Black History Month

A series highlighting Black/African American individuals who made amazing contributions to the United States in honor of Black History Month 2019.

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler
Rebecca Lee CrumplerDr. Crumpler was the first African-American woman physician in the United States.

Born in 1831, Dr. Crumpler first worked as a nurse in Massachusetts between 1852 and 1860, PBS reports. She was accepted to New England Female Medical College and earned an M.D. in 1864, according to Time. She practiced medicine in Boston and Richmond, Virginia, primarily working with the poor, who had limited access to medical care. In 1883, Dr. Crumpler published a renowned book, Book of Medical Discourses In Two Parts, which many believe is the first medical text written by an African-American author, PBS states.

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Lewis Latimer
Lewis LatimerLewis Latimer – 1848-1928

Mr. Latimer was the son of runaway slaves who had settled in Chelsea, Massachusetts. After serving in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War, Latimer got a job as an office worker in a patent office. Because of his ability to draw, he became a draftsman, eventually getting promoted to be the head draftsman.

Although he has a large number of inventions to his name, including a safety elevator perhaps his greatest achievement is his work on the electric light bulb. We can thank him for the success of Edison's lightbulb, which originally had a lifespan of just a few days. It was Latimer who found a way to create a filament system that prevented the carbon in the filament from breaking, thereby extending the life of the lightbulb.

Thanks to Latimer, lightbulbs became cheaper and more efficient, which made it possible for them to be installed in homes and on the streets. Latimer was the only Black American on Edison's elite team of inventors.
Madame C.J. Walker
Madam C.J. Walker
Entrepreneur, Activist, Philanthropist

Madame C.J. Walker
Madam CJ Walker represents all that is possible. Sarah Breedlove–who later would come to be known as Madam C. J. Walker–was born on December 23, 1867 on the same Delta, Louisiana plantation where her parents, Owen and Minerva Anderson Breedlove, had been enslaved before the end of the Civil War.  This child of sharecroppers transformed herself from an uneducated farm laborer and laundress into one of the twentieth century’s most successful, self-made women entrepreneurs.

Orphaned at age seven, she often said, “I got my start by giving myself a start.”

In 1907 Walker and her husband traveled around the South and Southeast promoting her products and giving lecture demonstrations of her "Walker Method" — involving her own formula for pomade, brushing and the use of heated combs.  When they returned to the United States, they moved to Harlem (in 1916).

As profits continued to grow, in 1908 Walker opened a factory and a beauty school in Pittsburgh, and by 1910, when Walker transferred her business operations to Indianapolis, the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company had become wildly successful, with profits that were the modern-day equivalent of several million dollars.  She and her husband traveled south America, promoting her products.

Upon return, Walker quickly immersed herself in the social and political culture of the Harlem Renaissance. She founded philanthropies that included educational scholarships and donations to homes for the elderly, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the National Conference on Lynching, among other organizations focused on improving the lives of African Americans. 

By the time she died at her estate, Villa Lewaro, in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, she had helped create the role of the 20th Century, self-made American businesswoman; established herself as a pioneer of the modern black hair-care and cosmetics industry; and set standards in the African-American community for corporate and community giving.

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Bayard Rustin
bayard RustinBayard Rustin was a brilliant strategist, pacifist, and forward-thinking civil rights activist during the middle of the 20th century. In 1947 as a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Rustin planned the"Journey of Reconciliation", which would be used as a model for the Freedom Rides of the 1960's. He served as a mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr. in the practice of nonviolent civil resistance, and was an intellectual and organizational force behind the burgeoning civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s. He organized protests in England and studied Ghandian principles in India. His life as an openly gay man, however, put him at odds with the cultural norms of the larger society and left him either working behind the scenes or outside of the movement for stretches of time.
Born 1912 in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Rustin was raised a Quaker and his family was engaged in civil rights activism. He attended Wilberforce University, Cheney State Teachers College, and City College of New York. A charismatic man, he earned a living as a spiritual singer in nightclubs while living in New York City. He took a brief interest in the Communist movement and was a life-long pacifist, due to his Quaker upbringing. His commitment to civil and human rights came at a personal cost. He was arrested multiple times and twice went to jail.

In the 1940s he met A. Philip Randolph and worked with him on various proposed marches on Washington, D.C. to protest segregation in the armed forces and the defense industry. Because of their experiences together, when Randolph was name to head the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, he appointed Rustin as Deputy Director and overall logistical planner. In 1947, Rustin and George Houser, executive secretary of CORE, organized the Journey of Reconciliation which was the first of the Freedom Rides. The Rides were intended to test the U.S. Supreme Court's ban on racial discrimination in interstate travel. Rustin was arrested for violating state laws regarding segregated seating on public transportation and served twenty-two days on a chain gang.

With the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, his talents and tireless work were transferred to human rights and the gay rights movement. In the 1970s and 1980s he worked as a human rights and election monitor for Freedom House and also testified on behalf of New York State's Gay Rights Bill. Bayard Rustin died from a ruptured appendix on August 24, 1987 at the age of 75.

Amelia Boynton Robinson
Amelia Boynton Robinson<
Amelia Boynton Robinson

August 18, 1911 to August 15, 2015 (yes, lived to be 104!)

Boynton Robinson has been recognized for her tireless civil rights advocacy in recent years—including a portrayal in 2014's Selma and a headline-making photo with President Obama in 2015 on the 50th-anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march—but many may not know just *how* pivotal a figure she was. Boynton Robinson began her civil rights activism in the 1930s, when she started advocating for voting rights after becoming one of the few African-American women registered to vote in Selma, Alabama, the Washington Post reports. Boynton Robinson became the first African-American woman in Alabama to run for Congress in 1964 and the following year, she helped Martin Luther King Jr. plan the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama for March 7, 1965, now known as " Bloody Sunday." Boynton Robinson and the roughly 600 demonstrators were forcefully attack by state troopers with tear gas, billy clubs, and whips, according to the New York Times. Boynton Robinson was hospitalized after the march and a horrific photo of her injuries was widely circulated, the New York Times reports. Later in 1965, Boynton Robinson was invited to the White House when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, and in 1990, she received the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Medal.

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Langston Hughes

Langston HughesLangston Hughes
February 1, 1902 to May 22, 1967

James Mercer Langston Hughes was born February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. His parents divorced when he was a young child, and his father moved to Mexico. He was raised by his grandmother until he was thirteen, when he moved to Lincoln, Illinois, to live with his mother and her husband, before the family eventually settled in Cleveland, Ohio. It was in Lincoln that Hughes began writing poetry. After graduating from high school, he spent a year in Mexico followed by a year at Columbia University in New York City. During this time, he held odd jobs such as assistant cook, launderer, and busboy. He also travelled to Africa and Europe working as a seaman. In November 1924, he moved to Washington, D. C. Hughes’s first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, (Knopf, 1926) was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1926. He finished his college education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania three years later. In 1930 his first novel, Not Without Laughter, (Knopf, 1930) won the Harmon gold medal for literature.

He wrote novels, short stories and plays, as well as poetry, and is also known for his engagement with the world of jazz and the influence it had on his writing, as in his book-length poem Montage of a Dream Deferred (Holt, 1951). His life and work were enormously important in shaping the artistic contributions of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Unlike other notable black poets of the period—Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and Countee Cullen—Hughes refused to differentiate between his personal experience and the common experience of black America. He wanted to tell the stories of his people in ways that reflected their actual culture, including both their suffering and their love of music, laughter, and language itself.

The critic Donald B. Gibson noted in the introduction to Modern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essays (Prentice Hall, 1973) that Hughes “differed from most of his predecessors among black poets . . . in that he addressed his poetry to the people, specifically to black people. During the twenties when most American poets were turning inward, writing obscure and esoteric poetry to an ever decreasing audience of readers, Hughes was turning outward, using language and themes, attitudes and ideas familiar to anyone who had the ability simply to read . . . Until the time of his death, he spread his message humorously—though always seriously—to audiences throughout the country, having read his poetry to more people (possibly) than any other American poet.”

In addition to leaving us a large body of poetic work, Hughes wrote eleven plays and countless works of prose, including the well-known “Simple” books: Simple Speaks His Mind, (Simon & Schuster, 1950); Simple Stakes a Claim, (Rinehart, 1957); Simple Takes a Wife, (Simon & Schuster, 1953); and Simple’s Uncle Sam (Hill and Wang, 1965). He edited the anthologies The Poetry of the Negro and The Book of Negro Folklore, wrote an acclaimed autobiography, The Big Sea (Knopf, 1940), and cowrote the play Mule Bone (HarperCollins, 1991) with Zora Neale Hurston.

Langston Hughes died of complications from prostate cancer on May 22, 1967, in New York City. In his memory, his residence at 20 East 127th Street in Harlem has been given landmark status by the New York City Preservation Commission, and East 127th Street has been renamed “Langston Hughes Place.”

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Barbara Smith

Barbara SmithBarbara Smith
December 6, 1946 to Present

Beginning in the 1970s, Barbara Smith broke new ground as a black feminist, lesbian, activist, author, and book publisher of women of color.  She and her twin sister, Beverly Smith, were born on December 16, 1946 in Cleveland, Ohio.  Their mother, Hilda Smith, maternal grandmother, and a great aunt raised the girls there.  Smith’s activism started in high school when she participated in boycotts, marches and civil rights protests in the 1960s.
Education remained a high priority in the household.  As the first member of the Smith family to graduate from college, their mother, Hilda, expected the twins to do likewise.  She died when the twins were nine years old, and consequently Smith’s grandmother and aunt continued to stress the importance of learning and education.  Barbara Smith earned her B.A. from Mount Holyoke College in 1969 and her MA in 1971 from University of Pittsburgh.  She completed all but the dissertation (ABD) in her doctoral studies at the University of Connecticut (1981).
Smith co-founded the Combahee River Collective in Boston, Massachusetts in 1974.  The organization was best known for its Combahee River Collective Statement (1977), which she co-authored with her twin, Beverly, and with Demita Frazier.  This document became one of the earliest explorations of the intersection of multiple oppressions, including racism and heterosexism, critiquing both sexual oppression in the black community and racism within the wider feminist movement.  For the first time, according to the Statement, black women openly and unapologetically communicated their sexual orientations in the midst of their social justice work.

The Collective disbanded in 1980.  Around this time, Smith realized that very few publishing opportunities existed for female scholars of color.  She and colleagues founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press in 1980, the first U.S. publisher of books for women of color.  One of the books edited by Smith, Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (1983), broke new literary ground by integrating black lesbian voices with those of other black women.  Kitchen Table’s success spurred the mainstream press to begin publishing these scholars.

Smith taught her first class on black women’s literature in 1973 at Emerson College.  She has been visiting professor, writer in residence, freelance writer, and lecturer at numerous other universities and research institutions, including Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (1995-1996).  She entered politics in the early 21st century and was elected to the Albany, New York Common Council (city council) in 2005, where she focused on community efforts to prevent youth violence.

Among other honors, Smith received the Stonewall Award for Service to the Lesbian and Gay Community (1994). She was also nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.

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James Baldwin

James BaldwinJames Baldwin
Author, Critic
August 2, 1924 to December 1, 1987

The eldest of nine children, he grew up in poverty in the black ghetto of Harlem in New York City. From age 14 to 16 he was active during out-of-school hours as a preacher in a small revivalist church, a period he wrote about in his semiautobiographical first and finest novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), and in his play about a woman evangelist, The Amen Corner (performed in New York City, 1965).
After graduation from high school, he began a restless period of ill-paid jobs, self-study, and literary apprenticeship in Greenwich Village, the bohemian quarter of New York City. He left in 1948 for Paris, where he lived for the next eight years. (In later years, from 1969, he became a self-styled “transatlantic commuter,” living alternatively in the south of France and in New York and New England.) His second novel, Giovanni’s Room (1956), deals with the white world and concerns an American in Paris torn between his love for a man and his love for a woman. Between the two novels came a collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son (1955).

In 1957 he returned to the United States and became an active participant in the civil rights struggle that swept the nation. His book of essays, Nobody Knows My Name (1961), explores black-white relations in the United States. This theme also was central to his novel Another Country (1962), which examines sexual as well as racial issues.

The New Yorker magazine gave over almost all of its November 17, 1962, issue to a long article by Baldwin on the Black Muslim separatist movement and other aspects of the civil rights struggle. The article became a best seller in book form as The Fire Next Time (1963). His bitter play about racist oppression, Blues for Mister Charlie (“Mister Charlie” being a black term for a white man), played on Broadway to mixed reviews in 1964.

Though Baldwin continued to write until his death—publishing works including Going to Meet the Man (1965), a collection of short stories; the novels Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968), If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), and Just Above My Head (1979); and The Price of the Ticket (1985), a collection of autobiographical writings—none of his later works achieved the popular and critical success of his early work.

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