Historical and Modern Day Black Figures
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Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander | Writer | 1898-1989
A native Philadelphian, Alexander was the first black woman to receive a Ph.D. in economics in the United States, the first black woman student to graduate with a law degree from Penn Law School, and the first African-American woman to practice law in Pennsylvania. Alexander's work and views are recorded in speeches kept in the Penn archives. The Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander University of Pennsylvania Partnership School ("Penn Alexander") in West Philly is named after her.
Richard Allen | Minister | 1760-1831
A minister, educator and writer, this Philadelphia native founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first independent black denomination in the United States. He opened the first AME church in Philly in 1794. Born into slavery, he bought his freedom in the 1780s and joined St. George's Church. Because of seating restrictions placed on blacks to be confined to the gallery, he left to form his own church. In 1787 he turned an old blacksmith shop into the first church for blacks in the United States.
Maya Angelou | Poet | 1928-2014
Angelou was an American poet, singer, memoirist, and civil rights activist with a colorful and troubling past highlighted in her most famous autobiography, "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings". She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and is credited with a list of plays, movies and television shows spanning over 50 years. Her works have been considered a defense and celebration of black culture.
James Baldwin | American novelist | 1924-1987
Baldwin was an American novelist, playwright and activist, most notably known for "Notes of a Native Son", "The Fire Next Time" and "The Devil Find's Work". One of his novels, If Beale Street Could Talk, was adapted into an Academy Award-winning dramatic film in 2018.
"It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have."
Ruby Bridges | Civil Rights Activist | 1954-present
At age 6, Bridges embarked on a historic walk to school as the first African American student to integrate the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana. She ate lunch alone and sometimes played with her teacher at recess, but she never missed a day of school that year. In 1999, she established The Ruby Bridges Foundation to promote tolerance and create change through education. In 2000, she was made an honorary deputy marshal in a ceremony in Washington, DC.
Kobe Bryant | NBA star, humanitarian| 1978-2020
Drafted right out of Lower Merion High School at the age of 17, Bryant won five titles as one of the marquee players in the Los Angeles Lakers franchise. He was a member of the gold medal-winning U.S. men's basketball teams at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and the 2012 London Olympic Games. In 2015 Bryant wrote the poem "Dear Basketball," which served as the basis for a short film of the same name he narrated. The work won an Academy Award for best animated short film. A vocal advocate for the homeless Bryant and his wife, Vanessa started the Kobe and Vanessa Bryant Family Foundation aimed to reduce the number of homeless in Los Angeles. Bryant, his daughter Gigi, and seven other passengers died in a helicopter crash in late January. Kobe Bryant inspired a generation of basketball players worldwide with sublime skills and an unquenchable competitive fire.
Octavius V. Catto | Civil Rights Activist | 1839-1871
Known as one of the most influential civil rights' activists in Philadelphia during the 19th century, Catto fought for the abolition of slavery and the implementation of civil rights for all. He was prominent in the actions that successfully desegregated Philadelphia's public trolleys and played a major role in the ratification of the 15th amendment, baring voter discrimination on the basis of race. Catto was only 32 when he was shot and killed outside of his home on South Street in1871, the first Election Day that African Americans were allowed to vote. In 2017, a monument to Catto was unveiled at Philadelphia's City Hall.
Bessie Coleman | Civil Aviator | 1892-1926
Coleman was the first black woman to fly an airplane. When American flying schools denied her entrance due to her race, she taught herself French and moved to France, earning her license from Caudron Brother's School in just seven months. She specialized in stunt flying and performing aerial tricks. Reading stories of World War I pilots sparked her interest in aviation.
Claudette Colvin | Civil Rights Pioneer | 1939-present
Colvin was arrested at the age of 15 for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman, nine months before Rosa Parks' more famous protest. Because of her age, the NAACP chose not to use her case to challenge segregation laws. Despite a number of personal challenges, Colvin became one of the four plaintiffs in the Browder v. Gayle case. The decision in the 1956 case ruled that Montgomery's segregated bus system was unconstitutional.
Rudolph Fisher | Physician | 1897-1934
Fisher was an African-American physician, radiologist, novelist, short story writer, dramatist, musician, and orator. In addition to publishing scientific articles, he had a love of music. He played piano, wrote musical scores and toured with Paul Robeson, playing jazz. He wrote multiple short stories, two novels and contributed his articles to the NAACP all before his death at the age of 37.
James Forten | Abolitionist |1766-1842
Forten was an African-American abolitionist and wealthy businessman in Philadelphia. Born free in the city, he became a sailmaker after the American Revolutionary War. Following an apprenticeship, he became the foreman and bought the sail loft when his boss retired. Based on equipment he developed, he established a highly profitable business on the busy waterfront of the Delaware River, in what's now Penn's Landing. Having become well established, in his 40s Forten devoted both time and money to working for the national abolition of slavery and gaining civil rights for blacks. By the 1830s, his was one of the most powerful African-American voices in the city.
Francis Harper | poet | 1825-1911 (died in Philadelphia)
Born free in Baltimore, Harper was an abolitionist, suffragist, poet, teacher, public speaker, and writer. She helped slaves make their way along the Underground Railroad to Canada. In 1894, she co-founded the National Associated of Colored Women, an organization dedicated to highlighting extraordinary efforts and progress made by black women. She served as vice president.
Cecil B. Moore | Lawyer |1915-1979
Moore was a Philadelphia lawyer and civil rights activist who led the fight to and successfully integrate Girard College. He served as a marine in WWII and after his honorary discharge, he moved to Philadelphia to study law at Temple University. He quickly earned a reputation as a no-nonsense lawyer who fought on behalf of his mostly poor, African-American clients concentrated in North Philadelphia. From 1963 to 1967, he served as president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP and served on the Philadelphia City Council. Moore is cited as a pivotal figure in the fields of social justice and race relations. He has an entire neighborhood named after him in the North Philadelphia area.
Bayard Rustin | Civil Rights Activist | 1912-1987 (Born in West Chester, PA)
Bayard Rustin was an American leader in social movements for civil rights, socialism, nonviolence, and gay rights. He was a key adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. Rustin has local ties as he was born in West Chester and attended Cheney University of Pennsylvania, a historically black college. A gay man, he adopted his partner to protect their rights and legacy.
Nina Simone | Musician | 1933-2003
Born Eunice Waymon in Troy North Carolina, Simone was an American singer, songwriter, musician, arranger, and civil rights activist. Her music crossed all genres from classical, jazz, blues and folk to R&B, gospel, and pop. She learned to play the piano as a toddler and played in church where her father was a preacher. She would cross tracks to the white side of town to study classical piano with a German teacher and was later accepted into The Juilliard School. She went on to record more than 40 albums and in 2003 just days before her death, the Curtis Institute awarded her an honorary degree.
Big Mama Thornton | Singer | 1926-1984
Thornton is best known for her gutsy 1952 R&B recording of "Hound Dog," later covered by Elvis Presley, and her original song "Ball and Chain," made famous by Janis Joplin. Affectionately called "Big Mama" for both her size and her powerful voice, she grew up singing in church and eventually caught the ear of an Atlanta music promoter while cleaning and subbing for the regular singer at a saloon. An openly gay woman, she joined the Hot Harlem Revue and danced and sang her way through the southeastern United States. She played at the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theatre and continued performing sporadically into the late 70's.
Sojourner Truth | Abolitionist |1797-1883
Truth was born into slavery but escaped with her infant daughter to freedom in 1826. She then sued and won the return of her 5-year-old son who was illegally sold into slavery. In 1851, Truth began a lecture tour that included a women's rights conference where she delivered her famous "Ain't I a Woman?" speech, challenging prevailing notions of racial and gender inferiority and inequality. She collected thousands of signatures petitioning to provide former slaves with land.
Muddy Waters | Singer | 1913-1983
An American blues singer-songwriter and musician who is often lauded as the "father of modern Chicago blues", Waters grew up on a plantation in Mississippi and by the age of 17 was playing the guitar and the harmonica. In 1941, he moved to Chicago to become a fulltime musician, working in a factory by day and performing at night. In 1958, he toured in England, reviving the interest of Blues and introducing the sound of the electric slide guitar playing there. His performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960 was recorded and released as his first live album, At Newport 1960. In 1972, he won his first Grammy Award for "They Call Me Muddy Waters", and another in 1975 for "The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album".
Phillis Wheatley| Poet |1753-1784
Born in West Africa and sold into slavery, she learned to read and write by the age of 9 and became the first African American woman to publish a book of poetry. In addition to having to prove she had indeed written the poetry, no one in America would publish her work. She was forced to go to England where the pieces were published in London in 1773. Years later, she sent one of her poems to George Washington who requested and received a meeting with her at his headquarters in Cambridge in 1776.
Serena Williams is arguably the greatest women's tennis player of all time, with 73 singles titles and an overall record of 831-142.
Serena Jameka Williams |Tennis Player |1981-present
Williams emerged straight outta the streets of Compton to become the world's No. 1 player. She has won 23 major singles titles, the most by any man or woman in the Open Era. The Women's Tennis Association ranked her world No. 1 in singles on eight separate occasions between 2002 and 2017. She has competed at three Olympics and won four gold medals.