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Albert, Octavia Victoria Rogers (24 December 1853–1890?), author and activist, was born in Oglethorpe, Georgia, the daughter of slaves. Details of her life are sketchy. Little is known of her parents or her childhood beyond the date and place of her birth and the fact that she was born into bondage; thus, it is particularly intriguing that in 1870, only five years after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery and one year after Atlanta University opened, seventeen-year-old Octavia was among the 170 students enrolled at that institution. Further details of her life are equally sketchy. Most of what we know is culled from information in ...

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Anthony, Katharine Susan (27 November 1877–20 November 1965), author, was born in Roseville, Arkansas, the daughter of Ernest A. Anthony and Susan Jane Cathey. Her father was a distant relative of suffrage activist Susan B. Anthony, and her mother was an energetic suffragist. Anthony’s life work reflected a keen interest in women’s issues that undoubtedly flowed from her family circumstances....

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Henry Walton Bibb. Lithograph on paper, 1847, by Unidentified Artist. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

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Bibb, Henry Walton (10 May 1815–1854), author, editor, and antislavery lecturer, was born into slavery on the plantation of David White of Shelby County, Kentucky, the son of James Bibb, a slaveholding planter and state senator, and Mildred Jackson. White began hiring Bibb out as a laborer on several neighboring plantations before the age of ten. The constant change in living situations throughout his childhood, combined with the inhumane treatment he often received at the hands of strangers, set a pattern for life that he would later refer to in his autobiography as “my manner of living on the road.” Bibb was sold more than six times between 1832 and 1840 and was forced to relocate to at least seven states throughout the South; later, as a free man, his campaign for abolition took him throughout eastern Canada and the northern United States. But such early instability also made the young Bibb both self-sufficient and resourceful, two characteristics that were useful against the day-to-day assault of slavery: “The only weapon of self defense that I could use successfully,” he wrote, “was that of deception.”...

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Bissell, Emily Perkins (31 May 1861–08 March 1948), volunteer social worker and author, was born in Wilmington, Delaware, the daughter of Champion Aristarcus Bissell, a lawyer and banker, and Josephine Wales. Her forebears settled in Connecticut where her father, a Yale graduate, was reared. Her maternal grandfather, John Wales, served as a U.S. senator from Delaware from 1849 to 1851. Bissell was educated in Wilmington and at Miss Charlier’s School in New York City....

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Bolton, Sarah Knowles (15 September 1841–20 February 1916), writer and reform activist, was born in Farmington, Connecticut, the daughter of John Segar Knowles and Elizabeth Miller, farmers. Bolton was a descendant, on her father’s side, of Joseph Jenckes, a governor of Rhode Island (1772–1732), and on her mother’s side, a descendant of Nathaniel Stanley, a treasurer of the Connecticut Colony....

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Braden, Anne (28 July 1924–06 March 2006), civil rights activist and journalist, was born Anne Gambrell McCarty in Louisville, Kentucky, to Gambrell and Anita McCarty. Because her father was a traveling salesman, she grew up in various southern states, but mostly in rigidly segregated Anniston, Alabama. Her conservative white Episcopal parents fully embraced  the norms of southern racial hierarchy, and they remained comfortable throughout the Depression years of her childhood, but the young Anne, idealistic and devoutly religious, was troubled by the suffering around her. After graduating from Anniston High School in 1941, she left home to study literature and journalism at two Virginia women’s colleges, first Stratford Junior College and then Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, where she discovered the life of the mind in a serious way and first met critics of racial segregation. In 1945, upon graduation from Randolph-Macon, she returned to postwar Alabama as a newspaper reporter, first for the ...

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Brown, William Wells (1814?–06 November 1884), author and reformer, was born near Lexington, Kentucky, the son of George Higgins, a relative of his master, and Elizabeth, a slave. Dr. John Young, Brown’s master, migrated with his family from Kentucky to the Missouri Territory in 1816. Eleven years later the Youngs moved to St. Louis. Although Brown never experienced the hardship of plantation slavery, he was hired out regularly and separated from his family. He worked for a while in the printing office of abolitionist ...

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Pearl Buck Photograph by Arnold Genthe, 1932. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-G412-T-6033-005-A-x ).

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Buck, Pearl S. (26 June 1892–06 March 1973), author and humanitarian, was born Pearl Sydenstricker in Hillsboro, West Virginia, the daughter of Absalom Sydenstricker and Caroline Stulting, missionaries who were on furlough from their Presbyterian missionary activities in China when Pearl, their first daughter, was born in the United States. Three months later the infant was taken to China when her parents returned to their duties. Educated by her mother at home and then by a Chinese tutor, Buck later attributed much of her knowledge to the influence of her Chinese amah who, together with Chinese playmates, gave her many insights into her exotic surroundings and developed imaginative outlets. Indeed Buck claimed that in her early years she was more fluent in Chinese than in English. She received additional training at a mission school and in 1909 was sent to board for a year at Miss Jewell’s School in Shanghai. Her parents insisted that she attend college in the United States, so in 1910 she enrolled in Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia, where she won several academic honors and graduated four years later with a bachelor of arts degree. She received a teaching assistantship at Randolph-Macon, but upon learning that her mother was seriously ill she returned to China to care for her....

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Calvert, George Henry (02 June 1803–24 May 1889), author, was born on his family’s estate near Bladensburg, Maryland, the son of George Calvert, a planter and politician, and Rosalie Eugenia Stier. As a child, Calvert was raised to be mindful of his aristocratic heritage—his paternal great-grandfather was the fifth Lord Baltimore, the founder of Maryland, and on his maternal side he was a descendant of Peter Paul Rubens—and his childhood years were spent in a style befitting a young man of wealth and gentility. In 1819 Calvert entered Harvard College, where he remained until 1823, at which time he was dismissed along with thirty other students for participating in the “Great Rebellion,” a protest aimed at limiting the restrictions over student activities, but which ultimately led to the students protesting the quality of the education that they were receiving at Harvard. After leaving Harvard, Calvert journeyed to Europe and stayed with an uncle in Antwerp before spending fifteen months studying history and philosophy at the University of Göttingen. Concurrent and subsequent to his time at Göttingen, Calvert traveled to Weimar, where he met Goethe, and he then visited Edinburgh, Paris, and Antwerp again before returning to America in 1827. Calvert settled in Baltimore, where he served as editor of the ...

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Childs, George William (12 May 1829–03 February 1894), publisher, biographer, and philanthropist, was born in Baltimore, Maryland. The names of his parents are not known. In Recollections (1890), his autobiography, Childs shrouds his family origins in mystery, making no reference to his parents or early childhood, beginning instead with an explanation of how he had had from a young age “a rather remarkable aptitude for business.” At twelve he worked a summer job as an errand boy in a Baltimore bookstore for two dollars a week. He reflects in ...

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Clarke, Lewis G. (1815–1897), author and antislavery lecturer, was born into slavery on the plantation of his maternal grandfather, Samuel Campbell, in Madison County, Kentucky, the son of Campbell’s mixed-race slave daughter Letitia and her white, Scottish-immigrant husband, Daniel Clarke, a soldier in the American Revolution. Lewis Clarke’s middle name is variously recorded as either George or Garrand. Clarke’s family history, which he traced back to the founding of the nation, inspired his quest for freedom and his subsequent dedication to the abolition cause in the North....

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Eldridge Cleaver Photograph by Marion S. Trikosko, 1968. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (U.S. News and World Report Collection: LC-U9-20018).

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Cleaver, Eldridge (31 August 1935–01 May 1998), social activist and writer, was born Leroy Eldridge Cleaver in Wabbaseka, Arkansas, the son of Leroy Cleaver, a waiter and nightclub piano player, and Thelma Hattie Robinson Cleaver, an elementary school teacher. When Cleaver was ten the family moved to Phoenix, Arizona; three years later, they moved again, this time to Los Angeles, California. Soon after, his parents separated. At this time, Cleaver became involved in criminal activities. In 1949 he was arrested for stealing a bicycle and was sent to reform school. In 1952 he was arrested for selling marijuana and was sent back to reform school. In 1954, a few days after his release, Cleaver was again arrested for marijuana possession and was sent to Soledad State Prison for a term of two and a half years....

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Conway, Moncure Daniel (17 March 1832–15 November 1907), reformer, minister, and author, was born in Stafford County, Virginia, the son of Walker Peyton Conway, a planter and judge, and Margaret Eleanor Daniel, a self-taught homeopathic doctor. Born to privilege, Conway was expected to emulate powerful, prominent male relatives. But his desire to please his father was exceeded by the influence of his remarkable mother and other female relatives. Together, these women emphasized sharing over hierarchy, personal fulfillment as well as duty, and encouraged, despite his father’s disapproval, Conway’s love of literature....

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Olaudah Equiano. From the frontispiece of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, 1794. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-54026).

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Equiano, Olaudah (1745–31 March 1797), sailor, abolitionist, and writer, also known as Gustavus Vassa, was born in eastern Nigeria, the son of an Ibo village chief. When he was eleven, people from another Ibo village captured Equiano and his sister, beginning a six-month period during which he was separated from his sister and sold from one master to another until he reached the coast. There Equiano’s African masters sold him to white slave traders headed for Barbados. From Barbados he traveled to Virginia, where he was bought by Henry Pascal, the captain of a British trading vessel. During the spring 1757 voyage to England, Pascal gave Equiano the name Gustavus Vassa, which he used throughout his life, yet Equiano still included his African name on the title page of his autobiography....

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Fields, Annie Adams (06 June 1834–05 January 1915), literary hostess, author, and social reformer, was born Ann West Adams in Boston, Massachusetts, the daughter of Zabdiel Boylston Adams and Sarah May Holland, both descended from prominent early Massachusetts settlers. Her father was a Boston physician who also taught at Harvard Medical School and served on the Boston school board. Annie’s childhood pleasures included easy access to books and Sunday visits to such distinguished relatives as the Adamses of Braintree. At ...

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Green, Ely (11 September 1893–27 April 1968), author, black activist, and clairvoyant, was born near Sewanee, Tennessee, the son of a college student, Edward H. Wicks, later a Texas attorney, and Lena Green, a fourteen-year-old kitchen servant and daughter of a privy cleaner who had been a slave. In Green’s own words, he “was a half-white bastard.” His mother died when he was eight. He was reared by Mattie Davis, a sympathetic neighbor who worked as a domestic. He did not finish the second grade but was largely self-taught. His phenomenal vocabulary came about because, so he said, “I studied from every man who would talk to me.”...