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Abernathy, Ralph David (1926-1990), civil rights leader and minister  

Kenneth H. Williams

Abernathy, Ralph David (11 March 1926–17 April 1990), civil rights leader and minister, was born David Abernathy in Linden, Alabama, the son of William L. Abernathy and Louivery Valentine Bell, farmers. A sister’s favorite professor was the inspiration for the nickname “Ralph David,” and although Abernathy never made a legal change, the name remained with him from age twelve....

Article

Alcott, A. Bronson (1799-1888), Transcendentalist and reformer  

Frederick C. Dahlstrand

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....

Article

Alexander, Raymond Pace (13 October 1898–24 November 1974), lawyer, judge, and civil rights leader  

David A. Canton

Alexander, Raymond Pace (13 October 1898–24 November 1974), lawyer, judge, and civil rights leader, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the third son of Hillard Boone and Virginia Pace Alexander, both slaves in Virginia who were freed in 1865 and migrated to Philadelphia in 1880. His background was working-class poor and he grew up in Philadelphia's seventh ward, an all-black community made famous by W. E. B. Du Bois's seminal study ...

Article

Ali, Muhammad (17 Jan. 1942–3 June 2016), heavyweight boxing champion and war protester  

Alan Deutschman

Ali, Muhammad (17 Jan. 1942–3 June 2016), heavyweight boxing champion and war protester, was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in Louisville, Kentucky, the elder of two sons of Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr., who painted signs and billboards for Black-owned businesses and Bible murals for churches, and Odessa Lee Grady Clay, who cooked and cleaned for white households. The younger Clay’s great-grandfather John Henry Clay was enslaved by ...

Article

Allen, Nathan (1813-1889), physician, social reformer, and public health advocate  

Richard J. Wolfe

Allen, Nathan (25 April 1813–01 January 1889), physician, social reformer, and public health advocate, was born in Princeton, Massachusetts, the son of Moses Allen and Mehitable Oliver, farmers. He spent his first seventeen years on the family farm, learning to work hard and to follow the Christian principles of his parents. He could not afford a higher education, but a friend in Leicester helped pay his tuition at Amherst Academy and then at Amherst College, where he matriculated in 1832, graduating in 1836....

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Baldwin, Roger Nash (21 January 1884–26 August 1981), civil libertarian and social activist  

Norman Dorsen

Baldwin, Roger Nash (21 January 1884–26 August 1981), civil libertarian and social activist, was born in Wellesley, Massachusetts, the son of Frank Fenno Baldwin, a leather manufacturer who owned several companies, and Lucy Cushing Nash. The lines on both sides of the family went back to the Pilgrims. Baldwin attended Wellesley public schools. As a boy he lacked prowess in sports and developed interests in music, art, and nature. He was regarded as “different,” which made him seek, early in life, “unconventional, nonconformist avenues of expression” consistent with the intellectual heritage of ...

Article

Beecher, Henry Ward (1813-1887), preacher and reformer  

Clifford E. Clark

Beecher, Henry Ward (24 June 1813–08 March 1887), preacher and reformer, was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, the son of Lyman Beecher, a leader of the Second Great Awakening, and Roxana Foote. Following in the footsteps of his father and his five brothers, Henry Ward displayed an early interest in religion. He graduated from Amherst College in 1834, studied at Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, and was admitted to the ministry in 1837. That same year he married Eunice Bullard White and began work at the Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, where he gained a reputation as a revivalist and published in 1844 his first book, ...

Article

Bright Eyes (1854-1903), Indian rights advocate and author  

Kenny A. Franks

Bright Eyes (1854–26 May 1903), Indian rights advocate and author, also known as Inshtatheamba or Susette La Flesche, was born on the Omaha Reservation near Bellevue, Nebraska, just south of present-day Omaha, the daughter of Joseph La Flesche, also known as Inshtamaza or Iron Eye, a chief of the Omaha, and his wife Mary Gale, a mixed-blood Omaha and Iowa whose Indian name was The One Woman. Susette’s paternal grandparents were a Frenchman, also named Joseph, who was a trader and trapper for the Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada, and either an Omaha or Ponca woman named Watunna. Because her husband often was away trading or trapping, Watunna left him and married a member of the Omaha tribe. For a while the younger Joseph La Flesche was raised by two aunts who spent part of their time among the Sioux. Later, when his father returned, the younger La Flesche joined him when he once again left on his trading expeditions....

Article

Bunche, Ralph Johnson (1904-1971), scholar and diplomat  

Thomas Clarkin

Bunche, Ralph Johnson (07 August 1904–09 December 1971), scholar and diplomat, was born in Detroit, Michigan, the son of Fred Bunch, a barber, and Olive Agnes Johnson. His grandmother added an “e” to the family’s last name following a move to Los Angeles, California. Because his family moved frequently, Bunche attended a number of public schools before graduating first in his class from Jefferson High School in Los Angeles in 1922. He majored in political science at the University of California, Southern Branch (now University of California at Los Angeles or UCLA). He graduated summa cum laude and served as class valedictorian in 1927. He continued his studies in political science at Harvard, receiving his M.A. in 1928, then taught at Howard University in Washington, D.C., while working toward his Ph.D. at Harvard. In 1930 he married Ruth Ethel Harris; they had three children. Bunche traveled to Europe and Africa researching his dissertation and received his Ph.D. from Harvard in February 1934....

Article

Catto, Octavius Valentine (22 Feb. 1839–10 Oct. 1871), civil rights activist, educator, and athlete  

Timothy J. Potero

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 ...

Article

Chapman, Oscar Littleton (1896-1978), humanitarian, politician, and secretary of the interior  

Stuart L. Weiss

Chapman, Oscar Littleton (22 October 1896–06 February 1978), humanitarian, politician, and secretary of the interior, was born in Halifax County, Virginia, the son of James Jackson Chapman and Rosa Blount, farmers. Portending his future liberalism, young Chapman rebelled against his southern heritage, choosing a picture of ...

Article

Chávez, César Estrada (31 March 1927–23 April 1993), labor leader and social activist  

Margaret Rose

Chávez, César Estrada (31 March 1927–23 April 1993), labor leader and social activist, was born in North Gila Valley, near Yuma, Arizona, the son of Librado Chávez and Juana Estrada. In 1888 two-year-old Librado, his siblings, and his mother immigrated to the Arizona territory to join his father, who had fled the harshness of life at Hacienda del Carmen in Porfirian, Mexico. Juana Estrada, also a native of Chihuahua, married Librado in 1924, and soon after the couple purchased a small grocery/garage/pool hall not far from his parents’ 160-acre ranch and raised six children. After losing their property during the depression, the family soon joined the migrant harvest circuit....

Article

Cleaver, Eldridge (1935-1998), social activist and writer  

Lauren Araiza and Joshua Bloom

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....

Article

Davis, Ossie (18 Dec. 1917–4 Feb. 2005), actor, playwright, author, director, civil rights activist, and humanitarian  

Margena A. Christian

Davis, Ossie (18 Dec. 1917–4 Feb. 2005), actor, playwright, author, director, civil rights activist, and humanitarian, was born Raiford Chatman Davis in Cogdell, Georgia. He was the oldest of five siblings. His father, Kince Charles Davis, was a self-taught railway and construction engineer. His mother, Laura Cooper, was a homemaker. She called him “RC” for short, but others misconstrued her pronunciation as “Ossie.” His family was impoverished, and although both parents were illiterate, they stressed the importance of education through oral tradition with storytelling....

Article

Dorr, Thomas Wilson (1805-1854), political and social reformer  

Patrick T. Conley

Dorr, Thomas Wilson (05 November 1805–27 December 1854), political and social reformer, was born in Providence, Rhode Island, the son of Sullivan Dorr, a wealthy merchant and business leader, and Lydia Allen, a prominent socialite and sister of noted inventor Zechariah Allen and Rhode Island governor and U.S. senator ...

Article

Douglass, Frederick (February 1818–20 February 1895), abolitionist, civil rights activist, and reform journalist  

Roy E. Finkenbine

Douglass, Frederick (February 1818–20 February 1895), abolitionist, civil rights activist, and reform journalist, was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey near Easton, Maryland, the son of Harriet Bailey, an enslaved person, and an unidentified white man. Although enslaved, he spent the first six years of his life in the cabin of his maternal grandparents, with only a few stolen nighttime visits by his mother. His real introduction to bondage came in 1824, when he was brought to the nearby wheat plantation of Colonel ...

Article

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1868-1963), African-American activist, historian, and sociologist  

Thomas C. Holt

Du Bois, W. E. B. (23 February 1868–27 August 1963), African-American activist, historian, and sociologist, was born William Edward Burghardt Du Bois in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, the son of Mary Silvina Burghardt, a domestic worker, and Alfred Du Bois, a barber and itinerant laborer. In later life Du Bois made a close study of his family origins, weaving them rhetorically and conceptually—if not always accurately—into almost everything he wrote. Born in Haiti and descended from Bahamian mulatto slaves, Alfred Du Bois enlisted during the Civil War as a private in a New York regiment of the Union army but appears to have deserted shortly afterward. He also deserted the family less than two years after his son’s birth, leaving him to be reared by his mother and the extended Burghardt kin. Long resident in New England, the Burghardts descended from a freedman of Dutch slave origin who had fought briefly in the American Revolution. Under the care of his mother and her relatives, young Will Du Bois spent his entire childhood in that small western Massachusetts town, where probably fewer than two-score of the 4,000 inhabitants were African American. He received a classical, college preparatory education in Great Barrington’s racially integrated high school, from whence, in June 1884, he became the first African-American graduate. A precocious youth, Du Bois not only excelled in his high school studies but contributed numerous articles to two regional newspapers, the Springfield ...

Article

Eastman, Charles Alexander (1858-1939), Indian author and reformer  

Raymond Wilson

Eastman, Charles Alexander (19 February 1858–08 January 1939), Indian author and reformer, was born near Redwood Falls, Minnesota, the son of Ite Wakanhdi Ota (Many Lightnings), a Wahpeton Sioux, and Wakantankanwin (Goddess), whose English name was Mary Nancy Eastman, the mixed-blood daughter of Captain Seth Eastman, the noted artist, and Wakan inajin win (Stands Sacred). Eastman’s mother died from complications as a result of his birth. His paternal grandmother and later his uncle raised him in the traditional ways of a Sioux boy. In 1862 he received the name Ohiyesa—meaning “the winner”—when his band defeated another in a lacrosse game. He used the name in conjunction with the English name he acquired later in his life....

Article

Evers, Medgar (1925-1963), civil rights activist  

Natalie Zacek

Evers, Medgar (02 July 1925–12 June 1963), civil rights activist, was born Medgar Wiley Evers in Decatur, Mississippi, the son of James Evers, a sawmill worker, and Jessie Wright, a domestic worker. He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943 and served in the invasion of Normandy and the French campaign. After the war ended Evers returned to Mississippi, where he attended Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College, a segregated land-grant institution, from which he graduated in 1952 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. While at Alcorn he met a nursing student, Myrlie Beasley, whom he married in 1951; the couple had three children....

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Farmer, James (1920-1999), founder and national director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), civil rights activist, and educator  

Betty Kaplan Gubert

Farmer, James (12 January 1920–09 July 1999), founder and national director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), civil rights activist, and educator, founder and national director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), civil rights activist, and educator, was born James Leonard Farmer, Jr., in Marshall, Texas, the son of James Leonard Farmer (known as “J. Leonard”), a Methodist minister and the son of ex-slaves, and Pearl Houston Farmer, who had been a teacher. Farmer's father, who earned a doctorate of religion from Boston University, was one of the first blacks in Texas to hold a Ph.D. When Farmer was six months old the family, which included an older sister, moved to Holly Springs, Mississippi, where his father had accepted teaching and administrative posts at Rust College. Able to read, write, and count by the age of four and a half, Farmer was accepted into the first grade. The family soon moved again, as Professor Farmer joined the department of religion and philosophy at Samuel Houston College in Austin, Texas....