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Altgeld, John Peter (30 December 1847–12 March 1902), governor of Illinois and leader of midwestern reform forces in the 1890s, was born in Nieder Selters in Nassau, Germany, the son of John Peter Altgeld, a wagon maker and farmer, and Mary (maiden name unknown). He was three months old when he and his parents immigrated to the United States and settled in Newville or Mansfield, Ohio. Raised in poverty by a stern and parochial father who saw no benefit in education, Altgeld received instruction only in a few terms of public school and Methodist Sunday school. Seeking to escape his father’s control, in 1864 he joined the Ohio Home Guards for a 100-day stint. This experience confirmed his desire for advancement, but he also contracted a disease, probably malaria, which recurred throughout his life....

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Andrew, John Albion (31 May 1818–30 October 1867), reformer, antislavery advocate, and Civil War governor of Massachusetts, was born in Windham, Maine, the son of Jonathan Andrew, a farmer and general store owner, and Nancy Green Pierce, a schoolteacher. Educated at private academies and then at Bowdoin College, from which he graduated in 1837, Andrews learned early about the evils of slavery and the religious necessity to oppose it. One of his contemporaries at Bowdoin was ...

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Bass, Robert Perkins (11 September 1873–29 July 1960), governor of New Hampshire, conservationist, and labor relations adviser, was born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Perkins Bass, a lawyer, and Clara Foster. Bass’s interest in politics was likely influenced by his father, who served as ...

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Salmon P. Chase. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-B8172-1747).

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Chase, Salmon Portland (13 January 1808–07 May 1873), statesman, antislavery leader, and chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, was born in Cornish, New Hampshire, the son of Ithamar Chase, a glassmaker and tavernkeeper, and Janette Ralston. When Chase was nine years old, his father died. To ease the financial burden on his mother, Chase, the eighth of eleven children, moved to Ohio and lived with his uncle ...

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Coles, Edward (15 December 1786–07 July 1868), slavery opponent and second governor of Illinois, was born in Albemarle County, Virginia, the son of Colonel John Coles and Rebecca Tucker, wealthy, slaveholding planters. The eighth of twelve children, almost from the day of his birth Edward was associated with the great and near-great in revolutionary American society. One of the first families of Virginia, the Coles moved in a social circle that included national figures such as ...

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Day, Albert (06 October 1812–26 April 1894), physician, temperance advocate, legislator, and leader in the treatment of inebriety, was born in Wells, Maine, the son of Nahum Day and Persis Weeks. Little is known about Day’s family or his youth; his father died early, forcing Day to earn a living and save his studying for the evening....

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Neal Dow. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-90764).

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Dow, Neal (20 March 1804–02 October 1897), politician and social reformer, was born in Portland, Maine, the son of Josiah Dow and Dorcas Allen, operators of a tanning business. He received a basic education at the Portland Academy and later at the Friends’ Academy in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He also received an education in social involvement from his parents, who were ardent Quakers, committed to various types of social reform. As a child Neal witnessed escaped slaves moving through his home, which was a station on the Underground Railroad. His father traveled widely in New England in the interests of antislavery, with the support of the Society of Friends. Dow wanted to attend college and become a lawyer, but his parents objected, so he went into partnership with his father in the family business. In 1830 he married Maria Cornelia Durant Maynard; they had nine children, five of whom survived to adulthood....

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Fairbanks, Erastus (28 October 1792–20 November 1864), governor of Vermont, businessman, and antislavery and temperance leader, was born in Brimfield, Massachusetts, the son of Joseph Fairbanks, a farmer, carpenter, and mill owner, and Phebe Paddock. He received a limited public school education in Brimfield. Erastus taught school himself for a time before moving north with his family to St. Johnsbury, Vermont. In 1815 he married Lois C. Crossman, with whom he had eight children. Three years earlier, at the invitation of his uncle, Judge Ephriam Paddock, Fairbanks began reading the law in Paddock’s office. Fairbanks was soon compelled to quit his legal studies, reportedly owing to poor eyesight. He instead became a merchant, operating country stores in the towns of Wheelock, Barnet, and East St. Johnsbury for eleven years while establishing “a reputation for absolute integrity and for interest in anything that concerned the public welfare” (Ullery, p. 89)....

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Fauset, Crystal Bird (27 June 1893–28 March 1965), African-American legislator, was born Crystal Dreda Bird in Princess Anne, Maryland, the daughter of Benjamin Bird, a high school principal, and Portia E. Lovett. Crystal’s father died when she was only four, and her mother took over his principalship of the all-black Princess Anne Academy until her own death in 1900. An orphan by age seven, Crystal remained true to her parents’ commitment to education. Ironically, her early loss probably improved the educational opportunities of a child born to Maryland’s segregated Eastern Shore. Reared by an aunt in Boston, she attended public school, graduated from the city’s Normal School in 1914, and taught for three years. She later earned a B.S. from Columbia University Teacher’s College in 1931....

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Gibson, Mary Simons (1855?–11 September 1930), reformer and California state commissioner, was born in the Santa Clara valley, California, the daughter of Solon Simons, a commercial merchant from Maine, and Aurilla K. (maiden name unknown). She was educated in the county public schools and taught school there before moving to Los Angeles in 1878....

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Aaron Henry. Speaking before the Credentials Committee at the Democratic National Convention, Atlantic City, NJ. Photograph by Warren K. Leffler, 1964. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-U9- 12470E-28).

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Henry, Aaron E. (02 July 1922–19 May 1997), civil rights activist, politician, and pharmacist, was born in Dublin, in the Mississippi Delta. His sharecropping parents, Ed and Mattie Henry, strove to educate Aaron and his sister and shield them from the hardships of farm and manual labor. They moved to neighboring Coahoma County so that Henry could attend the segregated Coahoma Agricultural High School. Indeed his political awakening began in high school, where a few earnest teachers bravely schooled their students on civics and civil rights. With the coaxing of one young educator, Aaron and his classmates joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as at-large members in 1941....

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Ickes, Anna Wilmarth Thompson (27 January 1873–31 August 1935), Illinois state legislator and reformer, was born in Chicago, Illinois, the daughter of Henry Martin Wilmarth, a businessman and banker, and Mary Jane Hawes. Anna grew up comfortably in North Chicago, finishing high school and then attending Miss Hersey’s School in Boston for two years....

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Jackson, Robert R. (01 September 1870–12 June 1942), politician, was born in Malta, Illinois, the son of William Jackson and Sarah Cooper. He spent most of his childhood in Chicago. At age nine he began selling newspapers and shining shoes in Chicago’s central business district; he left school in the eighth grade to work full time. By age eighteen he had garnered an appointment as a clerk in the post office, a position coveted by African Americans in this era because of its security relative to most other occupations open to them. He left the postal service as an assistant superintendent in 1909 to devote himself full time to his printing and publishing business, the Fraternal Press. In partnership with Beauregard F. Mosely in 1910 he cofounded the Leland Giants, Chicago’s first African-American baseball team. In 1912 Jackson won election as a Republican to the state legislature. From there he moved to the Chicago City Council, where he served as an alderman from 1918 through 1939. After leaving politics, Jackson returned to baseball, where he served a two-year stint as commissioner of the Negro American League....

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Jones, John (03 November 1816–21 May 1879), civil rights activist and Chicago county commissioner, was born on a plantation in Greene County, North Carolina, the son of John Bromfield (occupation unknown), of German ancestry, and a free mulatto mother, whose last name was Jones (first name unknown). Due to the ancestry of his parents, John Jones was considered a free black. His mother, fearing that his father might attempt to reduce Jones to slavery, apprenticed Jones to learn a trade. It was in Tennessee that he received training as a tailor....

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Jones, Samuel Milton (08 August 1846–12 July 1904), manufacturer, mayor, reformer, nicknamed "Golden Rule", manufacturer, mayor, reformer, nicknamed “Golden Rule,” was born near Beddgelert, Caernarvonshire, Wales, the son of Hugh Samuel Jones, a stone mason and tenant farmer, and Margaret Williams. In 1849 the family immigrated to the United States, settling near Collinsville, New York. During his childhood the young Jones attended school for a total of only thirty months, never studying grammar nor advancing beyond fractions in arithmetic. At the age of fourteen he took a job in a sawmill, and soon after secured a position as wiper and greaser on a steamboat. In 1865 Jones moved to the Pennsylvania oilfields, where he remained for most of the next twenty-one years. Working as a driller, pumper, tool dresser, and pipe liner, he saved enough money to go into the oil business for himself. In 1875 the young oilman married Alma Bernice Curtiss of Pleasantville, Pennsylvania, and during the next ten years three children were born to the couple. In 1881 Jones’s infant daughter died, and his wife’s death followed four years later. Jones characterized these losses as “the greatest trial and severest shock” of his life....

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Kearney, Belle (06 March 1863–27 February 1939), temperance advocate, suffragist, and legislator, was born Carrie Belle Kearney in Madison County, Mississippi, the daughter of Walter Gunston Kearney, a planter, lawyer, and politician, and Susannah Owens. Kearney was educated consecutively by a governess, public school, and the Canton Young Ladies’ Academy until the family could no longer afford the tuition. Between the ages of sixteen and nineteen, she led the life of an impoverished “belle”: her autobiographical account describes taking in sewing for former slaves as well as dancing at the governor’s inaugural ball....

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Bertha Ethel Knight Landes. Lithographic crayon on paper, 1928, by Hugo Gellert. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.