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PIEDMONT AREA JOURNAL

GREAT AFRICAN

AMERICAN HEROS

UNDERGROUND RAILROAD: HARRIET TUBMAN (1821-1913)ONLINE 2/14/97

Harriet Tubman was born in a small slave community near the eastern shore of Maryland. When she escaped from her master, she decided to make it her life's work to free other slaves.

She worked several jobs to save up enough money to travel to Baltimore to rescue her sister and her two children. In the months that followed, Tubman made a least 15 trips to the South and led more than 200 people to freedom through a network of black churches that became known as the Underground Railroad

ACCOMPLISHED WRITER: LANGSTON HUGHES (1902 - 1967)

Langston Hughes, "The Poet Laureate of Harlem," was born in Joplin, Mo. and moved to Cleveland when he was young. He was the grandson of James Mercer Langston, the first African American elected to public office in the United States.

Hughes began writing poetry in the eighth grade and was selected Class Poet. After graduating high school, he enrolled in Columbia University to study engineering but dropped out to pursue writing.

Hughes continued his college career after receiving a scholarship to Lincoln University, located in Pennsylvania. He was a prolific writer, devoting more than 40 years of his life to writing and lecturing. He wrote 16 books of poems, two novels, three collections of short stories, four volumes of "editorial" and "documentary" fiction, 20 plays, children's poetry, three autobiographies and a dozen radio and television scripts.

john maercer langston.

First African American Elected To Public Office: JOHN MERCER LANGSTON (1829 - 1897)

There were few blacks of the 19th century who were more prominent or influential than John Mercer Langston. Langston was the first African American elected to public office in the United States and was twice suggested as a candidate for vice-president of the United States on the republican ticket.

Langston was born free but was orphaned at an early age. As an orphan, he was raised in both black and white households. He was educated at Oberlin College and served as a speaker at the first national black convention in 1848 at the age of 18.

Rising swiftly in politics, Langston was elected town clerk and allied himself with the Republican Party. Langston is given credit for shaping the character of the Republican Party and its progressive relationship to African Americans in the 19th century. After serving as a diplomat in Haiti for eight years, Langston returned to the United States to work in the commonwealth of Virginia. Later he captured a seat in Congress, but fought an 18 month battle to be seated because of his opponents' attempts to rig the polls. After winning, Langston served only three months because of repeated attempts by his political opponents to steal his seat.

George W. Carver

Agricultural Researcher: GEORGE WASHINGTON CARVER (1864 - 1943)

While working as a farmhand after the Civil War, George Washington Carver earned his high school diploma and then traveled north to attend Iowa State Agricultural College. He received his Master's degree and became the first African American to serve on its faculty.

In 1896, Carver joined the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and began to nurture his ideas that would revolutionize Southern agriculture. Taking knowledge from his laboratory, Carver taught Southern sharecroppers and farmers how to grow and preserve foods as well as how to maximize their yield by rotating crops. In 1914, he convinced Southern congressmen to plant other crops besides cotton, which was being threatened by the boll weevil. That move changed the face of agriculture in the south.

From the peanut, Carver developed hundreds of products including plastics, synthetic rubber, shaving cream and even paper. He used soybean to provide food, flour and milk, and the sweet potato yielded more than 100 useful products.

Upon his death, Carver willed his entire estate to the Tuskegee Institute to support the work of scientists attempting to discover a use for agricultural wastes and develop food products from common crops.

FREEDOM FIGHTER: SOJOURNER TRUTH
(1797 - 1883)

Sojourner Truth was born into slavery in upstate New York as Isabelle Van Waegner, using the family name of the owner who freed her in 1827.

After being freed, she began to work with organizations designed to assist women and developed an increasingly strong desire to speak out against slavery. She joined the anti-slavery society and began developing her speaking and debating techniques. In 1843, she took the name Sojourner Truth and began to spread her message of justice.

During the Civil War, Truth became involved in the war effort by collecting supplies for black regiments. Although it is rarely discussed, she led a successful fight during the Civil War to integrate the streetcars in Washington, DC Following that victory, the nationally renowned activist met with President Abraham Lincoln at the White House.

Sojourner Truth's influence was felt throughout the nation. Across her chest she wore a banner that read: "Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land Unto All Inhabitants Thereof." She lived her life by these words from the Bible.

SLAVE REVOLT LEADER: NAT TURNER
(1800 - 1831)

Heathen or Christian prophet? Known for his leadership role in the 1831 Southampton County, Va. slave revolt, Nat Turner has been called both.

Turner claimed to have received visions from God and held the slave community spellbound while preaching and communicating his numerous visions about God's justice for the slaves. A series of visions, the first of which occurred in 1828, convinced Turner to struggle against the enslavement of his people.

On August 21, 1831, Turner's visions culminated in a slave uprising. More than 60 whites were killed in a 24 hour period, including Turner's master and master's family. State and federal troops arrived the next day to stop the revolt. As a result, African-American slaves were randomly arrested, put on trial and hanged.

Before Turner was hanged he was asked, "Do you not find yourself mistaken now?" Turner replied, "Was not Christ crucified. "

INFLUENTIAL POLITICIAN: BOOKER T. WASHINGTON (1856 - 1915)

For many decades, Booker T. Washington was a major African-American spokesman in the eyes of white America. He was a forceful speaker, very skilled at politics, and powerful and influential in both the black and white communities.

Serving as a confidential advisor to many presidents, for years presidential political appointments of African Americans were cleared through him. Washington was considered an accommodator by his African-American peers. However, he spoke out against lynchings and strived to make "separate" facilities more "equal."

Although he advised African Americans to obey the segregation codes of the day, Washington was not often subjected to them. He was funded by Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, dined at the White House with President Roosevelt, was a guest of the Queen of England at Windsor Castle, often traveled in private railroad cars and always stayed in good hotels.

GEORGIA POLITICIAN & RELIGIOUS LEADER:
HENRY MCNEAL TURNER

Henry McNeal Turner addressed the hopes and frustrations of 19th century African Americans. He was a man of many occupations -- army chaplain, political organizer, magazine editor, college chancellor and preacher -- and is most well known as one of the first Bishops in the African American Episcopal Church.

Active in Georgia politics, Turner worked with state politicians during reconstruction in hopes to make Georgia a better place for African Americans. He introduced bills for greater education of blacks and creating a Black militia to protect African Americans from the Klu Klux Klan. He even introduced a bill to give women the right to vote.

Frustrated with the treatment of African Americans in the South, Turner vigorously encouraged his people to return to Africa. Believing the role of the black church should be to develop racial pride and consciousness among African Americans, Turner spent much of his time trying to explain the relationship between God and the struggle of African Americans in America. Turner often declared, "God is a Negro."

MARSHALL

FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN SUPREME COURT JUSTICE: THURGOOD MARSHALL (1908 - 1993)

One of the most prominent figures in the history of America's civil rights movement, Thurgood Marshall became the first African American Supreme Court Justice.

Marshall was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Johnson in 1967. At the time of his appointment, Marshall had successfully argued 29 out of 32 cases before the Supreme Court. He served on the Court for 24 years until his retirement on June 28, 1991.

Prior to serving on the Supreme Court, Marshall was legal director for the NAACP from 1940 to 1961, during the height of the civil rights movement. One of the organization's main objectives was to overturn racial segregation. Marshall and Charles Hamilton, the first African-American lawyer to win a case before the Supreme Court, devised a long-term strategy for desegregating schools. First focusing on graduate and professional schools, as they won more cases they turned toward elementary and high schools. The landmark 1954 decision, Brown v. The Board of Education, which declared segregation of public schools illegal, proved them a success.

Marshall's hallmark style was straightforward and plain-spoken. When asked to define "equal" during one of his arguments before the Supreme Court he replied, "Equal means getting the same thing, at the same time and in the same place."CIVIL WAR SPY: MARY ELIZABETH BOWSER

In most social situations it's not proper to eavesdrop but for Mary Elizabeth Bowser, it was a priority. Bowser is an African-American woman who played a crucial role in the Civil War by serving as a spy for the Union Army.

Bowser was born outside of Richmond, Va. and served as a slave to the Van Lew family. Upon the death of her master, she remained with the family who sent her to Philadelphia to be educated.

Bowser returned to Richmond at the start of the Civil War to engage in espionage work with Mrs. Van Lew who hired her out as a servant at the Confederate White House. Playing the "role" of a dumb servant, Bowser would listen to and memorize military conversations between Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his guests. Afterwards, she would relay the information to her co-conspirator Mrs. Van Lew.

Count Basie

ACCOMPLISHED COMPOSER: WILLIAM GRANT STILL (1895 - 1978)

Born in Mississippi and raised in Little Rock, Ark., William Grant Still became the first African-American composer to have a symphony performed by an American orchestra. The Eastman Rochester Philharmonic with Howard Hanson premiered Still's Afro-American Symphony in 1931. During the 1930s, the symphony was performed by 34 other American and European orchestras.

In 1949, Still became the first African American to have an opera, Troubled Island, performed by a major opera company. This opera was about the Haitian slave rebellion and consequent troubles with their leader Jean Jacques Dessalines.

Adding to his list of firsts, Still is also credited as the first African American to conduct a major symphony orchestra and the first African American to have an opera, A Bayou Legend, performed on national television (1981).

Still's major works include: Levee Land (1925), From the Black Belt (1926), Sahdji (1930), and Lenox Avenue (1936). During the 1950s, Still focused on writing for younger audiences including: The Little Song That Wanted to Be a Symphony (1954), Little Red Schoolhouse (1957), and The American Scene (1957).

Bernard A. Harris,

FIRST MALE AFRICAN-AMERICAN ASTRONAUT: BERNARD A. HARRIS, JR.

Where were you in the Spring of 1995? Bernard A. Harris, Jr., M.D., was millions of miles from home becoming the first African American to walk in space. He became an astronaut for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1990. Harris flew for 10 days on board Columbia in 1993, at which time he logged more than 239 hours and over 4 million miles in space while conducting research in the physical and life sciences.

FIRST FEMALE AFRICAN-AMERICAN ASTRONAUT:
MAE C. JEMISON
(1957 - Present)

What would it be like to enter Stanford University as a 16-year old National Achievement Scholarship student and become the first female African-American astronaut? Ask Mae C. Jemison, M.D., who became an astronaut for NASA in 1987 after competing for the honor with nearly 2,000 other applicants. After completing a one-year training program in August 1988, Dr. Jemison qualified as a mission specialist with technical assignments at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

JACKIE ROBINSON (1919 - 1972)

Becoming the first African American to play in major league baseball since its inception 50 years previously, Jackie Robinson not only broke the color barrier but also helped remove racial obstacles to enable other talented African Americans to have a chance to play professional sports.

Attending school at UCLA, Robinson received varsity letters in four sports: baseball, basketball, football, and track -- becoming the first athlete to accomplish this achievement. After playing one season in the Negro Baseball League, Robinson became a Brooklyn Dodger in 1947 which helped to open the doors for other minorities to enter the professional baseball arena. Robinson was named National League Rookie of the Year at the end of the 1947 season. He continued to excel in the sport which eventually earned him a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.

HANK AARON
(1934 - Present)

By hitting his 714th home run on April 8, 1974, Atlanta Braves player Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's record. According to the results from a 1989 poll, his record-breaking home run is considered one of the "greatest moments in baseball history." Aaron was signed to the National League Milwaukee Braves at the age of 18 and reached the major leagues two years later. During his career, he played almost exclusively with the Braves including 12 years in Milwaukee and another 9 years with the team when it moved to Atlanta. Garnering numerous awards throughout his career, today Aaron remains the impressive all-time leader in several key baseball categories.REGGIE JACKSON (1946 - Present)

Knicknamed "Mr. October" because of setting a record slugging percentage of .755 during a World Series, baseball Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson is also the sport's all-time strikeout king -- once for every four at-bats. Also, he is tied for leading the AL in errors the most times (five). Jackson is the only player to be named MVP in two World Series and is one of the few players to have a candy bar named after him.

Daniel Hale Williams
Surgeon (1856-1931)

A pioneer in open heart surgery, Daniel Hale Williams was born in Holidaysburg, Pennsylvania. His father died when he was 11, and his mother deserted him after apprenticing him to a cobbler. He later worked as a roustabout on a lake steamer and as a barber before finishing his education at the Chicago Medical College in 1883. Williams opened his office on ChicagoÕs South Side at a time when Chicago hospitals did not allow Black doctors to use their facilities. In those days, operations were often performed on kitchen tables in tenements scattered through the Black Belt. Dr. Williams helped put an end to this practice by founding Provident Hospital, in 1891, which was open to patients of all races. At Provident Hospital in 1893, Dr. Williams performed the operation upon which his later fame rests. On July 10 of that year, a patient was admitted to the emergency ward with a knife wound in an artery lying a fraction of an inch from the heart. With the aid of six staff surgeons, Williams made an incision in the patientÕs chest and operated successfully on the artery. The operation performed by Wlliams was an astonishing feat. The doctor began by making a six-inch incision and detaching the fifth rib from the breastbone, so he could settle down to work through a 2 X 1.5 inch opening. After securing the left internal mammary artery, he inspected the heart, noting instantly that the pericardium had been punctured by the knife. The heart muscle, too, had been nicked, but the wound here was not serious enough to require suturing or stitching. Dr. Williams then repaired the pericardium, sutured the chest opening, and completed the momentous operation. For the next four days, the patient, James Cornish, lay near death, his temperature far above normal and his pulse dangerously uneven. An encouraging rally then brought him out of immediate danger, terminating the crisis period. Three weeks later, minor surgery was performed by Dr. Williams to remove fluid from CornishÕs pleural cavity. After recuperating for still another month, Cornish fully recovered and was able to leave the hospital, scarred but cured. An uproar of publicity greeted Dr. WilliamsÕ later announcement that his heart surgery had been successful. Much of it was negative, in the sense that skeptics doubted that a Black doctor could engineer such a significant breakthrough. Unaffected by the notoriety, Williams continued a full-time association with FreedmenÕs Hospital, which he headed, prior to the founding of Provident Hospital. Dr. Williams died in 1931 after a lifetime devoted to his two main interests - the NAACP and the construction of hospitals and training schools for Black doctors and nurses. At the first convention of the American Board of Surgery in 1913, he was inducted into its Fellowship.

Bessie Smith
(1894-1937)

The only musical equal of Louis Armstrong in the 1920s was Bessie Smith, the premier blues and jazz singer of the decade, who changed the way that jazz was played with her singing. Although legend has it that Bessie Smith was discovered and taught the blues by Ma Rainey and her husband, the truth is that no one was responsible for the remarkable musical intelligence that Bessie Smith brought to the singing of songs. As a teenager singing in the theater circuit of the 1910s, Bessie Smith first became popular as a stage performer in a vaudeville-like theater world in which Black women performers were required to dance, act, and play the fool before Black and white audiences. But Bessie Smith really came into her own in 1923, when, following Mwnie Smith's recording of "Crazy Blues", the first blues record, in August 1920, Bessie began recording songs for the Okeh record company. Her version of "Down-hearted Blues", sold 780,000 copies and propelled her into stardom. When she recorded "St. Louis Blues," W. C. Handy's composition and Ethel Waters's signature piece, with Louis Armstrong in January 1925, Bessie Smith slowed down the tempo, simplified the phrasing, and introduced such depth of feeling that she made hers the definitive version of the song. Bessie Smith's quick rise to popularity was followed by a quick decline in the early 1930s, when her records no longer sold as well. A hard-drinking and verbally abusive woman, Bessie Smith communicated the "hurt" she carried inside in her singing of songs and her acting performance in the film St. Louis Blues (1929). Bessie Smith died tragically in 1937 as a result of an automobile accident in Clarksdale, Mississippi, but contrary to what Edward Albee's play The Death of Bessie Smith (1960) reported, it was not a racially motivated tragedy. She did not die because she was refused treatment at a southern hospital. Rather, she was treated for shock by a physician at the scene of the accident and transported to an African American hospital where she died.

Since May 15,1997

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Copyright © 1997 Piedmont Area Journal. All rights reserved.
Revised: May 15, 1997.