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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, Ellen (1826?–1891), abolitionist and educator, was born on a plantation in Clinton, Georgia, the daughter of Major James Smith, a wealthy cotton planter, and Maria, his slave. At the age of eleven Ellen was given by her mistress (whose “incessant cruelty” Craft was later to recall) as a wedding present to Ellen’s half sister Eliza on the young woman’s marriage to Robert Collins of Macon, Georgia. Ellen became a skilled seamstress and ladies’ maid, esteemed for her grace, intelligence, and sweetness of temper. In Macon she met another slave two years her senior, ...

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Ferguson, Katy (1779?–11 July 1854), child welfare worker and school founder, was born a slave on board a schooner en route from Virginia to New York City. Her formal name was Catherine Williams, but she was known as “Katy.” Separated from her mother at the age of eight after the woman was sold by their master, a Presbyterian elder, Katy never saw her mother again. Although she never learned to read or write, Katy was allowed to attend church services, and before she was sold, her mother taught her the Scriptures from memory. Katy was deeply religious and a strong adherent of the Presbyterian faith. At the age of ten she promised her master that she would dedicate her life to God’s service if given her freedom. This request was denied, but Katy eventually obtained her freedom; she was purchased for $200 by an abolitionist sympathizer when she was fifteen or sixteen years old. Originally she was given six years to repay this debt, but eventually her benefactor accepted eleven months of service and $100 from a New York merchant for her freedom. Thereafter, as a free woman, Katy supported herself by catering parties for wealthy white families and by cleaning linens and other delicate fabrics....

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Johnson, Edward Austin (23 November 1860–24 July 1944), educator, lawyer, and politician, was born near Raleigh, North Carolina, the son of Columbus Johnson and Eliza A. Smith, slaves. He was taught to read and write by Nancy Walton, a free African American, and later attended the Washington School, an establishment founded by philanthropic northerners in Raleigh. There he was introduced to the Congregational church and became a lifelong member. Johnson completed his education at Atlanta University in Georgia, graduating in 1883. To pay his way through college, he worked as a barber and taught in the summers. After graduation he worked as a teacher and principal, first in Atlanta at the Mitchell Street Public School (1883–1885) and then in Raleigh at the Washington School (1885–1891). While teaching in Raleigh he studied at Shaw University, obtaining a law degree in 1891. He joined the faculty shortly after graduation and became dean of the law school at Shaw two years later. He acquired a reputation as a highly capable lawyer, successfully arguing many cases before the North Carolina Supreme Court....

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Laney, Lucy Craft (13 April 1854–23 October 1933), educator, was born in Macon, Georgia, the daughter of David Laney and Louisa (maiden name unknown). Both parents were slaves: they belonged to different masters, but following their marriage they were permitted to live together in a home of their own. David Laney was a carpenter and often hired out by his owner, Mr. Cobbs. Louisa, purchased from a group of nomadic Indians while a small child, was a maid in the Campbell household. One of Lucy Laney’s most cherished memories was “how her father would, after a week of hard slave work, walk for over twenty miles … to be at home with his wife and children on the Sabbath” ( ...

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Barbara Bennett Peterson

Stockton, Betsey (1798–24 October 1865), educator, was born in slavery of unrecorded parentage. As a child Betsey was given by her owner, Robert Stockton, as a wedding gift to his daughter when she married Reverend Ashbel Green, the president of the College of New Jersey. Most of Betsey Stockton’s early life was passed as a slave domestic in the Green home at Princeton, except for four years that she spent with Green’s nephew Nathaniel Todd when she was an adolescent. At Todd’s she underwent a period of training intended to instill more piety in her demeanor, which had not been developed in the affectionate, indulgent Green household. Stockton returned to the Green home in 1816 and was baptized in the Presbyterian church at Princeton in 1817 or 1818, having given evidence through speech and deportment of her conversion to Christian ways. At the time of her baptism Stockton was formally emancipated from slavery, the Greens being reform-minded people who supported the abolition of slavery and believed she was prepared for freedom. Stockton became very well educated through their tutoring and the use of their enormous private library. So competent did Stockton become that the Greens finally placed her in charge of their entire household, and she remained as a paid domestic and family member....

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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 ...

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Whittaker, Johnson Chesnut (23 August 1858–14 January 1931), military cadet and educator, was born one of a set of twins, on the plantation of James Chesnut, Sr., near Camden, South Carolina, the son of James Whitaker, a freedman, and Maria J. (maiden name unknown), a slave. His twin brother died from an accident at the age of thirteen....