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Adams, John Quincy (04 May 1848–03 September 1922), newspaper editor and publisher, civil rights leader, and Republican party activist, was born in Louisville, Kentucky, the son of Henry Adams, a prominent minister and educator, and Margaret Corbin. Both his parents were free persons of color. Following private schooling in Wisconsin and Ohio, Adams graduated from Oberlin College. After a brief teaching stint in Louisville, in 1870 he followed his uncle, Joseph C. Corbin, to work in Arkansas in the Reconstruction. By 1874 he had risen from schoolteacher to assistant superintendent of public instruction. His lifelong activism in the Republican party began in Arkansas; there he twice served as secretary to Republican state conventions, was elected as justice of the peace on the party ticket, and held the offices of engrossing clerk of the state senate and deputy commissioner of public works. The defeat of the Arkansas Republican party in 1874 and the racial repression that followed led Adams to return to Louisville, where he again engaged in teaching....

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Fisher Ames. Oil on wood, c. 1807, by Gilbert Stuart. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of George Cabot Lodge.

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Ames, Fisher (09 April 1758–04 July 1808), Federalist party leader, member of Congress, essayist, and renowned orator, was born in Dedham, Massachusetts, the son of Nathaniel Ames, Sr., a physician, tavern keeper, and almanac writer, and Deborah Fisher. Intellectually honed, Ames was admitted to Harvard at twelve. Steeped in the classics, he excelled in elocution and participated in a debating club, the Institute of 1770. Graduating in 1774, he served with the Dedham militia at the time of the battle of Bunker Hill but did not see combat. At home he pursued his scholarly interests, reading widely in classical literature and history. He also occasionally taught school. Under the tutelage of the prominent ...

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Ames, Nathaniel (09 October 1741–20 July 1822), almanac writer, physician, and political activist, was born in Dedham, Massachusetts, the son of Nathaniel Ames and Deborah Fisher Ames. The senior Nathaniel strongly influenced his son with his deep interest in the “new science” of Isaac Newton and his activities as a physician, tavern proprietor, and compiler of a notable almanac. At sixteen Nathaniel, Jr., entered Harvard College and in January 1758 began to keep a diary. His lively, absorptive mind responded to new ideas, particularly Professor ...

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Angelou, Maya (4 Apr. 1928–28 May 2014), writer, performer, and activist, was born Marguerite Ann Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, the second child of Bailey Johnson, Sr., a doorman and Navy dietitian, and Vivian Baxter, a registered nurse, cocktail hostess, and Merchant Marine. Her brother, Bailey, Jr., nicknamed her Maya, and the name stuck. After their parents’ divorce, the two young children were sent alone on a train from San Francisco to Stamps, Arkansas, to be met and raised by their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, and their father’s brother, Uncle Willie, who was disabled. Grandmother Henderson had managed to build and own a general store with living quarters in the back, and it was also a safe black community gathering place in the segregated town. Uncle Willie provided a steady stream of good reading and high scholastic expectations, and their grandmother, “Momma,” taught them no-nonsense life skills, took them to church, and loved them....

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Arenas, Reinaldo (16 July 1943–07 December 1990), novelist and political activist, was born in Holguín, a town in rural eastern Cuba, the son of Oneida Fuentes, a poor peasant woman, and a peasant father who abandoned his unborn child. Barely sixteen years old at the time of the Cuban Revolution, Arenas received excellent instruction during the Campaigns against Illiteracy conducted by volunteers sympathetic to Fidel Castro’s ideals. Such an opportunity for self-improvement was unheard of during the regime of the deposed leader, Fulgencio Batista. In 1960 Arenas received a scholarship so that he might pursue a career in accounting in Havana....

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Ashe, Arthur (10 July 1943–06 February 1993), tennis player, author, and political activist, was born Arthur Robert Ashe, Jr., in Richmond, Virginia, the son of Arthur Ashe, Sr., a police officer, and Mattie Cunningham. Tall and slim as a young boy, Ashe was forbidden by his father from playing football; he took up tennis instead on the segregated playground courts at Brookfield Park, near his home. By the time he was ten he came under the tutelage of a local tennis fan and physician from Lynchburg, Walter Johnson. Johnson had previously nurtured Althea Gibson, who would become the first African American to win Wimbeldon, in 1957 and 1958, and his second protégé would prove no less successful....

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Bailey, Gamaliel (03 December 1807–05 June 1859), antislavery journalist and political organizer, was born in Mount Holly, New Jersey, the son of Gamaliel Bailey, Sr., a silversmith and Methodist minister, and Sarah Page. As the son of a minister, Bailey enjoyed educational advantages and an early association with evangelical Christianity. Following the relocation of his family to Philadelphia in 1816, Bailey joined with several other adolescents in forming a literary debating society, which stimulated his lifelong interest in literature. He graduated from Jefferson Medical College in 1828, but medicine was never his main interest, and he ceased to practice it by the early 1840s....

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Kay Boyle. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-113309).

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Boyle, Kay (19 February 1902–27 December 1992), writer, educator, and political activist, was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, the daughter of Howard Peterson Boyle, a lawyer, and Katherine Evans, a literary and social activist. Her grandfather had founded the West Publishing Company, and the financial security afforded by this background allowed the Boyle family to travel extensively. Boyle’s education was sporadic, culminating in two years of architecture classes at the Ohio Mechanics’ Institute (1917–1919). In 1922 Boyle joined her sister Joan in New York City, where she began to work for ...

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Boyle, Sarah Patton (9 May 1906–20 Feb. 1994), civil rights activist and writer, was born Sarah Lindsay Patton in Lindsay, Virginia, to Janie Stringfellow Patton and Robert Williams Patton, both descendants of the Virginian slaveholding elite. Her father, an Episcopal minister, was a racial moderate by the standards of his time, but the young Patty, as Sarah was always referred to, was more influenced by her mother’s segregationist views. Patty, who had undiagnosed dyslexia, was educated at home before studying painting at the Corcoran School of Art, in Washington, D.C., from ...

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Bradwell, Myra Colby (12 February 1831–14 February 1894), publisher and political activist, was born in Manchester, Vermont, the daughter of Eben Colby and Abigail Willey. She spent her childhood in Vermont and western New York, and when she was twelve, her family moved to Illinois. She attended local schools in Wisconsin and Illinois and became a schoolteacher. In 1852 she married ...

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Carter, Willis McGlascoe (3 Sept. 1852–23 Mar. 1902), educator, newspaper editor, and political activist, was born a slave in Albemarle County, Virginia, the oldest of eleven children born to Rhoda Carter, a slave owned by Ann Goodloe, a widow. His father, Samuel Carter, also a slave, lived on a nearby plantation. Willis Carter did not suffer the physical and emotional violence endured by most slaves. Goodloe likely allowed his parents to marry, and she did not prevent him from learning how to read and write, skills he had developed by the eve of the Civil War. Nevertheless, she did not free the Carter family upon her death in ...

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Casal, Lourdes (5 Apr. 1938–1 Feb. 1981), poet, literary critic, social psychologist, and political activist, was born Lourdes Emilia Irene de la Caridad Casal y Valdés in Havana, Cuba, the daughter of two professional parents, Pedro Casal, a doctor in medicine and a dentist, and Emilia Valdés, an elementary school teacher. Of mixed heritage, Casal’s family included black, white, and Chinese ancestry....

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Colón, Jesús (20 January 1901–1974), writer and political and community activist, was born to working-class parents in rural Puerto Rico, whose names are not known. In A Puerto Rican in New York and Other Sketches, a compilation of his autobiographical short essays written in English, Colón described his humble childhood in Cayey, a small farming town in a breathtaking mountain range, well known for producing hand-rolled cigars. Cigars were among the most important products for export of this territory acquired by the United States after a successful war against Spain in 1898. In 1917 Puerto Ricans became American citizens. The Puerto Rico of Colón's childhood memories appears free of American influence. His dearest childhood memories belong to the world of tobacco workers, male and female, who spent many hours rolling cigars while listening to the local and international news that a hired reader read aloud to them. According to Colón's memoirs, the reader included literary passages, such as Émile Zola's ...

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Dunbar-Nelson, Alice (19 July 1875–18 September 1935), poet, journalist, and political activist, was born Alice Ruth Moore in New Orleans, Louisiana, the daughter of Joseph Moore, a seaman, and Patricia Wright, a seamstress. Dunbar-Nelson graduated from Straight College (now Dillard University) and began her teaching career at a New Orleans elementary school in 1892....

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Eagleson, William Lewis (09 August 1835–22 June 1899), editor and political activist, was born a slave in St. Louis, Missouri. The names of his parents and details about his early life are unknown. He married Elizabeth McKinney in 1865 in St. Louis; they had nine children. As a young man, he learned both printing and barbering, trades that he practiced intermittently throughout his life. In the 1870s, he settled in Fort Scott, Kansas, and started a newspaper, the ...

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Faulk, John Henry (21 August 1913–09 April 1990), humorist, liberal political activist, and writer, was born in Austin, Texas, the son of Judge Henry Faulk, a successful trial lawyer, and Martha Miner. His father embraced a series of leftist causes, supporting Eugene Debs...

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Gonzales, Rodolfo “Corky” (18 June 1928–12 Apr. 2005), boxer, activist, and poet, was born in Denver, Colorado, to Federico and Indalesia Gonzales, the youngest of eight children. Gonzales’s nickname came from his uncle, who would chide the young Rodolfo for “always popping off like a cork” every time the boy was involved in an altercation. The name stuck and would come to reflect Gonzales’s life as a social activist....

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Graham, Shirley (11 November 1896–27 March 1977), musical composer and director, author, and political activist, also known as Shirley Graham Du Bois, was born Lola Bell Graham in Indianapolis, Indiana, the daughter of the Reverend David A. Graham, an African Methodist Episcopal minister, and Etta Bell. She accompanied them when her father held pastorates in New Orleans, Colorado Springs, and Spokane. He delighted her with stories about important blacks in American history. In his churches, she learned to play the piano and the pipe organ and to conduct choirs. In 1914 she graduated from high school in Spokane, took business school courses, and worked in government offices in Spokane and Seattle. After she married Shadrach T. McCanns in 1921, she gave private music lessons and played the organ in white movie theaters, hidden backstage. She had two sons, Robert and David, and was either widowed in 1924 or obtained a divorce in 1929. (In many respects, biographical data concerning Graham are in dispute.)...