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Abbott, Grace (1878-1939), social worker and administrator  

Julie Longo and Sandra F. VanBurkleo

Abbott, Grace (17 November 1878–19 June 1939), social worker and administrator, was born in Grand Island, Nebraska, the daughter of Othman Ali Abbott, a lawyer and politician, and Elizabeth Griffin, a high school principal. The Abbott household provided an intellectually stimulating environment, emphasizing reading, discussion, and formal education for all four children. Othman Abbott encouraged both Grace and her older sister ...


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....


Addams, Jane (06 September 1860–21 May 1935), social reformer and peace activist  

Victoria Bissell Brown

Addams, Jane (06 September 1860–21 May 1935), social reformer and peace activist, was the daughter of John Huy Addams, a businessman and Republican politician, and Sarah Weber. Born on the eve of the Civil War in the small farming community of Cedarville, just outside Freeport, in northern Illinois, she was the youngest of five children, four of whom were girls. Her mother died during pregnancy when Jane was two years old. The Addams family was the wealthiest, most respected family in the community. Jane’s father owned the local grain mill, was president of the Second National Bank of Freeport, had interests in a local railroad and a local insurance company, taught Sunday School, and was active in local Bible societies. A founding member of the Republican party and supporter of ...


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....


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 ...


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....


Anthony, Susan B. (1820-1906), reformer and organizer for woman suffrage  

Ann D. Gordon

Anthony, Susan B. (15 February 1820–13 March 1906), reformer and organizer for woman suffrage, was born Susan Brownell Anthony in Adams, Massachusetts, the daughter of Daniel Anthony and Lucy Read. Her father built the town’s first cotton mill. When Susan, the second of eight children, was six, the family moved to Battenville, New York, north of Albany, where Daniel prospered as manager of a larger mill and could send Susan and her sister to a Friends’ seminary near Philadelphia. His good fortune, however, collapsed with the financial crisis of 1837; the mill closed, Susan left boarding school, the family lost its house, and for nearly a decade the family squeaked by, assisted by Susan’s wages as a teacher. Looking for a new start in 1845, Daniel moved to a farm near Rochester, the city that would be Susan’s permanent address for the rest of her life....


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....


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 ...


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....


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, ...


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 ...


Blackwell, Alice Stone (14 September 1857–15 March 1950), women's rights advocate and humanitarian reformer  

Kathleen Feeney

Blackwell, Alice Stone (14 September 1857–15 March 1950), women's rights advocate and humanitarian reformer, women’s rights advocate and humanitarian reformer, was born in Orange, New Jersey, the daughter of Henry Browne Blackwell, a hardware merchant, and Lucy Stone, a suffrage leader. Blackwell was surrounded by reform activity from her early childhood on. Both of her parents were prominent suffrage workers and founders of the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). ...


Breckinridge, Madeline McDowell (1872-1920), woman suffragist and Progressive reformer  

Melba Porter Hay

Breckinridge, Madeline McDowell (20 May 1872–25 November 1920), woman suffragist and Progressive reformer, was born at Woodlake in Franklin County, Kentucky, the daughter of Henry Clay McDowell, a lawyer and businessman, and Anne Clay. Members from both sides of her family had been prominent since Kentucky’s earliest years. In 1882 her family moved to Ashland, the estate of her great-grandfather ...


Breckinridge, Sophonisba Preston (1866-1948), social scientist and reformer  

Ellen F. Fitzpatrick

Breckinridge, Sophonisba Preston (01 April 1866–30 July 1948), social scientist and reformer, was born in Lexington, Kentucky, the daughter of William C. P. Breckinridge, a lawyer and U.S. congressman, and Issa Desha. Her father vigorously supported the rights of women and African Americans to secure higher educations. A rich legacy of political achievement and the prominent social standing of the Breckinridge family afforded Sophonisba many advantages in her early life. “Nisba,” as she was affectionately known, excelled in school and as an adolescent began taking courses at the Agricultural and Mechanical College in Lexington. In 1884 she enrolled at Wellesley College where she studied Latin and mathematics, graduating with an S.B. in 1888....


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....


Brown, Margaret Tobin (18 July 1867–26 October 1932), social rights activist, philanthropist, actress, and Titanic survivor  

Kristen Iversen

Brown, Margaret Tobin (18 July 1867–26 October 1932), social rights activist, philanthropist, actress, and Titanic survivor, social rights activist, philanthropist, actress, and Titanic survivor, popularly known as Molly Brown, was born Margaret Tobin in Hannibal, Missouri, the daughter of Irish immigrants. The real life of Margaret Tobin Brown has little to do with the myth of Molly Brown, a story created in the 1930s and 1940s that culminated in the 1960 Broadway hit ...


Buck, Pearl S. (1892-1973), author and humanitarian  

Paul A. Doyle

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....