ANTHONY BENEZET- Founder of The Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, the first American society dedicated to the cause of abolition, in 1775, the French-born Anthony Benezet, a Quaker convert, wrote several influential anti-slavery pamphlets. Teaching black children almost until the day he died, Benezet, who believed in the intellectual capacity of black children at a time when such thinking was unpopular, even among some abolitionists, was instrumental in establishing the Philadelphia School for Negroes in the early 1770s. He was also a key player in the passage of the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in Pennsylvania in 1780.
Historical poetical and pictorial American scenes / by J.W. Barber, 1850
CHARLES SUMNER – Along with Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, who represented Pennsylvania, Massachusetts anti-slavery leader and U.S. Senator Charles Sumner fought to secure civil rights for African Americans, a very unpopular decision following the Civil War, even among anti-slavery factions. Holding firm to his convictions, Radical Republican Sumner insisted on full and equal rights for the recently freed slaves and was instrumental in the Civil Rights Act of 1875 that eventually passed, albeit much weakened from his original intentions and later ruled unconstitutional.
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress
JOHN RANKIN Using the home he shared with his wife Jean Lowry Rankin and their eventual 13 kids in Ripley, Ohio to aid runaway slaves, Presbyterian minister John Rankin was an open abolitionist. Purchased in 1829, the Rankin house was a well-known stop along the Underground Railroad. Historians estimate that the Rankins assisted most of the 2000 runaway slaves that came through Ripley mainly from Kentucky for over 40 years. Although faced with open opposition and even violence from pro-slavery factions, John Rankin, a traveling anti-slavery lecturer who also wrote a wealth of anti-slavery literature, never backed down from his convictions. William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe are two well-known figures his work impacted.
(AP Photo/Columbus Dispatch, Renee Sauer)
THADDEUS STEVENS – Determined to secure full citizenship rights for the then recently freed slaves, Thaddeus Stevens served Pennsylvania fiercely in the U.S. House of Representatives, helming the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Never cowering in his steadfast advocacy of full civil rights for recently freed slaves, Stevens, along with Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, led the Radical Republicans, double-teaming with Sumner to destroy all vestiges of slavery at the Congressional level. Even with his death, Stevens denounced inequality, insisting on burial in a cemetery welcoming all.
Photo courtesy of the US Congress
RUTH STANDISH BALDWIN – Working with the Committee for Improving the Industrial Conditions of Negroes in New York (CIICNNY) and the Association for the Protection of Colored Women (APCW), Ruth Standish Baldwin, widow of railroad magnate W.H. Baldwin, Jr., crossed paths with George Edmund Haynes, the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Columbia University. Concerned with the plight of migrating black Southerners to the North, Baldwin, a Socialist and a descendent of Pilgrim Myles Standish, co-founded the Committee on Urban Conditions Among Negroes in 1910, which became the National League on Urban Conditions Among Negroes in 1911 and simply the National Urban League in 1920.
Photo courtesy of the Urban League
JOHN MARSHALL HARLAN – Best known as the lone dissenter in the Supreme Court’s landmark decision, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), that established the longstanding “separate but equal” doctrine, John Marshall Harlan surprisingly hailed from a Kentucky slaveholding family. In his dissent, Harlan wrote “our constitution is colorblind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.” Harlan also dissented in the critical but little-discussed Civil Rights Cases (1883), a collection of cases where the Supreme Court declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which barred private institutions from discriminating against African Americans, unconstitutional.
Photo courtesy of Library of Congress
ANNA T. JEANES- Upon her death in 1907, Anna T. Jeanes, a wealthy Quaker from Philadelphia, deeded $1 million to create what is popularly known as the “Negro Rural School Fund”. This fund supplemented the income of Jeanes “supervisors” who were sent into rural areas “for the purpose of rudimentary education and to encourage moral influence and social refinement which shall promote peace in the land, and good will among men,” as specified by Jeanes in her will. With salaries matched partly by state governments, Jeanes “supervisors” were instrumental in aiding regular teachers in educating students, raising money to extend school terms and helping to erect new buildings until at least 1968.
(Courtesy Jeanes Hospital)
MARY WHITE OVINGTON – Arguably the pivotal early force behind the NAACP, the nation’s leading civil rights organizations for many decades, Mary White Ovington’s importance cannot be overstated. A social worker whose work in New York City familiarized her with the overall plight of African Americans, Ovington was the impetus for the meeting in early 1909 that led to the formal formation of the NAACP in May 1909. Taking care of the many details such as assuming administrative duties and penning the organization’s early history, Ovington worked tirelessly to ensure the NAACP’s effectiveness and longevity.
JULIUS ROSENWALD – Sears, Roebuck and Company part-owner Julius Rosenwald, a friend and supporter of Booker T. Washington, directed his considerable fortune towards African American education. Through the Rosenwald Fund, created in 1917, the Tuskegee trustee helped build nearly five thousand schools and other structures throughout the South. The program was so successful that, by 1928, one in every five schools for black students in the rural South were Rosenwald Schools. By the time, the program ended in 1932, it had spent over $28 million, serving over 663,000 students in nearly 900 counties in 15 states.
Photo courtesy NY Public Library/Men who are making America (1917)
MELVILLE HERSKOVITS Critical to the establishment of African and African American studies programs in academia, Melville Herskovits argued relentlessly that African Americans did indeed retain aspects of African culture, a position that leading black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier publicly challenged. Herskovits, who studied at both the University of Chicago and at Columbia under legendary anthropologist Franz Boas, with whom Zora Neale Hurston also studied, is best known for his book The Myth of the Negro Past. Published in 1941, the classic tome clearly argued that African Americans possessed a rich cultural past despite the traumas of slavery. With money from the Carnegie Foundation, Herskovits established a program in African studies at Northwestern, considered the first of its kind at a major university, in 1948.
(Photo courtesy of Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies)
HARRY S. TRUMAN – Franklin D. Roosevelt receives considerably more attention for his civil rights initiatives than Harry S. Truman, who succeeded him, but Truman made great and impactful civil rights decisions. Using the power of the executive order, he desegregated the armed forces in 1948. That same year, he also became the first U.S. president to address the NAACP’s national convention. Nothing in Truman’s background, which included ancestors who owned slaves, foreshadowed his stellar civil rights record. Other major accomplishments include forbidding racial discrimination in federal employment, establishing a Committee on Civil Rights and encouraging the Justice Department to become proactive in fighting segregation.
(AP Photo/Harvey Georges)
BRANCH RICKEY- Jackie Robinson endured all the bumps and bruises that came from “integrating” Major League Baseball in 1947 but Branch Rickey was instrumental in orchestrating the act. Actively committed to breaking baseball’s color line as early as 1943, Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, didn’t decide upon Robinson until 1945. Working tirelessly with Robinson to prepare him for the hostility his presence was sure to elicit from white spectators, Rickey helped Robinson anticipate and handle the worst case scenarios. Rickey’s maneuvering behind the scenes was also key in changing not just baseball but also general American society.
DWIGHT EISENHOWER – While Dwight D. Eisenhower never broadcast his strong civil rights record even when he stepped in with federal troops to aid the Little Rock Nine in 1957, his actions are worthy of high praise. During his presidency, Eisenhower not only appointed Earl Warren, who presided over Brown v. Board, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court but he regularly fought and succeeded in placing judges committed to equal rights to serve in critical Southern courts. With the Civil Rights Act of 1957, Eisenhower’s administration became the first since Reconstruction to pass civil rights legislation. Truman proposed bold actions such as integrating the armed forces but Eisenhower actually implemented the changes, making it the rule of the land.
(AP Photo/Carl Nesensohn)
LYNDON JOHNSON –
Although overshadowed by both John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert, who are well-known for their support of civil rights for African Americans, Lyndon Baines Johnson not only continued their work in civil rights but extended the struggle to eradicating poverty and dedicating the nation to education for all.
JACK GREENBERG – Joining the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund (LDF) as assistant counsel in 1949, Jack Greenberg worked alongside Thurgood Marshall, who headed LDF, and the other attorneys to dismantle Jim Crow. Greenberg, who was active and present during the landmark Brown v. Board case, made more than 40 appearances before the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1961, he succeeded Marshall as LDF’s director-counsel, a position he held until 1984. Charged with the implementation and defense of civil rights gains, Greenberg also turned critical attention to abolishing the death penalty which disproportionately affected African Americans. During his career with the LDF, Greenberg successfully argued cases regarding racial discrimination in housing, health care, employment and public accommodations.
(AP Photo/Allen Green)
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When it comes to non-blacks who have contributed greatly to the African-American struggle for freedom and equality, the contributions of abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Levi Coffin, sometimes called “the president of the Underground Railroad”, are often recognized. Last year, the nation revisited Abraham Lincoln’s legacy during the bicentennial celebration of his birth. Still, there were others from that era and beyond who were no less dedicated but remain largely unacknowledged. Many of them are found here.