Rosa Parks

“My only concern was to get home after a hard day’s work.”

rosa-parks-wc-1600x500Rosa Parks was born Rosa Louise McCauley on February 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Alabama. Her childhood brought her early experiences with racial discrimination and activism for racial equality. After her parents separated, Rosa’s mother moved the family to Pine Level, Alabama to live with her parents, Rose and Sylvester Edwards—both former slaves and strong advocates for racial equality; the family lived on the Edwards’ farm, where Rosa would spend her youth.

Taught to read by her mother at a young age, Rosa went on to attend a segregated, one-room school in Pine Level, Alabama, that often lacked adequate school supplies such as desks. African-American students were forced to walk to the 1st- through 6th-grade schoolhouse, while the city of Pine Level provided bus transportation as well as a new school building for white students.

On December 1, 1955, after a long day’s work at a Montgomery department store, where she worked as a seamstress, Rosa Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus for home. As the bus Rosa was riding continued on its route, it began to fill with white passengers. Eventually, the bus was full and the driver noticed that several white passengers were standing in the aisle. He stopped the bus and moved the sign separating the two sections back one row and asked four black passengers to give up their seats. Three complied, but Rosa refused and remained seated. The driver demanded, “Why don’t you stand up?” to which Rosa replied, “I don’t think I should have to stand up.” The driver called the police and had her arrested. Later, Rosa recalled that her refusal wasn’t because she was physically tired, but that she was tired of giving in. The police arrested Rosa at the scene and charged her with violation of Chapter 6, Section 11, of the Montgomery City Code. She was taken to police headquarters, where, later that night, she was released on bail.

When Rosa arrived at the courthouse for trial that morning with her attorney, Fred Gray, she was greeted by a bustling crowd of around 500 local supporters, who rooted her on. Following a 30-minute hearing, Rosa was found guilty of violating a local ordinance and was fined $10, as well as a $4 court fee. Inarguably the biggest event of the day, however, was what Rosa’s trial had triggered. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, as it came to be known, was a huge success. The city’s buses were, by and large, empty. Some people carpooled and others rode in African-American-operated cabs, but most of the estimated 40,000 African-American commuters living in the city at the time had opted to walk to work that day—some as far as 20 miles.

With the transit company and downtown businesses suffering financial loss and the legal system ruling against them, the city of Montgomery had no choice but to lift its enforcement of segregation on public buses, and the boycott officially ended on December 20, 1956. The combination of legal action, backed by the unrelenting determination of the African-American community, made the 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott one of the largest and most successful mass movements against racial segregation in history.

Although she had become a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement, Rosa Parks suffered hardship in the months following her arrest in Montgomery and the subsequent boycott. She lost her department store job and her husband was fired after his boss forbade him to talk about his wife or their legal case. Unable to find work, they eventually left Montgomery; the couple, along with Rosa’s mother, moved to Detroit, Michigan. There, Rosa made a new life for herself, working as a secretary and receptionist in U.S. Representative John Conyer’s congressional office. She also served on the board of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

On October 24, 2005, at the age of 92, Rosa Parks quietly died in her apartment in Detroit, Michigan. She had been diagnosed the previous year with progressive dementia. Her death was marked by several memorial services, among them lying in state at the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C.

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James Earl Jones

James Earl Jones

“One of the hardest things in life is having words in your heart that you can’t utter.”

James Earl Jones was born on January 17, 1931, in Arkabutla, Mississippi. His father, Robert Earl Jones, a boxer and actor, was largely absent from his life growing up. At an early age, Jones was raised by his maternal grandparents in Mississippi before moving with them to Michigan. He is of African, Cherokee, Choctaw and Irish descent.

Jones developed a severe stutter in childhood, which left him terribly self-conscious and shy around other children. He generally didn’t speak until a teacher helped him out of his silence during his high school years. “…I had a great English teacher who believed in language,” Jones later told the Hollywood Reporter. “And he looked at a poem I wrote and said, ‘It’s too good for you to have written, so to prove you wrote it, please stand up in front of the class and recite it from memory.’ And I did it without stuttering. So he used that as a program to get me to talk.”

James Earl Jones made his Broadway debut in the late 1950s in the play Sunrise at Campobello. On the stage, Jones had a career breakthrough in 1968: He starred as boxer Jack Jefferson (a character based on real-world fighter Jack Johnson) in the Broadway drama The Great White Hope. The performance brought him his first Tony Award. He also starred in the 1970 film version of the play, for which he received an Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe. Famous for his distinctively deep and rich oration, Jones began one of his most iconic film roles in the late 1970s: providing the voice of Darth Vader in George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983).Jones thrived on TV as well, winning a pair of Emmy Awards in 1991 for his leading role on the dramatic series Gabriel’s Fire and his supporting role on the miniseries Heat Wave. He thus became the first actor to win two Emmys in the same year in the drama category. In 1993, Jones published the memoir Voices and Silences, which looks at both his career and early family life.

Over the years, Jones has received many accolades for his contributions to the arts, including a Kennedy Center Honor in 2002 and an honorary Academy Award in 2011. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bestowed the award to Jones “for his legacy of consistent excellence and uncommon versatility,”

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Scott Joplin

Scott Joplin

“When I’m dead twenty-five years, people are going to begin to recognize me.”

Scott Joplin’s exact date of birth and location is not known, though it is estimated that he was born between the summer of June 1867 and January 1868. Born to Florence Givens and Giles Joplin, Scott grew up in Texarkana, a town situated on the border between Texas and Arkansas. The Joplins were a musical family, with Florence being a singer and banjo player and Giles a violinist; Scott learned how to play the guitar at a young age and later took to the piano, displaying a gift for the instrument. Julius Weiss, a German music teacher who lived in Joplin’s hometown, gave the young pianist further instruction. Joplin was also a vocalist and would play the cornet as well.

Joplin left home during his teen years and began work as a travelling musician, playing in bars and dance halls where new musical forms were featured that formed the basis of ragtime, which had distinct, syncopated rhythms and a fusion of musical sensibilities. Joplin lived for a time in Sedalia, Missouri in the 1880s and in 1893 he fronted a band in Chicago during the World Fair. He later settled in Sedalia again while continuing to travel, with the waltzes “Please Say You Will” and “A Picture of Her Face” becoming his first two published songs.

Joplin studied music at Sedalia’s George R. Smith College for Negroes during the 1890s and also worked as a teacher and mentor to other ragtime musicians. He published his first piano rag, “Original Rags,” in the late 1890s, but was made to share credit with another arranger. Joplin then worked with a lawyer to ensure that he would receive a one-cent royalty of every sheet-music copy sold of his next composition, “The Maple Leaf Rag.” In 1899, Joplin partnered with publisher John Stark to push the tune. Though sales were initially slight, it went on to become the biggest ragtime song ever, eventually selling more than a million copies.

Joplin was intensely concerned with making sure the genre received its proper due, taking note of the disparaging comments made by some white critics due to the music’s African-American origins and radical form. As such, he published a 1908 series that broke down the complexities of ragtime form for students: The School of Ragtime: Six Exercises for Piano.

Joplin continued to work on various musical forms and formed his own publishing company with his third wife, Lottie, in 1913. By 1916, he had started to succumb to the ravages of syphilis, which he was thought to have contracted years earlier, and was later hospitalized and institutionalized. Joplin died on April 1, 1917.

Ragtime would enjoy a resurgence during the 1940s, and then in the ’70s became a hugely popular classical genre that also entered the U.S. consciousness via film—”The Entertainer” became the theme song for The Sting, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Joplin’s Treemonisha was also fully staged in 1975 on Broadway. The following year, Joplin received a special posthumous Pulitzer Prize, honoring the man who shaped a genre that influenced decades of music.

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Sammy Davis Jr

Sammy Davis Jr

“Being a star has made it possible for me to get insulted in places where the average Negro could never hope to get insulted.”

Samuel George Davis Jr. was born on December 8, 1925, in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, with the infant initially raised by his paternal grandmother. Davis’s parents split up when he was 3 and he went to live with his father, who was working as an entertainer in a dance troupe. When his father and adopted uncle went on tour, Davis was brought along, and after learning to tap the three began performing together. They would eventually be dubbed the Will Mastin Trio.

After the war, Davis resumed his showbiz career. He continued to perform with the Will Mastin Trio as the star of the act and also struck out on his own, singing in nightclubs and recording records. His career began to rise to new heights in 1947 when the trio opened for Frank Sinatra (with whom Davis would remain a lifelong friend and collaborator) at the Capitol Theatre in New York. A tour with Mickey Rooney followed, as did a performance that caught the ear of Decca Records, who signed Davis to a recording contract in 1954.

Later that year, while driving to Los Angeles for a soundtrack recording, Davis was seriously injured in a car accident. The accident resulted in his losing an eye, and he would use a glass eye for most of his life. His recuperation also gave him time for deep reflection. He converted to Judaism shortly thereafter, finding commonalities between the oppression experienced by African-American and Jewish communities.

Despite what appeared to be a free-swinging playboy lifestyle, a lifetime of enduring racial prejudice led Davis to use his fame for political means. During the 1960s he became active in the Civil Rights Movement, participating in the 1963 March on Washington and refusing to perform at racially segregated nightclubs, for which he is credited with helping integrate in Las Vegas and Miami Beach. Davis also challenged the bigotry of the era by marrying Swedish actress May Britt at a time when interracial marriages were forbidden by law in 31 states. (President John F. Kennedy in fact requested that the couple not appear at his inauguration so as not to anger white Southerners.)

Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, the multitalented Davis continued his prolific output. He maintained his musical career, releasing albums well into the late ’70s and getting his first #1 chart hit with 1972’s “Candy Man.” Davis appeared in films such as 1981’s The Cannonball Run, with Burt Reynolds and Roger Moore, and 1989’s Tap, with Gregory Hines. He was also a guest on a wide variety of television shows, including the Tonight Show, The Carol Burnett Show, All in the Family and The Jeffersons as well as the soap operas General Hospital and One Life to Live. But while his career continued, with the performer embarking on a lauded tour with Sinatra and Liza Minnelli during the late ’80s, Davis’s health began to fade.

But while his career continued, with the performer embarking on a lauded tour with Sinatra and Liza Minnelli during the late ’80s, Davis’s health began to fade. Davis was a heavy smoker, and in 1989 doctors discovered a tumor in his throat. The fall of that year he gave what would be his final performance, at the Harrah’s casino in Lake Tahoe. Shortly thereafter, Davis underwent radiation therapy. Though the disease appeared to be in remission, it was later discovered to have returned. On May 16, 1990, Sammy Davis Jr. passed away at his home in Beverly Hills, California, at the age of 64. Before his death he was honored by an array of his peers at a February television tribute.

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Ella Fitzgerald

“Just don’t give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don’t think you can go wrong.”

Ella FitzgeraldBorn on April 25, 1917 in Newport News, Virginia, singer Ella Fitzgerald was the product of a common-law marriage between William Fitzgerald and Temperance “Tempie” Williams Fitzgerald. Ella experienced a troubled childhood that began with her parents separating shortly after her birth.

With her mother, Fitzgerald moved to Yonkers, New York. They lived there with her mother’s boyfriend, Joseph De Sailva. The family grew in 1923 with the arrival of Fitzgerald’s half-sister Frances. Struggling financially, the young Fitzgerald helped her family out by working as a messenger “running numbers” and acting as a lookout for a brothel. Her first career aspiration was to become a dancer.

After her mother’s death in 1932, Fitzgerald ended up moving in with an aunt. She started skipping school. Fitzgerald was then sent to a special reform school but didn’t stay there long. By 1934, Ella was trying to make it on her own and living on the streets. Still harboring dreams of becoming an entertainer, she entered an amateur contest at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. She sang the Hoagy Carmichael tune “Judy” as well as “The Object of My Affection,” wowing the audience. Fitzgerald went on to win the contest’s $25 first place prize.

That unexpected performance at the Apollo helped set Fitzgerald’s career in motion. She soon met bandleader and drummer Chick Webb and eventually joined his group as a singer. In addition to her work with Webb, Fitzgerald performed and recorded with the Benny Goodman Orchestra. She had her own side project, too, known as Ella Fitzgerald and Her Savoy Eight. Following Webb’s death in 1939, Ella became the leader of the band, which was renamed Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Orchestra.

A truly collaborative soul, Fitzgerald produced great recordings with such artists as Louis Armstrong and Count Basie. She also performed several times with Frank Sinatra over the years as well. In 1960, Fitzgerald broke into the pop charts with her rendition of “Mack the Knife.” She was still going strong well into the ’70s, playing concerts across the globe. One especially memorable concert series from this time was a two-week engagement in New York City in 1974 with Sinatra and Basie. By the 1980s, Fitzgerald experienced serious health problems. She had heart surgery in 1986 and had been suffering from diabetes. The disease left her blind, and she had both legs amputated in 1994. She made her last recording in 1989 and her last public performance in 1991 at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Ella Fitzgerald died on June 15, 1996, at her home in Beverly Hills.

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Alice Walker

Alice Walker

“For in the end, freedom is a personal and lonely battle; and one faces down fears of today so that those of tomorrow might be engaged.”

Novelist, poet and feminist Alice Malsenior Walker was born on February 9, 1944, in Eatonton, Georgia. Alice Walker is one of the most admired African-American writers working today. The youngest daughter of sharecroppers, she grew up poor. Her mother worked as a maid to help support the family’s eight children. When Walker was 8 years old, she suffered a serious injury: She was shot in the right eye with a BB pellet while playing with two of her brothers. Whitish scar tissue formed in her damaged eye, and she became self-conscious of this visible mark.

After the incident, Walker largely withdrew from the world around her. “For a long time, I thought I was very ugly and disfigured,” she told John O’Brien in an interview that was published in Alice Walker: Critical Perspectives, Past and Present. “This made me shy and timid, and I often reacted to insults and slights that were not intended.” She found solace in reading and writing poetry.

Living in the racially divided South, Walker attended segregated schools. She graduated from her high school as the valedictorian of her class. With the help of a scholarship, she was able to go to Spelman College in Atlanta. She later switched to Sarah Lawrence College in New York City. While at Sarah Lawrence, Walker visited Africa as part of a study-abroad program. She graduated in 1965—the same year that she published her first short story. After college, Walker worked as a social worker, teacher and lecturer. She became active in the Civil Rights Movement, fighting for equality for all African Americans. Her experiences informed her first collection of poetry, Once, which was published in 1968. Better known now as a novelist, Walker showed her talents for storytelling in her debut work, Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970).

Walker’s career as a writer took flight with the publication of her third novel, The Color Purple, in 1982. Set in the early 1900s, the novel explores the female African-American experience through the life and struggles of its narrator, Celie. Celie suffers terrible abuse at the hands of her father, and later, from her husband. The compelling work won Walker both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction in 1983.

Three years later, Walker’s story made it to the big screen: Steven Spielberg directed The Color Purple, which starred Whoopi Goldberg as Celie, as well as Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover. Like the novel, the movie was a critical success, receiving 11 Academy Award nominations.

After more than four decades as a writer, Alice Walker shows no signs of slowing down. In 2012, she released The Chicken Chronicles; in this latest memoir, she ruminates on caring for her flock of chickens. Following the release of The Chicken Chronicles, she began working on The Cushion in the Road, a collection of mediations on a variety of subjects slated to be published in 2013.

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Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong_young

“If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.”

Louis Armstrong, nicknamed “Satchmo,” “Pops” and, later, “Ambassador Satch,” was born on August 4, 1901, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Armstrong had a difficult childhood. His father was a factory worker and abandoned the family soon after Louis’s birth; his mother, frequently left him with his maternal grandmother.Armstrong was obligated to leave school in the fifth grade to begin working. A Jewish family, the Karnofskys, gave young Armstrong a job collecting junk and delivering coal. They also encouraged him to sing and often invited him into their home for meals.

On New Year’s Eve in 1912, Armstrong fired his stepfather’s gun in the air during a New Year’s Eve celebration and was arrested on the spot. He was then sent to the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys. There, he received musical instruction on the cornet and fell in love with music. In 1914, the home released him, and he immediately began dreaming of a life making music. While he still had to work odd jobs selling newspapers and hauling coal to the city’s famed red-light district, Armstrong began earning a reputation as a fine blues player. One of the greatest cornet players in town, Joe “King” Oliver, began acting as a mentor to the young Armstrong, showing him pointers on the horn and occasionally using him as a sub.

While in New York, Armstrong cut dozens of records as a sideman, creating inspirational jazz with other greats such as Sidney Bechet, and backing numerous blues singers, namely Bessie Smith. Back in Chicago, OKeh Records decided to let Armstrong make his first records with a band under his own name: Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five. From 1925 to 1928, Armstrong made more than 60 records with the Hot Five and, later, the Hot Seven. Today, these are generally regarded as the most important and influential recordings in jazz history; on these records, Armstrong’s virtuoso brilliance helped transform jazz from an ensemble music to a soloist’s art.

By 1932, Armstrong had begun appearing in movies and made his first tour of England. While he was beloved by musicians, he was too wild for most critics, who gave him some of the most racist and harsh reviews of his career. Armstrong didn’t let the criticism stop him, however, and he returned an even bigger star when he began a longer tour throughout Europe in 1933. In a strange turn of events, it was during this tour that Armstrong’s career fell apart: Years of blowing high notes had taken a toll on Armstrong’s lips, and, following a fight with his manager, Johnny Collins—who already managed to get Armstrong into trouble with the American mob—he was left stranded overseas by Collins. Armstrong decided to take some time off soon after the incident, and spent much of 1934 relaxing in Europe and resting his lip.

Armstrong set a number of African-American “firsts.” In 1936, he became the first African-Amercican jazz musician to write an autobiography: Swing That Music. That same year, he became the first African-American to get featured billing in a major Hollywood movie with his turn in Pennies from Heaven, starring Bing Crosby. Additionally, he became the first African-American entertainer to host a nationally sponsored radio show in 1937, when he took over Rudy Vallee’s Fleischmann’s Yeast Show for 12 weeks.

Armstrong continued to appear in major films with the likes of Mae West, Martha Raye and Dick Powell. He was also a frequent presence on radio, and often broke box-office records at the height of what is now known as the “Swing Era.” Armstrong’s fully healed lip made its presence felt on some of the finest recordings of career, including “Swing That Music,” “Jubilee” and “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue.”

Armstrong died at his home in Queens, New York, on July 6, 1971.

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Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall“In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute.”

Thurgood Marshall was born on July 2, 1908, in Baltimore, Maryland. His father, William Marshall, the grandson of a slave, worked as a steward at an exclusive club. His mother, Norma, was a kindergarten teacher. One of William Marshall’s favorite pastimes was to listen to cases at the local courthouse before returning home to rehash the lawyers’ arguments with his sons. Thurgood Marshall later recalled, “Now you want to know how I got involved in law? I don’t know. The nearest I can get is that my dad, my brother, and I had the most violent arguments you ever heard about anything. I guess we argued five out of seven nights at the dinner table.”

Marshall attended Baltimore’s Colored High and Training School (later renamed Frederick Douglass High School), where he was an above-average student and put his finely honed skills of argument to use as a star member of the debate team. The teenaged Marshall was also something of a mischievous troublemaker. His greatest high school accomplishment, memorizing the entire United States Constitution, was actually a teacher’s punishment for misbehaving in class.

After graduating from high school in 1926, Marshall attended Lincoln University, a historically black college in Pennsylvania. There, he joined a remarkably distinguished student body that included Kwame Nkrumah, the future president of Ghana; Langston Hughes, the great poet; and Cab Calloway, the famous jazz singer.

After graduating from Lincoln with honors in 1930, Marshall applied to the University of Maryland Law School. Despite being overqualified academically, Marshall was rejected because of his race. This firsthand experience with discrimination in education made a lasting impression on Marshall and helped determine the future course of his career. Instead of Maryland, Marshall attended law school in Washington, D.C. at Howard University, another historically black school. The dean of Howard Law School at the time was the pioneering civil rights lawyer Charles Houston. Marshall quickly fell under the tutelage of Houston, a notorious disciplinarian and extraordinarily demanding professor. Marshall recalled of Houston, “He would not be satisfied until he went to a dance on the campus and found all of his students sitting around the wall reading law books instead of partying.” Marshall graduated magna cum laude from Howard in 1933.

However, the great achievement of Marshall’s career as a civil-rights lawyer was his victory in the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of a group of black parents in Topeka, Kansas on behalf of their children forced to attend all-black segregated schools. Through Brown v. Board, one of the most important cases of the 20th century, Marshall challenged head-on the legal underpinning of racial segregation, the doctrine of “separate but equal” established by the 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson.

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” and therefore racial segregation of public schools violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. While enforcement of the Court’s ruling proved to be uneven and painfully slow, Brown v. Board provided the legal foundation, and much of the inspiration, for the American Civil Rights Movement that unfolded over the next decade. At the same time, the case established Marshall as one of the most successful and prominent lawyers in America.

In 1961, then-newly elected President John F. Kennedy appointed Thurgood Marshall as a judge for the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Serving as a circuit court judge over the next four years, Marshall issued more than 100 decisions, none of which was overturned by the Supreme Court. Then, in 1965, Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, appointed Marshall to serve as the first black U.S. solicitor general, the attorney designated to argue on behalf of the federal government before the Supreme Court. During his two years as solicitor general, Marshall won 14 of the 19 cases that he argued before the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Justice

Finally, in 1967, President Johnson nominated Marshall to serve on the bench before which he had successfully argued so many times before—the United States Supreme Court. On October 2, 1967, Marshall was sworn in as a Supreme Court justice, becoming the first African American to serve on the nation’s highest court.

Thurgood Marshall died on January 24, 1993, at the age of 84.

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Eartha Kitt

Singer and Actress Eartha Kitt ca. 1950s

Singer and Actress Eartha Kitt ca. 1950s

“My recipe for life is not being afraid of myself, afraid of what I think or of my opinions.”

Born January 17, 1927 in North, South Carolina, famed singer and actress Eartha Kitt had a difficult childhood. Her mother abandoned her, and she was left in the care of relatives who mistreated her. Kitt was often teased and picked on because of her mixed-race heritage—her father was white, and her mother was African-American and Cherokee. Around the age of 8, Kitt moved to New York City to live with an aunt. There, she eventually enrolled in the New York School of Performing Arts. Around the age of 16, Kitt won a scholarship to study with Katherine Dunham, and later joined Dunham’s dance troupe.

Kitt became a rising star with her appearance in the Broadway review New Faces of 1952.  On the big screen, Kitt starred opposite Nat “King” Cole in the W. C. Handy biopic St. Louis Blues (1958). She netted her one and only Academy Award nomination the following year, for her role as the title character in Anna Lucasta. In the film, Kitt plays a sassy young woman who is forced to use her womanly wiles to survive. She stars opposite Sammy Davis Jr.

In the late 1960s, Kitt played one of her most famous parts—the villainous vixen “Catwoman.” She took over the role, on the TV series Batman, from Julie Newmar. Remarkably, Kitt only played Catwoman on a handful of episodes of the short-lived campy crime show, starring Adam West and Burt Ward, but she made the role her own with her lithe, cat-like frame and her distinctive voice. The series found a second life in reruns, and it remains on the air today.

Known for being blunt and short-tempered at times, Kitt found herself in a media firestorm in 1968. Her remarks against the Vietnam War offended Lady Bird Johnson, and made headlines. Her popularity took a significant hit after that, and she spent several years mostly performing abroad. In 1978, Kitt enjoyed a career renaissance with her performance on Broadway in Timbuktu!. She earned a Tony Award nomination for her role in the play, and received an invitation to the White House by President Jimmy Carter. In 1984, Kitt returned to the music charts with “Where Is My Man.” She continued to win acclaim for her music, including scoring a Grammy Award nomination for 1994’s Back in Business.

Throughout her adult life, Kitt had a tremendous work ethic. She kept up a busy work schedule well into her 70s. In 2000, Kitt netted a Tony Award nomination for her work in The Wild Party with Toni Collette. She picked up a Daytime Emmy Award for her vocal performance on the animated children’s series The Emperor’s New School that same year, and again in 2007.

Kitt learned that she had colon cancer in 2006, a disease that ended up taking her life on December 25, 2008.

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Harriet Tubman

Portrait of abolitionist Harriet Tubman

Portrait of abolitionist Harriet Tubman

“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”

Harriet Tubman was born to enslaved parents in Dorchester County, Maryland, and originally named Araminta Harriet Ross. Her mother, Harriet “Rit” Green, was owned by Mary Pattison Brodess. Her father, Ben Ross, was owned by Anthony Thompson, who eventually married Mary Brodess. Araminta, or “Minty,” was one of nine children born to Rit and Ben between 1808 and 1832. While the year of Araminta’s birth is unknown, it probably occurred between 1820 and 1825.

The line between freedom and slavery was hazy for Tubman and her family. Harriet Tubman’s father, Ben, was freed from slavery at the age of 45, as stipulated in the will of a previous owner. Nonetheless, Ben had few options but to continue working as a timber estimator and foreman for his former owners. Although similar manumission stipulations applied to Rit and her children, the individuals who owned the family chose not to free them. Despite his free status, Ben had little power to challenge their decision.

Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery in 1849, fleeing to Philadelphia. Tubman decided to escape following a bout of illness and the death of her owner in 1849. Tubman feared that her family would be further severed, and feared for own her fate as a sickly slave of low economic value. She initially left Maryland with two of her brothers, Ben and Henry, on September 17, 1849. A notice published in the Cambridge Democrat offered a $300 reward for the return of Araminta (Minty), Harry and Ben. Once they had left, Tubman’s brothers had second thoughts and returned to the plantation. Harriet had no plans to remain in bondage. Seeing her brothers safely home, she soon set off alone for Pennsylvania.

Tubman made use of the network known as the Underground Railroad to travel nearly 90 miles to Philadelphia. She crossed into the free state of Pennsylvania with a feeling of relief and awe, and recalled later: “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”

Rather than remaining in the safety of the North, Tubman made it her mission to rescue her family and others living in slavery. In December 1850, Tubman received a warning that her niece Kessiah was going to be sold, along with her two young children. Kessiah’s husband, a free black man named John Bowley, made the winning bid for his wife at an auction in Baltimore. Harriet then helped the entire family make the journey to Philadelphia. This was the first of many trips by Tubman, who earned the nickname “Moses” for her leadership. Over time, she was able to guide her parents, several siblings and about 60 others to freedom.

In early 1859, abolitionist Senator William H. Seward sold Tubman a small piece of land on the outskirts of Auburn, New York. The land in Auburn became a haven for Tubman’s family and friends. Tubman spent the years following the war on this property, tending to her family and others who had taken up residence there. In 1869, she married a Civil War veteran named Nelson Davis. In 1874, Harriet and Nelson adopted a baby girl named Gertie.

As Tubman aged, the head injuries sustained early in her life became more painful and disruptive. She underwent brain surgery at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital to alleviate the pains and “buzzing” she experienced regularly. Tubman was eventually admitted into the rest home named in her honor. Surrounded by friends and family members, Harriet Tubman died of pneumonia in 1913.

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