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Chávez, César Estrada (31 March 1927–23 April 1993), labor leader and social activist, was born in North Gila Valley, near Yuma, Arizona, the son of Librado Chávez and Juana Estrada. In 1888 two-year-old Librado, his siblings, and his mother immigrated to the Arizona territory to join his father, who had fled the harshness of life at Hacienda del Carmen in Porfirian, Mexico. Juana Estrada, also a native of Chihuahua, married Librado in 1924, and soon after the couple purchased a small grocery/garage/pool hall not far from his parents’ 160-acre ranch and raised six children. After losing their property during the depression, the family soon joined the migrant harvest circuit....

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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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Flynn, Elizabeth Gurley (07 August 1890–05 September 1964), labor organizer and activist, was born in Concord, New Hampshire, the daughter of Thomas Flynn, a quarry worker and civil engineer, and Annie Gurley, a tailor. Both parents were descended from a long line of Irish rebels. During Elizabeth’s childhood, the family was poor due to the hard times and her father’s preference for political argumentation over earning a living. In 1900 the Flynns moved to a cold-water flat in the Bronx, which became a gathering place for Irish freedom fighters and prominent socialists. Impressed by Elizabeth’s intelligence and militancy, they encouraged her activism....

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Randolph, Asa Philip (15 April 1889–16 May 1979), founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and civil rights leader, was born in Crescent City, Florida, the son of James William Randolph, an itinerant African Methodist Episcopal preacher, and Elizabeth Robinson. The family placed great stress on education. Thus Randolph, an honor student, was sent to Cookman Institute in Jacksonville, Florida (later Bethune-Cookman College). Although greatly influenced by his father’s political and racial attitudes, Randolph resisted pressure to enter the ministry and later became an atheist. Upon graduation from Cookman, in 1907, he found himself barred by racial prejudice from all but manual labor jobs in the South, and so in 1911 he moved to New York City, where he worked at odd jobs during the day and took social science courses at City College at night....

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Robins, Margaret Dreier (06 September 1868–21 February 1945), social reformer and labor leader, was born in Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of Theodor Dreier, a prosperous businessman, and Dorothea Adelheid. As a teenager Margaret suffered from various physical ailments that left her weak and depressed. Rather than retire to a life of semi-invalidism, however, she threw herself into volunteer work, starting at the age of nineteen when she became treasurer of the women’s auxiliary at Brooklyn Hospital, where her father was a trustee. She did not attend college but sought out private tutoring in philosophy, history, and public speaking. In 1902 Margaret Dreier joined the State Charities Aid Association and the recently established Women’s Municipal League (WML). Soon afterward she and social worker ...

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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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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 ...

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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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Willkie, Wendell Lewis (18 February 1892–08 October 1944), corporation lawyer and executive, politician, and civil rights activist, was born in Elwood, Indiana, the son of Herman F. Willkie and Henrietta Trisch. His father was a lawyer and local reformer, and his mother was one of the first female lawyers in Indiana. Willkie attended local schools and Indiana University, graduating in 1913. After teaching high school in Kansas (Sept. 1913–Nov. 1914), he returned to Indiana University to complete a law degree in 1916....