Profiles in American History

Sarah Walker
Sarah Walker
Archive Photos

February 28

Sarah Breedlove Walker was born into a poor sharecropping family in December of 1867. She left this world one of American history's richest women.

Walker married Moses McWilliams at the age of 14 with a sparse educational background to that point. Two years later, Moses passed away and Sarah was left to raise her young child. For 18 years afterward, Sarah worked as a washerwoman in St. Louis, Missouri.

Due to her own scalp ailment, alopecia, Walker began to experiment with new techniques for treating her hair. Her homemade remedies pushed her develop the Walker Method of hair care, which included relaxers.

After marrying Charles Walker in 1906, she moved to Denver and created the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company. Her business aggresively marketed hair care products and made Walker a millionaire. By 1917 her company was the largest black-owned business in the United States, employing close to 3,000 workers. Walker founded Lelia College in Harlem, New York to train hair care technicians and created her own chain of beauty salons.

Born: Dec. 23, 1867--- Died: May. 27, 1919

Gwendolyn Brooks
Gwendolyn Brooks

February 27

Gwendolyn Brooks work earned her reputation of the consumate "Chicagoan". Her award winning writing captured the spirit of the Windy City. Brooks was actually born in Topeka, Kansas and moved to Chicago as a young child. In 1936, Brooks graduated from Wilson Junior College and began doing freelance writing for the Chicago Defender newspaper. Brooks' first published collection of poems and writing was A Street in Bronzeville, a highly regarded foundation upon which she built solid body of work. Within 14 years of her graduation from Wilson Junior College, Brooks had written Annie Allen (1949) which earned a Pulitzer Prize. Brooks was the first African-American to win the prize.

In 1985 Brooks was named a consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress. In 1994, Brooks selected by the National Endowment for the Humanities as that year's Jefferson Lecturer, the government's highest award in humanities. Her work embodied Chicago, but inspired the nation.

Born: June 7, 1917--- Died: Dec. 3, 2000

John Hope Franklin
John Hope Franklin
Photo: Ampix Photography

February 26

A prolific writer and world-renowned historian, John Hope Franklin has conveyed the meaning of the black experience in America to a mainstream audience. Franklin attended Fisk University and Harvard University, Franklin would write From Slavery to Freedom, a book detailing the history of blacks in the 13 original colonies and the United States and the affects their prescence made on society. This publication gained Franklin international attention after which he would craft the legal brief that would bring down public school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954).

President Bill Clinton awarded Franklin with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995. Franklin has taught at a number of prestigious schools during his career including Howard University and Duke University.

Born: January 2, 1915

Medgar Evers
Medgar Evers
Photo: Archive Photos

February 25

Medgar Wiley Evers grew up in a Mississippi farming family and enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1943. He fought in France and Germany during World War II. After leaving the military, Evers attended Alcorn State University (then called Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College), met and married fellow student Myrlie Beasley, and graduated in 1952.

In 1954, Medgar Evers moved to Jackson, Mississippi and became the first field secretary of the NAACP in that state. He traveled throughout Mississippi recruiting new members, organizing voter-registration, protesting unequal social conditions and boycotting companies that practiced discrimination.

Evers high profile as an activist made him a threat to the racist power structure in Mississippi, and therefore a target. Shortly after midnight on June 12, 1963, Evers was assasinated in the driveway of his home. He died less than an hour later. The national outrage over his death helped garner widespread support for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Evers was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetary.

Born: July 2, 1925--- Died: June 12, 1963

Curt Flood
Curt Flood

Weekend: February 22-24

Curt Flood's courage in the midst of overwhelming opposition changed the world of professional sports forever. Flood started his Major League Baseball career with the Cincinnati Reds in 1956. In 1958, the Reds traded Flood to the St. Louis Cardinals and he remained a fixture in the organization through the 1969 season as an outfielder.

During that year, Flood was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies. Wanting to have the freedom to pick where he could play, Flood joined with the Major Leaue Baseball Players Association in challenging the MLB's reserve clause, which had allowed St. Louis to trade him without his permission. Flood lost his initial cases in 1970 and 1971, but his actions combined with later strikes by the Players Association established free agency in baseball. These events led to the establishment of free agency in the major professional sports leagues of the time.

Born: Jan. 18, 1938

Blanche K. Bruce
Blanche K. Bruce
Library of Congress

February 21

Unlike many of the racially mixed children of his time, Blanche Kelso Bruce was allowed to earn an education. This son of a slave mother and a white planter father made his way into politics in 1869 when he became a supervisor of elections for the state of Mississippi. He then served as a county assesor, sheriff, Board of Levee Commissioners of the Mississippi River and other positions which allowed him to amass land and wealth.

Bruce was elected in 1874 to serve in the United States senate. Serving form 1875-1881, Bruce called for just treatment for Native Americans, Blacks and Chinese immigrants. He also faught corruption and fraud in election procedures. At the end of his Senate term, was appointed register of the U.S. Treasury.

Born: March. 1, 1841--- Died: March 17, 1898

Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston
Photo: Brown Brothers

February 20

Folklorist and writer Zora Neale Hurston became a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston was born and educated in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated black city in the United States. At the age of 16, she left her home to work with a traveling theatrical company. The company ended up in New York City , where Hurston studied anthropology at Columbia University. She then attended Howard University as well as Barnard College.

In 1931, Hurston collaborated with Langston Hughes to write the play Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life in Three Acts. She wrote her most acclaimed work, Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937. After writing her autobiography (Dust Tracks on a Road) in 1942, she went on to teach at what is now North Carolina Central University. Her work, revived by feminists in the 1970's, has gained her considerable recognition as one of the most important black writers in American history.

Born: Jan. 7, 1903--- Died: Jan. 28, 1960

Fannie Lou Hamer
Fannie Lou Hamer

February 19

Fannie Lou Townsend was born in Ruleville, Mississippi the youngest of 20 children. She was needed to work the fields as a young child to help her struggling sharecropper parents. Due to the conditions of the rural South during her days as a child, she received only a sixth grade education.

After marrying Perry Hamer in 1942, she became fully engaged in her family life until twenty years later when she began working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She joined the organization to challenge voter registration procedures like the poll tax and grandfather clause that kept blacks from voting. Her staunch activism gained her the position of field secretary for SNCC.

Hamer became vice-chairperson of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964. This position allowed her to speak before the 1964 Democratic National Convention where she openly discussed civil rights abuses in Mississippi and explained how blacks were excluded from the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party.

Born: October 6, 1917--- Died: March 14, 1977


Weekend: February 15-18

Lawrence Parker left the security of home life at the young age of 14 to pursue a greater understanding of himself. His strong interest in basketball was transformed into a love for reading and philosophy because of the hard lesssons that he learned in the real world. In 1984, Parker (then known in the streets as KRS-ONE) got together with youth counselor Scott Sterling to form the legendary Boogie Down Productions.

KRS-ONE (Knowledge Rules Supreme - Over Nearly Everybody) successfully built a reputation for himself in the hip-hop community as a learned scholar and philosopher of the genre. Early hit albums such as Criminal Minded and By All Means Necessary showed his commitment to creating a stable, conscious environment for hip-hop. "The Teacher", as he is known in the music industry, has lectured at Yale University, Columbia, UNC-Chapel Hill, NYU, Harvard, Stanford and many more schools, discussing theories of interpersonal relationships, socio-economic cycles, governmental relations, corporate responsibility and the future of music.

Parker has acted as the chief interpreter of the hip-hop culture, similiar to the way that philosopher Alain LeRoy Locke defined the Harlem Renaissance for the masses.

Born: 1965

Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
AP Photos

February 14

Powell was the son Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church pastor Adam Clayton Powell. Powell earned his B.A. from Colgate University in 1930 and his master's degree from Columbia University in 1932. Powell took his father's place at the head of Abyssinian Baptist in 1937 and crafted a loyal membership that totaled approximately 13,000 followers. With the help of his membership, Powell sought to improve conditions for the underprivileged in New York by crusading for jobs and housing.

In 1941, Powell successfully ran for the New York City council and in so doing became the first black man to serve in such a capacity. In 1945 Powell won election to the U.S. House of Representatives. He served 11 consecutive terms in the House and was named chairman of the Education and Labor Committee in 1960. His leadership garnered the passage of antipoverty acts and the minimum wage act. By the time he left politics in 1970, he had constructed close to 50 major pieces of social legislation.

Born: Nov. 29, 1908--- Died: April 4, 1972

Katherine Dunham
Katherine Dunham
Photo: Dance Collection, NY Public Library

February 13

Katherine Dunham received her Master's and Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Chicago and shortly thereafter began the study of Caribbean primative dance. She decided that she wanted to teach dance in the United States, so she established her first school in Chicago (1931). In 1936 the Julius Rosenwald Foundation awarded her a fellowship to study traditional dance in Haiti.

Dunham is known as the first person to organize an concert-level all-black dance troupe. She garnered national acclaim for her choreography in Tropics (1937), Cabin in the Sky (1940), Story Weather (1943) and Aida (1963).

Dunham later become a professor (Southern Illinois University) and an activist. In 1992, she went on a hunger strike to protest the American deportation of Haitian refugees.

Born: June 22, 1910

Ralph Bunche
Ralph Bunche
Photo: H. Roger-Voillet

February 12

Shortly after earning graduate degrees in government and international relations from Harvard University, Ralph Johnson Bunche created the department of Political Science at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He would go on to do extensive international travel and research in French West Africa and England. Because of his credentials , Bunche was asked to serve in the Office of Strategic Services, the U.S. War Department and the U.S. State Department during World War II. In 1947, Bunche was named the director of the Trusteeship Department of the United Nations' New York branch.

In 1949 Bunche negotiated the United Nations truce laid forward between Palestinians and Jews, for which he was honored with the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize. Bunche also resolved confrontations at the Suez Canal (1956), in the Congo (1960) and in Cyprus (1964). Bunche served as a board member for the NAACP for 22 years.

Born: Aug. 4, 1904--- Died: Dec. 9, 1971

Barbara C. Jordan
Barbara Jordan
Photo: UPI

February 11

Barbara Jordan was born in Houston, Texas to a poor but proud family. Jordan and her siblings were taught early to excel and not let social or financial barriers stand as excuses for not achieving. Jordan worked diligently to become a lawyer, graduating magna cum laude from Texas Southern University and moving on to Boston University Law School.

Jordan became the first African-American woman ever to be elected to Texas Senate in 1966 and the first black to serve since Reconstruction. In 1972, Texas' 18th District voted her into the U.S. House of Representatives. Jordan sat on House Judiciary Committee that held Watergate hearings in 1974. In 1977, Jordan left politics to teach ethics at the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs in Austin. Jordan received the president's Medal of Freedom in 1994.

Born: February 21, 1936--- Died: January 17, 1996

Bayard Rustin
Bayard Rustin
Photo: UPI

Weekend: February 8-10

This notable labor and institutional organizer sought to promote programs to solve societal problems. In the early 1940's, Rustin joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a nonviolent antiwar group. At the same time, he collaborated with A. Phillip Randolph to plan a march on Washington to propose more opportunities for blacks in the defense industry. Rustin served time in jail for demonstrating in the American Indian independence movement and for participating in a 1947 North Carolina freedom ride.

After joining the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1955, Rustin served as Martin Luther King, Jr.'s special assistant, coordinating the 1963 March on Washington. From 1966-1979, Rustin served as the president of the civil-rights oriented A. Phillip Randolph Institute.

Born: March 17, 1910--- Died: August 24, 1987

Ida B. Wells-Barnett
Ida B. Wells-Barnett

February 7

Ida Bell Wells was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi a slave, six months before the Emancipation Proclamation was introduced. Educated in a freedmen's school, Ida became an avid reader and a skilled writer. When her parents and some of her siblings died during a yellow fever epidemic, Wells, at the age of 16, took on the role of guardian for her remaining brothers and sisters.

Wells actively railed against the injustices of a racially divided South. After being thrown off of a train that was deemed "White Only" in 1884, Wells successfully sued the railroad. Unfortunately, the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the decision, firming Wells' resolve to fight injustice.

Wells would go on to report for and own the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight (later the Free Press), write various pamphlets protesting lynchings and racial mob violence, participate in the early organization of the NAACP and teach.

Born: July 13, 1862--- Died: March 25, 1931

Art Tatum
Art Tatum
Archive Photos

February 6

Art Tatum began his piano career at the age of 13, after starting out on the violin as a small child. Tatum would go on to be regarded as one of jazz history's most technically gifted pianists.

At the age of 21, Tatum moved to New York City and began to record and perform on radio programs. Tatum changed the sound of jazz piano by randomly inserting chord progressions into small frames of measures. By reharmonizing popular tunes, he set a standard that modern musicians from Kenny G. to Lauryn Hill now practice.

Art Tatum overcame his blindness to become a legendary musician.

Born: Oct. 13, 1910--- Died: Nov. 5, 1956

Alain Locke
Alain Locke
Photo: Howard University

February 5

Alain LeRoy Locke gained acclaim as a noted writer, educator and black philospher as he touted the Harlem Renaissance durning the 1920's .

Locke graduated from Harvard University in 1907 with a degree in Philosophy then became the first black Rhodes Scholar, continuing his work Oxford. Locke recognized the influence that African culture had on Western civilization and sought to disperse that information through literary works.

He concentrated his philosophy on determining values to guide human conduct and deemed it "cultural pluralism".

Born: Sept. 13, 1886--- Died: June 9, 1954