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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....


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 ...


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 ...


Baker, Ella Josephine (13 December 1903–13 December 1986), civil rights organizer  

Susan Gushee O’Malley

Baker, Ella Josephine (13 December 1903–13 December 1986), civil rights organizer, was born in Norfolk, Virginia, the daughter of Blake Baker, a waiter on the ferry between Norfolk and Washington, D.C., and Georgianna Ross. In rural North Carolina where Ella Baker grew up, she experienced a strong sense of Black community. Her grandfather, who had been enslaved, acquired the land in Littleton on which he had been forced to work. He raised fruit, vegetables, cows, and cattle, which he shared with the community. He also served as the local Baptist minister. Baker’s mother took care of the sick and needy....


Baker, Josephine (1906-1975), dancer, singer, and civil rights activist  

Patrick O’Connor

Baker, Josephine (03 June 1906–12 April 1975), dancer, singer, and civil rights activist, was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of Eddie Carson, a musician, and Carrie Macdonald. Her parents parted when Josephine was still an infant, and her mother married Arthur Martin, which has led to some confusion about her maiden name. Very little is known about her childhood, except that she was a witness to the East St. Louis riot in 1917. This event was often a feature of her talks in the 1950s and 1960s about racism and the fight for equality, which fostered the oft-repeated assertion that the family was resident in East St. Louis. Before the age of eighteen Josephine had been married twice, first to Willie Wells and then to William Baker, to whom she was married in Camden, New Jersey, in September 1921....


Bates, Daisy (1914-1999), civil rights activist, newspaper founder and publisher  

Barbara McCaskill

Bates, Daisy (11 November 1914–04 November 1999), civil rights activist, newspaper founder and publisher, was born Daisy Lee Gatson in Huttig, Arkansas. Her biological father and mother, reputedly John Gatson and Millie Riley, remain shrouded in mystery, and scholars have been unable to find evidence confirming her parentage. (Thus, her reported birth date varies: the one given here is widely acknowledged.) Bates grew up hearing that several white men had raped and murdered her mother and thrown the body in a pond. Leaving his infant daughter in the care of friends Orlee and Susie Smith, who became her foster parents, her father abandoned her, never to return. This was Bates's baptism into the poverty, insecurity, and racial violence that segregation fostered....


Bethune, Mary Jane McLeod (10 July 1875–18 May 1955), organizer of Black women and advocate for social justice  

Darlene Clark Hine

Bethune, Mary Jane McLeod (10 July 1875–18 May 1955), organizer of Black women and advocate for social justice, was born Mary Jane McLeod in Mayesville, South Carolina, the child of former slaves Samuel McLeod and Patsy McIntosh, farmers. After attending a school operated by the Presbyterian Board of Missions for Freedmen, she entered Scotia Seminary (now Barber-Scotia College) in Concord, North Carolina, in 1888 and graduated in May 1894. She spent the next year at ...


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....


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....


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....


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 ...


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 ...


Durr, Virginia Foster (1903-1999), civil rights activist  

Edward L. Lach, Jr.

Durr, Virginia Foster (06 August 1903–24 February 1999), civil rights activist, was born in Birmingham, Alabama, the daughter of Stirling Johnson Foster, Presbyterian minister, and Anne Patterson Foster. She grew up in a traditional middle-class southern household that experienced a decline in its financial fortunes following her father's removal from his pulpit. While he drifted through a series of largely unsuccessful efforts in the business world, Virginia Foster attended local public schools and finishing schools in Washington, D.C., and New York. Concerned that his bookish younger daughter might not “marry well,” her father sent her to Wellesley College in 1921. Although forced to drop out after her sophomore year for financial reasons, Wellesley proved to be a lasting influence on Foster. There she learned firsthand that women could make a difference in the outside world and how economic difficulties challenged the less fortunate in society. Perhaps of more importance, however, was the college's insistence that she dine with a young African American student at a time when such social contacts violated traditional southern mores. This and other similar social situations forced Foster to question many of the assumptions about society and life that she had accepted in her youth....


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....


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....


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....


Fisher, Ada Lois Sipuel (1924-1995), civil rights pioneer, lawyer, and educator  

Paul Finkelman

Fisher, Ada Lois Sipuel (08 February 1924–18 October 1995), civil rights pioneer, lawyer, and educator, was born in Chickasha, Oklahoma, the daughter of Travis B. Sipuel, a minister and later bishop of the Church of Christ in God, one of the largest black Pentecostal churches in the United States, and Martha Bell Smith, the child of a former slave. Her parents moved to Chickasaw, Oklahoma, shortly after the Tulsa race riot of 1921....


Fortune, Timothy Thomas (1856-1928), militant newspaper editor  

William Seraile

Fortune, Timothy Thomas (03 October 1856–02 June 1928), militant newspaper editor, was born in Marianna, Florida, the son of Emanuel Fortune, a literate slave artisan, and Sarah Jane Moore, a slave. Fortune was raised amid tumultuous times in Reconstruction Florida. His father, one of two African Americans elected as delegates to the 1868 state’s constitutional convention and a member of the Florida House of Representatives, was targeted by the Ku Klux Klan and had to flee the area for months in 1869. Thirteen-year-old Timothy became the man of the house in his father’s absence. “The constant fear, the stories of outrage …, the sign of his once high-spirited mother gradually breaking under the strain of anxiety—all these had a lasting influence on the sensitive and imaginative boy” (Thornbrough, p. 17)....


Hastie, William Henry (1904-1976), civil rights attorney, law school professor, and federal judge  

Peter Wallenstein

Hastie, William Henry (17 November 1904–14 April 1976), civil rights attorney, law school professor, and federal judge, was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, the son of Roberta Childs, a teacher, and William Henry Hastie, a clerk in the U.S. Pension Office (now the Veterans Administration). He was a superb student and athlete. His father’s transfer to Washington, D.C., in 1916 permitted Hastie to attend the nation’s best black secondary school, the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, from which he graduated as valedictorian in 1921. He attended Amherst College, where he majored in mathematics and graduated in 1925, valedictorian, Phi Beta Kappa, and magna cum laude. After teaching for two years in Bordentown, New Jersey, he studied law at Harvard University, where one instructor adopted the custom of saying after asking a question of the class, “Mr. Hastie, give them the answer” (Ware, p. 30). He worked on the ...


Henry, Aaron E. (1922-1997), civil rights activist, politician, and pharmacist  

Fran?oise N. Hamlin

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....