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Abbott, Edith (26 September 1876–28 July 1957), social reformer, social work educator, and author, was born in Grand Island, Nebraska, the daughter of Othman Ali Abbott, a lawyer and first lieutenant governor of Nebraska, and Elizabeth Maletta Griffin, a woman suffrage advocate. Abbott grew up in a comfortable and politically progressive household on the American prairie. However, the severe economic depression that began in 1893 caused Abbott to postpone her college plans after graduation from an Omaha girls’ boarding school. Instead, at the age of seventeen she became a teacher at the Grand Island High School....

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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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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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American, Sadie (03 March 1862–03 May 1944), social welfare activist and educator, was born in Chicago, Illinois, the daughter of German-Jewish immigrant Oscar L. American and Amelia Smith. Little is known of her childhood, but she was educated in Chicago public schools.

American became a founder in 1893 and later executive secretary of the philanthropic, middle-class reform organization the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW). In her early thirties she held positions in dozens of social welfare, charitable, and educational institutions from 1893 to 1904, including that of president of the New York Section of the NCJW and of the Consumers’ League of New York State (1893–1894). She also directed the Woman’s Municipal League in New York City and was chair of its Tenement House Committee (1893–1894)....

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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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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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Barrett, Janie Porter (09 August 1865–27 August 1948), educator and social welfare advocate, was born in Athens, Georgia, the daughter of Julia Porter. Various biographical accounts indicate that Janie’s parents were former slaves, while others speculate that her father was white. Little is known about either parent. During her early childhood, Janie resided in the home of the Skinners, a white family whom her mother served as housekeeper. After her mother’s marriage to a railway worker, Janie remained with the Skinners, who encouraged her to further her education....

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Barrows, Isabel (17 April 1845–25 October 1913), ophthalmologist, stenographer, and reformer, was born Katharine Isabel Hayes in Irasburg, Vermont, the daughter of Scottish immigrants Henry Hayes, a physician, and Anna Gibb, a schoolteacher. The family moved to Hartland and then Derry, New Hampshire, where Isabel Hayes graduated from Adams Academy. In 1863 she married William Wilberforce Chapin, a Congregational minister. The following year the couple traveled to India for a missionary assignment. Less than a year after arriving in India, William Chapin died of diphtheria. Six months later Isabel Chapin returned to the United States. She moved to Dansville, New York, where she worked as a bath assistant at a water-cure sanatorium....

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Beecher, Catharine Esther (06 September 1800–12 May 1878), educator and social reformer, was born in East Hampton, New York, the oldest child of Lyman Beecher, the most prominent Evangelical clergyman of the 1820s, and Roxana Foote. At the age of ten Catharine Beecher moved with her family from the isolated and rural tip of Long Island to class-conscious Litchfield, Connecticut. There she acquired the normal accomplishments of her well-born status. When her mother died of consumption in 1816, Catharine assumed responsibility for her younger siblings, including Harriet and ...

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Benezet, Anthony (31 January 1713–03 May 1784), abolitionist, educator, and reformer, was born in San Quentin, Picardy, France, to Jean Étienne Benezet and Judith de la Méjenelle, wealthy Huguenots. Because of increasing religious persecution, his family fled to Rotterdam in 1715, remaining there briefly before traveling to London where they spent the next sixteen years. It was here that Benezet may have attended a Quaker school and began his lifelong association with the Quakers. After emigrating with his family to Philadelphia in 1731, Benezet worked briefly as a merchant with his brothers and became a member of the Society of Friends. He married Joyce Marriott, a Quaker minister in 1736; neither of the couple’s two children survived to their first birthdays....

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Blackwell, Randolph Talmadge (10 March 1927–21 May 1981), attorney, educator, and civil rights activist, was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, the son of Joe Blackwell and Blanche Mary Donnell. He attended the city’s public schools for African-American youth and earned a B.S. in sociology from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University in Greensboro in 1949. Four years later Blackwell earned a J.D. degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C. In December 1954 he married Elizabeth Knox. The couple had one child. After teaching economics for a year at Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College in Normal, Alabama, near Huntsville, Blackwell became an associate professor of social sciences at Winston-Salem State Teachers College in North Carolina....

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Blanchard, Jonathan (19 January 1811–14 May 1892), educator and social reformer, was born in the township of Rockingham, Vermont, the son of Jonathan Blanchard, Sr., a farmer, and Polly Lovell. The relatively comfortable circumstances of Jonathan’s upbringing on what he remembered as his father’s “large stock farm” left him with an enduring affinity for rural life, though his ambitions for public life drew him away from farming. He taught district school to finance his education at an academy near his home and enrolled in 1828 at Middlebury College, Vermont, where he received a B.A. in 1832....

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Bonney, Mary Lucinda (08 June 1816–24 July 1900), educator and reformer, was born in Hamilton, New York, the daughter of Benjamin Bonney and Lucinda Wilder, farmers. Her father, a veteran of the War of 1812, was an officer in the New York State Militia. Her mother had been a schoolteacher until marriage in 1808. Bonney and her brother, Benjamin, grew up in a home marked by the characteristics of “intelligence, integrity, and piety” (Fairbanks, p. 138)....

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Brooks, John Graham (19 July 1846–08 February 1938), reformer and sociologist, was born in Acworth, New Hampshire, the son of Chapin Kidder Brooks, a merchant, and Pamelia Graham. During his youth he worked at the store owned by his father, who also represented the town of Acworth in the state legislature. After graduating from Kimball Union Academy in 1866, Brooks attended the University of Michigan Law School but soon changed his mind about studying law. He left after a year and taught the next year on Cape Cod. In 1868, after a summer in Quebec perfecting his French, he enrolled in Oberlin College, in Oberlin, Ohio. After graduating in 1872 Brooks returned to New England and enrolled in the Harvard Divinity School, where he graduated with a degree in sacred theology in 1875. He was soon ordained and served as a Unitarian minister in Roxbury, Massachusetts. In addition to his pastoral duties, he involved himself in labor reform and organized classes in history and economics for the workingmen of the neighborhood. His liberal sermons attracted listeners from Cambridge and Beacon Hill. He was soon addressing informal groups on social problems. In 1880 he married the widow of another Unitarian minister, Helen Lawrence Appleton Washburn, who shared his reform impulses; they had three children....

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Bruce, John Edward (22 February 1856–07 August 1924), journalist and historian, was born in Piscataway, Maryland, the son of Martha Allen Clark and Robert Bruce, who were both enslaved Africans. In 1859 Major Harvey Griffin, Robert Bruce’s slaveholder, sold him to a Georgia slaveholder. Raised by his mother, Bruce lived in Maryland until 1861 when Union troops marching through Maryland freed him and his mother, taking them to Washington, D.C., where Bruce lived until 1892. In 1865 Bruce’s mother worked as a domestic in Stratford, Connecticut, where Bruce received his early education in an integrated school. One year later they returned to Washington, where Bruce continued his education. Although he did not complete high school, he enrolled in a course at Howard University in 1872. Bruce married Lucy Pinkwood, an opera singer from Washington, D.C. They had no children. In 1895 Bruce married Florence Adelaide Bishop, with whom he had one child....

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Burleigh, Charles Calistus (03 November 1810–13 June 1878), antislavery lecturer and reformer, was born in Plainfield, Connecticut, the son of Rinaldo Burleigh, a farmer and educator, and Lydia Bradford. Burleigh came from a family that was passionately committed to antislavery and other moral reforms. His father was the first president of the Windham County Antislavery Society, his sister taught at ...

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Castro, Sal (25 October 1933–15 April 2013), high school teacher and community activist, was born Salvador Castro in Los Angeles, the only child of Carmen Buruel and Salvador Castro, both Mexican immigrant workers. Because his father was undocumented he was deported in 1935 as part of a repatriation movement that blamed Mexican immigrants for taking jobs from “real Americans” during the Great Depression; Castro and his mother were spared being part of this tragic episode. The separation eventually led to his parents divorcing; his mother later remarried....

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Catto, Octavius Valentine (22 Feb. 1839–10 Oct. 1871), civil rights activist, educator, and athlete, was born to William T. Catto and Sarah Isabella Cain in Charleston, South Carolina. His family soon moved to Baltimore, Maryland and ultimately settled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Catto’s father, a former slave who gained his freedom early in life, became an ordained Presbyterian minister. His mother came from a mulatto family. Catto attended segregated primary classes at the Vaux Primary School and the Lombard Street School in Philadelphia and the prestigious Allentown Academy in Allentown, New Jersey. In ...

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Portrait of Octavius V. Catto, c.1871, by S. Fox

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, [LC-DIG-ppmsca-18480]