 1862–25 March 1931), editor and antilynching activist, was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, the daughter of James Wells and Elizabeth Warrenton, slaves. Son of his master, James Wells was a carpenter’s apprentice and opened his own shop after emancipation. The eldest of eight children, Ida attended Rust College in Holly Springs until 1878, when a yellow fever epidemic killed her parents and one of her six siblings (another had died some years before). Determined to keep her family together, Wells began teaching in surrounding areas. In 1881 she moved her youngest siblings to Memphis to live with an aunt and took a job as a schoolteacher in nearby Woodstock....

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Wheatley, Phillis (1753–05 December 1784), poet and cultivator of the epistolary writing style, was born in Gambia, Africa, probably along the fertile low lands of the Gambia River. She was enslaved as a child of seven or eight and sold in Boston to John and Susanna Wheatley on 11 July 1761. The horrors of the middle passage likely contributed to her persistent trouble with asthma. The Wheatleys apparently named the girl, who had nothing but a piece of dirty carpet to conceal her nakedness, after the slaver, the ...