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Cooper, Peter (12 February 1791–04 April 1883), inventor, manufacturer, and civic benefactor, was born in New York City, the son of John Cooper and Margaret Campbell. His father was a struggling merchant who moved the family successively to Peekskill, Catskill, and finally Newburgh, New York, in search of financial success. Assisting his father in a series of occupations (hatter, brewer, shopkeeper, and brickmaker), Cooper obtained valuable practical work experience. Given his family’s relative poverty and constant movement, Cooper was only able to obtain a year’s worth of formal schooling; this deficiency in his formal education haunted him throughout his life....

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Decker, Sarah Sophia Chase Platt (01 October 1855–07 July 1912), clubwoman, suffragist, and community activist, was born in McIndoe Falls, Vermont, the daughter of Edwin Chase, a lumber dealer, paper manufacturer, and Baptist abolitionist known as the “Fighting Deacon,” and Lydia Maria Adams. The family moved to Holyoke, Massachusetts, when Sarah was quite young. She graduated from high school in Holyoke and while still in her teens became active in community work as a trustee of a fund to aid the poor. In 1875 she married a Holyoke merchant, Charles B. Harris....

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Dorr, Thomas Wilson (05 November 1805–27 December 1854), political and social reformer, was born in Providence, Rhode Island, the son of Sullivan Dorr, a wealthy merchant and business leader, and Lydia Allen, a prominent socialite and sister of noted inventor Zechariah Allen and Rhode Island governor and U.S. senator ...

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Du Bois, W. E. B. (23 February 1868–27 August 1963), African-American activist, historian, and sociologist, was born William Edward Burghardt Du Bois in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, the son of Mary Silvina Burghardt, a domestic worker, and Alfred Du Bois, a barber and itinerant laborer. In later life Du Bois made a close study of his family origins, weaving them rhetorically and conceptually—if not always accurately—into almost everything he wrote. Born in Haiti and descended from Bahamian mulatto slaves, Alfred Du Bois enlisted during the Civil War as a private in a New York regiment of the Union army but appears to have deserted shortly afterward. He also deserted the family less than two years after his son’s birth, leaving him to be reared by his mother and the extended Burghardt kin. Long resident in New England, the Burghardts descended from a freedman of Dutch slave origin who had fought briefly in the American Revolution. Under the care of his mother and her relatives, young Will Du Bois spent his entire childhood in that small western Massachusetts town, where probably fewer than two-score of the 4,000 inhabitants were African American. He received a classical, college preparatory education in Great Barrington’s racially integrated high school, from whence, in June 1884, he became the first African-American graduate. A precocious youth, Du Bois not only excelled in his high school studies but contributed numerous articles to two regional newspapers, the Springfield ...

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Edwards, India (16 June 1895–14 January 1990), politician and women's advocate, politician and women’s advocate, was born India Walker in Chicago, Illinois, the daughter of Archibald Walker and India Thomas Walker. Her father left home when she was four, and her mother married John A. Gillespie, a Canadian, whom India considered to be her real father. She attended public schools in Chicago, Nashville, and St. Louis....

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Foster, Judith Ellen Horton Avery (03 November 1840–11 August 1910), lawyer, temperance activist, and Republican party leader, was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, the daughter of Jotham Horton, a blacksmith and a Methodist minister, and Judith Delano. Both parents died when she was young, and Judith moved to Boston to live with her older married sister. She then lived with a relative in Lima, New York, where she attended the Genessee Wesleyan Seminary. After graduation she taught school until her first marriage to Addison Avery in 1860. They had two children, one of whom died in childhood. The marriage ended about 1866, and she moved to Chicago, supporting herself and her child by teaching music in a mission school. In Chicago she met Elijah Caleb Foster, a native of Canada and a recent graduate of the University of Michigan Law School. After their marriage in 1869, they moved to Clinton, Iowa. They had two children; one died at the age of five....

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Kennedy, Edward Moore (Ted) (22 February 1932–25 August 2009), U.S. senator and advocate for liberal reform, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the ninth and last child of Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy and Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Sr., a banker, investor, and American ambassador to Great Britain. His dynasty-building father held high expectations for his children and established trust funds that would provide them with the financial security and freedom to pursue public service. As the baby brother, Kennedy spent his childhood catching up with his siblings in a highly competitive, politically oriented Irish Catholic family that turned everything into a contest, whether it was sailing, playing touch football, or getting attention at the dinner table. Kennedy later attributed his habit of copious research and preparation for legislation as a senator to the standards his father set for table talk....

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Phillips, Wendell (29 November 1811–02 February 1884), orator, abolitionist, and women's rights and labor advocate, orator, abolitionist, and women’s rights and labor advocate, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of John Phillips, a well-to-do politician and philanthropist, and Sarah Walley. The youngest of eleven children, Wendell received strict and loving attention from both of his parents. From the first he was trained to see himself as a great leader, committed to addressing the great moral and political questions of his age. This drive for leadership was compounded by his early discovery that he possessed extraordinary gifts as an orator. Athletic, handsome, and intelligent, he impressed teachers and classmates alike with his unusual capacity to express himself and to influence others with eloquent speaking. After attending the Boston Latin School, he graduated from Harvard in 1831 and obtained a Harvard law degree in 1833. For the next three years Phillips resided in and around Boston as he attempted, halfheartedly, to establish a legal practice, a career for which he felt no great enthusiasm. Instead he yearned to pursue a vocation worthy of his august legacy. That vocation, finally, was the cause of abolitionism, which he discovered through the process of courtship and marriage....

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Pinchot, Cornelia Bryce (26 August 1881–09 September 1960), politician and advocate of progressive causes, was born Cornelia Elizabeth Bryce in Newport, Rhode Island, the youngest daughter of Lloyd Stephens Bryce and Edith Cooper. Her father had been a Democratic congressman, a novelist, an intimate and political confidante of ...

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Robins, Raymond (17 September 1873–26 September 1954), social reformer, politician, and diplomat, was born on Staten Island, New York, the son of Charles Ephraim Robins, a businessman, and his second wife, Hannah Mariah Crow. After his father went bankrupt and moved to Colorado to mine for metals and his mother went into a mental asylum, Raymond grew up with relatives in Zanesville, Ohio; Louisville, Kentucky; and Brooksville, Florida. In the early 1890s Robins took coal mining jobs in Coal Creek, Tennessee, and in Leadville, Colorado. In 1893 he took a position as manager of a Florida phosphate company, where he became interested in phosphate mining and discovered a rich deposit of kaolin clay, used for porcelain production. He purchased land options worth $10,000 at once, but he sold the property to a New York company for $3,000 in 1893. The company’s lawyer, by using his knowledge and legal skills, outmaneuvered Robins, who, as a result, had to absorb a severe financial loss on what had looked like a sound investment. This experience convinced him to study law. Working as a lawyer, Robins felt, suited both his personal temperament and his social and political inclinations. In 1896 he graduated with a law degree from Columbian University (now George Washington University). He moved to San Francisco, where he was admitted to the bar in 1896....

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Roosevelt, Eleanor (11 October 1884–07 November 1962), first lady of the United States, social reformer, politician, diplomat, was born Anna Eleanor Roosevelt in New York City, the daughter of Elliott Roosevelt and Anna Hall. Her childhood was materially comfortable—both sides of her family were wealthy and prominent in New York society—but it was also emotionally arid. Her mother, beautiful but distant and so disappointed in the looks of her daughter that she called her “granny,” died when Eleanor was eight. Her youngest brother died the following year. She clung to her father, the younger brother of ...

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Rustin, Bayard (17 March 1912–24 August 1987), civil rights leader and political activist, was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, the illegitimate son of an immigrant from the British West Indies. Raised by his maternal grandparents (his grandfather was a caterer), Rustin was educated in the local public schools. He first experienced racial discrimination as a member of his high school football team when he was denied service at a restaurant in Media, Pennsylvania. After high school, he worked at odd jobs, traveled widely, and studied at Wilberforce University in Ohio, Cheney State Teachers College in Pennsylvania, and the City College of New York, never earning a formal degree....

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Storey, Moorfield (19 Mar. 1845–24 Oct. 1929), civil rights attorney and anti-imperialist activist, was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts, to attorney Charles Storey and Elizabeth Eaton Storey, Boston Brahmin parents of declining wealth and Conscience Whig political persuasions. Storey attended Harvard College, graduating in ...