Mary Ellen Pleasant—Much has been written about the woman known to many as Mammy Pleasant, but so much of it is tall tales and legends, it is difficult to know what is true and what is not. What is known is that Mary Ellen Pleasant was a famous abolitionist and Underground Railroad operator who was born in the early 1800s (reports vary on her birth, placing it somewhere between 1814 and 1817). In her memoirs, she claimed to be the daughter of a voodoo priestess and the son of the governor of Virginia. In the 1820s she worked as a bonded servant in Massachusets, eventually earning her freedom, and becoming friends with several white families involved in the abolitionist movement. Pleasant managed to successfully pass for white while establishing herself as a successful businesswoman and becoming increasingly involved with the Underground Railroad. She relocated to San Francisco in the late 1840s, and may or may not have owned and operated a bordello. Likewise, there are rumors that she may have helped fund John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, but no one knows for sure (her gravestone reads “She Was a Friend of John Brown”). Pleasant’s time in San Francisco was marked with political activism and championing human rights. But her work earned her enemies who went out of their way to smear her name, often claiming she practiced voodoo and had actually killed people. Despite the controversy surrounding her, Mammy Pleasants was referred to a “The Mother of Human Rights in California.”
George Dixon – Canadian boxer George Dixon became the first black man to win a boxing championship. Born in 1870, Dixon weighed only 87 pounds and stood 5’3”, earning him the nickname “Little Chocolate.” He started fighting at the age of 16, his career spanning twenty years and 104 fights (he had 44 fights in 1893 alone). Dixon won the world bantam weight championship in 1888, and in 1891 Dixon won the world featherweight title. Jack Johnson would go on to become the first black world heavyweight in 1908, after beating Tommy Burns. Before Johnson took the title, black fighters were not allowed to fight for the world championship, and instead had to vie for the “black world heavyweight championship,” at title Johnson won in 1903. In 1910, former champion James Jeffries, known as “the Great White Hope,” came out of retirement to take the title back for the white race. Johnson destroyed Jeffries in “the Fight of the Century,” and his victory set off race riots. The fight had been filmed, as many prizefights were in those days, but it was felt that Jeffries’s defeat was so demoralizing to the white population that Congress banned the exhibition of all prizefight films. The ban lasted from 1912 until 1940.
Mary Eliza Mahoney – In 1873, Mary Mahoney of Dorchester, Massachusetts, graduated nursing school, making her the first professionally trained black woman to become a nurse. Mahoney was not the first black woman to provide health care. Jamaican-born Mary Seacole was a nurse, known for her service in the Crimean War (1853-1856), and during her time was regarded alongside legendary nurse Florence Nightingale. And while black women like Seacole practiced medicine in various different capacities for centuries, Mahoney was the first to become a licensed nurse. She was also a supporter of the women’s suffrage movement, and one of the first women in Boston registered to vote. Mabel Keaton Staupers became a nurse in 1917. Three years later, she helped found the first hospital in New York. Staupers was an advocate for desegregation, leading the charge for the integration of black nurses in the both the armed forces and the private sector.
Joseph Nazel—Most people have never heard of writer Joseph Nazel, but those who have can’t help but impressed with his pedigree. Born in 1944, Nazel was a combat veteran of the Vietnam War who went on to become a prolific writer and chronicler of the black experience in America. He worked as an editor for a variety of black publications, including the Watts Times and Players magazine. But Nazel is best remembered for his books, of which there were at least sixty. Writing under his own name as well as pseudonyms, Nazel wrote in every genre. Most of his books were published by Holloway House, the company best known for cranking out urban street literature from legendary writers like Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines. Nazel wrote a series of biographies profiling pretty much every black celebrity, politician and athlete you can think of. We also wrote a ton of hardboiled crime fiction, including his Iceman series, novelizations of movies like Black Gestapo and Foxtrap, and even a book called The Black Exorcist. Nazel is said to have been capable of writing an entire novel in six weeks. Despite his prolific body of work, Nazel’s books are difficult to find, and there is very little information to be found about him. He passed away in 2006.
Jackie Ormes—Born Zelda Mavin Jackson in 1911, Jackie Ormes was a popular cartoonist with a career that spanned three decades, and is considered to be the first African-American female cartoonist. Ormes launched her first comic strip in The Pittsburgh Courier in 1937. The strip ran for a year and starred Ormes’s character Torchy Brown. Ormes followed up Torchy Brown with the popular Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger in 1945, which ran for eleven years. During that time, a doll of Patty-Jo was released, which like the cartoon character was based in reality and not the tired stereotypes that usually defined both black characters in comics and toys. In 1950 Ormes re-launched the Torchy Brown character. All of Ormes’s comics were politically and socially aware, and went to great lengths to combat the common stereotypes used to depict black characters. Because of her outspoken political views, Ormes was investigated by the FBI during the Red Scare of the 1950s. Ormes retired from cartooning in 1956, but not before helping the change the way black characters were portrayed in comics.
Oscar Micheaux – Although he was not the first black filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux was the first black director to produce a feature-length film, and was certainly the most prolific movie maker of the era. The son of former slaves, born in Illinois in 1884, Micheaux moved to South Dakota with dreams of being a farmer. When his farm failed to produce any viable crops, he wrote his first novel, The Homesteader, which he self-published and sold door-to-door. Pioneering black filmmaker Noble Johnson’s Lincoln Motion Picture Company tried to option The Homesteader from Micheaux, but when they didn’t offer him enough money, he decided to make a movie himself. With no film experience at all, Micheaux produced a feature-length version of The Homesteader in 1919. Over the next three decades, Micheaux would make 41 more films, creating his own cottage industry of stars that included Paul Robeson (who made his film debut in Micheaux’s Body and Soul), Lorenzo Tucker (often billed as “The Black Valentino”), Alec Lovejoy, Carman Newsome and Laura Bowman. Micheaux traveled cross-country with his films in the trunk of his car, showing the movies anywhere he could screen them. He often raised the money for his next production by pre-selling the rights to various exhibitors, thereby pioneering the now common practice of pre-sales in film distribution.
Florynce “Flo” Kennedy – Flo Kennedy was born in Kansas City in 1916, and moved to New York City after she graduated high school. After graduating Columbia University in 1948, she applied to the Columbia Law School, but was rejected because she was a woman. After threatening a lawsuit on the grounds of racial discrimination, she was accepted to Columbia, where she became the first African-American woman to graduate from the prestigious law school. In 1954 she opened her own law office, but by the end of the decade she had grown cynical and doubted the law profession. By the 1960s, she had became increasingly active politically, championing Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, and the rights of all those oppressed. She was a co-founder of the National Organization of Women and the Women’s Political Caucus, and the founder of the Feminist Party, which nominated Shirley Chisholm for President of the United States. Her career and life were both defined by her audacious spirit, her commitment to justice and her flamboyant style. She was once quoted as saying, “I’m just a loud-mouthed middle-aged colored lady with a fused spine and three feet of intestines missing and a lot of people think I’m crazy. Maybe you do too, but I never stop to wonder why I’m not like other people. The mystery to me is why more people aren’t like me.”
George Walker and Bert Williams – Two popular vaudeville performers during the era of the minstrel show (when performers, usually white, would paint their faces black), George Walker (above right) and Bert Williams first met in 1893. Williams was a popular comedian, musician and stage performer that is generally considered to be the most popular black performers of his era. Much of Williams’s popularity sprang from his incredible career with fellow performer George Walker. As the comedic duo of Walker and Williams, they played throughout the United States and Europe to sold-out audiences, performing such hit plays as The Sons of Ham and In Dahomy. Although it may seem strange, both men performed in blackface, even though they were both black, and billed themselves as “Two Real Coons.” This was simply how things were done in those days, and many have speculated the stress of performing under the racist constraints of the era helped to significantly shorten the lives of both men. Walker and Williams helped pave the way for other black entertainers, and along with a group of other stage performers, founded The Frogs, a fraternal organization for black entertainers and professionals. The duo broke up in 1907, after Walker became ill, passing away four years later at the age of 38. Williams’s career flourished after the duo broke up, but sadly, he also died young, passing away in 1922 at the age of 46.
Claudette Colvin – Rosa Parks is considered the godmother of the Civil Rights Movement for not giving up her seat on a segregated bus in December 1955. Parks’s act of defiance has been recorded by history as being the spark that set off the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which was in turn crucial in ending desegregation. But Parks was not the first black woman to refuse to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Nine months before Parks was arrested for refusing to move to the back of the bus, fifteen year old Claudette Colvin (left) was arrested in Montgomery for the same thing. Mary Louise Smith was arrested for not giving up her seat eight months later (nearly two months before Parks). The black leaders of Montgomery felt neither Colvin nor Smith were appropriate to be placed in the forefront of the struggle for equality (Colvin was pregnant and unmarried). The stories of Colvin and Smith shed some light on the inner workings and politics that went on during the Civil Rights Movement. At the same time, both of their stories illustrate how the role of women in the movement has been largely overlooked.
In 1944, eleven years before Colvin, Smith or Parks there was Irene Morgan Kirkaldy (left), who refused to give up her seat on a bus in Greyhound bus in Virginia. Kirkaldy’s case was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1946, which led to the landmark decision that segregation on interstate bus travel was illegal. This ruling was crucial in paving the way to end bus segregation throughout the South. Kirkaldy is as important to the Civil Rights Movement as anyone, and yet her name has been neglected and forgotten by history. Irene Morgan Kirkaldy passed away in 2007 at the age of 90.
Nancy Green – Born a slave in 1834, Green became one of the most famous black women of all time when she was chosen to be the model for Aunt Jemima, the character used to market pancake flour and syrup. The character of Aunt Jemima goes back to minstrel shows of the 1870s, and some historians speculate that the original Aunt Jemima was actually a man performing in drag and blackface. In 1888 the Pearl Milling Company began marketing pancake mix, and appropriated the minstrel show character as their company mascot. A year later, the company was bought by R.T. Davis Milling Company, which hired former slave Nancy Green to pose as Aunt Jemima. Green who portrayed the character in a variety of ads and even made live appearances, playing the role until 1923, when she was killed after being run over by a car. Although the character of Aunt Jemima is steeped in age-old stereotypes, Green was well compensated for her work, and became an outspoken advocate in the fight against poverty.