Black History Biographies
Sojourner Truth was born into slavery in Swartekill, New York in 1797 and was given the name Isabella. She was sold at an auction along with a herd of sheep at nine years old and endured brutal beating by the hands of her owner and rap on a daily basis.
By the 1820s, New York State was far along in the process of emancipating the Negros. Isabellea was in her 20s. She was promised her freedom if she would be a good and faithful slave. Knowing that freedom was so near, she worked hard to measure-up to expectations. A year before the emancipation was completed, Isabella’s owner reneged on his promise. She was enraged but continued to work hard for him as she gained the strength and determination to seek her freedom. Her faith was strong.
In 1843, Isabella had a spiritual awakening and told her friends “The Spirit calls me, and I must go.” She changed her name to Sojourner Truth, joined the Methodist church and began a traveling ministry preaching her God-given message about abolition.She later escaped to freedom and became an activist for women’s rights and religious tolerance. She was known for her extemporaneous speech on racial equalities at a Women’s Right’s Convention. It was later titled and published, as “Ain’t I a Woman” because she asked the question throughout her speech. It was a powerful speech that is still recited today.
Denied all of the true pleasures of being a woman or girl, the worst of which was the right to marry the person she loved and to make child bearing a personal decision, her stand on women’s right was a voice of women slaves everywhere.
Sojourner joined the Northhampton Association of Education and Industry in Northhampton, Massachusetts; and organization of abolitionists that focused on women’s rights and religious tolerance. She learned much and was influenced by Frederick Douglass – a freed slave, a great orator, and a leader of the abolitionist movement and David Ruggles – an African American printer and anti-slavery activist.
Harriet Tubman was born into slavery and given the name Araminta Ross at birth. Historians have recorded that Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in 1820 or 1821. But in those days for various reasons, all due to total neglect and respect for the life of slaves, very few slaves new their actual birthdates. Harriet didn’t know exactly when she was born but thought it was sometime between 1820 and 1825.
They called her Minty. Near the mid-1800’s she changed her name to Harriet and escaped in 1849 after years of cruel and brutal treatment, and a passionate relationship with God. As a fugitive, she dedicated her life to leading her family and other slaves to freedom by way of the Underground Railroad. Tubman was a devout Christian and a God-sent to the many slaves she helped. They called her “Moses.”
Tubman was a Civil War cook and nurse; and later became an army scout. During the war, she led expeditions that freed hundreds of slaves. After the war, she joined the women’s suffrage movement, became a Civil Rights activist, and helped to found a home for elderly African Americans; where she lived near the end of her life.
Frederick Douglass was born into slavery as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, (1818-1895) and purchased his freedom in 1845. He was a brilliant writer, eloquent orator, and author who went on to become the greatest abolitionist of his time. He was a courageous and influential champion of civil rights.
Like all slaves, Douglass had no formal education. He learned to read and write despite the risk of brutal consequences and became living proof, contrary to slaveholder’s belief, that slaves were capable of learning and functioning independently in American society. He believed that knowledge was power and therefore essential to living a free life and helping others.
Frederick Douglass attempted to escape to freedom in 1836 but was caught and jailed. Two years later, while living in Baltimore and working at a shipyard, Douglass would finally realize his dream: he fled the city on September 3, 1838. Traveling by train, then steamboat, then train, he arrived in New York City the following day. Several weeks later he had settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, living with his newlywed bride (whom he met in Baltimore and married in New York) under his new name, Frederick Douglass.
Frederick Douglass wrote several autobiographies describing his life as a slave and his road to freedom. The Narrative, published in 1845 is admired today for its extraordinary passion, sensitive and vivid descriptions and storytelling power. His classic autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass is said to be one of the best-known accounts of American slavery.
Douglass was a strong advocate for change and gave eloquent speeches in America and abroad on slavery, civil rights, and the inequities of existence in America. He conferred with Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and recruited northern blacks for the Union Army. After the War he fought for the rights of women and African Americans alike.
Malcolm X was one of the great orators of his time who spoke with intellect and power. He was the leader of a Black Separatist Group – Nation of Islam. He believed in separation and not integration. He rejected Martin Luther King’s platform of equality, non-violence, and integration for a stance of separatism and equal rights “by any means necessary.”
Malcolm was viewed as a threat to white people and a force to be reckoned with. He was considered the Father of the Black Power Movement – one that brought more unity among Black People by breaking down a color barrier among Black People themselves and proclaiming all shades of Blackness as beautiful. This was the era in which darker skinned Blacks felt a sense of acceptance by their own race and consequently more self-value to the movement.
He left the Nation of Islam in 1964 at the age of 39. He was an out-spoken critic of Martin Luther King for many years; but reconciled with him before his assassination in 1965. It was widely believed that the Nation of Islam ordered his death.
Shirley Chisholm broke ground as the nation's first Black congresswoman and the first Black presidential candidate.Her most famous quote "Unbought and Unbossed" was from her campaign for Congress. Mrs. Chisholm was not an ordinary politician of the day. She was outspoken and fearless as the first Afican American female to crack the gender barrier of Washington politics.
Shirley Anita St. Hill (Chisholm) was a native New Yorker, born in Brooklyn to Barbadian parents. When she was three she was sent to live with her grandmother on a farm in Barbados. She returned to New York at the age of ten and attended Girls High School.
Shirley went on to attend Brooklyn College where she discovered her love of politics and learned the arts of organizing and fund raising. She was known to be smart, serious minded, quick witted, a great debater, and an active participant in grass-roots activities.
Shirley Chisholm became politically active with the Democratic Party and quickly developed a reputation as a person who challenged the traditional roles of women, African Americans, and the poor. She was elected and served in the New York State Assembly from 1964 to 1968. In 1969, Chisholm won the election to Congress and began a long career in the U.S. House of Representatives, lasting from the Ninety-first through the Ninety-seventh Congress (1969–1982).
Chisholm was a strong supporter of women's rights. Early in her career as a congresswoman, she supported a woman's right to choose. She also spoke against traditional roles for women professionals and the war in Viet Nam. Her views made her a popular speaker on college campuses.
In 1972 Shirley Chisholm became the first woman and the first African-American to seek the nomination of the Democratic Party for the nation's highest office, President of the United States. She did not win the Democratic nomination, but she won notoriety and respect from people around the world. She became a legend and a hero to Black Americans. Her legacy is that she challenged the status quo for politics and civil rights.
Rosa Parks was an exemplary activist for civil rights and a role model for a 21st century movement of social and personal responsibility. The U.S. Congress in later years honored her as “the first lady of civil rights” and “the mother of the freedom movement.”
In 1955 in Montgomery Alabama, Rosa refused to give up her seat on a bus to make room for a White passenger and sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Her defiance got worldwide attention and became an important symbol of the modern Civil Rights Movement. It also received increased media coverage for the civil rights movement and a spotlight for the most dynamic leader of the movement, Dr. Martin Luther King
Rosa Parks was born as Rosa Louise McCauley in Tuskegee, Alabama on February 4, 1913, to James McCauley and Leona Edwards, who were of an African-American, Cherokee-Creek, and Scots Irish ancestry. When her parents separated, she moved with her mother to Pine Level, just outside Montgomery, Alabama with her maternal grandparents, mother, and younger brother Sylvester, and began her lifelong membership in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Parks’ educational experience was limited. She attend She attended rural schools until the age of eleven, then enrolled at the Industrial School for Girls in Montgomery where she took academic and vocational courses. Parks then went on to a laboratory school set up by the Alabama State Teachers College for Negroes for secondary education. She was forced to drop out of school to care for her grandmother, and later for her mother.
In December 1943, Parks became active in the Civil Rights Movement, joined the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), At the time of Chisholm’s action on a Montgomery bus, Parks was secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the (NAACP). Nonetheless, she took her action as a private citizen; she said, "tired of giving in."
Martin Luther King
Martin Luther King was undeniably the leader of the African American civil rights movement that started in the southern states of this country and grew so massive that it captured the attention of all in America and beyond. Martin was a Baptist minister who preached a message of equality and nonviolence; to southern Christians it was the civil and God-like way to advance civil change.
Martin was a social activist. He gained a following from his dynamic and heart felt sermons at visiting churches and gained support of church leaders who like himself were powerful speakers with large congregations. King was also, by this time, a member of the executive committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the leading organization of its kind in the nation.
He led the first great Negro nonviolent demonstration of contemporary times in the United States, the1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. It was a political and social protest campaign in Montgomery, Alabama intended to oppose the city's policy of racial segregation on its public transit system. The boycott lasted from December 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks, an African American woman, was arrested for refusing to surrender her seat to a white person, to December 20, 1956. It resulted in a federal ruling that declared segregated buses in Alabama and Montgomery to be unconstitutional.
After the success of the boycott, Martin invited southern ministers to his church in Atlanta to help found an organization to continue the progress in an organized way. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was conceived with the objective of coordinating and supporting nonviolent direct action as a method of desegregating bus systems across the south. Martin served as its first president.
The efforts of the SCLC led to the 1963 March on Washington, where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. There, he established his reputation as one of the greatest orators in American history.
In 1964, King became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to end racial segregation and racial discrimination through civil disobedience and other nonviolent means. By the time of his death in 1968, he had refocused his efforts on ending poverty and stopping the Vietnam War.
King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee. He was posthumously awarded the highest civilian awards in the United States - the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 and the Congressional Goal Medal of Freedom in 2004. The decoration is awarded to an individual who performs an outstanding deed or act of service to the security, prosperity, and national interest of the United States.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was established as a U.S. federal holiday in 1986. It is observed on the third Monday of January each year, which is around the time of King's birthday, January 15.
Martin Luther King, Jr. lived a short life (January 15, 1929-April 4, 1968) but a purposeful one. He was young, gifted, educated and strong enough to challenge the status quo and cry out eloquently for change in the laws of segregation. He is forever honored as a great African American.
Barak Obama currently serves this country as the 44th President of the United States, having taken office in January 2009. He is the first African American to hold the office. For this reason, he is the only living legend to hold a place on the first Black History Flag. He embodies the dream of Martin Luther King ‘s and others who lived, prayed, and died for a time in American history that there would be a monumental sign of progress.
Obama’s presidential campaign and election was not only significant because it was the first time that a Black man won the Democratic primary, or that he won the election. How and why he won is equally significant. It was the first time in a long time, since the March on Washington, that African Americans from all walks of life believed in the ability of a fellow Black American to make change. It was also the first time that a massive number of White Americans voted to entrust the leadership of an African American to the highest position in this country. In 2009, President Obama was named Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
Barak Hussein Obama II was born on August 4, 1961 in Honolulu, Hawaii. He graduated from Columbia University and Harvard Law School, where he was the president of the Harvard Law Review. He was a community organizer in Chicago before earning his law degree. He worked as a civil rights attorney in Chicago and taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School from 1992 to 2004.
Obama served three terms in the Illinois Senate from 1997 to 2004. He served as a United States senator from Illinois, from January 2005 until he resigned following his election to the presidency in November 2008. The United States Senate Historical Office lists him as the fifth African American Senator in U.S. History.