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Famous African Americans

Benjamin Banneker
Born on November 9, 1731 near Elliott City Maryland, Benjamin was one of America's greatest intellectuals and scientists. Benjamin was an essayist, inventor, mathematician, and an astronomer. Because of his dark skin and great intellect he was called the "sable genius," Benjamin was a self-taught mathematician and astronomer. While still a youth he made a wooden clock, which kept accurate time past the date that Banneker died. This clock is believed to be the first clock wholly made in America. In 1791, he served on a project to make a survey for the District of Columbia, helping to design the layout for our Nation's capital. Deeply interested in natural phenomena, Banneker started publishing an almanac in 1971 and continued its publication until 1802. He published a treatise on bees, did a mathematical study on the cycle of the seventeen-year locust, and became a pamphleteer for the anti-slavery movement. He was internationally known for his accomplishments and became an advisor to President Thomas Jefferson. He died on his farm on October 9, 1806.

George Washington Carver
If an honest history of the Deep South is ever written, Dr. George Washington Carver will stand out as one of the truly great men of his time. Born of slave parents in 1860 in Diamond, Missouri, Dr. Carver almost single-handedly revolutionized southern agriculture. From his small laboratory on the campus of Tuskegee Institute flowed hundreds of discoveries and products from the once neglected peanut. From the peanut Dr. Carver discovered meal, instant and dry coffee, bleach, tar remover, wood filler, metal polish, paper ink, shaving cream, rubbing oil, linoleum, synthetic rubber, and plastics. From the soybean he obtained flour, breakfast food, and milk. It is highly doubtful if any person has done as much for southern agriculture as Dr. Carver. Dr. Carver died in 1943 and was buried next to Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute. On July 17, 1960 the George Washington Carver National Monument was dedicated at Dr. Carver's birth site. This was the first U.S. federal monument dedicated to an African American.

Dr. Percy Lavon Julian
Born in 1899 in Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. Percy Julian was one of the most famous black scientists. Just as George Washington Carver demonstrated what could be done with the ordinary peanut, Dr. Julian took the soybean, which was until this time another bean, and extracted from it an ingredient to relieve inflammatory arthritis. Until the late thirties Europe had a monopoly on the production of sterol, the basis of Dr. Julian's research. These sterols were extracted from the bile of animals at a cost of several hundreds of dollars a gram. Substituting sterol from the oil of soybean, Dr. Julian reduced the cost of sterol to less than twenty cents a gram, thus making cortisone, a sterol derivative, available to the needy at a reasonable cost. In 1945 he founded Julian Laboratory, Inc. With research centers in Chicago, Mexico City, and Guatemala, he successfully developed synthetic cortisone. Before his death of liver cancer, Dr. Julian found a way to mass produce the drug physostigmine, used to treat glaucoma, and perfected the mass production of sex hormones which led the way to birth control pills. Dr. Julian died in 1975.

Jan Ernest Matzeliger
In at least one branch of industry, America owes its supremacy to an African American, Jan Ernest Matzeliger. A pioneer in the art of shoemaking, he enriched America and other nations by billions of dollars, made a dozen or more millionaires, created work for hundreds of thousands, and contributed enormously to what is regarded as one of the distinct features of civilization, namely, the wearing of shoes. With no other capital but his meager wages, he was forced to make use of such material as he could get hold of. He used mainly pieces of wood and old cigar boxes. For six months he toiled strenuously until he had constructed a model, which though crude, gave him confidence that he was on the road to success. Four years later he perfected a machine that would work. He was offered $1,500 for his invention of pleating the leather around the toe, which sum he refused. Greatly encouraged by the widespread interest his model created, he started to build a better one. With his new model it was easy for him to convince practical men that his invention would work successfully. A company was formed, consisting of him, those who had advanced him money from time to time, and some others with large capital. With this new invention, the United Shoe Machinery Company rapidly drove competitors out of the shoe business, until a few years later; it controlled 98% of the shoe machine business. A tremendous expansion in the shoe industry followed. Shoe stocks proved a gold mine for investors. Earnings increased more than 350% and the price of footwear decreased. Matzeliger died in obscurity in 1889.

Jesse Owens
World record-holder Jesse Owens had one qualifying jump left at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. He had fouled on four of his first five tries, and he was angry because Nazi ruler Adolf Hitler, had just delivered an insult by departing from the stadium as Owen began his jumps. Suddenly, quietly, his chief rival, German long jumper Luz Long, said to Owens,"remeasure your steps... take off six inches behind the foul board." Thus was an unlikely friendship born between an African American and German. And thus was Jesse Owens inspired to capture an unprecedented four Olympic gold medals with record performances in the long jump, the 100 and 200 meter dash, and the 400 meter relay. Positive experiences such as the Olympic Games revelation by Luz, seemed to balance the racial prejudice negatives in Jesse Owens' life as an African American, leading too his moderate ideology and his admiration of the principles and practices of Dr. MLK Jr. Owens parlayed his international track-star reputation into jobs helping his people, which he called "the most gratifying work I've ever done." But for all his desire to help others, Jesse Owens was largely a self-made man. A frail, sickly child, he developed into a strong runner, winning national high school titles in three events. Dozens of colleges pursued Owens, but he chose to go to Ohio State, where he had to work his way through school. Owens stunned the nation in 1935 when he set three world records and equaled another in one day, running a 20.3 second 220-yard dash, 22.6 in the 220-yard low hurdles, a record -tying 9.4 second 100 yard dash, and long-jumping 26'-8-1/4... a mark that was not surpassed for 25 years. And amid all his deserved adulation, Jesse maintained his perspective.

W.E.B. DuBois
No single title does credit to the prodigious talents of Dr. DuBois. Born on February 20, 1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, he has been labeled an educator, author, historian, sociologist, philosopher, poet, leader and radical. In 1903 his famous book Souls of Black Folks was published. Perhaps his greatest fame came from his debate with Booker T. Washington over the type of education, needed by African Americans. Washington stressed vocational education, whereas DuBois insisted on training in the liberal arts and in the humanities. He was one of the founders of the NAACP and editor of its famous journal, The Crisis. He was also the first black to receive a doctoral degree from Harvard University. In 1919 he initiated the Pan African Conferences in Paris. On behalf of the NAACP at the UN, he tried to get a firm anti-colonial commitment from the US in 1945, and in 1947 presented a protest against the Jim Crow Laws. His theme in his later years was always economic democracy and the channeling of Black Power through a unified Black society. He died on October 27, 1963 in Accra, Ghana where he had established his new home.

Fannie Lou Hamer
Fannie Lou Hamer was born October 6, 1917 in the Mississippi Delta. Inspired by the fighting spirit of her mother, Fannie Lou Hamer became widely known as the "Spirit" of the Civil Rights Movement. In the early 1960's a black man or woman could lose their life trying to register to vote in some towns in Mississippi. But even at the risk of her life, Fannie Lou registered to vote. Because she encouraged others to do so, Fannie Lou was evicted from the farm where she lived, and her husband was fired. Although neither her husband nor Fannie Lou could work, they continued to organize people to register to vote. She helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which went to the 1964 Democratic National Convention and challenged the all-white Mississippi delegation. Because of these efforts, an integrated delegation was eventually seated in 1968. Fannie Lou Hammer also organized cooperatives to fight hunger and joblessness. The cooperative movement allowed blacks to leave the plantations where they were sharecroppers and set up their own farms, in a cooperative manner where they profited together.

Paul Robeson
Paul Robeson was one of the most gifted men in the history of the world. He was an athlete, actor, author, attorney, a scholar, and a concert singer. Born in Princeton, New Jersey on April 9, 1898, Paul Robeson showed that he was a man of many talents. He gave 296 performances as Othello on Broadway. He was subsequently recognized as an internationally famous singer and performed on concert stages throughout the world. Robeson spoke and performed in over twenty languages and dialects, and became a spokesman throughout the world against exploitation, injustice, and racism. His attacks on injustice and racism in the US became a severe international embarrassment to the US government. In 1950, Robeson's passport was revoked by the US State Department, and President Truman signed an executive order forbidding Mr. Robeson to leave the US under penalty of five years in prison and a 500-dollar fine. In 1958 Robeson left the US for England and did not return until 1963. Throughout his lifetime he fought against all forms of racism and oppression perpetuated on blacks in the US. He died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on January 23, 1976.

Sojourner Truth
Born Isabelle in 1797 in Ulster County, New York, she ran away from slavery in 1843 and changer her name to Sojourner Truth. At a time when oratory was fine art, Sojourner Truth, through her strong character and acid intelligence, was among the best and most famous anti-slavery speakers of her day. Her deep, bass voice, her fierce intelligence, sense of drama, and the utter sincerity of her speeches quickly spread her fame throughout the North and astounded the unbelieving South. Frequently, efforts were made to silence her. She was beaten and stoned, but nothing could stop her. Her speeches touched the hearts of many and led to the strengthening of the abolitionist movement in the US. One of her most famous lines was delivered in response to a man who questioned her womanhood. Recounting the trials and tribulations that the slave woman suffered and speaking as a mother of children, Sojourner Truth asked, "Ain't I a woman!" In October 1864, she addressed an audience with President Lincoln at the White House. She died on November 23, 1883 at her home in Battle Creek, Michigan.

Harriet Tubman
Born in 1821 in Dorchester County, Maryland, one of eleven children, Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery in 1849 and joined the abolitionist movement. She became a conductor of the "Underground Railroad," and was frequently referred to as "Moses" of ancient times. The Underground Railroad was neither a railroad nor underground, but a system of helping slaves to escape. Strong, brave as a lion, cunning as a fox was Harriet Tubman, who made at least nineteen journeys into the deep South and led over three hundred slaves to freedom. Although she could not read or write, Harriet Tubman was one of the leading conductors of the Underground Railroad. During the Civil War, Harriet Tubman served both as a nurse and a spy for the Union Army. When she died on March 10, 1913 in Auburn, New York, Harriet Tubman was buried with full military honors.

Ruby Bridges Hall
On November 14, 1960, the nation watched as six-year old Ruby Nell Bridges walked into William Frantz Elementary School and into history. A federal court ordered New Orleans school system to desegregate, making Bridges the first African American to attend the elementary school.

Her walk inspired the 1964 Norman Rockwell painting, "The Problem We All Live With", a small black girl escorted by four federal marshals walking to school beside a wall bearing a scrawled racial epithet and the letters KKK.

Thurgood Marshall
Thurgood Marshall was born in Baltimore, Maryland on July 2, 1908, the grandson of a slave. In 1930, he applied to the University of Maryland Law School, but was denied admission because he was black. This was an event that was to haunt him and direct his future professional life. Thurgood sought admission and was accepted at the Howard University Law School that same year. Marshall's first major court case came in 1933 when he successfully sued the University of Maryland to admit young African American Amherst University graduate named Donald Gaines Murray.

After amassing an impressive record of Supreme Court challenges to state-sponsored discrimination, including the landmark Brown v. Board decision in 1954, President John F. Kennedy appointed Thurgood to the US Court of Appeals for the second Circuit. In 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Judge Marshall to the office of US Solicitor General.

Thurgood Marshall was nominated to the highest Supreme Court in 1967, and became the first African American to serve on the US Supreme Court. He won 14 of the 19 cases he argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of the government. Marshall represented and won more cases before the United States Supreme Court than any other American.

Until his retirement from the highest court in the land, Justice Marshall established a record for supporting the voiceless American. Having honed his skills since the case against the University of Maryland, he developed a profound sensitivity to injustice by way of the crucible of racial discrimination in this country. As an Associate Supreme Court Justice, Marshall leaves a legacy that expands to include all of America's voiceless. Justice Marshall died on January 24, 1993, at the age of 84.

Booker T. Washington
Born a slave on April 5, 1856, in Franklin County, Virginia, Washington, whose father believed to have been white, was taken by his mother wither her two other children, to West Virginian, after emancipation. The poverty necessitated his working from the age of nine, first in a salt furnace and then a coal mine. He attended school for Negroes where he identified himself as Booker Washington, only later to learn that his mother had named him Booker Taliaferro, and ultimately combined all three names.

After a secondary education at Hampton Institute, he taught an upgraded school and experimented briefly with the study of law and the ministry, but a teaching position at Hampton decided his future career. Booker T. Washington became the foremost black educator of the late 19th and 20th centuries. In 1881 he founded Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute on the Hampton model in the black belt of Alabama.

His speaking tours and private persuasion tried to equalize public and educational opportunities and to reduce violent racial violence. These efforts were generally unsuccessful, and the year of Washington's death, 1915, marked the beginning of the Great Migration from the rural South to the urban North.

Malcolm X
One of the most controversial figures in the civil rights movement, Malcolm X's career was cut short by an assassin. After a childhood spent in institutions and foster homes, Malcolm headed East, settling in Boston and supporting himself with odd jobs and pimping. In 1943 he moved to New York where he began to lead an increasingly marginal life. While serving a 10-year sentence for burglary, he was transformed in prison, becoming a follower of Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam Movement. He was paroled in 1952, became an ordained minister, and took the name Malcolm X.

His militant stance and depiction of Whites as "blue-eyed devils" won him considerable press coverage and a good deal of suspicion in the White community; in many ways, he seemed the antithesis of MLK, who preached non-violence. In 1963, he formed the Organization of Afro-American Unity and in 1964 converted to orthodox Islam.

At the time of his death, Malcolm X seemed to be moderating his hostile view of Whites. Nonetheless, he spoke in the months before his death of his fear that he might be assassinated by opponents in the Nation of Islam, or by the US government. His assassination was apparently a member of a dissident black group, though mystery still remains about the event.

Martin Luther King Jr.
The most influential leader in modern civil rights, Martin Luther King, was born in Atlanta, Georgia. His father was a Baptist minister, providing a strong religious tradition for King. He graduated from Morehouse College in 1948 when he was 19 years old, and went on to Crozer Theological Seminary where he graduated in 1951 at the top of his class. He then went to Boston University for his Ph.D. By the an ordained minister, King took the pastorate of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and quickly became involved in the civil rights movement.

He soon found himself in the forefront of a boycott in Montgomery's segregated busses, which lead to a Supreme Court decision in 1956 against Alabama's segregation laws. King committed his life to nonviolent activism and bringing the civil rights movement to the forefront of American public life. Between 1960 and 1965, King continued to lead numerous demonstrations and protests on behalf of civil rights, leading the 1963 March on Washington where he delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

In 1964 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed on April 3, 1968 in Memphis Tennessee; he was there to support striking sanitation workers. His death devastated the nation.

Rosa Parks
Rosa Parks is a pivotal figure in the fight for civil rights. On December 1, 1955, a Montgomery, Alabama, bus driver ordered Parks to give up her seat to a white man. When she refused, she was arrested and fined. Mrs. Parks' arrest resulted in thousands of leaflets being distributed, calling for a boycott of city buses on Monday December 5, 1955. That same day, Mrs. Parks was convicted of violating local segregation laws and was fined fourteen dollars. After negotiations between Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the City of Montgomery failed, the bus boycott was extended, and eventually lasted 381 days. Dr. King and 89 others were arrested on March 19, 1955, tried, and convicted for conspiring to conduct the bus boycott. On February 1, 1956, the Montgomery Improvement Association filed suit in the United States District Court to challenge the constitutionality of local bus segregation laws. The U.S. District Court ruled in favor of the MIA, but the city challenged that ruling and it went to the Supreme Court. On November 13, 1956, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation on city buses is unconstitutional. With the implementation of the Supreme Court's decision, the desegregation of busses took place on December 20, 1956.

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