Aaliyah Dana HaughtonFilm Actress & Singer
January 16, 1979
August 25, 2001
Film Actress & Singer
“I'm the interpreter. I'm the one who takes your words and brings them to life. I was trained to sing and dance and laugh, and that's what I want to do.”
Signed to a recording contract at the age of 12, Aaliyah became an overnight R&B sensation. At the height of her stardom, a fatal plane crash ended her life.
Singer and actress Aaliyah Dana Haughton was born on January 16, 1979, in Brooklyn, New York. Raised in Detroit, Michigan, the young singer competed unsuccessfully on the television program Star Search at age 11. Later that same year, she performed with R&B legend Gladys Knight, the former wife of her uncle and manager, Barry Hankerson, at a five-night stand in Las Vegas.
In 1994, at the age of 15, Aaliyah catapulted onto the R&B charts herself with her debut album, Age Ain't Nothing But a Number. Produced by the successful singer R. Kelly, the album quickly sold a million copies and eventually earned platinum status based largely on the success of two hit singles, “Back and Forth” and “At Your Best (You Are Love).”
Later that year, tabloid reports surfaced claiming that the sultry teen singer had married the 27-year-old Kelly, but Aaliyah denied the union and the marriage was reportedly annulled.
While a student in the dance program at Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts (she graduated in 1997), Aaliyah released her sophomore album, One in a Million (1996). Helmed by the well-known pop producer Timbaland and featuring rap performer Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott, One in a Million portrayed the 17-year-old singer as a sultry hip-hop chanteuse with a self-confidence well beyond her years. The album garnered favorable reviews and sold two million copies.
Aaliyah gained even more recognition in 1997 when she recorded “Journey to the Past,” the Academy Award-nominated theme song to the animated feature Anastasia.
She also performed the song for the Oscar telecast in 1998. Her next soundtrack effort, “Are You That Somebody?” for 1998's Dr. Dolittle, starring Eddie Murphy, went to No. 1 on the R&B charts, was a pop crossover hit, and earned Aaliyah her first Grammy Award nomination.
Budding Film Career
In 2000, Aaliyah made her acting debut in the surprise action hit Romeo Must Die, starring opposite martial arts star Jet Li in a Romeo and Juliet-inspired story set in modern-day Los Angeles. She was also an executive producer of the movie's soundtrack and performed the hit single “Try Again,” which netted her a second Grammy nomination as well as two MTV Music Video Awards for Best Female Video and Best Video From a Film.
Her third album, Aaliyah, was released in July 2001 and reached No. 2 on the Billboard album chart. Also in 2001, she played the title role in Queen of the Damned, based on the bestselling novel by Anne Rice and released in theaters in 2002. She scored a major casting coup when she signed to appear in two upcoming sequels to the blockbuster sci-fi thriller The Matrix, starring Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne.
Tragically, Aaliyah was killed on August 25, 2001, when a small Cessna passenger plane carrying the singer and her video crew crashed and burst into flames shortly after takeoff from Abaco Island in the Bahamas, where they had just completed work on a video. The plane was headed for Miami, Florida.
Aaliyah and seven other people, including the pilot, were believed to have died instantly, while a ninth passenger died later at a Bahamian hospital. Aaliyah was 22 years old at the time of her death. She is survived by her parents, Diane and Michael Haughton, and an older brother, Rashaad.
Hank AaronProfessional Baseball Athlete
February 5, 1934
Professional Baseball Athlete & Civil Rights Activist
“My motto was always to keep swinging. Whether I was in a slump or feeling badly or having trouble off the field, the only thing to do was keep swinging.”
Considered one of the best baseball players of all time, Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's home-run record when he hit his 715th home run in 1974. He later set a new MLB record with 755 career home runs.
Born in Mobile, Alabama on February 5, 1934, Hank Aaron never played high school baseball and began his playing career in semi-pro ball before moving on to the Negro Leagues to play shortstop for the Indianapolis Clowns, where his talent and ability were quickly noticed. “He's a natural born ballplayer. God done sent me something,” said Clowns Manager Buster Haywood. While trying out for the Clowns, Aaron was scouted by the Boston Braves Dewey Griggs and eventually the Braves won out over the Giants for his services.
In 1952, he was named the Northern League's Rookie of the Year, despite playing in just 87 games, batting .336. The following year he was promoted to the South Atlantic League (that circuit's first African–American player) and earned Most Valuable Player honors by winning the batting title (.362), and leading the league in runs batted in (125), runs (115) and hits (208).
Aaron began his major league career in 1954 (he was the last Negro League player to play in the major leagues) when a spring training injury to Bobby Thomson opened up a spot on the Braves roster. After going 0-5 in his debut on April 13, he settled in and connected for his first career home run off Vic Raschi ten days later.
He finished the season with a respectable .280 average. In 1955 he blossomed into one of the game's best players batting .314 with 27 home runs and 106 runs batted in. He won his first of two National League batting titles in 1956 with a .328 mark and reached the 200 hit plateau for the first time. It all came together for Aaron and the Braves in 1957 as Milwaukee won the NL pennant (with Aaron homering to clinch it.)
Hank claimed the Leagues MVP Award and just missing out on winning the Triple Crown, leading in HR (44) and RBI (132), while finishing third in batting with a .322 average. Then it was on to the World Series, Aaron's first appearance on the national scene, and the now star player didn't disappoint.
Playing against a superstar he was to be compared with in future years, Mickey Mantle, Hank responded with a .393 average, three home runs and seven RBI as the Braves upset the mighty Yankees in seven games to claim baseball's world championship. 1958 saw the Braves once again win the pennant, but despite another fine World Series performance by Aaron (he batted .333), Milwaukee fell to the Yankees in a seventh and deciding game.
By this time Hank was posting, season after season, the consistent great numbers that were to become his trademark. Another batting title was won in 1959 (.355), and he also led the league in slugging (.636) and had his only lifetime three home run game versus the Giants. As his career moved into the sixties he again just missed winning the Triple Crown in 1963 with league leading totals in HR (44) and RBI (130), while settling for third in batting average (.319). That year he also joined baseball's exclusive 30/30 club (30 home runs, 30 stolen bases) by stealing 31 bases.
Keeping himself in peak physical condition, a typical Aaron season for 19 years was to average 33 HR, drive in and score 100 runs or more, and hit .300. Hank often attributed his remarkable consistency to something Jackie Robinson had said to him early in his career.
“He said, baseball was a game you played every day, not once a week,” said Aaron speaking of Robinson. While many times being overlooked by fans and media when compared to other flashy stars in the 1960's, such as Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente, Aaron was often given his due praise from his competitors. Once after Dodger Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax had struck out young Brave's hitting star Rico Carty three times in one particular game, the shook up youngster confronted Koufax. “You mad at me, Koufax?” asked Carty. Sandy replied “Young man, I don't even know you, but as long as you're hitting in front of Henry Aaron, you're going to have a tough time with me.”
In 1966, the Braves moved to Atlanta and Hank didn't disappoint his new fans as he clubbed 44 HR and drove in 127 runs. 1969 saw baseball introduce divisional play and Aaron and the Braves were the first winners of the National League's Western Division.
Hank put up his usual consistent great numbers for the season and, despite his team being swept by the eventual World Champion Mets, he homered in all three games of the first National League Championship Series, and batted .357 with seven RBI against the young, hard throwing New York pitching staff.
Continued success came to Hank Aaron in the 1970's as he collected his 3000th hit (the first player with 500 home runs to do so) in 1970, attained career highs with a .669 slugging percentage and 47 HR in 1971, and accumulated his 2000th lifetime RBI in 1972. His career home run total reached 639, moving him to third on the all time career HR list behind Willie Mays and Babe Ruth.
He was now a clear threat to break what many thought was the insurmountable Ruth total of 714 career HR. “As far as I'm concerned, Aaron is the best ball player of my era… He is to baseball of the last 15 years what Joe DiMaggio was before him,” said Mickey Mantle in 1970.
While chasing the Ruth mark, Aaron continued to speak out and seek racial equality in baseball. He often criticized the game for not having a minority manager and minorities in front office positions. “On the field, Blacks have been able to be super giants. But, once our playing days are over, this is the end of it and we go back to the back of the bus again.” said Hank.
Sadly, the speaking out and the color of his skin deemed Aaron undeserving of Ruth's hallowed record to many, who showered him and his family with insults at games and death threats through the mail. Hank persevered and, after slamming 40 HR at the age of 39 in 1973, he stood on the threshold of breaking a record few thought would ever be broken.
As if he didn't have enough distractions in his pursuit of Ruth's mark, Aaron faced another controversy as the Braves announced at the start of the 1974 season that Hank would not play in any of the games of the their opening series against the Reds in Cincinnati in hopes of Aaron tying and breaking the record in Atlanta the following week.
Then MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn intervened and ordered the Braves, “in the best interests of baseball”, to play Aaron in at least two of the three games versus the Reds. So Hank was in the lineup for the opener against the Reds on April 4. 1974 and rose to the occasion in the first inning, lining a Jack Billingham pitch over the left field fence to join the Babe at 714.
Aaron played one of the other two games in Cincinnati and did not homer, so the stage was set for the record breaker to be hit at home. On Monday night, April 8, 1974, against the Dodgers before a National TV audience, in the bottom of the fourth inning, Hank stroked a 1–0 Al Downing pitch over the left field fence for his 715th career homer and baseball history was made.
Aaron finished 1974 with just 20 home runs and after the season was traded to the American League's Milwaukee Brewers, enabling him to finish his career in the city he had helped bring many baseball memories. His playing days ended after the 1976 season and along with his all time total of 755 home runs he holds Major League lifetime marks for runs batted in (2,297), extra base hits (1,477), and total bases (6,856). He ranks second in at bats (12,364) and intentional walks (293), is third in runs (2,174 tied with Ruth), games (3,298), and hits (3771), fourth in sacrifice flies (121), and ninth in doubles (624).
He hit .300 or better in 14 seasons (winning two National League batting titles), led the NL in hits twice, won three NL home run crowns (and tied for a fourth), slugged 40 HR's or more eight times, hit 20 or more homers 20 consecutive years, drove in 100 runs on 11 occasions (leading the NL four times), led the NL in slugging percentage four seasons, never struck out 100 times in a year, scored 100 runs in 13 seasons (topping the NL three times), and won three Gold Gloves.
After his retirement as an active player in 1976, Hank Aaron returned to Braves in the front office capacity of Vice President of Player Development. His overseeing of young talent such as former NL MVP Dale Murphy was instrumental in the Braves winning the NL Western Division in 1982.
Since 1989 he has served the Braves as Senior Vice President and Assistant to the President. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1982 and was named to Baseball's All-Century Team in 1999.
Muhammad Ali vs. Joe FrazierProfessional Boxing Athletes
Muhammad Ali: January 17, 1942
Joe Frazier: January 12, 1944
Joe Frazier: November 7, 2011
“He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”
– Muhammad Ali
“Life doesn't run away from nobody. Life runs at people.”
– Joe Frazier
Muhammad Ali is considered one of the greatest athletes in boxing history, winning both the coveted Golden Gloves title and an Olympic gold medal, among several other honors. Joe Frazier was the world heavyweight boxing champion from February 1970 until January 1973 and fought in the famous “Thrilla in Manila” in 1975.
In the ring, Joe Frazier was a bull who didn't need a red cape. Provocation or prodding wasn't necessary for him to come charging after the man in front of him, his head down, his fists acting as sharp horns and inflicting similar damage.
It was that relentlessness –– the near-total abandonment of duck-and-cover, the philosophy that one must absorb punishment before one can properly distribute it –– that defined Frazier's boxing career and has defined his life. It carried him to an Olympic gold medal and to the heavyweight championship of the world.
And it was that relentlessness that made him the perfect foil for his nemesis, Muhammad Ali. Discussing Frazier's boxing career without bringing up Ali is like talking about Neil Armstrong without mentioning the moon. The two are forever linked, thanks to their three timeless bouts –– Frazier won only the first, and the third was a near-death experience for both of them –– the contrasting styles with which they fought, and the vitriol they hurled at each other for so long.
For years, Frazier has voiced his bitterness over the way Ali had insulted him, over how Ali had called him “ugly,” “a gorilla,” and an “Uncle Tom.” His anger was never in fuller view than when Ali, stricken with Parkinson's disease, lit the Olympic flame at the 1996 Games in Atlanta, and Frazier said he would have liked to have ‘pushed him in.’
“Technically the loser of two of the three fights, [Frazier] seems not to understand that they ennobled him as much as they did Ali,” wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam, “that the only way we know of Ali's greatness is because of Frazier's equivalent greatness, that in the end there was no real difference between the two of them as fighters, and when sports fans and historians think back, they will think of the fights as classics, with no identifiable winner or loser. These are men who, like it or not, have become prisoners of each other and those three nights.”
Born on Jan. 12, 1944, in Beaufort County, S.C., Joe was the 11th child of Rubin and Dolly Frazier. The Fraziers had a 12th child, David, who died of diphtheria at nine months old.
Rubin was a sharecropper, who, according to Frazier's 1996 autobiography, “Smokin’ Joe,” ran a moonshine still and grew “this musk, which I figure now must've been tobacco or marijuana.”
By 1959, Joe was on his own, and that year, at 15, he moved to New York to live with an older brother, Tommy, and Tommy's wife, Ollie. He had a difficult time finding work, so difficult that he began stealing cars and selling them to a Brooklyn junkyard for $50 apiece.
“It got to a point, finally, where I was just too embarrassed to keep leaning on my brother,” Frazier wrote. “I decided to head to Philadelphia, where I had relatives that would put me up, and see if my luck would change.”
Did it ever. While working at a slaughterhouse, he punched sides of beef in a refrigerated room (giving Sylvester Stallone some inspiration for “Rocky”) and took up bona-fide boxing in December 1961 when, 30 pounds overweight at 220, he entered a Police Athletic League gym in the city.
A few months later, he met Yank Durham, a trainer at the gym. Durham turned Frazier into a champion, shortening his punches, improving his leverage, adding speed and power to what would become Frazier's signature weapon –– his famous left hook.
Frazier began traveling around the country, boxing regularly. He was the Middle Atlantic Golden Gloves heavyweight champ for three straight years but lost to Buster Mathis in the finals of the 1964 U.S. Olympic Trials. However, during a subsequent exhibition bout between the two, Mathis injured his hand, paving the way for Frazier to replace him at the Olympics in Tokyo.
Despite fighting the final bout with a broken left thumb, Frazier won gold at the ‘64 Olympics by decision over German Hans Huber.
Later in the year, Frazier learned he had cataracts in his left eye. Though he was visually impaired, he turned pro as some Philadelphia boxing fans formed a group called Cloverlay and bankrolled him to the tune of $20,000.
Frazier's pro debut came on Aug. 16, 1965, and within 12 months he was 11-0, with every victory coming by knockout.
While Ali defied the U.S. Army in 1967, refusing to be inducted, the WBA stripped him of his heavyweight title. Frazier bypassed an eight-boxer tournament the WBA established to determine a new champion –– a tournament that included Floyd Patterson, Jerry Quarry and Jimmy Ellis –– and padded his record against other fighters.
He knocked out Buster Mathis in the 11th round in 1968 to become the New York State champion, floored Quarry in eight rounds in 1969, and dispatched Ellis, the WBA champ, in five on Feb. 16, 1970, to become the undisputed heavyweight champion.
Then Ali returned, as his boxing license was reinstated. On Dec. 30, 1970, the two signed to fight, and the name-calling began.
“A white lawyer kept him out of jail. And he's going to Uncle Tom me,” Frazier wrote in his autobiography. “THEE Greatest, he called himself. Well, he wasn't The Greatest, and he certainly wasn't THEE Greatest … It became my mission to show him the error of his foolish pride. Beat it into him.”
On March 8, 1971, in the ‘Fight of the Century’ at Madison Square Garden, Frazier landed a left hook in the 15th round that sent Ali careening to the canvas. The unbeaten Frazier won a unanimous decision as he handed Ali the first defeat of his pro career.
Frazier successfully defended his title against Terry Daniels and Ron Stander (both on early-round TKOs) before meeting George Foreman on Jan. 22, 1973, in Jamaica. Stronger and quicker, Foreman knocked Frazier down six times in the first two rounds before the fight was stopped. Frazier's title was gone.
A year later, he met Ali again, in a non-title bout. On Jan. 28, 1974, in a fight to determine who would get the next shot to dethrone Foreman, Ali won a decision in Madison Square Garden, though Frazier and several sportswriters, including The New York Times’ Red Smith and Dave Anderson, thought he had won.
With the cataract in his left eye growing increasingly worse, he defeated Quarry and Ellis again, then agreed to fight Ali one final time, on Oct. 1, 1975, in Manila. In arguably the greatest heavyweight bout in boxing history –– Ali called it the “closest thing to dyin’ I know of’ –– the two men clubbed each other with their fists for 14 rounds. Frazier's trainer, Eddie Futch, wouldn't let his fighter come out for the 15th.
“Once more,” Sports Illustrated's Mark Kram wrote of the ‘Thrilla in Manila,” “had Frazier taken the child of the gods to hell and back.“
Frazier retired after his next fight –– when he was knocked out by Foreman in the fifth round in 1976. He came out of retirement five years later for one fight, a draw with a former convict, Floyd “Jumbo” Cummings, and finished his career with a 32-4-1 record and 27 knockouts.
Frazier lives in Philadelphia, owns and runs a gym there. His health is not the best as he has diabetes and high blood pressure. He and his nemesis have alternated between public apologies and public insults.
One exchange came in 2001 after Ali told The New York Times he was sorry for what he said about Frazier before their first fight. At first, Frazier accepted the apology, but then …
“He didn't apologize to me –– he apologized to the paper,’ Frazier said in a June issue of TV Guide. “I'm still waiting [for him] to say it to me.”
Ali's response: “If you see Frazier, you tell him he's still a gorilla.’
July 1, 1936
“I believe, along with many others, that you must first ask for what you want before you can have it.”
African-American entrepreneur Wally Amos founded the Famous Amos cookie brand. He also worked as a talent agent and discovered Simon & Garfunkel.
Wally Amos, famed entrepreneur and founder of the Famous Amos chocolate chip cookie brand, was born Wallace Amos Jr. on July 1, 1936, in Tallahassee, Florida. Following his parents' separation in 1948, Amos was sent to New York City to live with his Aunt Della, who often baked homemade chocolate chip and pecan cookies.
He later said of the experience, “We certainly had no monetary wealth, but Aunt Della's home was always rich in the principles and qualities vital to a child’s upbringing. And it was filled with the aroma of her delicious chocolate chip cookies.” Amos's penchant for cooking led him to enroll at the Food Trades Vocational High School, where he studied culinary arts for two years.
After a four-year stint in the U.S. Air Force, Amos returned to New York in 1957. He spent the ensuing years working in the stock room at Saks Fifth Avenue, and in the mailroom at the prestigious William Morris Agency. In 1962, following a number of promotions, Amos became the first black talent agent in the history of the William Morris Agency.
Determined to make his mark by signing a blockbuster act, his tenacity was rewarded when he discovered the singing duo Simon & Garfunkel. Over the next few years, Amos headed the agency's newly formed rock ‘n’ roll department, where he worked with Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke.
Famous Amos Cookies
In 1967, Amos left William Morris and moved to Los Angeles, where he struggled to set up his own personal management company. Burdened with the debt of his failing business, Amos began to take comfort in baking chocolate chip cookies. Using a modified version of his Aunt Della's recipe, he planned to open the first freestanding cookie store.
With financial backing from singers like Gaye and an innovative marketing initiative, which included an extensive advertising campaign and a gala grand opening, the first Famous Amos cookie store opened on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles in 1975. Within months, Amos had opened two more West Coast franchises, and the New York-based Bloomingdale's department store had begun selling the gourmet cookies.
Amos and his cookie empire enjoyed a decade of success. However, in 1985, mismanagement forced Amos to gradually sell off parts of his company. In 1988, a corporation called the Shansby Group purchased Famous Amos Cookies and successfully repositioned the brand image, changing it from a specialty item to a lower-priced product.
In 1991, Amos attempted to launch another cookie company, which he called Wally Amos Presents Chip & Cookie. The Shansby Group sued Amos for violating an agreement that forbade him to use his name and likeness on the packaging of any food products. In 1998, the Keebler Company purchased the Famous Amos brand, and Amos resumed his role as the brand's spokesperson.
In the mid-1990s, Amos worked with partners, including Famous Amos distributor Lou Avignone, to launch a muffin company now known as Uncle Wally's Family of Muffins.
The company produces various homemade-style and healthy muffins. Amos also started a new cookie company, called Chip & Cookie–the “only company baking from pure, unadulterated Wally Amos recipes,” according to Amos's website.
Out side of his entrepreneurial work, Amos travels as a motivational speaker, advocating for ending illiteracy in the United States and working with organizations like Read to Me International and the YMCA.
“I encourage parents to read aloud to children at least from birth to 6 years old. I’d really like them to do it beforehand while they’re in the womb,” Amos said in a MidWeek interview.
Additionally, he has written 10 books, including an inspirational work entitled Watermelon Credo: The Book. According to Amos, his success as an author and a motivational speaker is due in no small part to his Aunt Della: “[Aunt Della's] basic recipe for cookies became the foundation for much of my success. But it was her recipes for life that sustain me to this day,” he states on his website.
Amos has three sons from his first two marriages, Shawn, Michael and Gregory. He also has a daughter named Sarah with his third wife, Christine Harris. The family currently resides in Hawaii.
Maya AngelouWriter, Dancer & African-American Activist
April 4, 1928
May 28, 2014
Writer, Dancer, African–American Activist
“You are the sum total of everything you've ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot – it's all there. Everything influences each of us, and because of that I try to make sure that my experiences are positive.”
Maya Angelou is a poet and award-winning author known for her acclaimed memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and her numerous poetry and essay collections.
Born Marguerite Johnson on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. Angelou spent her difficult formative years moving back and forth between her mother's and grandmother's. At age eight, she was raped by her mother's boyfriend, who was subsequently killed by her uncles. The event caused the young girl to go mute for nearly six years, and her teens and early twenties were spent as a dancer, filled with isolation and experimentation.
At 16 she gave birth to a son, Guy, after which she toured Europe and Africa in the musical Porgy and Bess. On returning to New York City in the 1960s, she joined the Harlem Writers Guild and became involved in black activism. She then spent several years in Ghana as editor of African Review, where she began to take her life, her activism and her writing more seriously.
Maya Angelou's five-volume autobiography commenced with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1970. The memoirs chronicle different eras of her life and were met with critical and popular success. Later books include All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986) and My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken and Me (1994). She has published several volumes of verse, including And Still I Rise (1987) and Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou (1995). Her volume of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Die (1971), was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
In 1993, Angelou read ‘On the Pulse of Morning’ at Bill Clinton's Presidential inauguration, a poem written at his request. It was only the second time a poet had been asked to read at an inauguration, the first being Robert Frost at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. In 2006, Angelou agreed to host a weekly radio show on XM Satellite Radio's Oprah & Friends channel. She also teaches at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, where she has a lifetime position as the Reynolds professor of American studies.
Drawing from her own life experiences, Angelou published Letter to My Daughter in 2008. She wrote the work for the daughter she never had, sharing anecdotes and offering advice. Well received, the book earned several honors, including a NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work-Non-Fiction.
Martin Luther King Jr., a close friend of Angelou's, was assassinated on her birthday (April 4) in 1968. Angelou stopped celebrating her birthday for years afterward, and sent flowers to King's widow, Coretta Scott King, for more than 30 years, until Coretta's death in 2006.
Angelou was good friends with TV personality Oprah Winfrey, who has organized several birthday celebrations for the award-winning author, including a week-long cruise for her 70th birthday in 1998.
After experiencing health issues for a number of years, Maya Angelou died on May 28, 2014, at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The news of her passing spread quickly with many people taking to social media to mourn and remember Angelou. Singer Mary J. Blige and politician Cory Booker were among those who tweeted their favorite quotes by her in tribute. President Barack Obama also issued a statement about Angelou, calling her “a brilliant writer, a fierce friend, and a truly phenomenal woman.” Angelou “had the ability to remind us that we are all God's children; that we all have something to offer,” he wrote.
Louis ArmstrongTrumpet Player & Singer
August 4, 1901
July 6, 1971
Trumpet Player & Singer
“We all do ‘do, re, mi,’ but you have got to find the other notes yourself.”
Louis Armstrong was a trumpeter, bandleader, singer, soloist, film star and comedian. Considered one of the most influential artists in jazz history, he is known for songs like “Star Dust,” “La Via En Rose” and “What a Wonderful World.”
Louis Armstrong was born on August 4, 1901, in New Orleans, Louisiana, the birthplace of jazz. He is considered the most important improviser in jazz, and he taught the world to swing. Armstrong, fondly known as “Satchmo” (which is short for “Satchelmouth” referring to the size of his mouth) or “Pops,” had a sense of humor, natural and unassuming manner, and positive disposition that made everyone around him feel good.
With his infectious, wide grin and instantly recognizable gravelly voice, he won the hearts of people everywhere. He had an exciting and innovative style of playing that musicians imitate to this day. Throughout his career, Armstrong spread the language of jazz around the world, serving as an international ambassador of swing. His profound impact on the music of the 20th century continues into the 21st century.
Armstrong grew up in a poor family in a rough section of New Orleans. He started working at a very young age to support his family, singing on street corners for pennies, working on a junk wagon, cleaning graves for tips, and selling coal. His travels around the city introduced him to all kinds of music, from the blues played in the Storyville honky tonks to the brass bands accompanying the New Orleans parades and funerals. The music that surrounded him was a great source of inspiration.
A born musician, Armstrong had already demonstrated his singing talents on the streets of the city and eventually taught himself to play the cornet. He received his first formal music instruction in the Colored Waif's Home for Boys, where he was allegedly confined for a year and a half as punishment for firing blanks into the air on New Year's Eve.
As the young Armstrong began to perform with pick-up bands in small clubs and play funerals and parades around town, he captured the attention and respect of some of the older established musicians of New Orleans. Joe “King” Oliver, a member of Kid Ory's band and one of the finest trumpet players around, became Armstrong's mentor. When Oliver moved to Chicago, Armstrong took his place in Kid Ory's band, a leading group in New Orleans at the time. A year later, he was hired to work on riverboats that traveled the Mississippi. This experience enabled him to play with many prominent jazz musicians and to further develop his skills, learning to read music and undertaking the responsibilities of a professional gig.
In 1922, Oliver invited Armstrong to Chicago to play second cornet in his Creole Jazz Band. As a member of Oliver's band, Armstrong began his lifetime of touring and recording. In 1924, he moved on to New York City to play with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra at the Roseland Ballroom. Armstrong continued his touring and recording activities with Henderson's group and also made recordings with Sidney Bechet, Ma Rainey, and Bessie Smith.
In 1925, Armstrong returned to Chicago and made his first recordings as a band leader with his Hot Five (and later his Hot Seven). From 1925 to 1928 he continued a rigorous schedule of performing and recording, which included Heebie Jeebies, the tune that introduced scat singing to a wide audience and West End Blues, one of the most famous recordings in early jazz. During this period, his playing steadily improved, and his traveling and recording activities introduced his music to more and more people.
In 1929, Armstrong returned to New York City and made his first Broadway appearance. His 1929 recording of “Ain't Misbehavin'” introduced the use of a pop song as material for jazz interpretation, helping set the stage for the popular acceptance of jazz that would follow. During the next year, he performed in several U.S. states, including California, where he made his first film and radio appearances. In 1931, he first recorded “When It's Sleepytime Down South”, the tune that became his theme song. In 1932, he toured England for three months, and during the next few years, continued his extensive domestic and international tours, including a lengthy stay in Paris.
When Armstrong returned to the U.S. in 1935, Joe Glaser became his manager. Not only did Glaser free Armstrong from the managerial battles and legal difficulties of the past few years, he remained his manager for the duration of his career and helped transform Armstrong into an international star. Under Glaser's management, Armstrong performed in films, on the radio, and in the best theaters, dance halls, and nightclubs. He worked with big bands, playing music of an increasingly commercial nature as well as small groups that showcased his singing of popular songs.
In 1942, Armstrong married Lucille Wilson, a dancer at the Cotton Club where his band had a running engagement. The following year, they purchased a home in Corona, Queens, where they lived for the rest of their lives. In 1947, Armstrong formed a small ensemble called the All-Stars, a group of extraordinary players whose success revitalized mainstream jazz. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, he continued to appear in popular films and made numerous international tours, earning him the title “Ambassador Satch.” During a trip to West Africa, Armstrong was greeted by more than one hundred thousand people. In the early 1960's, he continued to record, including two albums with Duke Ellington and the hit Hello Dolly, which reached number one on the Billboard charts.
Armstrong performed regularly until recurring health problems gradually curtailed his trumpet playing and singing. Even in the last year of his life, he traveled to London twice, appeared on more than a dozen television shows, and performed at the Newport Jazz Festival to celebrate his 70th birthday. Up until a few days before his death, on July 6, 1971, he was setting up band rehearsals in preparation to perform for his beloved public.
Arthur AsheProfessional Tennis Player & Activist
July 10, 1943
February 6, 1993
Professional Tennis Player & Activist
“True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.”
Arthur Ashe is the first African American to win the men's singles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and the first black American to be ranked No. 1 in the world.
Arthur Robert Ashe Jr. was born on July 10, 1943, in Richmond, Virginia. The oldest of Arthur Ashe Sr. and Mattie Cunningham's two sons, Arthur Ashe Jr. blended finesse and power to forge a groundbreaking tennis game. Ashe would go on to achieve a number of African-American “firsts,” including becoming the first African-American male player to win the U.S. Open (1968) and Wimbeldon (1975), the first African-American player to be ranked No. 1 in the world, and the first black American to be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame (1985).
Ashe's childhood was marked by hardship and opportunity. Under his mother's direction, Ashe was reading by the age of 4. But his life was turned upside-down two years later, when Mattie passed away.
Ashe's father, fearful of seeing his boys fall into trouble without their mother's discipline, began running a tighter ship at home. Ashe and his younger brother Johnnie went to church every Sunday, and after school were required to come straight home. Arthur Sr. even clocked the distance: “My father … kept me home, out of trouble. I had exactly 12 minutes to get home from school, and I kept to that rule through high school.”
Early Tennis Career
About a year after his mother's death, Arthur discovered the game of tennis, picking up a racket for the first time at the age of 7, at a park not far from his home. Sticking with the game, Ashe eventually caught the attention of Dr. Robert Walter Johnson Jr., a tennis coach from Lynchburg, Virginia, who was active in the black tennis community. Under Johnson's direction, Ashe excelled.
In his first tournament, Ashe reached the junior national championships. Driven to excel, he eventually moved to St. Louis to work closely with another coach, winning the junior national title in 1960 and again in 1961. Ranked the fifth best junior player in the country, Ashe accepted a scholarship at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he graduated with a degree in business administration.
In 1963, Ashe became the first African American to be recruited by the U.S. Davis Cup team. Thereafter, he continued to refine his game, gaining the attention of his tennis idol, Pancho Gonzales, who further helped Ashe hone his serve-and-volley attack. The training all came together in 1968, when the still-amateur Ashe shocked the world by capturing the U.S. Open title–becoming the first, and still the only, African-American male player to do so. Two years later, he took home the Australian title.
In 1975, Ashe registered another upset by beating Jimmy Connors in the Wimbledon finals, marking another pioneering achievement within the African-American community–becoming the first African-American male player to win Wimbledon–which, like his U.S. Open victory, remains unmatched.
That same year (1975), Ashe became the first African-American tennis player to be ranked No. 1 in the world. Ten years later, in 1985, he would become the first black U.S. citizen to be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
For Ashe, however, success also brought opportunity and responsibility. He didn't relish his status as the sole black star in a game dominated by white players, but he didn't run away from it either. With his unique pulpit, he pushed to create inner city tennis programs for youth; helped found the Association of Men's Tennis Professionals; and spoke out against apartheid in South Africa–even going so far as to successfully lobby for a visa so he could visit and play tennis there.
Ashe's causes were shaped by both his own personal story and his health. In 1979, he retired from competition after suffering a heart attack, and wrote a history of African-American athletes: A Hard Road to Glory (three volumes, published in 1988). He also served as national campaign chairman of the American Heart Association.
Ashe was plagued with health issues over the last 14 years of his life. After undergoing a quadruple bypass operation in 1979, he went under the knife again in 1983 for a second bypass. In 1988, he underwent emergency brain surgery after experiencing paralysis of his right arm.
A biopsy taken during a hospital stay revealed that Ashe had AIDS. Doctors soon discovered that Ashe had contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, from a transfusion of bad blood that he was given during his second heart operation.
Initially, Ashe kept the news hidden from the public. But in 1992, Ashe came forward with the news after he learned that USA Today was working on a story about his health battle.
Finally free from the burden of trying to hide his condition, Ashe poured himself into the work of raising awareness about the disease. He delivered a speech at the United Nations, started a new foundation, and laid the groundwork for a $5 million fundraising campaign for the institution.
He continued to work, even as his health began to deteriorate, making it down to Washington, D.C. in late 1992 to participate in a protest over the United States’ treatment of Haitian refugees. For his part in the demonstration, Ashe was taken away in handcuffs. It was a poignant final display for a man who was never shy about showing his concern for the welfare of others.
Death and Legacy
Two months before his death, he founded the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health to help address issues of inadequate health care delivery and was named Sports Illustrated magazine's Sportsman of the Year. He also spent much of the last years of his life writing his memoir Days of Grace, finishing the manuscript less than a week before his death.
Arthur Ashe died in New York City on February 6, 1993, from AIDS-related pneumonia. Four days later, he was laid to rest in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia. Some 6,000 people attended the service.
In addition to his pioneering tennis career, Ashe is remembered for a number of inspirational quotes, including, “True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.“ He also once said, “One important key to success is self-confidence. An important key to self-confidence is preparation.”
Ashe was married to Jeanne Moutoussamy (a photographer he met in October 1976 at a United Negro College Fund benefit) from 1977 until his death in 1993. They had one daughter, Camera. On June 20, 1993, Ashe was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then United States President Bill Clinton.
Ella BakerCivil Rights Activist
December 13, 1903
December 13, 1986
Civil Rights Activist
“One of the things that has to be faced is the process of waiting to change the system, how much we have got to do to find out who we are, where we have come from and where we are going.”
Civil rights activist Ella Baker worked with the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Early Life and Education
Born in Norfolk, Virginia, on December 13, 1903, Ella Baker was one of the leading figures in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. She grew up in rural North Carolina. Baker was close to her grandmother, a former slave. Her grandmother told Baker many stories about her life, including a whipping she had received at the hands of her owner.
A bright student, Baker eventually went to Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. She was the class valedictorian when she graduated in 1927. After she completed her degree, Baker moved north to New York City. There she worked a number of jobs while trying to make ends meet. Baker helped start the Young Negroes’ Cooperative League, which allowed its members to pool their funds to get better deals on goods and services.
Civil Rights Activist
Around 1940, Baker became a field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She traveled extensively, raising funds and recruiting new members to the organization. In 1946, Baker became the NAACP's national director of branches.
She took over care for her niece, Jackie Brockington, a few years later, which Baker to resigned from her NAACP post. She felt her position required too much travel. Staying in New York, Baker worked for a number of local organizations, including the New York Urban League. She also helped out at the New York chapter of the NAACP.
In 1957, Baker joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as its executive director at the request of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The SCLC was a civil rights group created by African American ministers and community leaders.
During her time with the SCLC, Baker set up the event that led to the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960. She offered her support and counsel to this organization of student activists.
While she left the SCLC in 1960, Baker remained active in the SNCC for many years. She helped them form the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964 as an alternative to the state's Democratic Party, which held segregationist views.
The MFDP even tried to get their delegates to serve as replacements for the Mississippi delegates at the National Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey that same year. While they were unsuccessful in this effort, the MFDP's actions brought a lot of attention to their cause.
Final Years and Legacy
Baker continued to fight for social justice and equality for the rest of her life. With her many years of experience as a protester and organizer, she gave her wise counsel to numerous organizations and causes, including the Third World Women's Coordinating Committee and the Puerto Rican Solidarity Committee.
Her life and accomplishments were chronicled in the 1981 documentary Fundi: The Story of Ella Baker. “Fundi” was her nickname, which comes from a Swahili word that means a person who passes down a craft to the next generation.
Baker died on her 83rd birthday, on December 13, 1986, in New York City.
Josephine BakerDancer, Singer, Actress, Civil Rights Activist & Spy
June 3, 1906
April 12, 1975
Dancer, Singer, Actress, Civil Rights Activist & Spy
“All my life, I have maintained that the people of the world can learn to live together in peace if they are not brought up in prejudice.”
Josephine Baker was a dancer and singer who became wildly popular in France during the 1920s. She also devoted much of her life to fighting racism.
Josephine Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald on June 3, 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri. Her mother, Carrie McDonald, was a washerwoman who had given up her dreams of becoming a music-hall dancer. Her father, Eddie Carson, was a vaudeville drummer. He abandoned Carrie and Josephine shortly after her birth. Carrie remarried soon thereafter and would have several more children in the coming years.
To help support her growing family, at age 8 Josephine cleaned houses and babysat for wealthy white families, often being poorly treated. She briefly returned to school two years later before running away from home at age 13 and finding work as a waitress at a club. While working there, she married a man named Willie Wells, from whom she divorced only weeks later.
The Path to Paris
It was also around this time that Josephine first took up dancing, honing her skills both in clubs and in street performances, and by 1919 she was touring the United States with the Jones Family Band and the Dixie Steppers performing comedic skits. In 1921, Josephine married a man named Willie Baker, whose name she would keep for the rest of her life despite their divorce years later. In 1923, Baker landed a role in the musical Shuffle Along as a member of the chorus, and the comic touch that she brought to the part made her popular with audiences. Looking to parlay these early successes, Baker moved to New York City and was soon performing in Chocolate Dandies and, along with Ethel Waters, in the floor show of the Plantation Club, where again she quickly became a crowd favorite.
In 1925, at the peak of France’s obsession with American jazz and all things exotic, Baker traveled to Paris to perform in La Revue Nègre at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. She made an immediate impression on French audiences when, with dance partner Joe Alex, she performed the Danse Sauvage, in which she wore only a feather skirt.
However, it was the following year, at the Folies Bergère music hall, one of the most popular of the era, that Baker’s career would reach a major turning point. In a performance called La Folie du Jour, Baker danced wearing little more than a skirt made of 16 bananas. The show was wildly popular with Parisian audiences and Baker was soon among the most popular and highest-paid performers in Europe, having the admiration of cultural figures like Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and E. E. Cummings and earning herself nicknames like “Black Venus” and “Black Pearl.” She also received more than 1,000 marriage proposals.
Capitalizing on this success, Baker sang professionally for the first time in 1930, and several years later landed film roles as a singer in Zou-Zou and Princesse Tam-Tam. The money she earned from her performances soon allowed her to purchase an estate in Castelnaud-Fayrac, in the southwest of France. She named the estate Les Milandes, and soon paid to move her family there from St. Louis.
Racism and Resistance
In 1936, riding the wave of popularity she was enjoying in France, Baker returned to the United States to perform in the Ziegfield Follies, hoping to establish herself as a performer in her home country as well. However, she was met with a generally hostile, racist reaction and quickly returned to France, crestfallen at her mistreatment. Upon her return, Baker married French industrialist Jean Lion and obtained citizenship from the country that had embraced her as one of its own.
When World War II erupted later that year, Baker worked for the Red Cross during the occupation of France. As a member of the Free French forces she also entertained troops in both Africa and the Middle East. Perhaps most importantly, however, Baker did work for the French Resistance, at times smuggling messages hidden in her sheet music and even in her underwear. For these efforts, at the war’s end, Baker was awarded both the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honour with the rosette of the Resistance, two of France’s highest military honors.
Following the war, Baker spent most of her time at Les Milandes with her family. In 1947, she married French orchestra leader Jo Bouillon, and beginning in 1950 began to adopt babies from around the world. She adopted 12 children in all, creating what she referred to as her “rainbow tribe” and her “experiment in brotherhood.” She often invited people to the estate to see these children, to demonstrate that people of different races could in fact live together harmoniously.
Return to the U.S.
During the 1950s, Baker frequently returned to the United States to lend her support to the Civil Rights Movement, participating in demonstrations and boycotting segregated clubs and concert venues. In 1963, Baker participated, alongside Martin Luther King Jr., in the March on Washington, and was among the many notable speakers that day. In honor of her efforts, the NAACP eventually named May 20th “Josephine Baker Day.”
After decades of rejection by her countrymen and a lifetime spent dealing with racism, in 1973 Baker performed at Carnegie Hall in New York and was greeted with a standing ovation. She was so moved by her reception that she wept openly before her audience. The show was a huge success and marked Baker’s comeback to the stage.
In April 1975, Josephine Baker performed at the Bobino Theater in Paris, in the first of a series of performances celebrating the 50th anniversary of her Paris debut. Numerous celebrities were in attendance, including Sophia Loren and Princess Grace of Monaco, who had been a dear friend to Baker for years. Just days later, on April 12, 1975, Baker died in her sleep of a cerebral hemorrhage. She was 69.
On the day of her funeral, more than 20,000 people lined the streets of Paris to witness the procession, and the French government honored her with a 21-gun salute, making Baker the first American woman in history to be buried in France with military honors.
James BaldwinNovelist, Essayist, Playwright, Poet & Social Critic
August 2, 1924
December 1, 1987
Essayist, Playwright & Novelist
“Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”
James Baldwin was an essayist, playwright and novelist regarded as a highly insightful, iconic writer with works like The Fire Next Time and Another Country.
Early Years and Education
James Baldwin was born the illegitimate son of Emma Berdis Jones on August 2, 1924, in Harlem Hospital. In James's third year, his mother married the Reverend David Baldwin, a fire and brimstone lay preacher, who legally adopted James.
James attended Public School 24 in Harlem, where he met a young white teacher named Orilla Miller. Nicknamed "Bill" by the young Baldwin, Miller was to have a profound effect on Baldwin's life. She directed his first play and encouraged his talents.
The two discussed literature and went to museums together. Miller even won David Baldwin's permission to take James to the theater, an activity strictly forbidden by the elder Baldwin. Later, James was to give credit to Bill for her lack of racism. He explained that it was “certainly partly because of her, who arrived in my terrifying life so soon, that I never really managed to hate white people.”
After elementary school, Baldwin went on to Frederic Douglas Junior high. It was here that he met Countee Cullen (an American poet) and Herman W. Porter, both of whom were teachers at the school during the years that Baldwin attended, and both would have a lasting impact on his life. Cullen encouraged James to participate in the school's literary club, which he was the founder and advisor of. Baldwin was enchanted by Cullen's warmth and openness, and soon Cullen became a father figure to the troubled and lonely youth.
Porter was in charge of The Douglas Pilot, the school magazine, and made Baldwin the editor of the publication to which he would also contribute. Porter introduced James to the public library and taught him how to overcome the racial slurs and hostility that he sometimes encountered there. These two teachers and role models had a profound impact on Baldwin's life by showing him that black men could be successful, educated, and strong.
In the summer of 1938, James experienced a religious conversion and began preaching. Standing in the pulpit, he was overcome with a sense of wonder and power in the art of rhetoric. The speaking skills that he developed as a minister would later serve him well in his vocation as a writer. More immediately, however, James found that his position as minister gave him power at home. He soon began to openly defy his father, who was forced to surrender now that his son was also a member of the ministry. For instance, when David suggested that James find a job and quit school, the younger Baldwin refused, opting to continue on to high school.
Luckily James had taken the advice of Countee Cullen and applied for admittance to the prestigious De Witt Clinton High School, from which scores of successful and famous people had graduated. His classmates were mainly white, but they came from liberal families who were more interested in James's talent than his skin tone. Here he formed close ties with other students with whom he worked on The Magpie, the school's newspaper.
At 16, James left the ministry because of what he perceived as hypocrisy and racism, which had destroyed his faith in the church. This split had its beginnings when James met Beauford Delany. A mutual friend had introduced the two at a point when James was very depressed and confused. Delany, an artist, was perhaps the most influential person in Baldwin's life. He introduced the young man to music, took him to galleries, taught Baldwin to think like an artist, and showed him that it was possible to make a living at it.
Early Career and Writing
After graduation, Baldwin found it necessary to find full time employment so that he could support himself. He moved in with a friend but was forced to return home when he was fired from his job. When he returned home, he found his mother pregnant and his father in the hospital due to his deteriorating mental capacity. The last Baldwin baby, Paula, was born on July 29, 1943. It was on the same day that his father passed away. James and Beuford scraped together enough money for a funeral service, held on James's birthday.
Baldwin continued to live at home in an attempt to support his family but was unable to keep a job. Resentment at his responsibilities to his family precluding the chance of his success as a writer became unbearable. He moved out and found work in Greenwich Village. A restaurant owner named Connie Williams, who was sympathetic to Baldwin's plight, took the young man under her wing and employed him as a waiter. She often let him stay at her apartment and gave him food for his family.
During this period, Baldwin met many artists and writers who frequented William's restaurant. He also began his search for his sexual identity by having a number of one-night affairs with men but also continuing to have relationships with women. He met and fell in love with a man named Eugene Worth. Afraid of loosing a friendship by revealing his true feelings, Baldwin never expressed his love. Unfortunately, Worth committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge after making an oblique comment about the possibility that he was in love with Baldwin. James never recovered from the loss of his friend.
It was also during this time that Baldwin began to write seriously. A young woman who had been impressed by Baldwin's reading of his manuscript In My Father's House (a precursor to Go Tell It on the Mountain) introduced him to the American novelist Richard Wright. Wright was also impressed with the work of the younger man and helped to secure for him a Eugene F. Saxon Foundation Fellowship. The fellowship, which included $500, was awarded to Baldwin in November of 1945. Unfortunately, In My Father's House was not deemed worthy of being published, and Baldwin was depressed and fearful that he had not lived up to the Wright's expectations.
In 1947, Baldwin was finally published professionally; however, it wasn't a novel but a book review that launched his writing career. This book review was followed by a number of essays. His first work of fiction was published in October of 1948. A proposed project with a photographer friend about Harlem churches won Baldwin a Rosenwald fellowship. Though the project was never completed, it did give Baldwin the money needed to make his long dreamed of trip to Paris. Ironically, it was in Paris that Baldwin came to understand himself, his homeland, and his culture.
Although an expatriate writer, Baldwin remained active in events that shaped American culture. He divided his time between Europe and the United States, and his role in the Civil Rights movement cannot be overlooked. He met with Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and a host of other politically active notables in an effort to bring about constructive social change. His beliefs on race and race relations would color many of his novels and inspire a large percentage of his essays.
Major Literary Works
Baldwin was a proficient writer. He produced scores of reviews, essays, plays, short stories, and novels. The following is a short list of what is widely regarded as his most important works and a short description of their content or significance. Baldwin wrote Everybody's Protest Novel (1949) shortly after his arrival in Paris. The essay attacked the ideology traditionally found in protest novels. Many, including Richard Wright, saw the article as a personal attack on Wright and his works. Not surprisingly, this caused a rift, but not a break, in the friendship between the two authors.
Go Tell It on the Mountain, which Baldwin had worked on for years under various titles, was finally finished during a trip to Switzerland. When New York publisher Alfred Knopf expressed interest in publishing the work, Baldwin returned to America on a ticked bought with a loan from Marlon Brando. His novel was published a year later in 1953 and received rave reviews.
It was in Paris that his next work, The Amen Corner (1954), was published. A novel about a young man who leaves his home and church to become a musician and find himself can be seen as a continuation of Mountain and, like his previous novel, is partially autobiographical.
Notes of a Native Son (1955), a collection of Baldwin's essays from 1948 to 1955, was his next major work. Some pieces like Everybody's Protest Novel had been previously published, but others were seen for the first time in this publication.
Giovanni's Room (1956) tells the story of David, an American living in Paris who falls in love with an Italian bartender named Giovanni. In an attempt to deny the true nature of his sexuality, the protagonist proposes to an American girl and leaves Giovanni, who, jilted, commits a murder and is executed. The woman leaves David when it becomes clear that their relationship is a failure, and David returns to his past life, full of anguish for his lost Giovanni. Baldwin was nervous before the publication of this novel because he saw that, with its publication, he would no longer be able to hide the fact of his own homosexuality from his family, and he feared their rejection.
Sonny's Blues (1957) is the story of two brothers. Sonny is a musician who is also a heroin addict. His brother, instilled with a feeling of responsibility for his sibling by their mother, tries to understand Sonny and his addiction.
Another Country (1962) tells the story of a Jazz musician who is deeply hurt by racism and thus unable to trust anyone and so unable to give or accept love.
Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (1968) tells the tale of a young man from Harlem and his rise to fame as an actor. It chronicles the events of his life and his struggles with his sexuality and lovers.
The relationship between two lovers and their families is the focus of If Beale Street Could Talk (1974). The novel concerns the hypocrisy found in the church and relationships between family members – especially sisters, who for the first time make a serious appearance in Baldwin's work.
In Just Above My Head (1979), the narrator, Hal, tells the story of a dearly loved brother and a happy childhood. The Millers, friends of Hal's family, were not so lucky. Mrs. Miller died when their daughter Julia, a successful child-preacher, was 14 years old. To escape her brutal and sexually abusive father, Julia becomes a prostitute. Through a seemingly endless string of trials, Hal and Julia settle down in neighboring towns to enjoy middle age and middle class. It is one of Baldwin's sermons on the importance of choosing love over security.
During the 1980's, Baldwin taught classes at the University of Amherst. His courses included a history of the Civil Rights movement and classes on expatriate writers like himself.
In addition to living in Paris, Baldwin also spent time in Switzerland and Istanbul and traveled to Africa and the Soviet Union. It was in St. Paul de Vence that Baldwin was first diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He passed away on November 30, 1987, surrounded by family and loving friends.
Throughout his life, Baldwin was recognized not only for his achievements in literature but also for his work in the Civil Rights struggle and for his efforts to facilitate understanding and respect between all people. Private institutions, public organizations, and government agencies all chose to honor him in their own ways:
Afrika BambaataaHip-Hop Recording Artist, DJ, Producer & Civil Rights Activist
April 17, 1957
Hip-Hop Recording Artist, DJ, Producer & Civil Rights Activist
“How you act, walk, look and talk is all part of Hip Hop culture. And the music is colorless. Hip Hop music is made from Black, brown, yellow, red and white.”
Afrika Bambaataa was an important rap-music pioneer who, much like Grandmaster Flash, became a forgotten elder statesman as rap evolved.
Bambaataa, who took his name (which means “affectionate leader”) from a movie about Zulu warriors, quit the notorious Black Spades street gang in the mid-'70s and formed Zulu Nation, a music-oriented “youth organization.” Among the members who became minor rap luminaries were DJs Red Alert, Jazzy Jay, and Whiz Kid, as well as Afrika Islam, who went on to work with Ice-T.
Bambaataa became a popular DJ on the nascent South Bronx rap scene, where his encyclopedic knowledge of funk grooves earned him the nickname “Master of Records.” He formed two rap crews: the Jazzy 5 (with MCs Ice, Mr. Freeze, Master D.E.E., and AJ Les) and Soulsonic Force (Mr. Biggs [Ellis Williams], Pow Wow [Robert Darrell Allen], and Emcee G.L.O.B.E. [John B. Miller]).
Each made its debut 12-inch single in 1980: Jazzy 5's “Jazzy Sensation” and Soulsonic Force's “Zulu Nation Throwdown,” both classic proto-hip-hop party anthems, with round-robin rapping backed by live bands playing slinky funk vamps.
In 1982 Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force dropped the live band to go high-tech. Producer Arthur Baker (who had worked on “Jazzy Sensation”) and synthesizer player John Robie provided electronic “beat-box” rhythm and an eerie keyboard hook modeled on “TransEurope Express” by Kraftwerk, whose robotic trance music had long been popular with inner-city youth. The result was “Planet Rock,” a pop hit that went gold and spawned an entire school of “electro-boogie” rap and dance music.
While Bambaataa continued to exert some influence on rap music, “Planet Rock” turned out to be his only hit. Bambaataa's groundbreaking tracks that failed to chart include 1982's “Looking for the Perfect Beat” (sampled in Duice's 1993 rap-dance hit “Dazzey Duks”); 1983's “Renegades of Funk” (on which G.L.O.B.E. pioneered the rapid-fire “poppin’” style of rap later popularized by Big Daddy Kane and Das EFX); 1984's “World Destruction” by Time Zone, a rap-rock fusion unit featuring Bambaataa, ex–Sex Pistol John Lydon, and bassist/producer Bill Laswell; and 1984's “Unity,” which Bambaataa recorded with rap forebear James Brown.
Even Bambaataa's and Soulsonic Force's appearance in the 1984 rap movie Beat Street brought problems: Emcee G.L.O.B.E. and Pow Wow were arrested for their roles in a 1979 Manhattan bank holdup, when a policeman watching the movie recognized Pow Wow from the bank surveillance video. G.L.O.B.E. and Pow Wow were later put on probation and received community service sentences for convictions on conspiracy to commit bank robbery.
Bambaataa has remained active if not commercially successful. The Light featured guests George Clinton, Sly and Robbie, Boy George, and UB40. Decade of Darkness collected dance-oriented tracks produced for an Italian label. Bambaataa formed his own label to release the Time Zone compilation.
The rise of “turntablism” as its own subgenre and the ratification of “electronica” as an industry-certified trend in the late ‘90s brought Bambaataa renewed recognition well beyond the hip-hop community.
Each year brings a new batch of remixes on multiple dance and import labels, and updates of his signature hit. Lost Generation sports “Planet Rock ‘96,” and the millennium would not have been complete without the release of “Planet Rock 2000.”
Amiri BarakaCritic, Scholar, Civil Rights Activist & Poet
October 7, 1934
January 9, 2014
Critic, Scholar, Civil Rights Activist & Poet
“The artist's role is to raise the consciousness of the people. To make them understand life, the world and themselves more completely. That's how I see it. Otherwise, I don't know why you do it.”
Amiri Baraka is an African-American poet, activist and scholar. He was an influential black nationalist and later became a Marxist.
Amiri Baraka was born Everett LeRoi Jones on October 7, 1934, in Newark, New Jersey. After developing an interest in poetry and jazz in high school, Baraka attended Howard University, where he changed his name to LeRoi James.
He earned his degree in English in 1954, and then joined the United States Air Force. After three years of service, Baraka received a dishonorable discharge for owning inappropriate texts.
Baraka then moved to Manhattan, where, in addition to attending Columbia University and The New School, he became a prominent artist in the Greenwich Village scene and befriended Beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. He published their and other poets’ work in the newly founded Totem Press.
In 1961, Baraka published his first major collection of poetry, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note. His 1964 play, The Dutchman, which addressed racial tensions and American blacks’ repressed hostility toward whites, gained him fame and acclaim.
After a trip to Cuba, Baraka disassociated with the apolitical Beat movement in favor of addressing racial politics. The assassination of Malcolm X was a turning point in his life.
Afterward, he disavowed his old life—including his marriage to Hettie Cohen–and changed his name to Amiri Baraka. He became a black nationalist, moved to Harlem and founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School. The company dissolved after a few months, however, and Bakara moved back to Newark and founded the Spirit House Players. Baraka fully immersed himself in Newark, becoming a leader of the city's African-American community.
In 1968, Baraka became a Muslim and added the prefix Imamu, meaning “spiritual leader,” to his name. In 1974, however, he dropped the prefix, identifying as a Marxist.
Later Life & Death
Baraka is known for his aggressive, incendiary style. His writing is controversial and has often polarized readers. His poem “Somebody Blew up America,” a response to the attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001, was criticized for being anti-Semitic. His position as New Jersey's poet laureate was stripped as a result of public outcry against the poem.
A prolific writer, Baraka has penned more than 50 books, including fiction, music criticism, essays, short stories, poetry and plays. In 1984, he published The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka. He's taught at many universities, including the New School for Social Research, San Francisco State University and Yale University.
Before retirement, he served as professor emeritus of Africana Studies at the State University of New York at Stony Brook for 20 years.
Baraka died on January 9, 2014 in Newark, New Jersey at the age of 79. He is survived by his wife, Amina Baraka, two daughters from his first marriage and four children from his second.
Count BasiePianist & Songwriter
August 21, 1904
April 26, 1984
Pianist & Songwriter
“I decided that I would be one of the biggest new names; and I actually had some little fancy business cards printed up to announce it, ‘Count Basie. Beware, the Count is Here.’”
One of jazz music's all-time greats, bandleader/pianist Count Basie was a primary shaper of the big-band sound that characterized mid-20th century popular music.
Early Training and Career
The jazz legend known as Count Basie was born William James Basie (with some sources listing his middle name as “Allen”) on August 21, 1904, in Red Bank, New Jersey. His father Harvey was a mellophonist and his mother Lillian was a pianist who gave her son his first lessons. After moving to New York, he was further influenced by James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, with Waller teaching Basie organ-playing techniques.
Forms Barons of Rhythm
Basie played the vaudevillian circuit for a time until he got stuck in Kansas in the mid-1920s after his performance group disbanded. He went on to join Walter Page's Blue Devils in 1928, which he would see as a pivotal moment in his career, being introduced to the big-band sound for the first time.
He later worked for a few years with a band led by Bennie Moten, who died in 1935. Basie then formed the Barons of Rhythm with some of his bandmates from Motten's group, including saxophonist Lester Young. With vocals by Jimmy Rushing, the band set up shop to perform at Kansas City's Reno Club.
During a radio broadcast of the band's performance, the announcer wanted to give Basie's name some pizazz, keeping in mind the existence of other bandleaders like Duke Ellington and Earl Hines. So he called the pianist “Count,” with Basie not realizing just how much the name would catch on as a form of recognition and respect in the music world.
Hits That Swing
Producer John Hammond heard the band's sound and helped secure further bookings. After some challenges, the Count Basie Orchestra had a slew of hits that helped to define the big-band sound of the 1930s and ‘40s. Some of their notable songs included “One O'Clock Jump’–the orchestra's signature tune which Basie composed himself–and “Jumpin’ at the Woodside.’
With the group becoming highly distinguished for its soloists, rhythm section and style of swing, Basie himself was noted for his understated yet captivating style of piano playing and precise, impeccable musical leadership. He was also helming one of the biggest, most renowned African-American jazz groups of the day.
Band's Second Incarnation
Due to changing fortunes and an altered musical landscape, Basie was forced to scale down the size of his orchestra at the start of the 1950s, but he soon made a comeback and returned to his big-band structure in 1952, recording new hits with vocalist Joe Williams and becoming an international figure. Another milestone came with the 1956 album April in Paris, whose title track contained psyche-you-out endings that became a new band signature.
Band's Second Incarnation
During the 1960s and ‘70s, Basie recorded with luminaries like Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Jackie Wilson, Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson. Basie ultimately earned nine Grammy Awards over the course of his career, but he made history when he won his first, in 1958, as the first African-American man to receive a Grammy. A few of his songs were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame as well, including “April in Paris” and “Everyday I Have the Blues.”
Basie suffered from health issues in his later years, and died from cancer in Hollywood, Florida, on April 26, 1984. He left the world an almost unparalleled legacy of musical greatness, having recorded or been affiliated with dozens upon dozens of albums during his lifetime.
More information on Basie's life can be found in the book Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie (1986), put together from conversations had with Albert Murray.
Bob BeamonTrack & Field Athlete
October 7, 1934
Track & Field Athlete
“I always look back at when I didn't have a dream, when I didn't have a spirit. I didn't know what the Olympics was all about. I was just hanging out on the street. I was not humble. I was not a nice person, doing things that were socially unacceptable.”
Bob Beamon is an Olympic gold medalist and record-breaking track and field athlete, best known for his world record in the long jump at the Mexico Olympics in 1968.
Olympic gold medalist and record-breaking track and field star Bob Beamon was born on August 29, 1946, in Jamaica, New York. When he was eight months old, his mother, Naomi Brown Beamon, died of tuberculosis. On account of his stepfather's incarceration, Beamon’s maternal grandmother, Bessie, became his primary caregiver.
Beamon’s childhood was set against a background of violence, gangs and drugs. During a fight at school, Beamon struck a teacher and was expelled. He was sent to a juvenile detention center and then an alternative school for delinquents in New York. At this school, he learned discipline and began to look away from street culture.
Beamon used sports as a means to focus his attention and energy toward positive goals. He regularly broke track records at the local and state levels. After graduating from high school, Beamon attended North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University to be close to his ill grandmother. When she died, he transferred to the University of Texas at El Paso, a school with a prominent track and field team.
In 1968, Beamon qualified for the Olympics in Mexico City. Four months before, he had been suspended from the University of Texas at El Paso track team for refusing to compete against Brigham Young University, a Mormon college with racist policies. This left Beamon without a coach. However, Olympian Ralph Boston began to coach him unofficially.
On October 18, 1968, Beamon made Olympic history when he broke the world record for the long jump. Beamon jumped 29 feet, 4 1/2 inches, beating the previous record by nearly two feet, setting a record that stood for twenty-three years, and becoming the first man to jump more than 28 feet.
In making his record jump, Beamon enjoyed a number of advantageous environmental factors. At an altitude of 2240 m, Mexico City's air had less resistance than air at sea level, although the rarefied atmosphere in Mexico City would have made a difference of only approximately 4 cm. Beamon also benefited from a tail wind of 2 meters per second on his jump, the maximum allowable for record purposes. It has been estimated that the tail wind and altitude may have improved Beamon's long jump distance by 31 cm (12.2 in.).
In addition to Beamon's record, world records were broken in most of the sprinting and jumping events at the 1968 Olympic Games. During the same hour Lee Evans set the world record for 400 metres that lasted for almost 20 years.
Beamon graduated from Adelphi University in 1972 with a degree in sociology. In 1999, Beamon and his wife, Milana Walter Beamon, co-wrote a book about his life, The Man Who Could Fly. He has been inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame and the Olympic Hall of Fame.
Harry BelafonteActor, Singer & Civil Rights Activist
March 1, 1927
Civil Rights Activist, Actor & Singer
“Each and every one of you has the power, the will and the capacity to make a difference in the world in which you live in. … You should go through life knowing, ‘I am somebody.’”
Harry Belafonte has achieved lasting fame for such songs as “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O),” and for his humanitarian work.
The oldest son of Caribbean immigrants, Harry Belafonte spent his early years in New York City. His mother worked as a dressmaker and a house cleaner, and his father served as a cook in the British Royal Navy. As a young child, Belafonte's parents divorced.
The boy was sent to Jamaica, his mother's native country, to live with relatives. There, he saw firsthand the oppression of blacks by the English authorities, which left a lasting impression on him.
Belafonte returned to New York City's Harlem neighborhood in 1939 to live with his mother. They struggled in poverty, and Belafonte was often cared for by others while his mother worked. “The most difficult time in my life was when I was a kid,” he later told People magazine. “My mother gave me affection, but, because I was left on my own, also a lot of anguish.”
Dropping out of high school, Belafonte enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1944. He served in the Pacific during the end of World War II.
After being discharged from the service, Belafonte returned to New York City. He seemed directionless for a time, working a series of odd jobs. But Belafonte soon found his career inspiration after attending a performance of the American Negro Theater.
So moved by the performance, Belafonte decided that he wanted to become an actor. He studied drama at the Dramatic Workshop run by Erwin Piscator. His classmates included Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau and Rod Steiger. Belafonte appeared in numerous American Negro Theater productions, but he caught his first big break, singing for a class project.
He impressed Monte Kay, who offered Belafonte the opportunity to perform at a jazz club called the Royal Roost. Backed by such talented musicians as Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, Belafonte became a popular act at the club. In 1949, he landed his first recording deal.
By 1950, Belafonte had switched his musical style, dropping popular music from his repertoire in favor of folk. He became an avid student of traditional folk songs from around the world, and started appearing in such New York City folk clubs as the Village Vanguard.
Debuting on Broadway in 1953, Belafonte won a Tony Award for his performance in John Murray Anderson's Almanac, in which he performed several of his own songs. He also appeared in another well-received musical revue, 3 for Tonight, in 1955.
Around this time, Belafonte launched his film career. He played a school principal opposite Dorothy Dandridge in his first movie, Bright Road (1953). The pair reunited the following year for Otto Preminger's Carmen Jones, a film adaptation of the Broadway musical.
Oscar Hammerstein II had written the musical as a contemporary, African-American version of the opera Carmen, by Georges Bizet. Belafonte received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Joe, a soldier who falls for the title character, played by Dandridge.
The success of Carmen Jones made Belafonte a star, and soon he became a music sensation. After signing with RCA Victor Records, he released Calypso (1956), an album featuring his take on traditional Caribbean folk music. “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” proved to be proved a huge hit.
More than just a popular tune, it also had a special meaning for Belafonte. “That song is a way of life,” Belafonte later told The New York Times. “It's a song about my father, my mother, my uncles, the men and women who toil in the banana fields, the cane fields of Jamaica.”
Calypso introduced America to a new genre of music, and became the first album to sell more than one million copies. Belafonte also worked with other folk artists, including Bob Dylan and the legendary Odetta. The pair sang their version of the traditional children's song “There's a Hole in My Bucket.” In 1961, Belafonte had another big hit with “Jump in the Line.”
Belafonte proved to be a ground-breaker in another realm as well: He became the first African-American television producer, working on numerous musical shows. In the early 1970s, Belafonte teamed up with singer Lena Horne for a one-hour special.
By the mid-1970s, Belafonte was no longer hitting the charts. On the big screen, Belafonte had some success with his collaborations with longtime friend Sidney Poitier, including 1972's Buck and the Preacher and 1974's Uptown Saturday Night. But despite this success, Belafonte decided to take a break from movie-making.
He made numerous television appearances in the 1970s and 1980s, including a guest spot on The Muppet Show, on which he sang several of his most popular songs. Belafonte also worked with Marlo Thomas on the 1974 children's special Free To Be … You and Me.
In the 1990s, Belafonte returned to the big screen with two films. He starred with John Travolta in White Man's Burden (1995), which was a commercial and critical disappointment. The following year, Belafonte played against type as a heartless gangster in Robert Altman's Kansas City. He also appeared in 2006's Bobby, a film about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.
Always outspoken, Belafonte found inspiration for his activism from such figures as singer Paul Robeson; writer and activist W.E.B. Du Bois; and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the 1950s, Belafonte met civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. The pair became good friends, and Belafonte emerged as a strong voice for the civil rights movement. He provided financial backing for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Council and participated in numerous rallies and protests. Belafonte was with King when the civil rights leader gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., and visited with him days before King was assassinated in 1968.
During the mid-1960s, Belafonte also began supporting new African artists. He first met exiled South-African artist Miriam Makeba, known as “Mama Africa,” in London in 1958 and together they won Grammy for Best Folk Recording in 1966. He helped introduce her to international and to American audiences, as well as call attention to life under apartheid in South Africa. Belafonte extended his voice as an activist for civil rights at home in America and abroad.
In the 1980s, Belafonte led an effort to help people in Africa. He came up the idea of recording a song with other celebrities, which would be sold to raise funds to provide famine relief in Ethiopia. Written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie, “We Are the World” featured vocals by such music greats as Ray Charles, Diana Ross, Bruce Springsteen and Smokey Robinson. The song was released in 1985, raising millions of dollars and becoming an international hit.
Over the years, Belafonte has supported for many other causes as well. In addition to his role as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, the performer has campaigned to end the practice of apartheid in South Africa, and has spoken out against U.S. military actions in Iraq.
Belafonte has sometimes landed in hot water for his candidly expressed opinions. In 2006, he made headlines when he referred to President George W. Bush as “the greatest terrorist in the world” for launching the war in Iraq. He also insulted African-American members of the Bush administration General Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice, referring to them as “house slaves.”
Despite media pressure, he steadfastly refused to apologize for his remarks. In regards to Powell and Rice, Belafonte said “you are serving those who continue to design our oppression.”
Belafonte lives in New York City with his third wife Pamela Frank. The couple wed in April 2008. Belafonte has two children with second wife, dancer Julie Robinson, to whom he was married for nearly 50 years. He also has two other children from his first marriage to Marguerite Byrd.
Chuck BerryGuitarist, Singer & Songwriter
October 18, 1926
Guitarist, Singer & Songwriter
“If the people in the audience are talking, you're being ignored. If the people are gazing at you, you've got something they want to hear.”
Chuck Berry was one of the most popular and influential performers of rhythm-and-blues and rock ‘n’ roll music during the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. He's known for songs like “Johnny B. Goode” and “My Ding-a-Ling.”
Early Life in St. Louis
Considered by many as the “father of rock ‘n’ roll,” Chuck Berry was born Charles Anderson Edward Berry on October 18, 1926, in St. Louis, Missouri. His parents, Martha and Henry Berry, were the grandchildren of slaves, and are among the many African Americans who migrated from the rural South to St. Louis in search of employment during the World War I era.
Martha Berry was one of the few black women of her generation to gain a college education, and Henry Berry was an industrious carpenter as well as a deacon at the Antioch Baptist Church.
At the time of Chuck Berry's birth, St. Louis was a sharply segregated city. He grew up in a north St. Louis neighborhood called the Ville–a self-contained middle-class black community that was a haven for black-owned businesses and institutions.
The neighborhood was so segregated that Berry had never even encountered a white person until the age of three, when he saw several white firemen putting out a fire. “I thought they were so frightened that their faces were whitened from fear of going near the big fire,” he once recalled. “Daddy told me they were white people, and their skin was always white that way, day or night.”
The fourth of six children, Berry pursued a variety of interests and hobbies as a child. He enjoyed doing carpentry work for his father and learned photography from his uncle, Harry Davis, a professional photographer. Berry also showed an early talent for music and began singing in the church choir from the age of six. He attended Sumner High School, a prestigious private institution that was the first all-black high school west of the Mississippi.
For the school's annual talent show, Berry sang Jay McShann's “Confessin’ the Blues” while accompanied by a friend on the guitar. Although the school administration bristled at what they viewed as the song's crude content, the performance was an enormous hit with the study body and sparked Berry's interest in learning the guitar himself. He started guitar lessons soon after, studying with local jazz legend Ira Harris.
Berry also grew into something of a troublemaker in high school. He was uninterested in his studies and felt constrained by the strict decorum and discipline. In 1944, at the age of 17, Berry and two friends dropped out of high school and set off on an impromptu road trip to California. They had gone no farther than Kansas City when they came across a pistol abandoned in a parking lot and, seized by a terrible fit of youthful misjudgment, decided to go on a robbing spree.
Brandishing the pistol, they robbed a bakery, a clothing store and a barbershop, then stole a car before being arrested by highway patrolmen. The three young men received the maximum penalty–10 years in jail–despite being minors and first-time offenders.
Berry served three years in the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men outside of Jefferson, Missouri, before gaining release on good behavior on October 18, 1947, which was his 21st birthday. He returned to St. Louis, where he worked for his father's construction business and part-time as a photographer and as a janitor at a local auto plant.
In 1948, Berry married Themetta “Toddy” Suggs, with whom he would eventually have four children. He also took up the guitar again when, in 1951, his former high school classmate Tommy Stevens invited him to join his band. They played at local black nightclubs in St. Louis, and Berry quickly developed a reputation for his lively showmanship.
At the end of 1952, he met Jonnie Johnson, a local jazz pianist, and joined his band, the Sir John's Trio. Berry revitalized the band and introduced upbeat country numbers into the band's repertoire of jazz and pop music. They played at the Cosmopolitan, an upscale black nightclub in East St. Louis, which began attracting white patrons.
Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll
In the mid-1950s, Berry began taking road trips to Chicago, the Midwest capital of black music, in search of a record contract. Early in 1955, he met the legendary blues musician Muddy Waters, who suggested that Berry go meet with Chess Records. A few weeks later, Berry wrote and recorded a song called “Maybellene” and took it to the executives at Chess.
They immediately offered him a contract; within months, “Maybellene” had reached No. 1 on the R&B charts and No. 5 on the pop charts. With its unique blend of a rhythm and blues beat, country guitar licks and the flavor of Chicago blues and narrative storytelling, many music historians consider “Maybellene” the first true rock ‘n’ roll song.
Berry quickly followed with a slew of other unique singles that continued to carve out the new genre of rock ‘n’ roll: “Roll Over, Beethoven,” “Too Much Monkey Business” and “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man,” among others.
Berry managed to achieve crossover appeal with white youths without alienating his black fans by mixing blues and R&B sounds with storytelling that spoke to the universal themes of youth. In the late 1950s, songs such as “Johnny B. Goode,” “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “Carol” all managed to crack the Top 10 of the pop charts by achieving equal popularity with youths on both sides of the racial divide. “I made records for people who would buy them,” Berry said. “No color, no ethnic, no political–I don't want that, never did.”
Berry's soaring music career was derailed again in 1961 when he was convicted under the Mann Act of illegally transporting a woman across state lines for “immoral purposes.” Three years earlier, in 1958, Berry had opened Club Bandstand in the predominantly white business district of downtown St. Louis.
The next year, while traveling in Mexico, he had met a 14-year-old Native American waitress–and sometimes prostitute–and brought her back to St. Louis to work at his club. However, he fired her only weeks later, and when she was then arrested for prostitution, charges were pressed against Berry that ended with him spending yet another 20 months in jail.
When Berry was released from prison in 1963, he picked up right where he left off, writing and recording popular and innovative songs. His 1960s hits include “Nadine,” “You Can Never Tell,” “Promised Land” and “Dear Dad.” Nevertheless, Berry was never the same man after his second stint in prison.
Carl Perkins, his friend and partner on a 1964 British concert tour, observed, “Never saw a man so changed. He had been an easygoing guy before, the kinda guy who'd jam in dressing rooms, sit and swap licks and jokes. In England he was cold, real distant and bitter. It wasn't just jail, it was those years of one-nighters, grinding it out like that can kill a man, but I figure it was mostly jail.”
Berry released his last album of original music, Rock It, to fairly positive reviews in 1979. While Berry continued to perform into the 1990s, he would never recapture the magnetic energy and originality that had first catapulted him to fame during the ‘50s and ‘60s. In his later years he developed a reputation for giving out-of-tune, unrehearsed performances.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Berry still remains one of the genre's most influential musicians. In 1985, he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. A year later, in 1986, he became the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's first inductee. Perhaps the best measure of Berry's influence is the extent to which other popular artists have copied his work. The Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles have all covered various Chuck Berry songs, and Berry's influences–both subtle and profound—pervade all of their music.
Introducing Berry at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones said, “It's very difficult for me to talk about Chuck Berry ‘cause I've lifted every lick he ever played. This is the man that started it all!”
Mary McLeod BethuneEducator, Author & Civil Rights Leader
April 7, 1915
July 17, 1959
Educator, Author & Civil Rights Leader
“We have a powerful potential in out youth, and we must have the courage to change old ideas and practices so that we may direct their power toward good ends.”
Mary McLeod Bethune was an educator and activist, serving as president of the National Association of Colored Women and founding the National Council of Negro Women.
Born Mary Jane Mcleod on July 10, 1875, in Mayesville, South Carolina, Mary Mcleod Bethune was a leading educator and civil rights activist. She grew up in poverty, as one of 17 children born to former slaves. Everyone in the family worked, and many toiled in the fields, picking cotton. Bethune became the one and only child in her family to go to school when a missionary opened a school nearby for African-American children. Traveling miles each way, she walked to school each day and did her best to share her newfound knowledge with her family.
Bethune later received a scholarship to the Scotia Seminary (now Barber-Scotia College), a school for girls in Concord, North Carolina. After graduating from the seminary in 1893, she went to the Dwight Moody's Institute for Home and Foreign Missions (also known as Moody Bible Institute) in Chicago. Bethune complete her studies there two years later. Returning to the South, she began her career as a teacher.
For nearly a decade, Bethune worked as an educator. She married fellow teacher Albertus Bethune in 1898. The couple had one son together–Albert Mcleod Bethune–before ending their marriage in 1907. She believed that education provided the key to racial advancement. To that end, Bethune founded the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls in Daytona, Florida, in 1904. Starting out with only five students, she helped grow the school to more 250 students over the next years.
Bethune served as the school's president, and she remained its leader even after it was combined with the Cookman Institute for Men in 1923 (some sources say 1929). The merged institution became known as the Bethune-Cookman College. The college was one of the few places that African-American students could pursue a college degree. Bethune stayed with the college until 1942.
Activist and Advisor
In addition to her work at the school, Bethune did much to contribute to American society at large. She served as the president of the Florida chapter of the National Association of Colored Women for many years. In 1924, Bethune became the organization's national leader, beating out fellow reformer Ida B. Wells for the top post.
Bethune also became involved in government service, lending her expertise to several presidents. President Calvin Coolidge invited her to participate a conference on child welfare. For President Herbert Hoover, she served on Commission on Home Building and Home Ownership and was appointed to a committee on child health. But her most significant roles in public service came from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In 1935, Bethune became a special advisor to President Roosevelt on minority affairs. That same year, she also started up her own civil rights organization, the National Council of Negro Women. Bethune created this organization to represent numerous groups working on critical issues for African-American women. She received another appointment from President Roosevelt the following year.
In 1936, she became the director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration. One of her main concerns in this position was helping young people find job opportunities. In addition to her official role in the Roosevelt administration, Bethune became a trusted friend and adviser to both the president and his wife Eleanor Roosevelt.
Later Years and Legacy
One of the nation's leading educators and activists, Mary Mcleod Bethune spent much of the rest of her life devoted to social causes after leaving Bethune-Cookman College in 1942. She took up residence at its new National Council of Negro Women headquarters in a Washington, D.C., townhouse in 1943 and lived there for several years.
An early member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, she helped represent the group at the 1945 conference on the founding of the United Nations along with W.E.B. Du Bois. In the early 1950s, President Harry Truman appointed her to a committee on national defense and appointed her to serve as an official delegate to a presidential inauguration in Liberia.
Eventually returning to Florida in her retirement, Bethune died on May 18, 1955, in Daytona, Florida. She remembered for her work to advance the rights of both African Americans and women. Before her death, Bethune penned “My Last Will and Testament,” which served as a reflection on her own life and legacy in addition to addressing a few estate matters.
Among her list of spiritual bequests, she wrote “I leave you a thirst for education. Knowledge is the prime need of the hour.” Bethune closed with “If I have a legacy to leave my people, it is my philosophy of living and serving.”
Since her passing, Bethune has been honored in many ways. In 1973, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame. The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp with her likeness in 1985. In 1994, the U.S. Park Service bought the former headquarters of the NCNW. The site is now known as the Mary Mcleod Bethune Council House National Historic Site.
The Black PanthersAfrican-American Activist/Freedom Fighters
October 15, 1966
Black American Activists
“Black Power is giving power to people who have not had power to determine their destiny.”
– Huey Newton
Black Panther Party or BPP (originally the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense) was a revolutionary black nationalist and socialist organization active in the United States from 1966 until 1982.
In October of 1966, in the wake of the assassination of black leader Malcolm X and on the heels of the massive urban uprising in Watts, California and at the height of the civil rights movement led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Huey P. Newton gathered a few of his longtime friends, including Bobby Seale and David Hilliard, and developed a skeletal outline for this organization.
Originally named the Black Panther Party For Self–defense, the Panthers practiced militant self-defense of minority communities against the U.S. government, and fought to establish revolutionary socialism through mass organizing and community based programs. The black panther was used as the symbol because it was a powerful image, one that had been used effectively by the short-lived voting rights group the Lowndes County (Alabama) Freedom Organization.
The party was one of the first organizations in U.S. history to militantly struggle for ethnic minority and working class emancipation – a party whose agenda was the revolutionary establishment of real economic, social, and political equality across gender and color lines. Black Panther Party objectives and philosophy expanded and evolved rapidly during the party's existence, so ideological consensus within the party was difficult to achieve, and some prominent members openly disagreed with the views of the leaders.
The organization's official newspaper, The Black Panther, was first circulated in 1967. Also that year, the Black Panther Party marched on the California State Capitol in Sacramento in protest of a selective ban on weapons. By 1968, the party had expanded into many cities throughout the United States. Peak membership neared 10,000 by 1969, and their newspaper, under the editorial leadership of Eldridge Cleaver, had a circulation of 250,000. The group created a Ten-Point Program, a document that called for ‘Land, Bread, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice and Peace’, as well as exemption from conscription for African-American men, among other demands. With the Ten–Point program, ‘What We Want, What We Believe’, the Black Panther Party expressed its economic and political grievances.
Gaining national prominence, the Black Panther Party became an icon of the counterculture of the 1960s. Ultimately, the Panthers condemned black nationalism as “black racism” and became more focused on socialism without racial exclusivity. They instituted a variety of community social programs designed to alleviate poverty and improve health among inner city black communities as well as soften its public image. The Black Panther Party's most widely known programs were its armed citizens' patrols to evaluate behavior of police officers and its Free Breakfast for Children program. However, the group's political goals were often overshadowed by their confrontational, militant, and violent tactics against police.
Conflicts between Black Panthers and police in the late 1960s and early ‘70s led to shoot-outs in California, New York, and Chicago, one of which resulted in Newton going to prison for the murder of a patrolman.
By the mid-1970s, having lost many members and having fallen out of favor with many American black leaders, who objected to the party's methods, the Panthers turned from violence to concentrate on conventional politics and on providing social services in neighborhoods. The party was effectively disbanded by the early 1980s.
Guion BlufordAstronaut, Pilot & Scientist
November 22, 1942
Astronaut, Pilot & Scientist
“Look famous. Be legendary. Appear Complex. Act easy. Radiate presence. Travel light. Seem a dream. Prove real.”
As a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle ‘Challenger’ in 1983, Guion S. Bluford became the first African American to travel into space.
Early Life and Career
Guion Stewart Bluford Jr. was born on November 22, 1942, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The son of a mechanical engineer and a special education teacher, Bluford grew up in a household where academic success was encouraged.
He enrolled at Pennsylvania State University as a member of the U.S. Air Force ROTC program and graduated in 1964 with a degree in aerospace engineering.
Following his pilot training at Williams Air Force Base in Arizona, Bluford flew 144 combat missions during the Vietnam War. He won several medals for his service, including the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Palm.
After the war, Bluford enrolled at the Air Force Institute of Technology, where he received both a master's degree and a PhD in aerospace engineering. During this time, he also became a staff development engineer and branch chief of the Air Force Flight Dynamics Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
First African American in Space
Of some 10,000 applicants to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) space program, Guion S. Bluford was one of 35 chosen to join the new space shuttle team in January 1978. He officially became a NASA astronaut in August 1979.
Bluford made history on August 30, 1983, when he became the first African American to experience space travel. Bluford was a specialist for mission STS-8 aboard the space shuttle Challenger, which took off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for its first night launch.
Over the course of 98 Earth orbits in 145 hours, Bluford and the crew operated a Canadian-built robot arm and conducted several biophysiological experiments. The mission ended on September 5, 1983, when the spacecraft touched down at Edwards Air Force Base in California in a night landing, another first for Challenger.
Two years later, on October 30, 1985, Bluford made his second trip to space as a specialist for mission STS 61-A aboard Challenger. He was among NASA's largest crew to date for the first dedicated Spacelab mission directed by the German Aerospace Research Establishment (DFVLR). After completing 111 Earth orbits in 169 hours, Challenger landed at Edwards Air Force Base on November 6, 1985.
Following the tragic Challenger explosion in January 1986, Bluford returned to the classroom to receive a master's in business administration from the University of Houston, Clear Lake, in 1987. However, he was determined to help the NASA space program get back on course.
Despite nearly being grounded due to a herniated disc, he was back for mission STS-39 aboard the orbiter Discovery. After taking off on April 28, 1991, the crew conducted experiments for the U.S. Department of Defense, completing 134 orbits in 199 hours before landing on May 6, 1991.
Bluford made one final trip to space on December 2, 1992, as one of five crew members of mission STS-53 aboard Discovery. Carrying a classified payload for the Department of Defense, the crew logged 115 orbits in 175 hours, returning safely on December 9, 1992. Having compiled a total of 688 hours in space, the distinguished astronaut retired from both NASA and the Air Force in 1993.
Julian BondGovernment Official, Educator & Civil Rights Activist
January 14, 1940
August 15, 2015
Educator, Author & Civil Rights Leader
“I tell young people to prepare themselves as best they can for a world that grows more challenging every day-get the best education they can, and couple that education with real-life experience in social justice work.”
Julian Bond is a civil rights leader who had to go to the Supreme Court to be allowed to take his seat in the Georgia House of Representatives.
Horace Julian Bond, generally known as Julian Bond, was born in Nashville, Tennessee, on January 14, 1940. His family moved to Pennsylvania five years later, where his father served as the first African-American president of Lincoln University. In 1957, Bond enrolled at Atlanta's Morehouse College, where he helped found The Pegasus, a literary magazine, and interned at TIME magazine.
While still a student, Bond became a founding member of the Committee on Appeal for Human Rights. He led nonviolent student protests against segregation in Atlanta parks, restaurants and movie theaters. In Raleigh, North Carolina, Bond helped form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960.
The next year, he left Morehouse to serve as the SNCC's communications director, a position he held for five years. He returned to Morehouse a decade later and received a degree in English.
Life in Politics
In 1965, Bond was voted into the Georgia House of Representatives. However, the state congressional body refused to swear him into his seat because he had endorsed a SNCC statement that decried the war in Vietnam. Martin Luther King Jr. organized a protest rally on Bond's behalf. In 1966, the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously ruled in Bond's favor on the basis of freedom of speech.
Bond was finally able to take his seat in the Georgia House of Representatives in 1967. He served in the Georgia House until 1975, and went on to serve in the Georgia Senate from 1975 to 1986. During his tenure in the state legislature, Bond wrote over 60 bills that were ratified as law.
Bond attended the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where he was nominated as a vice-presidential candidate. He was the first African American to receive the honor, but withdrew his name because he was not old enough to hold the office according to constitutional guidelines.
In 1986, Bond entered a Democratic primary to run for the U.S. House of Representatives in Georgia. He lost the heavily contested race to John Lewis, another civil rights leader and former SNCC member.
From 1971 to 1979, Bond served as president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization he also co-founded. He was president of Atlanta's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People before becoming the chairman of the national NAACP, a position he held from 1998 until 2010. He is now chairman emeritus of the NAACP and president emeritus of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Bond continued to be a prominent voice in the media. He was a commentator for NBC's Today show, wrote a national newspaper column and produced poems that have appeared publications such as the Nation and the New York Times. He was also a professor of history at the University of Virginia and an adjunct professor at American University.
Death and Legacy
Julian Bond died on August 15, 2015, after a brief illness. He was 75 years old. In a statement, Southern Poverty Law Center co-founder Morris Dees said, “With Julian's passing, the country has lost one of its most passionate and eloquent voices for the cause of justice. He advocated not just for African Americans, but for every group, indeed every person subject to oppression and discrimination, because he recognized the common humanity in us all.”
Gwendolyn BrooksPoet & Teacher
June 7, 1917
December 3, 2000
Poet & Teacher
“When you love a man, he becomes more than a body. His physical limbs expand, and his outline recedes, vanishes. He is rich and sweet and right. He is part of the world, the atmosphere, the blue sky and the blue water.”
Gwendolyn Brooks was a postwar poet best known as the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize, for her 1949 book Annie Allen.
Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born on June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas. When Brooks was six weeks old, her family moved to Chicago as part of the Great Migration. Brooks was known as “Gwendie” to close friends and family during her childhood.
Brooks attended three high schools: the prestigious, integrated Hyde Park High School; the all-black Wendell Phillips Academy High School; and the integrated Englewood High School. The racial prejudice that she encountered at some of these institutions would shape her understanding of social dynamics in the United States and influence her writing. In 1936, Brooks graduated from Wilson Junior College, having already begun to write and publish her work.
Brooks began writing at an early age. She published her first poem in a children's magazine at age 13. By 16, she had published approximately 75 poems. She began submitting her work to the Chicago Defender, a leading African-American newspaper. Her work included ballads, sonnets and free verse, drawing on musical rhythms and the content of inner-city Chicago. She would later say of this time in her life, “I felt that I had to write. Even if I had never been published, I knew that I would go on writing, enjoying it and experiencing the challenge.”
Brooks worked as a secretary to support herself while she developed as a poet. She took part in poetry workshops, including one organized by Inez Cunningham Stark, an affluent woman with a literary background. While Stark was white, all of the participants in her workshop were African American. Brooks made great strides during this period, garnering official recognition. In 1943, her work received an award from the Midwestern Writers’ Conference.
Brooks published her first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville, in 1945. The book was an instant success, leading to a Guggenheim Fellowship and other honors. Her second book, Annie Allen, appeared in 1949. Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for Annie Allen, making her the first African American to win the coveted Pulitzer. Other honors received throughout her lifetime include Poetry magazine's Eunice Tietjens Prize.
In the early 1960s, Brooks embarked on a teaching career as an instructor of creative writing. She taught at Columbia College in Chicago, Chicago State University, Northeastern Illinois University, Columbia University and the University of Wisconsin. She also continued to write and publish. Her long poem “In the Mecca,” published in 1968, was nominated for a National Book Award in poetry.
Brooks married Henry Lowington Blakely Jr. in 1939. The couple had two children, Henry and Nora.
Gwendolyn Brooks died of cancer on December 3, 2000, at the age of 83, at her home in Chicago, Illinois. She remained a resident of Chicago's South Side until her death. She is buried at Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Island, Illinois.
James BrownMusician, Producer, Dancer & Bandleader
May 3, 1933
December 25, 2006
Musician, Producer, Dancer & Bandleader
“Sometimes you struggle so hard to feed your family one way, you forget to feed them the other way, with spiritual nourishment. Everybody needs that.”
James Brown, the “Godfather of Soul,” was a prolific singer, songwriter and bandleader, as well as one of the most iconic figures in funk and soul music from 1956 to 2006.
James Brown had more honorifics attached to his name than any other performer in music history. He was variously tagged “Soul Brother Number One,” “the Godfather of Soul,” “the Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” “Mr. Dynamite” and even “the Original Disco Man.” This much is certain: what became known as soul music in the Sixties, funk music in the Seventies and rap music in the Eighties is directly attributable to James Brown.
His transformation of gospel fervor into the taut, explosive intensity of rhythm & blues, combined with precision choreography and dynamic showmanship, served to define the directions black music would take from the release of his first R&B hit (“Please Please Please”) in 1956 to the present day.
Brown’s life history documents one triumph over adversity after another. He was born into poverty in Barnwell, South Carolina, during the Great Depression. As a child, he picked cotton, danced for spare change and shined shoes. At 16, he was caught and convicted of stealing, and he landed in reform school for three years. While incarcerated, he met Bobby Byrd, leader of a gospel group that performed at the prison. After his release, Brown tried his hand at semipro boxing and baseball.
A career-ending leg injury inspired him to pursue music fulltime. He joined Byrd in a group that sang gospel in and around Toccoa, Georgia. But then Byrd and Brown attended a rhythm & blues revue that included Hank Ballard and Fats Domino, whose performances lured them into the realm of secular music. Renaming themselves the Flames (later, the Famous Flames), they became a tightly knit ensemble that showcased their abundant talents as singers, dancers and multi-instrumentalists.
Brown rose to the fore as leader of the James Brown Revue – an entourage complete with emcee, dancers and an untouchable stage band (the J.B.’s). Reportedly sweating off up to seven pounds a night, Brown was a captivating performer who’d incorporate a furious regimen of spins, drops and shtick (such as feigning a heart attack, complete with the ritual donning and doffing of capes and a fevered return to the stage) into his skintight rhythm & blues.
What Elvis Presley was to rock and roll, James Brown became to R&B: a prolific and dominant phenom. Like Presley, he is a three-figure hitmaker, with 114 total entries on Billboard’s R&B singles charts and 94 that made the Hot 100 singles chart. Over the years, he amassed 800 songs in his repertoire while maintaining a grueling touring schedule.
Recording for the King and Federal labels throughout the Fifties and Sixties, Brown distilled R&B to its essence on such classic albums as Live at the Apollo (patterned after Ray Charles’ In Person) and singles like “Cold Sweat,” “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “I Got You (I Feel Good).” His group, the J.B.’s, was anchored by horn players and musical mainstays Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker. Brown also recorded a series of instrumental albums, taking a break from soul shouting to pursue his prowess as an organist.
By the late Sixties, Brown had attained the status of a musical and cultural revolutionary, owing to his message of black pride and self-sufficiency. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, such message songs as “Say It Loud - I’m Black and I’m Proud” reverberated throughout the black community, within which he was regarded as a leader and role model.
During this time, he began developing a hot funk sound with young musicians, such as bassist William “Bootsy” Collins, who passed through his ever-evolving band. Although his influence waned in the latter half of the Seventies, a cameo role in The Blues Brothers film in 1980 and his recognition as a forefather of rap helped trigger a resurgence. His records were more heavily sampled by rap and hip-hop acts than those of any other artist, and he achieved renewed street credibility by recording a single (“Unity”) with rapper Afrika Bambaataa in 1984.
Brown was among the first group of performers inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. Unfortunately, his personal life took a nose-dive in 1988, as he was investigated on a series of charges that ranged from spousal abuse and drug possession to problems with the IRS. Paroled after serving two years in prison, a chastened but resolute Brown picked up the pieces in the Nineties and carried on.
If nothing else, his status as the Godfather of Soul remained unassailable. In December 2003, shortly after his 70th birthday, James Brown was the recipient of the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors. Brown performed through much of 2006 during his Seven Decades of Funk world tour. He died of heart failure resulting from pneumonia on Christmas Day 2006. In the following days, public memorial services attracting thousands of fans were held at New York's Apollo Theater and the James Brown Arena in Augusta, Georgia, his hometown.
February 17, 1936
Film Actor, Professional Football Athlete & Activist
“I'm not interested in trying to work on people's perceptions. I am who I am, and if you don't take the time to learn about that, then your perception is going to be your problem.”
Jim Brown is a record-holding, former NFL fullback who's been elected to his sport's Hall of Fame and who's also worked as a model and film actor.
Born February 17, 1936, on St. Simons Island, off the southern coast of Georgia, James Nathaniel Brown experienced a childhood shaped by struggle. He was just two weeks old when his father abandoned the family. His mother soon departed from his life as well, taking a job as a maid in Manhasset, New York, and leaving the care of her young son in the hands of Brown's great-grandmother.
Brown was 8 years old when his mother finally sent for him to come live with her in New York. In his new home, Brown did well, thriving on the football field for the largely white Manhasset High School. During his senior year, the young running back averaged an astonishing 14.9 yards per carry, more than good enough to earn him a spot at Syracuse University.
In college, Brown dominated the competition, both on the football field and on the basketball court. He also ran track and was a talented lacrosse player.
As a running back, Brown earned national attention for his strong, explosive play. In the final regular-season game of his senior year, Brown capped off his college career by rushing for 197 yards, scoring six touchdowns and kicking seven extra points.
In 1957, the Cleveland Browns selected Brown with the sixth overall pick in the National Football League draft. Brown wasted little time adjusting to the new competition, leading the league in rushing yards with 942 on his way to capturing the league's Rookie of the Year honors.
It was just the start. Over the next seven seasons Brown became the standard-bearer for all NFL running backs. At a time when defenses were geared toward stopping the ground game, Brown bulldozed his way past opposition, posting remarkable season totals: 1,527 yards (1958), 1,329 (1959), 1,257 (1960), 1,408 (1961), 1,863 (1963), 1,446 (1964) and 1,544 (1965).
His only “down” year came in 1962, when Brown rushed for 996 yards. It was the one season in his brilliant but brief football career that he failed to lead the league in yards.
In 1964, Brown steered Cleveland to the NFL championship, where the club routed Baltimore to win the title, 27-0. In the game, Brown ran for 114 yards.
But Brown saw a life for himself outside of football, and before the start of the 1966 season, he stunned the sports world by announcing his retirement. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.
Just 30 years old when he stepped away from the game, Brown wanted to use his post-football life to focus on a movie career. While some doubted he would stay away from the game for long, Brown stayed true to his word, leaving football for good and going on to appear in more than 30 films, including 1967's The Dirty Dozen, 1969's 100 Rifles, 1974's Three the Hard Way, 1975's Take a Hard Ride, 1982's One Down, Two to Go, 1996's Original Gangstas and 2002's On the Edge.
But trouble also followed the temperamental Brown. For much of his adult life he's been dogged by accusations of assault. In 1968 he was accused of his throwing his then girlfriend off a second-story balcony. The following year he managed to escape charges that alleged he assaulted another man following a traffic accident.
More recently, in 1999, Brown was convicted of smashing the window of his wife's car. After refusing to attend counseling, Brown served a six-month jail sentence in 2002.
But Brown's life has also been defined by his support of African-American causes. In the 1960s he threw his support behind black-owned business by helping to create the Negro Industrial Economic Union. In the late 1980s he started the Amer-I-Can program, which aimed to turn the lives around of young gang members. He's also been fiercely critical of modern black athletes, such as Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, for not being better role models for younger black athletes.
Rod CarewProfessional Baseball Player & Coach
October 1, 1945
Professional Baseball Player & Coach
“Your first hit in the majors – that's tops. It means you're on your way. When you get the first hit, then you can get the rest.”
Rod Carew is a former Major League Baseball first baseman, second baseman and coach who played for the Minnesota Twins and the California Angels. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991.
Rodney Cline Carew was born on a train in Gatun, Panama on October 1, 1945. He moved with his family to New York when he was fourteen years old, and signed with the Minnesota Twins on the day he graduated from high school.
Rod Carew is one of the most talented players to ever don a major league uniform. During his illustrious nineteen-year career he was selected to eighteen All-Star teams. He is the all-time All-Star vote leader with thirty-three million votes – six million more than the runner-up. His career statistics explain why on January 8, 1991, he became only the 22nd player in history to be voted into Baseball's Hall of Fame on the first ballot.
Rod had a lifetime batting average of .328 and averaged better than .300 for 15 consecutive seasons. He averaged .344 for the decade of the seventies.
In his twelve seasons with the Minnesota Twins, and seven with the California Angels, Rod amassed 3,053 career hits, twelfth on the all-time list at the time of his retirement. He won seven batting titles, a figure surpassed only by Ty Cobb, Tony Gwynn and Honus Wagner. Rod and Willie Mays are the only players in baseball history to be Rookie of the Year (1967), Most Valuable Player (1977), have 3,000 hits (1985) and be voted into the Hall of Fame (1991).
He was also named the Roberto Clemente Award winner (1977) by Major League Baseball as the player who best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship and community involvement. He was only the third person to have his uniform (#29) retired by two teams. A more complete list of his incredible career achievements are listed on the attached pages.
Upon retiring in 1986, Rod decided he would devote his time to working with children. He realized a life long dream in the spring of 1987 when The Rod Carew Baseball School opened in Placentia, California.
The 7,400 square foot state-of-the-art hitting laboratory was a tremendous success from the day its doors opened. The Rod Carew Baseball School became a valuable resource to major league teams as numerous players, managers and hitting instructors turned to Rod and his methods. When he felt the urge to return to the major leagues, Rod signed with the California Angels in 1992 as their major league hitting instructor.
His impact on the Angels was indisputable as the team batting average rose more than thirty points during Rod's tenure with the club. In November 1999, Rod was named Major League Hitting Instructor for the Milwaukee Brewers, a position he held until he resigned in October 2001.
When he's not preaching his art and science, Rod spends a lot of his free time in pursuit of funds to be used in the fight to find a cure for pediatric cancers. In one memorable and emotional appeal by Rod to a joint session of Congress in the fall of 1998, $50,000,000 was appropriated to the National Institutes of Health for pediatric cancer research. In the past ten years, the Rod Carew Children's Cancer Golf Classic has also raised more than four million dollars in this fight.
In addition to his Hall of Fame honors, Rod received the 1991 Muscular Dystrophy Association Life Time Achievement Award in recognition of his accomplishments on and off the field. Past winners include Joe Montana, Wayne Gretzky and Magic Johnson. Rod was also honored by General Mills in 1991 when he became one of the select few to ever be featured on a Wheaties box. That year Rod was also named Captain of the American League All-Star team. In August 2002, Rod was inducted into the United States Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame, as he served in the Marine Reserves in the late sixties.
Today, in addition to his charitable works, Rod is still actively involved in baseball.
He is currently in his 10th season on the executive staff of the Minnesota Twins and his fourth with the Los Angeles Angels. He also works for the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball as a Special Advisor for International Player Development. In this role with Major League Baseball, Rod travels nationally and internationally to train and develop young hitters. In past years he visited locations as far away as Italy, Australia and Puerto Rico. Additionally, he was selected for the Chevrolet-sponsored Major League Baseball Latino Legends and to the Pepsi Max Field of Dreams teams as voted by the fans.
In September 2015, Rod suffered a massive heart attack. He had an LVAD (left ventricular assist devise) implanted into his heart. He is awaiting a heart transplant. In the interim he does what he knows and loves best. He imparts his knowledge of baseball to amateurs and professional players alike. Rod and his wife Rhonda also lead the fight for heart health awareness through a campaign with the American Heart Association.
Rod Carew is a dedicated family man and successful businessman who continues to be a role model for all young people. During his career he was respected not only as a great talent, but as a class act in and out of uniform. He currently resides in Coto de Caza, California.
Diahann CarrollTheater Actress, Film Actress, Singer & Television Actress
July 17, 1935
Theater Actress, Film Actress, Singer & Television Actress
“You have to keep your sanity as well as know how to distance yourself from it while still holding onto the reins tightly. That is a very difficult thing to do, but I'm learning.”
Diahann Carroll is an actress of stage, screen and TV known for her show Julia and films such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Carroll made a number of films during her career and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her work in Claudine in 1974. She starred in No Strings (1962) and also appeared in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1979).
It wasn't until she was cast as the lead in Julia in 1968, however, that Carroll became a bona fide celebrity. The role made her the first African-American woman to star in her own television series. She was nominated for an Emmy Award for Julia in 1969 and won the Golden Globe Award in 1968.
Carroll is also well known for her role as jet setter Dominique Deveraux on Dynasty from the 1980s. She received her third Emmy nomination in 1989 for her role on A Different World. Carroll was scheduled to return to the Broadway stage in the 2014 revival of A Raisin in the Sun as Mama, but withdrew prior to opening citing the demands of the rehearsal and performance schedule. Most recently, Carroll has made recurring guest appearances on the hit dramedy Grey's Anatomy and a recurring role in the USA Network's series White Collar.
Carroll married four times, first to record producer Monte Kay. The union produced a daughter, Suzanne Kay Bamford, who became a freelance media journalist. In 1973, Carroll surprised the press by marrying Las Vegas boutique owner Fred Glusman. Several weeks later, she filed for divorce, charging Glusman with physical abuse. In 1975, she married Robert DeLeon, a managing editor of Jet. She was widowed two years later when DeLeon was killed in a car crash. Carroll's fourth marriage was to singer Vic Damone in 1987. The union, which Carroll admitted was turbulent, had a legal separation in 1991, reconciliation, and divorce in 1996. Carroll for a time also dated and was engaged to British television host and producer David Frost.
George Washington CarverScientist, Botanist, Educator & Inventor
January 5, 1943
Scientist, Botanist, Educator & Inventor
“Learn to do common things uncommonly well; we must always keep in mind that anything that helps fill the dinner pail is valuable.”
It is rare to find a man of the caliber of George Washington Carver. A man who would decline an invitation to work for a salary of more than $100,000 a year (almost a million today) to continue his research on behalf of his countrymen.
As an agricultural chemist, Carver discovered three hundred uses for peanuts and hundreds more uses for soybeans, pecans and sweet potatoes. Among the listed items that he suggested to southern farmers to help them economically were his recipes and improvements to/for: adhesives, axle grease, bleach, buttermilk, chili sauce, fuel briquettes, ink, instant coffee, linoleum, mayonnaise, meat tenderizer, metal polish, paper, plastic, pavement, shaving cream, shoe polish, synthetic rubber, talcum powder and wood stain.
However, Carver only applied for three patents.
- ￭ #1,522,176, 1/6/1925, Cosmetics & Plant Products
- ￭ #1,541,478, 6/9/1925, Paints & Stains
- ￭ #1,632,365, 6/14/1927, Paints & Stains
George Washington Carver was born in 1864 near Diamond Grove, Missouri on the farm of Moses Carver. He was born into difficult and changing times near the end of the Civil War. The infant George and his mother kidnapped by Confederate night-raiders and possibly sent away to Arkansas. Moses Carver found and reclaimed George after the war but his mother had disappeared forever. The identity of Carver's father remains unknown, although he believed his father was a slave from a neighboring farm.
Moses and Susan Carver reared George and his brother as their own children. It was on the Moses' farm where George first fell in love with nature, where he earned the nickname ‘The Plant Doctor’ and collected in earnest all manner of rocks and plants.
He began his formal education at the age of twelve, which required him to leave the home of his adopted parents. Schools segregated by race at that time with no school available for black students near Carver's home. He moved to Newton County in southwest Missouri, where he worked as a farm hand and studied in a one-room schoolhouse. He went on to attend Minneapolis High School in Kansas. College entrance was a struggle, again because of racial barriers. At the age of thirty, Carver gained acceptance to Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, where he was the first black student. Carver had to study piano and art and the college did not offer science classes.
Intent on a science career, he later transferred to Iowa Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) in 1891, where he gained a Bachelor of Science degree in 1894 and a Master of Science degree in bacterial botany and agriculture in 1897. Carver became a member of the faculty of the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanics (the first black faculty member for Iowa College), teaching classes about soil conservation and chemurgy.
In 1897, Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute for Negroes, convinced Carver to come south and serve as the school's Director of Agriculture. Carver remained on the faculty until his death in 1943.
Read the pamphlet – Help For Hard Times – written by Carver and forwarded by Booker T. Washington as an example of the educational material provided to farmers by Carver.
At Tuskegee, Carver developed his crop rotation method, which revolutionized southern agriculture. He educated the farmers to alternate the soil-depleting cotton crops with soil-enriching crops such as; peanuts, peas, soybeans, sweet potato, and pecans.
Helping the South
America's economy was heavily dependent upon agriculture during this era making Carver's achievements very significant. Decades of growing only cotton and tobacco had depleted the soils of the southern area of the United States of America. The economy of the farming south had been devastated by years of civil war and the fact that the cotton and tobacco plantations could no longer (ab)use slave labor. Carver convinced the southern farmers to follow his suggestions and helped the region to recover.
Carver also worked at developing industrial applications from agricultural crops. During World War I, he found a way to replace the textile dyes formerly imported from Europe. He produced dyes of 500 different shades of dye and he was responsible for the invention in 1927 of a process for producing paints and stains from soybeans. For that he received three separate patents.
God Gave Them To Me
Carver did not patent or profit from most of his products. He freely gave his discoveries to mankind. Most important was the fact that he changed the South from being a one-crop land of cotton, to being multi-crop farmlands, with farmers having hundreds of profitable uses for their new crops. "God gave them to me" he would say about his ideas, “How can I sell them to someone else?” In 1940, Carver donated his life savings to the establishment of the Carver Research Foundation at Tuskegee, for continuing research in agriculture.
Honors and Awards
George Washington Carver was bestowed an honorary doctorate from Simpson College in 1928. He was an honorary member of the Royal Society of Arts in London, England. In 1923, he received the Spingarn Medal given every year by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 1939, he received the Roosevelt medal for restoring southern agriculture.
On July 14, 1943, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt honored Carver with a national monument dedicated to his accomplishments. The area of Carver's childhood near Diamond Grove, Missouri preserved as a park, this park was the first designated national monument to an African American in the United States.
Grandmaster CazDJ, Singer-Songwriter & MC
April 18, 1959
DJ, Singer-Songwriter & MC
“All you have to know is mathematically how many times to scratch it and when to let it go – when certain things will enhance the record you're listening to.
Curtis Fisher (born April 18, 1961), better known by his stage name Grandmaster Caz, is an American rapper, songwriter and DJ. He currently works as a celebrity tour guide for Hush Hip Hop Tours, a hip-hop cultural sightseeing tour company in New York City, and is a Board member of The Universal Federation for the Preservation of Hip Hop Culture.
The first simultaneous DJ and MC in hip-hop history, Grandmaster Caz is perhaps best known for rhymes he didn't even perform –– namely, the uncredited verses that Big Bank Hank borrowed for the groundbreaking Sugarhill Gang single “Rapper's Delight.”
The fact that neither Caz nor his group the Cold Crush Brothers ever recorded an official full-length album also doesn't help shed much light on his legacy –– an unfortunate injustice, considering he was one of the most important and influential pioneers of old school rap.
Grandmaster Caz was born Curtis Fisher and grew up in the Bronx, where DJ Kool Herc began playing block parties in the early ‘70s. Caz attended his first Herc party in 1974, and was amazed by the huge, booming sound system and the way Herc worked the crowd.
Inspired to try doing the same thing, he immediately purchased some equipment and adopted the DJ name Casanova Fly (which later morphed into Grandmaster Caz). After honing his skills, Caz teamed up with JDL (aka Jerry Dee Lewis) to form the Notorious Two, and during this period became the first DJ to rap while handling records on the turntables.
Both Caz and JDL joined the Cold Crush Brothers circa 1978-1979, with Caz becoming a full-time MC. In 1979, former R&B singer and label head Sylvia Robinson discovered Caz's friend Big Bank Hank rapping along with one of Caz's practice tapes.
Impressed, she invited him to become the third member of a studio rap group called the Sugarhill Gang, which was set to record the first rap single. Without revealing the true author, Hank went to Caz and asked to borrow the rhymes for the record; Caz agreed, hoping for an eventual favor in return –– which never materialized, and neither did songwriting credit or royalties.
Despite that mishap, Caz did find a measure of underground success with the Cold Crush Brothers. They recorded several singles for the Tuff City label during the early ‘80s (compiled in 1996 on “Fresh Wild Fly & Bold”), and became one of the most popular live rap groups in New York during the pre–Run-D.M.C. era.
Most prominently, the Cold Crush Brothers appeared in the 1983 old school hip-hop film Wild Style, which has since become a cult classic; they recorded the theme song and engaged in an MC battle with their chief rivals, Grand Wizard Theodore and the Fantastic Five.
Like most other old school artists, the Cold Crush Brothers didn't survive the advent of Run-D.M.C., and Caz launched a brief solo career in the late ‘80s. Again recording for Tuff City, his singles included “Mr. Bill,” “Yvette,” “Count Basie,” “I'm Caz,” “Casanova's Rap,” and “Get Down Grandmaster.” None of them made much of an impact, and Caz faded from the music scene for a time.
With more attention being paid to the roots of hip-hop in the late ‘90s, Caz's name resurfaced as an early pioneer, and he began making appearances at historical conferences like the one staged in 1999 by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2000, he released a new single titled “MC Delight,” which addressed the “Rapper's Delight” controversy.
Wilt Chamberlain Vs. Bill RussellAfrican-American Activist/Freedom Fighters
Wilt Chamberlain: August 21, 1936
Bill Russell: February 12, 1934
Wilt Chamberlain: October 12, 1999
Professional Basketball Athletes
“If you have ability in a certain area, why not capitalize on it and improve it and use it?”
– Wilt Chamberlain
“Concentration and mental toughness are the margins of victory.”
– Bill Russell
Wilt Chamberlain was the first NBA player to score more than 30,000 cumulative points over his career, and the first and only player to score 100 points in a single game. Hailed as the greatest winner in sports, Basketball Hall of Fame center Bill Russell led the Boston Celtics to an unprecedented 11 championships in just 13 seasons.
Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell formed what is known today as the greatest big man rivalry the league has ever seen. It featured two of the greatest centers and some of the greatest teams of all-time.
Wilt and Russell, during the span of their careers, formed unquestionable dynasties with their accomplishments on the basketball court. Russell was one of the league's greatest defenders while Wilt was one of the league's best offensive players.
Bill Russell terrorized the NBA for three seasons. No one had ever seen anything quite like him. Then came Wilt Chamberlain.
Bigger by at least three inches, stronger, arguably just as quick, and in possession of the greatest offensive skills from the center position the basketball world has yet seen, Chamberlain loomed as a major threat to Russell's supremacy. On the eve of the 1959-60 NBA season, many people automatically assumed that the Russell Era was over, that the next dozen years or so would belong exclusively to Wilt Chamberlain.
Carl Braun was not one of those people. The veteran Knicks guard had played against each of the pivot greats during the exhibition season, and he figured he knew what made Bill Russell tick after watching him play from the moment he entered the NBA, fresh from winning an Olympic gold medal, in December 1956.
“This challenge by Chamberlain is going to make [Russell] better than ever,” Braun forecast. “He's got a lot of pride, and nobody is going to knock him off that All-Star team without a fight.”
Red Auerbach couldn't have said it better. Nor could Bill Russell, of course. You want to talk about an A-1 prophecy, start with this one: The Bill Russell reign of terror was only beginning.
But so was the greatest individual subplot in American team sports history. For Wilt Chamberlain was every bit as gifted as his advocates believed. He would rewrite the NBA record book many times over. He would become the greatest individual force in the sport's history. And he would prod Bill Russell into playing some of his very best basketball. Absent Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell would have been great. But because of Wilt Chamberlain's terrifying presence, Bill Russell became, as the old Army ad said, all that he could be.
“People say it was the greatest individual rivalry they've ever seen,” Russell says. “I agree with that. I have to laugh today. I'll turn on the TV and see the Knicks play the Lakers, and half the time Patrick [Ewing] isn't even guarding Shaq [O'Neal], and vice-versa. Let me assure you that if either Wilt's or Russ’ coach had ever told one of them he couldn't guard the other guy, he would have lost that player forever!”
Let's just say that in terms of this rivalry, opposites attract.
William Felton Russell
- Nickname: Mr. Rings
- Birthplace: Monroe, LA
- High School: McClymonds High School, Oakland, CA (1952)
- University: BA, University of San Francisco (1956)
- NBA Top 50 Players
- Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity
Sports Franchise History
- 1956-69: Boston Celtics
- 1966-69: Boston Celtics Coach
- 1973-77: Seattle SuperSonics Coach
- 1987-88: Sacramento Kings Coach
- 1956: Olympic Gold Medal
- 1957/58: NBA Most Valuable Player
- 1960/61: NBA Most Valuable Player
- 1961/62: NBA Most Valuable Player
- 1962/63: NBA Most Valuable Player
- 1964/65: NBA Most Valuable Player
- 1968: Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year
- 1975: Basketball Hall of Fame
- 1980: Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame
- 2006: College Basketball Hall of Fame
- 2011: Presidential Medal of Freedom
Filmography as Actor
- On the Right Track (March 06, 1981)
Wilton Norman Chamberlain
- Nickname: Wilt the Stilt
- Birthplace: Philadelphia, PA
- High School: Overbrook High School, Philadelphia, PA (1955)
- University: University of Kansas
- NBA Top 50 Players
- Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity
Sports Franchise History
- 1958–1959: Harlem Globetrotters
- 1959-64: Philadelphia/San Francisco Warriors
- 1965-68: Philadelphia 76ers
- 1968-73: Los Angeles Lakers
- 1959/60: NBA Rookie of the Year
- 1959/60: NBA Most Valuable Player
- 1965/66: NBA Most Valuable Player
- 1966/67: NBA Most Valuable Player
- 1967/68: NBA Most Valuable Player
- 1979: Basketball Hall of Fame
Filmography as Actor
- Conan the Destroyer (June 29, 1984)
Ray CharlesPianist, Songwriter, Composer, Arranger, & Singer
September 23, 1930
June 10, 2004
Pianist, Songwriter, Composer, Arranger, & Singer
“What is a soul? It's like electricity – we don't really know what it is, but it's a force that can light a room.”
Ray Charles was a pioneer of soul music, integrating R&B, gospel, pop and country to creat hits like “Unchain My Heart,” “Hit the Road Jack” and “Georgia on My Mind.” A blind genius, he is considered one of the greatest artists of all time.
Ray Charles Robinson was born on September 23, 1930, in Albany, Georgia. His father, a mechanic, and his mother, a sharecropper, moved the family to Greenville, Florida when he was an infant. One of the most traumatic events of his childhood was witnessing the drowning death of his younger brother.
Soon after his brother's death, Charles gradually began to lose his sight. He was blind by the age of 7, and his mother sent him to a state-sponsored school, the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine, Florida–where he learned to read, write and arrange music in Braille.
He also learned to play piano, organ, sax, clarinet and trumpet. The breadth of his musical interests ranged widely, from gospel to country, to blues.
Charles's mother died when he was 15, and for a year he toured on the “Chitlin’ Circuit” in the South. While on the road, he picked up a love for heroin.
At the of age 16, Charles moved to Seattle. There, he met a young Quincy Jones, a friend and collaborator he would keep for the rest of his life. Charles performed with the McSon Trio in 1940s. His early playing style closely resembled the work of his two major influences–Charles Brown and Nat King Cole. Charles later developed his distinctive sound.
In 1949, he released his first single, “Confession Blues,” with the Maxin Trio. The song did well on the R&B charts. More success on the R&B charts followed with “Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand” and “Kissa Me Baby.” By 1953, Charles landed a deal with Atlantic Records. He celebrated his first R&B hit single with the label, “Mess Around.”
A year later, Charles's now classic song, “I Got a Woman,” reached No. 1 on the R&B charts. The song reflected an advance in his musical style. He was no longer a Nat King Cole imitator. His fusion of gospel and R&B helped to create a new musical genre known as soul. By the late 1950s, Charles began entertaining the world of jazz, cutting records with members of the Modern Jazz Quartet.
Fellow musicians began to call Charles “The Genius,” an appropriate title for the ramblin’ musician, who never worked in just one style, but blended and beautified all that he touched (he also earned the nickname “Father of Soul”). Charles's biggest success was perhaps his ability to cross over into pop music too, reaching No. 6 on the pop chart and No. 1 on the R&B chart with his hit “What'd I Say.”
The year 1960 brought Charles his first Grammy Award for “Georgia on My Mind,” followed by another Grammy for the single “Hit the Road, Jack.” For his day, he maintained a rare level of creative control over his own music. Charles broke down the boundaries of music genres in 1962 with Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.
On this album, he gave his own soulful interpretations of many country classics. While thriving creatively, Charles struggled in his personal life. He continued to battle with heroin addiction. In 1965, Charles was arrested for possession.
Charles avoided jail after his arrest for possession by finally kicking the habit at a clinic in Los Angeles. His releases in the 1960s and ‘70s were hit-or-miss, but he remained one of music's most respected stars. Charles won a Grammy Award for his rendition of Stevie Wonder's “Living for the City.” Three years later, he released his autobiography Brother Ray.
In 1980, Charles appeared in the comedy The Blues Brothers with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. The music icon received a special honor a few years later as one of the first people inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Charles was recognized for his contributions to the genre alongside such fellow luminaries as James Brown, Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke and Buddy Holly.
Charles returned to the spotlight in the early 1990s with several high-profile appearances. He also recorded commercials for Pepsi-Cola, singing “You Got the Right One, Baby!” as his catchphrase, and performed “We Are the World” for the organization USA for Africa alongside the likes of Billy Joel, Diana Ross, Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen and Smokey Robinson.
Death and Legacy
In 2003, Charles had to cancel his tour for the first time in 53 years. He underwent hip replacement surgery. While that operation was successful, Charles soon learned he was suffering from liver disease. He died on June 10, 2004, at his home in Beverly Hills, California. During his lifetime, Charles recorded more than 60 albums and performed more than 10,000 concerts.
Longtime friend Quincy Jones was just of many who mourned the passing of Charles. “There will never be another musician who did as much to break down the perceived walls of musical genres,” Jones stated, according to The New York Times.
“Ray used to say that if he had a dime, he would give me a nickel. Well, I would give that nickel back to have him still be here with us, but I know that heaven has become a much better place with him in it.” More than 1,500 people came to say goodbye to the musical legend at his funeral. B.B. King, Willie Nelson and Stevie Wonder were among those who performed at the service.
Charles's final album, Genius Loves Company, released two months after his death, consists of duets with various admirers and contemporaries. His life story became a hit film entitled Ray later that year. Jamie Foxx starred as the legendary performer, and he won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Charles.
Shirley ChisholmPolitician, Educator & Author
November 30, 1924
January 1, 2005
Politician, Educator & Author
“You don't make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining. You make progress by implementing ideas.”
Shirley Chisholm became the first African-American congresswoman in 1968. Four years later, she became the first major-party black candidate to make a bid for the U.S. presidency.
Early Life and Career
Famed U.S. congresswoman and lifelong social activist Shirley Chisholm was born Shirley St. Hill on November 30, 1924, in a predominantly black neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. Chisholm spent part of her childhood in Barbados with her grandmother.
After graduating from Brooklyn College in 1946, she began her career as a teacher and went on to earn a master's degree in elementary education from Columbia University.
Chisholm served as director of the Hamilton-Madison Child Care Center from 1953 to 1959, and as an educational consultant for New York City's Bureau of Child Welfare from 1959 to 1964.
Political Career and African-American Firsts
In 1968, Shirley Chisholm made history by becoming the United States’ first African-American congresswoman, beginning the first of seven terms in the House of Representatives.
After initially being assigned to the House Forestry Committee, she shocked many by demanding reassignment. She was placed on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, eventually graduating to the Education and Labor Committee. In 1969, Chisholm became one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Chisholm went on to make history yet again, becoming the first major-party African-American candidate to make a bid for the U.S. presidency when she ran for the Democratic nomination in 1972.
A champion of minority education and employment opportunities throughout her tenure in Congress, Chisholm was also a vocal opponent of the U.S. military draft. After leaving Congress in 1983, she taught at Mount Holyoke College and was popular on the lecture circuit.
Personal Life and Legacy
Chisholm was married to Conrad Chisholm from 1949 to 1977. She wed Arthur Hardwick Jr. in 1986. She authored two books during her lifetime, Unbought and Unbossed (1970) and The Good Fight (1973).
Chisholm died on January 1, 2005, at the age of 80, in Ormond Beach (near Daytona Beach), Florida.
“She was our Moses that opened the Red Sea for us,” Robert E. Williams, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Flagler County, said of Chisholm in an interview with The Associated Press (January 2, 2005).
William Howard, Chisholm's longtime campaign treasurer, expressed similar sentiments. “Anyone that came in contact with her, they had a feeling of a careness,” Howard said, “and they felt that she was very much a part of each individual as she represented her district.”
Nat King ColeFilm Actor, Pianist, Television Actor, Singer & Television Personality
March 17, 1919
February 15, 1965
Film Actor, Pianist, Television Actor, Singer & Television Personality
“Music is emotional, and you may catch a musician in a very unemotional mood or you may not be in the same frame of mind as the musician. So a critic will often say a musician is slipping.”
Nat King Cole became the first African-American performer to host a variety TV series in 1956. He's best known for his soft baritone voice and for singles like “The Christmas Song,” “Mona Lisa“ and “Nature Boy.”
Sometimes called the father of soul music, singer Sam Cooke first reached the top of the charts in 1957 with “You Send Me.” A string of pop and R&B hits soon followed, but he actually started out as a gospel performer. Born Samuel Cook in Clarksdale, Mississippi, he grew up in Chicago as the son of a minister.
Cooke began performing with his family as a child. In his teens, he formed a quintet called the Highway QCs. Cooke modeled his early work after one of his greatest inspirations, the Soul Stirrers, a popular gospel group. Not long after graduating from high school in 1948, he got the chance of a lifetime: being asked to join the Soul Stirrers, which provided him with an opportunity to hone his craft.
After six years with the Soul Stirrers, Cooke began to branch out into secular music. He recorded his first single, 1957's “Lovable,” under the pseudonym “Dale Cooke.” Later that year, Cooke released his first number one hit, “You Send Me.” Music fans loved this ballad so much that it toppled Elvis’ “Jailhouse Rock” from the top of the charts. Before long he put his crystal-clear, velvet-smooth voice to work on such up-tempo tunes as “Only Sixteen” and “Everybody Loves To Cha Cha Cha.”
In addition to being a talented singer and songwriter, Cooke had business smarts. He established his own publishing company for his music in 1959 and negotiated an impressive contract with RCA in 1960. Not only did he get a substantial advance, but Cooke would also get ownership of his master recordings after 30 years.
Getting this was a remarkable feat for any recording artist at the time. He continued to be a pioneer behind the scenes, founding his own record label in the early 1960s. Working with other artists on his label, Cooke helped develop the careers of Bobby Womack and Billy Preston, among others.
More hits followed Cooke's move to RCA, including 1960's “Chain Gang.” Behind the song's catchy rhythm mimicking the sound of prisoners breaking rocks, the song also served as a social commentary by Cooke. He continued to win over fans with a variety of musical styles, from the 1960 ballad “Wonderful World” to the 1962 dance track “Twistin’ the Night Away.” In 1963, Cooke once again charted with his ode to loneliness, “Another Saturday Night.”
Tragic Death and Legacy
No one knows for certain what exactly happened in the early hours of December 11, 1964. Cooke had been out the night before, reportedly drinking at a Los Angeles bar where he met a woman named Elisa Boyer. The pair hit it off and eventually ended up at the Hacienda Motel.
There the couple had some type of altercation in their room, and Cooke then ended up in the motel's office. He reportedly clashed with the motel's manager, and the manager shot Cooke. Cooke died from his injury, which the manager claimed was inflicted in self-defense. It was later ruled justifiable homicide.
Thousands turned out to mourn the legendary singer. Ray Charles and Lou Rawls sang at his funeral in Los Angeles, and another service was held in his former hometown, Chicago. The year after his death, Cooke's record company released his song “A Change Is Gonna Come.” He wrote this civil rights anthem in response to Bob Dylan's “Blowin’ in the Wind.” It was perhaps his most pointedly political song.
No matter the circumstances of his passing, Cooke left behind a tremendous musical legacy. It only takes a listen to recordings of his live shows, such as his 1963 performance at Miami's Harlem Square Club, to recognize his contributions to soul music. And as a pop icon, Cooke has endured through his songs. Otis Redding and Al Green are among the artists who have covered his work. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
Janet CollinsPrima Ballerina
March 7, 1917
May 28, 2003
“Art serves me. I didn’t serve it. But I have to be a servant before it serves me. In other words, I have to be disciplined. There is no such thing as freedom without discipline. The one who is free is disciplined.”
Janet Collins was a ballet dancer, choreographer, and teacher. She performed on Broadway, in films, and appeared frequently on television.
The headlines about her death called her the first African American ballerina of the Metropolitan Opera, but Janet Collins was much more than that. A new biography, Night’s Dancer: The Life of Janet Collins, highlights the career of this pioneering artist, drawing partly on materials donated by Collins and others in the Library's Jerome Robbins Dance Division.
Born in New Orleans and raised in Los Angeles, Collins nurtured her talents in both dance and art, studying ballet, modern, and ethnic dances in addition to drawing and painting.
She was accomplished enough in ballet to be offered a place in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo at the age of 15 – a position she refused when it came with the requirement that she paint herself white – and versatile enough to excel as a modern dancer in Katherine Dunham’s and Lester Horton’s companies.
She had a distinctive creative voice, too, choreographing, designing costumes, and commissioning music for her own concert dances. Her New York debut garnered glowing reviews from leading dance critics like John Martin and Walter Terry, as well as Dance Magazine’s “Debutante of the Year” award in 1949.
She could choreograph, design, and dance to Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, and in the same concert enchant audiences with the folkloric Juba and fascinate them with liturgical dances set to African American spirituals.
Having established herself as a concert dancer of note, Collins was selected by Agnes de Mille for the role of Night in Cole Porter’s Broadway show, Out of This World. The show was a flop, but Collins won the Billboard Donaldson award for the best dancing on Broadway that year.
She also came to the attention of Zachary Solov, the ballet master at the Metropolitan Opera, who persuaded then director Rudolf Bing to hire her under contract as prima ballerina in a first for the company:
- “I simply went to Mr. Bing and said, ‘I want Janet Collins who happens to be a very, very versatile modern and ballet dancer… But, you see, not just because she was black… [W]hat governed my choice of picking Janet Collins was simply because I knew that I was motivated by her color because the color was necessary and I thought here was a marvelous dancer.”
– Zachary Solov, interview with Peter Conway
Still, her independence, growing spirituality, and the stresses of touring with the Met and her own company during the segregation era led her to turn more and more to teaching. She worked in academia and at a school for the deaf, using dance as a form of rehabilitation. In later years she did choreograph again, for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the San Francisco Opera, but she focused mostly on her painting.
Sam CookeSinger, Songwriter & Entrepreneur
January 22, 1931
December 11, 1964
Singer, Songwriter & Entrepreneur
“I think the secret is really observation. Well, if you observe what's going on and try to figure out how people are thinking, I think you can always write something that people will understand.”
Sam Cooke was a trailblazing recording artist who helped shape the soul and pop scene with hits like “You Send Me,” “Chain Gang” and “Sad Mood.”
Sometimes called the father of soul music, singer Sam Cooke first reached the top of the charts in 1957 with “You Send Me.” A string of pop and R&B hits soon followed, but he actually started out as a gospel performer. Born Samuel Cook in Clarksdale, Mississippi, he grew up in Chicago as the son of a minister.
Cooke began performing with his family as a child. In his teens, he formed a quintet called the Highway QCs. Cooke modeled his early work after one of his greatest inspirations, the Soul Stirrers, a popular gospel group. Not long after graduating from high school in 1948, he got the chance of a lifetime: being asked to join the Soul Stirrers, which provided him with an opportunity to hone his craft.
After six years with the Soul Stirrers, Cooke began to branch out into secular music. He recorded his first single, 1957's “Lovable,” under the pseudonym “Dale Cooke.” Later that year, Cooke released his first number one hit, “You Send Me.” Music fans loved this ballad so much that it toppled Elvis’ “Jailhouse Rock” from the top of the charts. Before long he put his crystal-clear, velvet-smooth voice to work on such up-tempo tunes as “Only Sixteen” and “Everybody Loves To Cha Cha Cha.”
In addition to being a talented singer and songwriter, Cooke had business smarts. He established his own publishing company for his music in 1959 and negotiated an impressive contract with RCA in 1960. Not only did he get a substantial advance, but Cooke would also get ownership of his master recordings after 30 years.
Getting this was a remarkable feat for any recording artist at the time. He continued to be a pioneer behind the scenes, founding his own record label in the early 1960s. Working with other artists on his label, Cooke helped develop the careers of Bobby Womack and Billy Preston, among others.
More hits followed Cooke's move to RCA, including 1960's “Chain Gang.” Behind the song's catchy rhythm mimicking the sound of prisoners breaking rocks, the song also served as a social commentary by Cooke. He continued to win over fans with a variety of musical styles, from the 1960 ballad “Wonderful World” to the 1962 dance track “Twistin’ the Night Away.” In 1963, Cooke once again charted with his ode to loneliness, “Another Saturday Night.”
Tragic Death and Legacy
No one knows for certain what exactly happened in the early hours of December 11, 1964. Cooke had been out the night before, reportedly drinking at a Los Angeles bar where he met a woman named Elisa Boyer. The pair hit it off and eventually ended up at the Hacienda Motel.
There the couple had some type of altercation in their room, and Cooke then ended up in the motel's office. He reportedly clashed with the motel's manager, and the manager shot Cooke. Cooke died from his injury, which the manager claimed was inflicted in self-defense. It was later ruled justifiable homicide.
Thousands turned out to mourn the legendary singer. Ray Charles and Lou Rawls sang at his funeral in Los Angeles, and another service was held in his former hometown, Chicago. The year after his death, Cooke's record company released his song “A Change Is Gonna Come.” He wrote this civil rights anthem in response to Bob Dylan's “Blowin’ in the Wind.” It was perhaps his most pointedly political song.
No matter the circumstances of his passing, Cooke left behind a tremendous musical legacy. It only takes a listen to recordings of his live shows, such as his 1963 performance at Miami's Harlem Square Club, to recognize his contributions to soul music. And as a pop icon, Cooke has endured through his songs. Otis Redding and Al Green are among the artists who have covered his work. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
Bill CosbyActor, Comedian & Television Producer
July 12, 1937
Actor, Comedian & Television Producer
“In order to succeed, your desire for success should be greater than your fear of failure.”
Bill Cosby is an American comedian, actor and producer, who has played a major role in the development of more positive portrayal of African-Americans on television.
Bill Cosby was born William Henry Cosby Jr. on July 12, 1937, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. With numerous awards to his credit, Bill Cosby is one of the top names in comedy. He also helped break down racial barriers on television in the 1960s with I Spy and, later, The Cosby Show.
Cosby, the oldest of four boys, grew up in Philadelphia's Germantown neighborhood. At first, the Cosbys were able to get by, financially, but the family's money began to slip when Cosby's father, William Cosby Sr., began drinking heavily. After his father enlisted in the U.S. Navy, Cosby became like a parent to his brothers. Cosby's mother, Anna, worked cleaning houses. He and his family ended up living in the Richard Allen Homes, a low-income housing project in his neighborhood. At the age of 8, Cosby suffered a great loss when his brother James, the second oldest of the boys, died.
With money very tight for his family, Cosby started shining shoes to help out when he was 9 years old. He also later found a job at a supermarket. Despite their hardships, Cosby's mother stressed the value of education and learning. She often read to Bill and his brothers, including the works by Mark Twain.
A gifted storyteller himself, Cosby learned early on that humor could be a way to make friends and to get what he wanted. Cosby excelled at making things up. As one of his teachers once noted, “William should become either a lawyer or an actor because he lies so well.”
In school, Cosby was bright but unmotivated. He liked to tell stories and jokes to his classmates more than he liked to do his schoolwork. One of his teachers encouraged him to put his performing talents to use in school plays, not in her classroom. At home, Cosby listened to a variety of radio programs and started imitating such comedians as Jerry Lewis. He also watched such television performers as Sid Caesar and Jack Benny whenever he could.
While he was more interested in sports than academics–he was active on his school's track and football teams–Cosby was placed in a high school for gifted students after scoring high on an IQ test. But Cosby failed to apply himself, and ended up falling behind in his classes.
He switched to Germantown High School, and even there he learned that he would have to repeat a grade. In frustration, Cosby dropped out of high school. He worked several odd jobs before joining the U.S. Navy in 1956.
During his military service, Cosby worked as a medical aide on ships, in several hospitals and at other facilities. He also joined the Navy's track team where he excelled, especially in the high jump event. Regretting his decision to drop out of school, Cosby earned his high school equivalency diploma while in the service. After leaving the Navy, he went to Temple University where he had been given a track scholarship.
While at Temple, Cosby landed a job as a bartender at a coffee house. He told jokes there, and eventually landed work filling in for the house comedian from time to time at a nearby club. Cosby also performed as a warm-up act for his cousin's radio show. He soon started performing at a place in New York City.
He found inspiration in the works of such comedians as Dick Gregory, an African-American comic who often talked about racial issues in his routines. Early in his career, Cosby also discussed race in his act. But he eventually dropped it from his performances, choosing to focus on telling stories about more general and universal themes.
Comedian and Actor
Nearly halfway through his college career, Cosby decided to drop out to pursue a career in stand-up comedy. He toured extensively, winning over fans along the way. In 1963, Cosby made an appearance on The Tonight Show, which helped introduce him to a national audience. He soon landed a recording contract and released his first comedy album, Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow … Right!.
He won a Grammy Award (best comedy performance) for his next effort, 1964's I Started Out as a Child. For the remainder of the 1960s, Cosby released hit album after hit album, winning another five Grammys. He would later pick up two more for his recordings for children.
In 1965, Cosby also helped show television networks and audiences alike that an African-American could play a leading role in a TV series. He starred with Robert Culp in the espionage series I Spy. The two spies pretended to be a professional tennis player (Culp) traveling with his coach (Cosby). The show ran for three years, and Cosby received three Emmy Awards for his work.
Not long after I Spy ended, Cosby starred in his own sitcom. The Bill Cosby Show ran for two seasons, from 1969 to 1971, and featured the comedian as a gym teacher at a Los Angeles high school. A former aspiring teacher, Cosby went back to school at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Around the same time, he appeared on the educational children's series The Electric Company, and developed the animated series Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, which he based on many of his childhood experiences. In 1977, Cosby received a doctorate in urban education from the university, having written his dissertation on Fat Albert.
On the big screen, Cosby enjoyed box-office success with the 1974 comedy Uptown Saturday Night, co-starring alongside Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte in the film. Continuing to attract big audiences, he appeared opposite Poitier in two comedy smashes, Let's Do It Again and A Piece of the Action, in 1975 and 1977, respectively.
‘The Cosby Show’
Once again turning to his life for inspiration, Cosby began working on a new television series. The sitcom focused on an upper-middle class African-American couple with five children. Each of the children's characters shared some traits of their real-life counterparts.
Married since 1964, Cosby and his real-life wife, Camille, had four daughters and one son. It took some time to find a TV network willing to air the series about an African-American doctor, his lawyer-wife and their five children. In 1984, The Cosby Show debuted to favorable reviews and strong ratings.
Week after week, The Cosby Show drew audiences with its warm humor and believable situations. Cosby's character, Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, became one of the most popular dads in television history. He also served as a parental figure to his young co-stars, including Lisa Bonet, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Tempestt Bledsoe, Keshia Knight Pulliam and Raven-Symoné, on set. Phylicia Rashad co-starred with Cosby as his wife, Clair. After being the highest-rated sitcom on TV for five consecutive years, the show finally ended its run in 1992.
Over the show's eight-year run, Cosby found time for other projects: He appeared in several films, including Leonard Part 6 (1987) and Ghost Dad (1990). In 1986, Cosby achieved another career milestone—becoming a bestselling author.
His reflections on parenting were included in the book Fatherhood, which sold more than 2.6 million copies. His opus on aging, Time Flies (1987), also enjoyed huge sales. In addition, Cosby enjoyed great popularity as a pitchman, appearing in commercials for such products as JELL-O.
Personal and Professional Challenges
After The Cosby Show, Cosby continued to work in television. He starred in The Cosby Mysteries, in which he played a retired criminologist who sometimes helped out a detective friend. In 1996, he returned to the sitcoms with Cosby, re-teaming with former co-star Phylicia Rashad. They were unable to obtain the same level of success as their earlier effort, but they did enjoy some popularity, staying on the air for four years.
While working on Cosby, the comedian experienced a deep personal loss. His only son, Ennis, was killed in 1997, shot to death while changing a tire on his car on the side of a California highway. Around the same time, Cosby was caught up in a paternity scandal. A young woman named Autumn Jackson claimed that Cosby was her father, and tried to blackmail him for $40 million (she threatened him, saying that she would go to the tabloids if she didn't get the money). She was arrested and later convicted of extortion, and was sentenced to 26 months in prison. Cosby admitted that he had a brief encounter with Jackson's mother, but he claimed he was not Autumn's father.
While coping with these difficult episodes, Cosby took on new professional challenges. He started a series of children's picture books featuring a character named Little Bill in 1997, which also became a children's TV program. A frequent speaker at commencement ceremonies, Cosby shared his advice in 1999's Congratulations! Now What?: A Book for Graduates.
He took a serious look at the education system in 2000's American Schools: The $100 Billion Challenge, and paired up with his daughter Erika for 2003's Friends of a Feather: One of Life's Little Fables.
In Recent Years
In recent years, Cosby has been giving concerts around the country. He has received numerous accolades for his work and social contributions, including the Bob Hope Humanitarian Award in 2003 and the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2009.
In 2012, Cosby made news headlines when he became a victim of a celebrity death hoax that quickly escalated over the internet; A Facebook page entitled “R.I.P. Bill Cosby” surfaced, panicking Cosby fans worldwide.
Cosby posted on his Twitter page soon after he heard about the hoax, letting fans know that he was alive and well. “I've never met anyone who didn't like this one!” he wrote next to a photo of himself from The Cosby Show, wearing one of his signature vibrant sweaters.
In November 2013, Bill Cosby returned to the small screen with a new special on Comedy Central, Far From Finished. Directed by Robert Townsend, the production marked the comedian's first concert special in three decades.
Cosby made headlines in 2014, not for his comedy, but his alleged misconduct. Over the years, he had faced numerous accusations of sexual assault. Cosby did not have criminal charges filed against him, but he did settle with one of his accusers out court in 2006 after she launched a civil suit. In 2014, comedian Hannibal Buress brought new attention to earlier allegations by stating that Cosby “raped women” in his routine, according to Vulture.com.
After this incident, Cosby remained silent about these claims. More women soon came forth to claim that the comedian attacked them as well, including model Janice Dickinson. She told Entertainment Tonight that Cosby gave her wine and a some type of pill before he allegedly raped her.
These accusations led both NBC and Netflix to announce that they were dropping projects that they had with Cosby. Cosby has yet to respond these claims. In an interview on National Public Radio in November 2014, he would only say that he “won't dignify these allegations with any response.”
Dorothy Jean DandridgeSinger & Actress
November 9, 1922
September 8, 1965
Singer & Actress
“Have you ever caught sight of yourself by accident and see yourself from the outside? That's who you really are.”
Dorothy Jean Dandridge was an American actress and popular singer. She is the first African-American woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for best actress.
Born November 9, 1922, in Cleveland, Ohio, Dorothy Jean Dandridge sang at Harlem's famed Cotton Club and Apollo Theatre.
Dorothy's mother, the actress Ruby Dandridge, urged her two young daughters into show business in the 1930s, when they performed as a song-and-dance team billed as ‘The Wonder Children’. Dorothy left high school in the late 1930s and formed the ‘Dandridge Sisters’ trio with her sister Vivian and Etta Jones. They performed with the Jimmy Lunceford Orchestra and at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem, where Dorothy — who had a mixed racial heritage, early on confronted the segregation and racism of the entertainment industry.
As a teenager, Dorothy began to appear in small roles in a number of films, including the Marx Brothers‘ film A Day at the Races (1937) and Drums of the Congo (1942). In 1945, she married Harold Nicholas of the dancing Nicholas Brothers (with whom she performed in the 1941 Sonja Henie musical Sun Valley Serenade); during their turbulent six-year marriage, Dorothy virtually retired from performing. A daughter, Harolyn, was born with severe brain damage in 1943; as Dorothy was unable to raise her herself, she placed the girl in foster care.
After her divorce in 1951, Dorothy returned to the nightclub circuit, this time as a successful solo singer. After a stint at the Mocambo Club in Hollywood with Desi Arnaz's band and a sell-out 14–week engagement at La Vie en Rose, she became an international star, performing at glamorous venues in London, Rio de Janeiro, San Francisco, and New York. She won her first starring film role in 1953's Bright Road, playing an earnest and dedicated young schoolteacher opposite Harry Belafonte.
Her next role, as the eponymous lead in Carmen Jones (1954), a film adaptation of Bizet's opera Carmen that also co-starred Belafonte, catapulted her to the heights of stardom. With her sultry looks and flirtatious style, Dandridge became the first African-American to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Though many believed she deserved to win, Dorothy eventually lost the award to Grace Kelly (The Country Girl).
Still, after the phenomenal success of Carmen Jones, Dorothy seemed well on her way to becoming the first non-white actress to achieve the kind of superstardom that had accrued to contemporaries like Marilyn Monroe and Ava Gardner. In 1955, she was featured on the cover of Life magazine, and was treated like visiting royalty at that year's Cannes Film Festival.
In the years that followed her success with Carmen Jones, however, Dorothy had trouble finding film roles that suited her talents. Her only other great film was 1959's Porgy and Bess, in which she played Bess opposite Sidney Poitier. She turned down the supporting role of Tuptim in The King and I because she refused to play a slave. It was rumored that she would play Billie Holliday in a film version of Lady Sings the Blues directed by Orson Welles, but it never panned out.
In the racially disharmonious 1950s, Hollywood filmmakers could not seem to create a suitable role for the light-skinned Dandridge, and they soon reverted to subtly prejudiced visions of interracial romance. She appeared in several poorly received racially and sexually charged dramas, including Island in the Sun (1957), co-starring Belafonte and Joan Fontaine, Tamango (1959), which she played the mistress of the captain of a slave ship, and Malaga (1960).
While making Carmen Jones, Dorothy became involved in a heated, secretive affair with the film's director, Otto Preminger, who also directed Porgy and Bess. Their interracial romance, as well as Dorothy's relationships with other white lovers, was frowned upon, not in the least by other African-American members of the Hollywood filmmaking community. She married her second husband, Jack Denison, in 1959, and lost the majority of her savings when his restaurant failed in 1962. He left her soon after.
As her film career and marriage failed, Dorothy began drinking heavily and taking anti-depressants. The threat of bankruptcy and nagging problems with the IRS forced her to resume her nightclub career, but she found only a fraction of her former success. Relegated to second-rate lounges and stage productions, Dorothy's financial situation grew worse and worse.
By 1963, she could no longer afford to pay for her daughter's 24–hour medical care, and Harolyn was placed in a state institution. Dorothy soon suffered a nervous breakdown. On September 8, 1965, she was found dead in her Hollywood home, an apparent suicide from a drug overdose.
Her unique and tragic story became the subject of renewed interest in the late 1990s, beginning in 1997 with the release of a biography, Dorothy Dandridge, by Donald Bogle, and a two-week retrospective at New York City's Film Forum. In 1999, the actress Halle Berry won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Dandridge in an acclaimed HBO movie, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.
May 26, 1926
September 21, 1991
“I'm always thinking about creating. My future starts when I wake up every morning… Every day I find something creative to do with my life.”
Nine-time Grammy Award winner Miles Davis was a major force in the jazz world, as both a trumpet player and a bandleader.
The son of a prosperous dental surgeon and a music teacher, Miles Davisstrong> was born on May 26, 1926 in Alton, Illinois. Miles grew up in a supportive middle-class household where he was introduced by his father to the trumpet at age 13. He quickly developed a talent for playing the trumpet under the private tutelage of Elwood Buchanan, a friend of his father who directed a music school.
Buchanan emphasized playing the trumpet without vibrato, which was contrary to the common style used by trumpeters such as Louis Armstrong, and which would come to influence and help develop the Miles Davis style.
Miles played professionally while in high school. At the age of 17, the famed Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker invited him to join them onstage when they found they were in need of a trumpet player to replace a sick bandmate. Soon after, in 1944, Miles left Illinois for New York, where he attended the Juilliard School of Music (known at that time as the Institute of Musical Art).
While attending school, Miles sought out Charlie Parker, and once he joined up with him, began to play at Harlem nightclubs. During the gigs, he met several musicians whom he would eventually play with and form the basis for bebop, a fast, improvisational style of jazz instrumental that defined the modern jazz era.
In 1945, Miles elected, with his father's permission, to drop out of Juilliard and become a full-time jazz musician. He was a member of the Charlie Parker Quintet and made his first recording as a bandleader in 1946 with the Miles Davis Sextet.
Between 1945 and 1948, Davis and Parker recorded continuously. It was during this period that Davis worked on developing the improvisational style that defined his trumpet playing. In 1949, Davis formed a nine-piece band with uncommon additions, such as the French horn, trombone and tuba.
He released a series of singles that would later be considered a significant contribution to modern jazz. They were later released in an album entitled The Birth of Cool. In the early 1950s Davis became addicted to heroin, and while he was still able to record, it was a difficult period and his performances were haphazard.
He overcame his addiction in 1954, at which time his performance of “‘Round Midnight” at the Newport Jazz Festival earned him a recording contract with Columbia Records. There he also created a permanent band, comprised of John Coltrane, Paul Chambers and Red Garland. Miles recorded several albums with his sextet during the 1950s, including ‘Porgy and Bess’ and culminating in 1959 with the album Kind of Blue.
Now considered one of the best jazz albums ever recorded, Kind of Blue has sold over 2 million copies, becoming the largest-selling jazz album of all time. Miles continued to be be successful into the 1960s. His band transformed over time, due to new band members and changes in style. The various members of his band went on to become some of the most influential musicians of the jazz fusion era.
These included Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul (Weather Report), Chick Corea (Return to Forever), and John McLaughlin and Billy Cobham (Mahavishnu Orchestra). The development of jazz fusion was influenced by artists such as Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone, reflecting the ‘fusion’ of jazz and rock.
The album Bitches Brew, recorded a few weeks after the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969, set the stage for the jazz fusion movement to follow. Bitches Brew was very popular and became a best-selling album. As a result, Davis was featured on the cover of Rolling Stone, the first jazz artist to be so recognized.
For his traditional fans, this change of style was not welcome, but it exemplifies Davis’ ability to experiment and push the limits of his own music style. In 1975, Miles was once again drawn into drug abuse, becoming addicted to alcohol and cocaine. Miles took a five-year hiatus from his career.
In 1979, he met Cicely Tyson, an American actress, who helped him overcome his cocaine addiction and whom he married in 1981. From 1979 to 1981, Davis worked on recordings that culminated in the release of the album The Man with the Horn, an album that registered steady sales but was not critically well-received. Davis spent the 1980s continuing to experiment with different styles. He interpreted songs made popular by Michael Jackson (‘Human Nature’) and Cyndi Lauper (‘Time After Time’) on his album You're Under Arrest, released in 1985.
It was at this time that he developed a feud with fellow trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Wynton publicly criticized Davis' work in jazz fusion as not being ‘true’ jazz. When Marsalis attempted to join Miles onstage without invitation at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival in 1986, Miles requested that he leave the stage, using strong language. This incident is credited with making the festival famous to this day.
In 1986, Miles again reinvented himself with the release of the album Tutu, which incorporated synthesizers, drum loops and samples. It was well-received, winning Davis another Grammy Award. This was followed by the release of Aura, an album created in 1985 in tribute to the ‘aura’ of Miles. Its release was delayed until 1989, but it too won a Grammy.
In 1990, Miles received the Lifetime Achievement Grammy for his body of work. In 1991, he played with Quincy Jones at the Montreux Jazz Festival. The two performed a retrospective of Miles’ early work, some of which he had not played in public for over 20 years. It would be later that same year, on September 21, 1991, that Davis would succumb to pneumonia and respiratory failure and die at the age of 65.
Fittingly, the recording with Quincy Jones would win Miles his final Grammy, posthumously in 1993, a true tribute to his great body of work, which had a profound influence on jazz.
Sammy Davis, Jr.Actor, Singer, Comedian & Dancer
December 8, 1925
May 16, 1990
Actor, Singer, Comedian & Dancer
“Real success is not on the stage, but off the stage as a human being, and how you get along with your fellow man.”
Sammy Davis Jr. was an actor, comedian, singer and dancer, and part of the Rat Pack with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, with whom he starred in several films.
Sammy Davis Jr. was born Samuel George Davis Jr. on December 8, 1925, in New York City. After his parents split up when he was 3, Davis lived with his father and soon began a career tap-dancing in vaudeville.
He, his father and Will Mastin performed as the Will Mastin Trio until Davis left to serve in the United States Army during World War II. During his time in the service, he overcame racial prejudice by joining the entertainment unit.
Upon returning home, Davis resumed his showbiz career, performing stand up, acting and recording music. In 1956, Davis starred on Broadway in Mr. Wonderful, and in 1964 in Golden Boy. His refusal to appear in any clubs that practiced racial segregation led to the integration of several venues in Miami Beach and Las Vegas.
Davis's films include Porgy and Bess (1959), Robin and the Seven Hoods with fellow Rat Pack members Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin (1964), Sweet Charity (1968) and Taps (1980). While Davis found his greatest success as a performer in the 1950s and ‘60s, he continued to entertain and record until the early 1980s.
Personal Life and Death
Davis was involved in a serious automobile accident in 1954, and lost his left eye as a result. While in the hospital, recovering from the accident, the famous performer began studying A History of Jews. Several years later, Davis–who was raised as a Roman Catholic–converted to Judaism.
Davis married Swedish actress May Britt in 1960, when interracial marriages were forbidden by law in 31 states. The couple had one daughter and adopted two sons before divorcing in 1968. Davis was married to dancer Altovise Gore from 1970 until his death, on May 16, 1990, in Beverly Hills, California.
“I spend alone, in the ground ⁄ People dead and music loud ⁄ It’s time to make it groovy now ⁄ The beat just turn up to 11 and it’s in my veins ⁄ In 90 seconds we’ll be dropping something out this place ⁄ Everybody need somebody every now and then ⁄ Come on people take a break, a break, a break”
In 1964, the three young Hackney brothers (David, Bobby and Dannis) were sat down by their father to witness The Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. The following day, David found a discarded guitar in an alley and set about learning to play. Brothers Bobby and Dannis soon followed suit and they began playing music together.
The brothers, who had spent previous summers banging out soul and funk jams, began to gravitate toward the deafening assault of bands like Black Sabbath, MC5, Alice Cooper, and the Stooges, resulting in a volatile live set and demo that found favor with Detroit's burgeoning underground rock scene.
The brothers practiced and recorded early demos in a room in the family home and performed their earliest gigs from their garage. Originally calling themselves Rock Fire Funk Express, guitarist David convinced his brothers to change the name of the band to Death. “His concept was spinning death from the negative to the positive. It was a hard sell,” Bobby Hackney recalled in 2010.
Producer Don Davis (Funkadelic) was called in to helm the band's debut studio sessions, which unearthed a raw, nervy collection of classic rock-tinged, politically charged punk singles. The songs eventually caught the ear of Columbia Records guru Clive Davis, who wanted to change the band's name to something more forgiving than Death.
David refused to budge, causing a rift in the group that led to all three siblings retreating to New England to stay with their half-brother (along with Davis ceasing his support). The band only recorded seven songs instead of the planned dozen. The following year they self-released (on their label Tryangle) a single taken from the sessions: “Politicians in My Eyes” b/w “Keep on Knocking,” in a run of just 500 copies. What was initially devised as a brief getaway turned into decades, and the brothers went their separate ways.
The Hackney brothers ended the band in 1977. The brothers then moved to Burlington, Vermont and released two albums of gospel rock as The 4th Movement in the early 1980s. David moved back to Detroit in 1982, and died of lung cancer in 2000. Bobby and Dannis still reside in Vermont and lead the reggae band Lambsbread.
In 2008 the sons of Bobby Hackney (Julian, Urian, and Bobby Jr.) started a band called Rough Francis, covering the songs of Death after discovering the old recordings online. In 2009, Drag City released …For the Whole World to See, which collected all seven of the band's singles.
Death reunited for a series of shows in 2010 and also played the South by Southwest Music Festival that year. In early 2011, Drag City, with help from Death's members, released a collection of demos and outtakes from the For the Whole World to See sessions entitled Spiritual Metal Physical. Another set of archival recordings entitled Death III was issued in 2014.
The recordings were compiled from tapes recorded between 1975 and 1990 and featured some of the final sessions recorded by David Hackney, who died in 2000 from lung cancer.
Death surprised everyone in 2015 with N.E.W. Death, an album of brand new material featuring replacement guitarist Bobbie Duncan.
Ruby DeeActress, Screenwriter, Civil Rights Activist, Poet & Playwright
October 27, 1922
June 11, 2014
Actress, Screenwriter, Civil Rights Activist, Poet & Playwright
“The kind of beauty I want most is the hard-to-get kind that comes from within – strength, courage, dignity.”
Rudy Dee was an American actress, playwright, screenwriter, activist, poet and journalist, perhaps best known for starring in the 1961 film A Raisin in the Sun. She's also known for her civic work with husband Ossie Davis.
Early Life and Career
Ruby Ann Wallace was born on October 27, 1922, in Cleveland, Ohio, African-American actress Ruby Dee has enjoyed a tremendous career on the stage, on television and in film. She grew up in New York's Harlem neighborhood, and got involved in acting as a teenager. Dee began studying her craft at the American Negro Theatre, a company that also educated talents like Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte. Dee also attended Hunter College.
Dee had her first major career breakthrough in 1946, when she took the title role in the ANT's Broadway production of Anna Lucasta. That same year, she met actor Ossie Davis while performing in the play Jeb. The couple married two years later and eventually had three children together. Dee soon landed some film roles, including playing the wife to a baseball great in The Jackie Robinson Story (1950).
Actress and Activist
Dee landed a starring role on Broadway in Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun in 1959. She earned great acclaim for her portrayal of Ruth Younger in this drama about a struggling African-American family. Sidney Poitier played her husband. Two years later, Dee reprised her role in the film version of the play.
Around this time, Dee joined forces with her husband to appear in the play Purlie Victorious. Davis wrote this southern comedy and he and Dee co-starred in it together. The pair reprised their roles for the 1963 film adaptation. Over the years, the couple worked on a number of projects together. They were also very active in the Civil Rights Movement, participating in marches and speaking out for racial equality. Both Dee and Davis were friends of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1968, Dee worked behind the scenes, co-writing the screenplay for Up Tight!. She also starred in this drama. On the small screen, Dee appeared on the popular primetime soap opera Peyton Place, and later had her own series on public television with her husband: With Ossie & Ruby.
Through the 1970s and '80s, Dee gave a number of stellar performances. She picked up Drama Desk and Obie awards for the 1970 play Boesman and Lena, and an Emmy Award nomination for her role in the 1979 miniseries Roots: The Next Generation. That same year, Dee starred in a family theatrical effort. She wrote the book and lyrics for the musical Take It from the Top!, for which her son, Guy, composed the music. Her husband directed the production.
In the early 1980s, Dee starred as author Zora Neale Hurston in the play Zora Is My Name, which later aired on PBS. She and her husband both won positive notices for their work with director Spike Lee on his film Do the Right Thing (1989). In 1991, Dee won an Emmy Award for her work on the television movie Decoration Day.
Later Years & Death
In 1998, Dee and her husband published With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together, a look at their life experiences during their 50 years of marriage. The book received warm reviews for its humor and candor. Dee also wrote and performed the one-woman show My One Good Nerve around this time.
Dee suffered a tremendous loss in 2005, when her husband, Ossie Davis, died unexpectedly. She had been away, filming a movie in New Zealand, at the time of his death; Davis had been working on a film entitled Retirement. That same year, Dee and Davis won a Grammy Award (best spoken word album) for the audio version of With Ossie and Ruby.
Continuing to work, despite her grief, Dee delivered one of her great performances in 2007's American Gangster. She played the mother of notorious crime figure Frank Lucas, played by Denzel Washington, in the film. For her work, she received an Academy Award nomination and won a Screen Actors Guild Award.
Dee continued to perform into her 90s. Among her recent work, Dee was hired to narrate the Lifetime original movie Betty and Coretta (2013), which followed the lives of Coretta Scott King, played by Angela Bassett, and Betty Shabazz, played by Mary J. Blige, after the assassinations of their husbands.
On June 11, 2014, Dee died of natural causes at her home in New Rochelle, New York, at the age of 91.
Frederick DouglassCivil Rights Activist
February 20, 1895
Civil Rights Activist & Speaker
“I have observed this in my experience of slavery, that whenever my condition was improved, instead of increasing my contentment; it only increased my desire to be free, and set me thinking of plans to gain my freedom.”
Frederick Douglass, a former slave and eminent human rights leader in the abolition movement, was the first black citizen to hold a high U.S. government rank.
The Slave Years
Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland, around 1818. The exact year and date of Douglass' birth are unknown, though later in life he chose to celebrate it on February 14. Douglass lived with his maternal grandmother, Betty Bailey. At a young age, Douglass was selected in live in the home of the plantation owners, one of whom may have been his father. His mother, an intermittent presence in his life, died when he was around 10.
Frederick Douglass was given to Lucretia Auld, the wife of Thomas Auld, following the death of his master. Lucretia sent Frederick to serve her brother-in-law, Hugh Auld, at his Baltimore home. It was at the Auld home that Frederick Douglass first acquired the skills that would vault him to national celebrity. Defying a ban on teaching slaves to read and write, Hugh Auld’s wife Sophia taught Douglass the alphabet when he was around 12. When Hugh Auld forbade his wife’s lessons, Douglass continued to learn from white children and others in the neighborhood.
It was through reading that Douglass’ ideological opposition to slavery began to take shape. He read newspapers avidly, and sought out political writing and literature as much as possible. In later years, Douglass credited The Columbian Orator with clarifying and defining his views on human rights. Douglass shared his newfound knowledge with other enslaved people. Hired out to William Freeland, he taught other slaves on the plantation to read the New Testament at a weekly church service. Interest was so great that in any week, more than 40 slaves would attend lessons. Although Freeland did not interfere with the lessons, other local slave owners were less understanding. Armed with clubs and stones, they dispersed the congregation permanently.
In 1833, Thomas Auld took Douglass back from his son Hugh following a dispute. Thomas Auld sent Douglass to work for Edward Covey, who had a reputation as a “slave-breaker.” Covey’s constant abuse did nearly break the 16–year–old Douglass psychologically. Eventually, however, Douglass fought back, in a scene rendered powerfully in his first autobiography. After losing a physical confrontation with Douglass, Covey never beat him again.
Freedom and Abolitionism
Frederick Douglass tried to escape from slavery twice before he succeeded. He was assisted in his final attempt by Anna Murray, a free black woman in Baltimore with whom Douglass had fallen in love. On September 3, 1838, Douglass boarded a train to Havre de Grace, Maryland.
Anna Murray had provided him with some of her savings and a sailor's uniform. He carried identification papers obtained from a free black seaman. Douglass made his way to the safe house of abolitionist David Ruggles in New York in less than 24 hours.
Once he had arrived, Douglass sent for Murray to meet him in New York. They married on September 15, 1838, adopting the married name of Johnson to disguise Douglass’ identity. Anna and Frederick settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, which had a thriving free black community. There, they adopted Douglass as their married name. Frederick Douglass joined a black church and regularly attended abolitionist meetings. He also subscribed to William Lloyd Garrison's weekly journal, The Liberator.
Eventually Douglass was asked to tell his story at abolitionist meetings, after which he became a regular anti-slavery lecturer. William Lloyd Garrison was impressed with Douglass’ strength and rhetorical skill, and wrote of him in The Liberator. Several days after the story ran, Douglass delivered his first speech at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society's annual convention in Nantucket. Crowds were not always hospitable to Douglass. While participating in an 1843 lecture tour through the Midwest, Douglass was chased and beaten by an angry mob before being rescued by a local Quaker family.
At the urging of William Lloyd Garrison, Douglass wrote and published his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, in 1845. The book was a bestseller in the United States and was translated into several European languages. Although the book garnered Douglass many fans, some critics expressed doubt that a former slave with no formal education could have produced such elegant prose. Douglass published three versions of his autobiography during his lifetime, revising and expanding on his work each time. My Bondage and My Freedom appeared in 1855. In 1881, Douglass published Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, which he revised in 1892.
Fame had its drawbacks for a runaway slave. Following the publication of his autobiography, Douglass departed for Ireland to evade recapture. Douglass set sail for Liverpool on August 16, 1845, arriving in Ireland as the Irish Potato Famine was beginning. He remained in Ireland and Britain for two years, speaking to large crowds on the evils of slavery. During this time, Douglass’ British supporters gathered funds to purchase his legal freedom. In 1847, Douglass returned to the United States a free man.
Upon his return, Douglass produced some abolitionist newspapers: The North Star, Frederick Douglass Weekly, Frederick Douglass' Paper, Douglass' Monthly and New National Era. The motto of The North Star was “Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren.”
In addition to abolition, Douglass became an outspoken supporter of women’s rights. In 1848, he was the only African American to attend the first women's rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton asked the assembly to pass a resolution stating the goal of women's suffrage. Many attendees opposed the idea. Douglass stood and spoke eloquently in favor, arguing that he could not accept the right to vote as a black man if women could not also claim that right. The resolution passed. Douglass would later come into conflict with women’s rights activists for supporting the Fifteenth Amendment, which banned suffrage discrimination based on race while upholding sex-based restrictions.
Civil War and Reconstruction
By the time of the Civil War, Douglass was one of the most famous black men in the country. He used his status to influence the role of African Americans in the war and their status in the country. In 1863, Douglass conferred with President Abraham Lincoln regarding the treatment of black soldiers, and with President Andrew Johnson on the subject of black suffrage.
President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect on January 1, 1863, declared the freedom of all slaves in Confederate territory. Despite this victory, Douglass supported John C. Frémont over Lincoln in the 1864 election, citing his disappointment that Lincoln did not publicly endorse suffrage for black freedmen. Slavery everywhere in the United States was subsequently outlawed by the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
Frederick Douglass was appointed to several political positions following the war. He served as president of the Freedman's Savings Bank and as chargé d'affaires for the Dominican Republic. After two years, he resigned from his ambassadorship over objections to the particulars of U.S. government policy. He was later appointed minister-resident and consul-general to the Republic of Haiti, a post he held between 1889 and 1891.
Douglass became the first African American nominated for vice president of the United States, as Victoria Woodhull's running mate on the Equal Rights Party ticket in 1872. Nominated without his knowledge or consent, Douglass never campaigned. Nonetheless, his nomination marked the first time that an African American appeared on a presidential ballot.
In 1877, Douglass visited his former owner, Thomas Auld. Douglass had met with Auld's daughter, Amanda Auld Sears, years before. The visit held personal significance for Douglass, although some criticized him for reconciling with Auld.
Family Life and Death
Frederick and Anna Douglass had five children: Rosetta, Lewis Henry, Frederick Jr., Charles Redmond, and Annie. Annie died at the age of 10. Charles and Rosetta assisted their father in the production of his newspaper The North Star. Anna Douglass remained a loyal supporter of Frederick's public work, despite marital strife caused by his relationships with several other women.
After Anna’s death, Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white feminist from Honeoye, New York. Pitts was the daughter of Gideon Pitts Jr., an abolitionist colleague. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Helen Pitts worked on a radical feminist publication and shared many of Douglass’ moral principles.
Their marriage caused considerable controversy, since Pitts was both white and nearly 20 years younger than Douglass. Douglass’ children were especially displeased with the relationship.
Frederick Douglass and Helen Pitts remained married until Douglass’ death, 11 years later. On February 20, 1895, Douglass attended a meeting of the National Council of Women in Washington, D.C. Shortly after returning home, Frederick Douglass died of a massive heart attack or stroke. He was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York.
W.E.B. Du BoisSociologist, Historian, Activist, Author & Editor
February 23, 1868
August 27, 1963
Educator, Civil Rights Activist & Journalist
“Education is that whole system of human training within and without the school house walls, which molds and develops men.”
W.E.B. Du Bois was one of the most important African-American activists during the first half of the 20th century. He co-founded the NAACP and supported Pan-Africanism.
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was an American civil rights activist, leader, Pan-Africanist, sociologist, educator, historian, writer, editor, poet, and scholar. He became a naturalized citizen of Ghana in 1963 at the age of 95.
On Feb. 23, 1868, W.E.B. Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Mass., where he grew up. During his youth he did some newspaper reporting. In 1884 he graduated as valedictorian from high school. He got his bachelor of arts from Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., in 1888, having spent summers teaching in African American schools in Nashville's rural areas.
In 1888 he entered Harvard University as a junior, took a bachelor of arts cum laude in 1890, and was one of six commencement speakers. From 1892 to 1894 he pursued graduate studies in history and economics at the University of Berlin on a Slater Fund fellowship. He served for 2 years as professor of Greek and Latin at Wilberforce University in Ohio.
In 1891 Du Bois got his master of arts and in 1895 his doctorate in history from Harvard. His dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870, was published as No. 1 in the Harvard Historical Series. This important work has yet to be surpassed. In 1896 he married Nina Gomer, and they had two children.
In 1896-1897 Du Bois became assistant instructor in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. There he conducted the pioneering sociological study of an urban community, published as The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899). These first two works assured Du Bois's place among America's leading scholars.
Du Bois's life and work were an inseparable mixture of scholarship, protest activity, and polemics. All of his efforts were geared toward gaining equal treatment for black people in a world dominated by whites and toward marshaling and presenting evidence to refute the myths of racial inferiority.
As Racial Activist
In 1905 Du Bois was a founder and general secretary of the Niagara movement, an African American protest group of scholars and professionals. Du Bois founded and edited the Moon (1906) and the Horizon (1907–1910) as organs for the Niagara movement. In 1909 Du Bois was among the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and from 1910 to 1934 served it as director of publicity and research, a member of the board of directors, and editor of the Crisis, its monthly magazine.
In the Crisis, Du Bois directed a constant stream of agitation––often bitter and sarcastic––at white Americans while serving as a source of information and pride to African Americans. The magazine always published young African American writers. Racial protest during the decade following World War I focused on securing anti-lynching legislation. During this period the NAACP was the leading protest organization and Du Bois its leading figure.
In 1934 Du Bois resigned from the NAACP board and from the Crisis because of his new advocacy of an African American nationalist strategy: African American controlled institutions, schools, and economic cooperatives.
This approach opposed the NAACP's commitment to integration. However, he returned to the NAACP as director of special research from 1944 to 1948. During this period he was active in placing the grievances of African Americans before the United Nations, serving as a consultant to the UN founding convention (1945) and writing the famous “An Appeal to the World” (1947).
Du Bois was a member of the Socialist party from 1910 to 1912 and always considered himself a Socialist. In 1948 he was co-chairman of the Council on African Affairs; in 1949 he attended the New York, Paris, and Moscow peace congresses; in 1950 he served as chairman of the Peace Information Center and ran for the U.S. Senate on the American Labor party ticket in New York.
In 1950–1951 Du Bois was tried and acquitted as an agent of a foreign power in one of the most ludicrous actions ever taken by the American government. Du Bois traveled widely throughout Russia and China in 1958–1959 and in 1961 joined the Communist party of the United States. He also took up residence in Ghana, Africa, in 1961.
Du Bois was also active in behalf of pan-Africanism and concerned with the conditions of people of African descent wherever they lived. In 1900 he attended the First Pan-African Conference held in London, was elected a vice president, and wrote the “Address to the Nations of the World.” The Niagara movement included a “pan-African department.” In 1911 Du Bois attended the First Universal Races Congress in London along with black intellectuals from Africa and the West Indies.
Du Bois organized a series of pan-African congresses around the world, in 1919, 1921, 1923, and 1927. The delegations comprised intellectuals from Africa, the West Indies, and the United States. Though resolutions condemning colonialism and calling for alleviation of the oppression of Africans were passed, little concrete action was taken.
The Fifth Congress (1945, Manchester, England) elected Du Bois as chairman, but the power was clearly in the hands of younger activists, such as George Padmore and Kwame Nkrumah, who later became significant in the independence movements of their respective countries. Du Bois's final pan-African gesture was to take up citizenship in Ghana in 1961 at the request of President Kwame Nkrumah and to begin work as director of the Encyclopedia Africana.
Du Bois's most lasting contribution is his writing. As poet, playwright, novelist, essayist, sociologist, historian, and journalist, he wrote 21 books, edited 15 more, and published over 100 essays and articles. Only a few of his most significant works will be mentioned here.
From 1897 to 1910 Du Bois served as professor of economics and history at Atlanta University, where he organized conferences titled the Atlanta University Studies of the Negro Problem and edited or co-edited 16 of the annual publications, on such topics as The Negro in Business (1899), The Negro Artisan (1902), The Negro Church (1903), Economic Cooperation among Negro Americans (1907), and The Negro American Family (1908).
Other significant publications were The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (1903), one of the outstanding collections of essays in American letters, and John Brown (1909), a sympathetic portrayal published in the American Crisis Biographies series.
Du Bois also wrote two novels, The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911) and Dark Princess: A Romance (1928); a book of essays and poetry, Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil (1920); and two histories of black people, The Negro (1915) and The Gift of Black Folk: Negroes in the Making of America (1924).
From 1934 to 1944 Du Bois was chairman of the department of sociology at Atlanta University. In 1940 he founded Phylon, a social science quarterly. Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880 (1935), perhaps his most significant historical work, details the role of African Americans in American society, specifically during the Reconstruction period. The book was criticized for its use of Marxist concepts and for its attacks on the racist character of much of American historiography. However, it remains the best single source on its subject.
Black Folk, Then and Now (1939) is an elaboration of the history of black people in Africa and the New World. Color and Democracy: Colonies and Peace (1945) is a brief call for the granting of independence to Africans, and The World and Africa: An Inquiry into the Part Which Africa Has Played in World History (1947; enlarged ed. 1965) is a major work anticipating many later scholarly conclusions regarding the significance and complexity of African history and culture. A trilogy of novels, collectively entitled The Black Flame (1957, 1959, 1961), and a selection of his writings, An ABC of Color (1963), are also worthy.
Du Bois received many honorary degrees, was a fellow and life member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He was the outstanding African American intellectual of his period in America.
Du Bois died in Ghana on Aug. 27, 1963, on the eve of the civil rights march in Washington, D.C. He was given a state funeral, at which Kwame Nkrumah remarked that he was “a phenomenon.”
Duke EllingtonPianist, Conductor & Songwriter
April 29, 1899
May 24, 1974
Pianist, Conductor & Songwriter
“There are two kinds of worries - those you can do something about and those you can't. Don't spend any time on the latter.”
An originator of big-band jazz, Duke Ellington was an American composer, pianist and bandleader who composed thousands of scores over his 50-year career.
Born on April 29, 1899, Duke Ellington was raised by two talented, musical parents in a middle-class neighborhood of Washington DC. At the age of 7, he began studying piano and earned the nickname “Duke” for his gentlemanly ways.
Inspired by his job as a soda jerk, he wrote his first composition, “Soda Fountain Rag,” at the age of 15. Despite being awarded an art scholarship to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, Ellington followed his passion for ragtime and began to play professionally at age 17.
In the 1920s, Ellington performed in Broadway nightclubs as the bandleader of a sextet, a group which in time grew to a 10-piece ensemble. Ellington sought out musicians with unique playing styles, such as Bubber Miley, who used a plunger to make the “wa-wa” sound, and Joe Nanton, who gave the world his trombone “growl.” At various times, his ensemble included the trumpeter Cootie Williams, cornetist Rex Stewart and alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges. Ellington made hundreds of recordings with his bands, appeared in films and on radio, and toured Europe on two occasions in the 1930s.
Ellington's fame rose to the rafters in the 1940s when he composed several masterworks, including “Concerto for Cootie,” “Cotton Tail” and “Ko-Ko.” Some of his most popular songs included “It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” “Solitude,” and “Satin Doll.” A number of his hits were sung by the impressive Ivie Anderson, a favorite female vocalist of Duke's band.
It was Ellington's sense of musical drama that made him stand out. His blend of melodies, rhythms and subtle sonic movements gave audiences a new experience–complex yet accessible jazz that made the heart swing. Ellington's autobiography, Music Is My Mistress, was published in 1973. Ellington earned 12 Grammy awards from 1959 to 2000, nine while he was alive.
At the age of 19, Ellington married Edna Thompson, who had been his girlfriend since high school, and soon after their marriage, she gave birth to their only child, Mercer Kennedy Ellington.
On May 24, 1974, at the age of 75, Duke Ellington died of lung cancer and pneumonia. His last words were, “Music is how I live, why I live and how I will be remembered.” More than 12,000 people attended his funeral. He was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York City.
Ralph EllisonAcademic, Author, Educator & Literary Critic
March 1, 1914
April 16, 1994
Academic, Author, Educator & Literary Critic
“I am an invisible man. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”
Ralph Ellison was a 20th century African-American writer and scholar best known for his renowned, award-winning novel Invisible Man.
Ralph Waldo Ellison was born on March 1, 1914, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and named after journalist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ellison's doting father, Lewis, who loved children and read books voraciously, worked as an ice and coal deliverer.
He died from a work-related accident when Ellison was only three years old. His mother Ida then raised Ralph and younger brother Herbert by herself, working a variety of jobs to make ends meet.
In his future book of essays Shadow and Act, Ellison described himself and several of his friends growing up as young Renaissance Men, people who looked to culture and intellectualism as a source of identity. A budding instrumentalist, Ellison took up the cornet at the age of 8 and years later, as a trumpeter, attended Tuskegee Institute, a prestigious all-black university in Alabama, founded by Booker T. Washington, where he studied music with his eye on becoming a symphony composer. Ellison hopped freight trains to get to Alabama, and was soon to find out that the institution was no less class-conscious than white institutions generally were.
In 1936, Ellison went to New York over the summer with the intent of earning enough money to pay for his college expenses, but ended up relocating. He started to work as a researcher and writer for the New York Federal Writers’ Program, and was befriended by writers Richard Wright, Langston Hughes and Alain Locke, who all mentored the fledgling scribe. During this period, Ellison began to publish some of his essays and short stories, and worked as managing editor for The Negro Quarterly.
Ellison later enlisted as a Merchant Marine cook during World War II.
In 1992, Ellison was awarded a special achievement award from the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards; his artistic achievements included work as a sculptor, musician, photographer and college professor as well as his writing output. He taught at Bard College, Rutgers University, the University of Chicago, and New York University. Ellison was also a charter member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.
Ellison died on April 16, 1994 of pancreatic cancer and was interred in a crypt at Trinity Church Cemetery in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan. He was survived by his wife, Fanny Ellison (1911–2005), who died on November 19, 2005, eight days shy of her 94th birthday.
Legacy and Posthumous Publications
After Ellison's death, more manuscripts were discovered in his home, resulting in the publication of Flying Home and Other Stories in 1996. In 1999 his second novel, Juneteenth, was published under the editorship of John F. Callahan, a professor at Lewis & Clark College and Ellison's literary executor. It was a 368-page condensation of more than 2000 pages written by Ellison over a period of 40 years. All the manuscripts of this incomplete novel were published collectively on January 26, 2010, by Modern Library, under the title Three Days Before the Shooting…
On February 18, 2014, the USPS issued a 91¢ stamp honoring Ralph Ellison in its Literary Arts series.
A park, residing on 150th Street and Riverside Drive in Harlem, was dedicated to Ralph Ellison on May 1, 2003. In the park, stands a 15 by 8 foot bronze slab, with a “cut-out man figure” inspired by his book, “Invisible Man.”
Julius ErvingProfessional Basketball Athlete
February 22, 1950
Professional Basketball Athlete
“One of the most predictable things in life is there will be change. You are better off if you can have a say in the change. But you are ignorant or naive if you don't think there will be change, whether you want it to or not.”
Hall of Fame basketball forward Julius Erving, or “Dr. J,” was an acrobatic player in the NBA and ABA. His dunks and graceful play helped change the game.
Born on February 22, 1950, in Roosevelt, New York, Julius Erving–called “Dr. J” by his fans–became known for his style and grace on and off the court during his 16-year professional basketball career.
He was a solid player at Roosevelt High School, where the nickname “Dr. J” is said to have originated. While the exact details of how he got the name are unclear, it's believed that a friend began calling him it because Erving had dubbed him “Professor.” Erving liked the name and it stayed with him throughout his college and professional careers.
In 1968, Erving, who was not recruited by many big basketball programs, enrolled at the University of Massachusetts. He played just two seasons for the school–freshmen were ineligible to play varsity, and Erving left before his senior season–but he left his mark on the program. At Massachusetts, he averaged 32.5 points and 20.2 rebounds a game, one of only five players at the time to ever average more than 20 points and 20 rebounds a game.
In 1971 Erving left college and joined the Virginia Squires, of the American Basketball Association (ABA), as an undrafted free agent. Playing forward, he transitioned quickly to the pro game. That first year, Erving scored more than 27 points per game, and was selected to the All-ABA Second Team and the ABA All-Rookie Team.
In the spring of 1972 Erving's career took a complicated turn. Selected 12th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks of the National Basketball Association (NBA), he instead signed a contract with the Atlanta Hawks and joined the team for pre-season workouts. But the Squires quickly filed court papers requesting he be barred from playing in the NBA, and a three-judge panel agreed, ordering him back to the ABA.
Returning to his old league, Erving continued to be its biggest star. He played the 1972-73 season with the Squires, and then joined the New York Nets and steered the club to titles in 1974 and 1976. He also received the Most Valuable Player award for each of those seasons.
Admiration came not just for his scoring, but also for how he played the game. Quick and athletic, Erving took to the court with a game that featured graceful spins, dramatic jump shots and powerful slam-dunks. In 1976, his last year in the ABA, and the league's last year of existence, Erving won the ABA Slam Dunk contest, the first dunk contest any professional league had ever hosted.
When the ABA was folded into the NBA in 1976, the cash-strapped Nets sold Erving to the Philadelphia 76ers for $3 million. In Philly, Erving quickly helped transform the team into a perennial winner.
During the 1976-77 season, the 76ers buzzed through the playoffs to reach the NBA Finals, where the team fell to the Portland Trail Blazers in six games. After two straight years of reaching the NBA semi-finals, in 1980 Erving returned Philadelphia to the Finals, where the club lost to the Los Angeles Lakers and its rookie point guard, Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
While L.A. got the trophy, Erving nabbed the series’ biggest highlight when, in Game 4, he glided past a series of defenders in midair, from one end of the hoop to the other, before softly putting the ball in the basket with an underhanded scoop. The play subsequently came to be known as the “Baseline Move.”
“My mouth just dropped open,” Magic Johnson later recalled. “He actually did that. I thought, ‘What should we do? Should we take the ball out or should we ask him to do it again?’”
The following season, despite earning MVP honors, Erving did not have enough of a supporting cast to bring his team back to the championship round. In 1982, after another heartbreaking loss in the Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers, the 76ers retooled the club's lineup, trading for Houston Rocket Moses Malone, for the upcoming season.
For Erving and his teammates, the 1982-83 season proved nearly flawless. After finishing the regular season with a 65-17 record, Philadelphia stormed through the playoffs, losing just once and finishing off the Lakers in the Finals with a four-game sweep.
The next few years, however, were less successful. With an aging roster, Philadelphia, anchored by forward Charles Barkley, started to transition to a younger club. Following the 1986-87 season, Erving retired. In all he was a member of 11 NBA All Star teams and played in more than 800 games. Between his NBA and ABA stints, Erving scored more than 30,000 points during his career.
In 1993 he was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Since stepping away as a player, Erving has continued to stay close to the game. He has worked as a sports analyst for the NBC television network and as an executive for the Orlando Magic. He has also pursued many other business opportunities.
Erving is the father of eight children. He married his second wife, Dorys Madden, in 2008. The couple has three children together.
April 25, 1917
June 15, 1996
“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 Fitzgerald, known as the “First Lady of Song” and “Lady Ella,” was an American jazz and song vocalist who interpreted much of the Great American Songbook.
Born 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 just a month 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, she 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 she 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” and wowed the audience. Fitzgerald performed a second song and 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 1935 Fitzgerald recorded “Love and Kisses” with Webb. Working with Webb, she found herself playing regularly at one of Harlem's hottest clubs, the Savoy Ballroom. Fitzgerald put out her first No. 1 hit, 1938's “A-Tisket A-Tasket,” which she co-wrote. Later that year Ella recorded her second hit, “I Found My Yellow Basket.”
In addition to her work with Webb, Fitzgerald also 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. Around this time, Fitzgerald was briefly married to Ben Kornegay, a convicted drug dealer and hustler. They wed in 1941, but she soon had their union annulled.
Rising Jazz Star
Going out on her own, Ella Fitzgerald landed a deal with Decca Records. She recorded some hit songs with the Ink Spots and Louis Jordan in the early 1940s. Fitzgerald also made her film debut in 1942's comedy western Ride ‘Em Cowboy with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.
Her career really began to take off in 1946 when she started working with Norman Granz. Granz orchestrated the Jazz at the Philharmonic, which was a series of concerts and live records featuring most of the genre's great performers. Fitzgerald also hired Granz to become her manager.
Around this time, Fitzgerald went on tour with Dizzy Gillespie and his band. She started changing her singing style, incorporating scat singing during her performances with Gillespie. Fitzgerald also fell in love with Gillespie's bass player Ray Brown. The pair wed in 1947, and they adopted a child born to Fitzgerald's half-sister whom they named Raymond “Ray” Brown Jr. The marriage ended in 1952.
Queen of Jazz
The 1950s and '‘60s proved to be a time of critical and commercial success for Fitzgerald. She even earned the moniker “First Lady of Song” for her mainstream popularity and unparalleled vocal talents. Her unique ability to mimicking instrumental sounds helped popularize the vocal improvisation of “scatting” which became her signature technique.
In 1955, Fitzgerald began recording for Granz's newly created Verve Records. She made some of her most popular albums for Verve, starting out with 1956's Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book. At the very first Grammy Awards in 1958, Fitzgerald picked up her first two Grammys–and made history as the first African-American woman to win a Grammy–for best individual jazz performance and best female vocal performance, respectively, for the two songbook projects Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book and Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Song Book; she worked directly with Ellington on the former album.
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 actually 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 Frank Sinatra and Count Basie.
By the 1980s, Fitzgerald had begun to experience serious health problems. She had heart surgery in 1986, and then discovered she had 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.
In all, Fitzgerald recorded more than 200 albums and some 2,000 songs in her lifetime. Her total record sales exceeded 40 million. Her many accolades included 13 Grammy Awards, the NAACP Image Award for Lifetime Achievement and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
While some critics complained that her style and voice lacked the depth of some her more bluesy counterparts, her success and the respect she garnered from the biggest names in the music industry showed that Fitzgerald was in a class all her own. Mel Torme described her as “the High Priestess of Song” and Pearl Bailey called her “the greatest singer of them all,” according to Fitzgerald's official website. And Bing Crosby once said, “Man, woman or child, Ella is the greatest of them all.”
Since her passing, Fitzgerald has been honored and remembered in so many ways. The United States Postal Service honored the late singer with an Ella Fitzgerald commemorative stamp celebrating the 90th anniversary of her birth. That same year (2007), the tribute album We All Love Ella: Celebrating the First Lady of Song featured such artists as Gladys Knight, Etta James and Queen Latifah performing some of Fitzgerald's classic songs.
DJ Grandmaster FlashHip-Hop Recording Artist & DJ
January 1, 1958
Hip-Hop Recording Artist & DJ
“We can come from our own particular point of view and lay it down. We should not be throwing verbal rocks at each other. We're all responsible to continue the growth of Hip Hop.”
Grandmaster Flash is considered to be one of the pioneers of hip-hop DJing, cutting, and mixing. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, becoming the first hip hop act to be so honored.
DJ Grandmaster Flash and his group the Furious Five were hip-hop's greatest innovators, transcending the genre's party-music origins to explore the full scope of its lyrical and sonic horizons. Flash was born Joseph Saddler in Barbados on January 1, 1958; he began spinning records as teen growing up in the Bronx, performing live at area dances and block parties.
By age 19, while attending technical school courses in electronics during the day, he was also spinning on the local disco circuit; over time, he developed a series of groundbreaking techniques including “cutting” (moving between tracks exactly on the beat), “back-spinning” (manually turning records to repeat brief snippets of sound), and “phasing” (manipulating turntable speeds) –– in short, creating the basic vocabulary which DJs continue to follow even today.
Flash did not begin collaborating with rappers until around 1977, first teaming with the legendary Kurtis Blow. He then began working with the Furious Five -- rappers Melle Mel (Melvin Glover), Cowboy (Keith Wiggins), Kid Creole (Nathaniel Glover), Mr. Ness aka Scorpio (Eddie Morris), and Rahiem (Guy Williams); the group quickly became legendary throughout New York City, attracting notice not only for Flash's unrivalled skills as a DJ but also for the Five's masterful rapping, most notable for their signature trading and blending of lyrics.
Despite their local popularity, they did not record until after the Sugarhill Gang's smash “Rapper's Delight” proved the existence of a market for hip-hop releases; after releasing “We Rap More Mellow” as the Younger Generation, Flash and the Five recorded “Superappin’” for the Enjoy label owned by R&B legend Bobby Robinson. They then switched to Sugar Hill Records, owned by Sylvia Robinson (no relation), after she promised them an opportunity to rap over a current DJ favorite, “Get Up and Dance” by Freedom (the idea had probably been originally conceived by Crash Crew for their single “High Powered Rap”).
That record, 1980's “Freedom,” the group's Sugar Hill debut, reached the Top 20 on national R&B charts on its way to selling over 50,000 copies; its follow-up, “Birthday Party,” was also a hit. 1981's “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” was the group's first truly landmark recording, introducing Flash's “cutting” techniques to create a stunning sound collage from snippets of songs by Chic, Blondie, and Queen.
Flash and the Five's next effort, 1982's “The Message,” was even more revelatory –– for the first time, hip-hop became a vehicle not merely for bragging and boasting but for trenchant social commentary, with Melle Mel delivering a blistering rap detailing the grim realities of life in the ghetto. The record was a major critical hit, and it was an enormous step in solidifying rap as an important and enduring form of musical expression.
Following 1983's anti-cocaine polemic “White Lines,” relations between Flash and Melle Mel turned ugly, and the rapper soon left the group, forming a new unit also dubbed the Furious Five. After a series of Grandmaster Flash solo albums including 1985's They Said It Couldn't Be Done, 1986's The Source, and 1987's Da Bop Boom Bang, he reformed the original Furious Five lineup for a charity concert at Madison Square Garden; soon after, the reconstituted group recorded a new LP, 1988's On the Strength, which earned a lukewarm reception from fans and critics alike.
Another reunion followed in 1994, when Flash and the Five joined a rap package tour also including Kurtis Blow and Run-D.M.C. A year later, Flash and Melle Mel also appeared on Duran Duran's cover of “White Lines.” Except for a few compilations during the late '90s, Flash was relatively quiet until 2002, when a pair of mix albums appeared: The Official Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on Strut and Essential Mix: Classic Edition on FFRR Records.
Redd FoxxActor & Comedian
December 9, 1922
October 11, 1991
Actor & Comedian
“Certain things should be yours to have when you work your way to the top.”
Redd Foxx was the stage name of John Elroy Sanford, an American comedian and actor best known for his role on the 1970s sitcom Sanford and Son.
Born John Elroy Sanford on December 9, 1922, in St. Louis, Missouri, African American comedian Redd Foxx achieved stardom with the hit 1970s sitcom Sanford and Son. He grew up in poverty. His father abandoned the family when Foxx was a young child. His mother was left to raise him and his older brother Fred on her own. Around the age of seven, Foxx discovered his knack for telling jokes.
Foxx never had much interest in school. According to the Los Angeles Times, he once said that “School meant nothing to me. Knowing that George Washington crossed the Delaware – how was that going to help me in a brick fight in St. Louis?” Foxx left home at the age of 13 to perform with a band. About four years later, he played with a group called the Bon Bons in Chicago.
Struggling to get by, Foxx worked a number of jobs. He spent some time in New York City's Harlem neighborhood. During this time, he met Malcolm X (then known as Malcolm Little). Malcolm called Foxx “the funniest dishwasher on this earth,” according to Foxx's official website. The pair became friends and shared a similar ruddy complex. Malcolm was called as “Detroit Red” and Foxx was “Chicago Red” by their coworkers in the restaurant where they worked.
In 1941, Foxx and longtime friend Slappy White joined forces to perform a comedy routine in the black vaudeville circuit (also called the chitlin circuit).
He became a successful stand-up comedian known for his willingness to tackle controversial topics such as race and sex. Adding an extra “d” to his nickname and borrowing the last name of professional baseball player Jimmie Foxx, he started working as Redd Foxx.
Foxx did well performing at African American clubs for years. In the mid-1950s, he began recording his routines on what were sold as “party records.” Foxx ended up selling more than 20 million copies of these albums over the years.
In the 1960s, he enjoyed great popularity in Las Vegas as a nightclub act. Foxx made his first television appearance in 1964 on the Today show.
TV Sitcom Star
In 1972, Foxx made his debut as a series regular on the NBC sitcom Sanford and Son. He starred as Fred Sanford (named after his real-life brother), a grumpy junk dealer in Watts, California. Demond Wilson played Sanford's son Lamont. The show soon became a hit with television audiences.
Sanford and Son was also one of the few programs to feature an African American family, making it groundbreaking for its time. According to the Los Angeles Times, Foxx said “The show is lighthearted, doesn't drive home a lesson, but it can open up peoples’ minds enough for them to see how stupid every kind of prejudice can be.”
After five years, Foxx left NBC for ABC. He starred in The Redd Foxx Comedy Hour, which didn't last for long. Foxx tried to capitalize on his earlier success, reprising the role of Fred Sanford in Sanford in 1980. But the sitcom failed to catch on with audiences. Despite the decline of his television career, Foxx remained a popular live act, especially in Las Vegas.
Death and Legacy
Foxx spent his later years trying to cope with financial problems. In 1983, he filed for bankruptcy. Foxx's career got a boost from his appearance in the 1989 film Harlem Nights with Richard Pryor Eddie Murphy. Unfortunately, the Internal Revenue Service seized some of his personal property that same year to recoup money owed by Foxx for taxes.
Still Foxx seemed to be on an upswing by the early 1990s. He landed a new sitcom called The Royal Family with Della Reese, which debuted in the fall of 1991. Foxx was working an episode of his series when he collapsed during a rehearsal on October 11, 1991. He was taken to a Los Angeles hospital where he later died. A heart attack was his cause of death. Foxx was 68 years old.
While best remembered for Sanford and Son, Foxx also helped pave the way for such risqué comedians as George Carlin and Lenny Bruce with his boundary-pushing stand-up comedy.
Aretha FranklinSinger & Actress
March 25, 1942
Singer & Actress
“Being a singer is a natural gift. It means I'm using to the highest degree possible the gift that God gave me to use. I'm happy with that.”
Multiple Grammy winner and “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin is known for such hits as “Respect,” “Freeway of Love” and “I Say a Little Prayer.”
Born Aretha Louise Franklin on March 25, 1942, in Memphis, Tennessee, to Baptist preacher Reverend Clarence La Vaughan “C.L.” Franklin, and mother Barbara Siggers Franklin, a gospel singer. The fourth of five children, Franklin's parents separated by the time she was six; four years later, her mother succumbed to a heart attack. Guided by C.L.'s preaching assignments, the family relocated to Detroit, Michigan. C.L. eventually landed at Detroit's New Bethel Baptist Church, where he gained national renown as a preacher.
Franklin's musical gifts became apparent at an early age. Largely self-taught, she was regarded as a child prodigy. A gifted pianist with a powerful voice, Franklin sang in front of her father's Detroit congregation. By the age of 14, she recorded some of her earliest tracks at the church. She also performed with C.L.'s traveling revival show and, while on tour, she befriended gospel greats such as Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke and Clara Ward.
Life on the road exposed Aretha Franklin to adult behaviors and at the age of 15, she became a mother. Her second child followed two years later. After a brief hiatus she returned to performing, and followed heroes like Cooke and Dinah Washington into pop and blues territory. With her father's blessing, Franklin traveled to New York in 1960. After being courted by several labels, including Motown and RCA, Franklin signed with Columbia Records. She released The Great Aretha Franklin for the label that same year.
In 1961, the single “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody” hit No. 37 on the pop charts. Franklin had a few top 10 singles on the R&B charts, but they failed to showcase the talent evident in her gospel music. She and new husband-cum-manager Ted White decided a move was in order, and Franklin moved to Atlantic in 1967. Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler immediately shuttled Franklin to the studios at the Florence Alabama Musical Emporium.
Paired with sidemen trained in soul, blues, rock and gospel—including session guitarists Eric Clapton and Duane Allman–Aretha recorded the single “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You).” In the midst of recording sessions, White quarreled with a member of the backing band, and White and Franklin left abruptly. As the single became a massive top 10 hit, Franklin re-emerged in New York, and was able to complete the partially recorded track, “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.”
Franklin cemented her reign in 1967 and 1968 with a string of hit singles that would become enduring classics. In 1967, the album I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You) was released. The first song on the album, “Respect,” an empowered cover of an Otis Redding track, reached No. 1 on both the R&B and pop charts, and won Aretha her first two Grammy Awards. She also had top 10 hits with “Baby I Love You,” “Think,” “Chain of Fools,” “I Say A Little Prayer,” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
In 1968, Franklin was enlisted to perform at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She paid tribute to her father's fallen friend with a heartfelt rendition of “Precious Lord.” She also sang at the 1968 Democratic Convention. The following year, she and White divorced. Franklin performed again at the 1972 funeral of Mahalia Jackson. Spurred by Jackson's passing and a subsequent resurgence of interest in gospel music, Franklin's 1972 album Amazing Grace sold more than 2 million units, becoming the best-selling gospel album at the time.
Personal and Professional Struggles
Franklin's success continued throughout the 70s, and as the artist took home eight consecutive Grammy awards for Best R&B Female Vocal Performance, she earned the title the “Queen of Soul.” She worked tirelessly and expanded her repertoire to include rock and pop covers, but by 1975 her sound was fading in favor of the disco craze.
In the wake of this new genre, an emerging set of young black singers such as Chaka Khan and Donna Summer began to eclipse Franklin's career. She found a brief respite from slumping sales with 1976's soundtrack to Sparkle, as well as an invitation to perform at the 1977 presidential inauguration. In 1978, she married actor Glynn Turman.
A string of chart failures ended Franklin's relationship with Atlantic in 1979. The same year, her father was hospitalized after a burglary attempt in his home left him in a coma. As her popularity waned and her father's health declined, Franklin was also saddled with a massive bill from the IRS. A cameo in the film The Blues Brothers (1980) helped Franklin revive her flagging career.
Performing “Think” alongside comedians John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd exposed her to a new generation of R&B lovers, and she soon signed to Arista Records. Her new label released 1982's Jump To It, an album that enjoyed huge success on the R&B charts and earned Franklin a Grammy nomination. Two years later, she endured a divorce from Turman as well as the death of her father.
In 1985, Franklin released another smash-hit album. The polished pop record Who's Zoomin' Who? featured the single “Freeway of Love,” as well as a collaboration with the popular rock band the Eurythmics. The record became Aretha's biggest-selling album yet. Her follow-up album, 1986's Aretha, also went gold, and the George Michael duet “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” hit No. 1 on the pop charts.
The following year, Franklin became the first female artist to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Also in 1987, the University of Detroit credited Franklin with an honorary doctorate. In 1993, she was invited to sing at the inauguration of Bill Clinton, and in 1994, she was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Over the next few years, the songstress was the subject of multiple documentaries and tributes.
In 1998, Franklin reprised her former role in Blues Brothers 2000, released the gold-selling A Rose Is Still A Rose, and stood in for Luciano Pavarotti, who was too ill to accept his Lifetime Achievement Award. Her rendition of “Nessun Dorma” commanded stellar reviews.
In 2003, Franklin released her final studio album on Arista, So Damn Happy, and left the label to found Aretha Records. Two years later, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and became the second woman ever to be inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame. In 2008, she received her 18th Grammy Award for “Never Gonna Break My Faith”–a collaboration with Mary J. Blige–and was tapped to sing at the 2009 inauguration of president Barack Obama. With 18 Grammys under her belt, Franklin is regarded as one of the most honored artists in Grammy history, ranked among the likes of Alison Krauss, Adele and Beyoncé Knowles.
In 2011, Franklin released her first album on her own label, A Woman Falling Out of Love. To support the project, she performed several concerts, including a two-night stint at the famed Radio City Music Hall in New York. With fans and critics alike impressed with her performances, she successfully proved that the Queen of Soul still reigns supreme.
During this same period, however, Franklin seemed to be going through some challenging times in her personal life. She announced that she was getting married to her “forever friend” William “Willie” Wilkerson in January 2012, and that they planned to tie the knot that summer, but only a short time later, Franklin told the press that the wedding was off. “We were moving a little too fast, and there were a number of things that had not been thought through thoroughly,” the singer explained.
Just weeks after breaking off her engagement, Franklin suffered another great personal loss: the death of her goddaughter, Whitney Houston, on February 11, 2012. “It's so stunning and unbelievable,” Franklin wrote on her Facebook page about the tragedy. “My heart goes out to Cissy, her daughter Bobbi Kris, her family and Bobby.”
Marcus GarveyPolitical Leader, Publisher/Journalist, Entrepreneur & Orator
August 17, 1887
June 10, 1940
Political Leader & Publisher/Journalist
“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
Marcus Garvey was a proponent of the Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism movements, inspiring the Nation of Islam and the Rastafarian movement.
Born in St. Ann's Bay, Jamaica on August 17, 1887, Marcus Mosiah Garvey was an orator for the Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism movements, to which end he founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League.
Garvey advanced a Pan-African philosophy which inspired a global mass movement, known as Garveyism. Garveyism would eventually inspire others, from the Nation of Islam to the Rastafari movement.
Self-educated, Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association, dedicated to promoting African-Americans and resettlement in Africa. In the United States he launched several businesses to promote a separate black nation. After he was convicted of mail fraud and deported back to Jamaica, he continued his work for black repatriation to Africa.
Marcus Mosiah Garvey was the last of 11 children born to Marcus Garvey, Sr. and Sarah Jane Richards. His father was a stone mason, and his mother a domestic worker and farmer. Garvey, Sr. was a great influence on Marcus, who once described him as “severe, firm, determined, bold, and strong, refusing to yield even to superior forces if he believed he was right.” His father was known to have a large library, where young Garvey learned to read.
At age 14, Marcus became a printer's apprentice. In 1903, he traveled to Kingston, Jamaica, and soon became involved in union activities. In 1907, he took part in an unsuccessful printer's strike and the experience kindled in him a passion for political activism. Three years later, he traveled throughout Central America working as an newspaper editor and writing about the exploitation of migrant workers in the plantations. He later traveled to London where he attended Birkbeck College (University of London) and worked for the African Times and Orient Review, which advocated Pan-African nationalism.
Inspired by these experiences, Marcus Garvey returned to Jamaica in 1912 and founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) with the goal of uniting all of African diaspora to “establish a country and absolute government of their own.” After corresponding with Booker T. Washington, the American educator who founded Tuskegee Institute, Garvey traveled to the United States in 1916 to raise funds for a similar venture in Jamaica. He settled in New York City and formed a UNIA chapter in Harlem to promote a separatist philosophy of social, political, and economic freedom for blacks. In 1918, Garvey began publishing the widely distributed newspaper Negro World to convey his message.
By 1919, Marcus Garvey and UNIA had launched the Black Star Line, a shipping company that would establish trade and commerce between Africans in America, the Caribbean, South and Central America, Canada, and Africa. At the same time, Garvey started the Negros Factories Association, a series of companies that would manufacture marketable commodities in every big industrial center in the Western hemisphere and Africa.
In August 1920, UNIA claimed 4 million members and held its first International Convention at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Before a crowd of 25,000 people from all over world, Marcus Garvey spoke of having pride in African history and culture. Many found his words inspiring, but not all. Some established black leaders found his separatist philosophy ill-conceived. W.E.B. Du Bois, a prominent black leader and officer of the N.A.A.C.P. called Garvey, “the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America.” Garvey felt Du Bois was an agent of the white elite.
In 1922, Marcus Garvey and three other UNIA officials were charged with mail fraud involving the Black Star Line. The trial records indicate several improprieties occurred in the prosecution of the case. It didn't help that the shipping line's books contained many accounting irregularities. On June 23, 1923, Garvey was convicted and sentenced to prison for five years. Claiming to be a victim of a politically motivated miscarriage of justice, Garvey appealed his conviction, but was denied. In 1927 he was released from prison and deported to Jamaica.
Garvey continued his political activism and the work of UNIA in Jamaica, and then moved to London in 1935. But he did not command the same influence he had earlier. Perhaps in desperation or maybe in delusion, Garvey collaborated with outspoken segregationist and white supremacist Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi to promote a reparations scheme. The Greater Liberia Act of 1939 would deport 12 million African-Americans to Liberia at federal expense to relieve unemployment. The act failed in Congress, and Garvey lost even more support among the black population.
Marcus Garvey died in London in 1940 after several strokes. Due to travel restrictions during World War II, his body was interred in London. In 1964, his remains were exhumed and taken to Jamaica, where the government proclaimed him Jamaica's first national hero and re-interred him at a shrine in the National Heroes Park. But his memory and influence remain.
His message of pride and dignity inspired many in the early days of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. In tribute to his many contributions, Garvey's bust has been displayed in the Organization of American States' Hall of Heroes in Washington, D.C. The country of Ghana has named its shipping line the Black Star Line and its national soccer team the Black Stars, in honor of Garvey.
Marvin GayeSinger, Songwriter, & Musician
April 2, 1939
April 1, 1984
Singer, Songwriter, & Musician
“Most fear stems from sin; to limit one's sins, one must assuredly limit one's fear, thereby bringing more peace to one's spirit.”
Marvin Gaye was a soul singer-songwriter with Motown in the 1960s and 1970s. He produced his own records and often addressed controversial themes.
Singer Marvin Pentz Gaye, Jr., also known as the “Prince of Soul,” was born in Washington, D.C., on April 2, 1939. Gaye was raised under the strict control of his father, Reverend Marvin Gay Sr.–Marvin Gaye Jr. added the “e” on the end of his name later in life–the minister at a local church, against a bleak backdrop of widespread violence in his neighborhood.
Throughout his childhood, Gaye often found peace in music, mastering the piano and drums at a young age. Until high school, his singing experience was limited to church revivals, but soon he developed a love for R&B and doo-wop that would set the foundation for his career. In the late 1950s, Gaye joined a vocal group called The New Moonglows.
The talented singer had a phenomenal range that spanned three vocal styles and he soon impressed the group's founder, Harvey Fuqua. It wasn't long before Gaye and Fuqua both came to the attention of Detroit music impresario Berry Gordy Jr. and were signed to Gordy's legendary Motown Records.
Gaye's first certified hit under his own name wouldn't come until 1962, but his early years at Motown were full of behind-the-scenes successes. He was a session drummer for Motown legends such as Little Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, The Marvelettes and Martha and the Vandellas. Showing his stripes as Motown's renaissance man, Gaye went on to break into the Top 40 for the first time on his own in 1962 with his solo single “Hitch Hike.”
Throughout the 1960s, Gaye would show his immense range, churning out solo dance hits and romantic duets with hit-makers like Diana Ross and Mary Wells. “Can I Get a Witness” and “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” were some of Gaye's biggest hits of the period, the latter achieving its place as Motown's best-selling single of the 1960s.
For three high-flying years, Gaye and Tammi Terrell wowed the country with their soaring duet performances of songs like “Ain't No Mountain High Enough” and “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You.” Unfortunately, their reign as the Royal Couple of R&B ended when Terrell succumbed to a brain tumor in 1970.
His beloved partner's death ushered in a dark period for the singer, who swore never to partner with another female vocalist and threatened to abandon the stage for good.
In 1970, inspired by escalating violence and political unrest over the Vietnam War, Gaye wrote the landmark song “What's Going On.” Despite clashes with Motown over the song's creative direction, the single was released in 1971 and became an instant smash.
Its success prompted Gaye to take even more risks, both musically and politically. When it was released in the spring of 1971, the What's Going On album served to open Gaye up to new audiences while maintaining his Motown following.
Departing from the tried and true Motown formula, Gaye went out on his own artistically, paving the way for other Motown artists like Wonder and Michael Jackson to branch out in later years. Beyond influencing his peers, the album garnered widespread critical acclaim, winning the Rolling Stone Album of the Year award.
In 1972, Gaye moved to Los Angeles and soon met Janis Hunter, who would later become his second wife. Inspired in part by his newfound independence, Gaye recorded one of the most revered love anthems of all time, “Let's Get It On.” The song became his second no. 1 Billboard hit, cementing his crossover appeal once and for all. Shortly afterwards, Motown pushed Gaye into touring to capitalize on his most recent success; reluctantly the singer-songwriter returned to the stage.
Through most of the mid-1970s, Gaye was touring, collaborating or producing. Working with Diana Ross and The Miracles, he would put off releasing another solo album until 1976. He continued touring after the release of I Want You (1976) and, after scoring a No. 1 hit in 1977 with the dance single “Got to Give It Up,” released his last album for Motown Records (Here, My Dear) in 1978.
(Decades later, “Got to Give It Up” would become the center of a big controversy. In 2013, Gaye's estate asserted that producer/songwriter Pharrell Williams and singer/songwriter Robin Thicke had committed copyright infringement by taking major musical elements from the disco track for the mega-hit “Blurred Lines.”
After a case in which Thicke testified that he'd had little to do with the writing of the song, the jury ruled in favor of Gaye's family, who were awarded $7.3 million in damages and profit shares. The jury also ruled that neither Williams or Thicke had purposely committed infringement.)
After two decades at Motown, Gaye signed with CBS's Columbia Records in 1982 and began to work on his last album, Midnight Love. The lead single from that album, “Sexual Healing,” became a huge comeback hit for the R&B star and earned him his first two Grammy Awards and an American Music Award for Favorite Soul Single.
In 1975, Gaye's wife Anna Gordy–Berry Gordy's sister–filed for divorce, and two years later Gaye married Hunter, who had by then given birth to their daughter, Nona (born September 4, 1974) and their son Frankie (born November 16, 1975). Gaye also had an adopted son (Marvin Pentz Gaye III) from his previous marriage. The singer's marriage to Hunter proved short lived and tumultuous, ending in divorce in 1981.
Death and Legacy
Despite his successful comeback in the early 1980s, Gaye struggled badly with the substance abuse and bouts of depression that had plagued him for most of his life. After his last tour, he moved into his parents’ house.
There he and his father fell into a pattern of violent fights and quarrels that recalled conflicts that had haunted the family for decades. On April 1, 1984, Marvin Gaye Sr. shot and killed his son after a physical altercation; the father claimed he acted in self-defense but would later be convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
Three years after his death, Marvin Gaye Jr. was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Creating beautiful art from a troubled life, Gaye again and again brought his vision, range and artistry to the world stage. At the end of his career, he admitted he no longer made music for pleasure; instead, he said, “I record so that I can feed people what they need, what they feel. Hopefully, I record so that I can help someone overcome a bad time.”
Berry GordyRecord Executive, Songwriter & Music/Film/Television Producer
November 28, 1929
Record Executive, Songwriter & Music/Film/Television Producer
“I have this ability to find this hidden talent in people that sometimes even they didn't know they had.”
Berry Gordy Jr. founded Motown Records, the most successful black owned music company in the history of the United States.
Berry Gordy Jr. was born on November 28, 1929, and was raised in Detroit, Michigan. He was not the first businessperson in the family; both parents worked for themselves, his father as a plastering contractor, his mother as an insurance agent.
As a child Gordy was interested in music, and his song “Berry's Boogie” won a talent contest. However, he did not receive much formal training in music–only a little on the piano and merely a week on the clarinet. Gordy dropped out of Northeastern High School during his junior year to pursue a career as a boxer.
Between 1948 and 1951 he fought fifteen matches, twelve of which he won, but his boxing career was cut short when he was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army during the Korean War (a war between North Korea and South Korea during which the United Nations and the United States helped defend South Korea).
Enters the music business
When Gordy's service in the army ended in 1953, he returned to Detroit and used the money he had saved from his military pay to open a record store called the Three-D Record Mart.
His love for the jazz of Stan Kenton, Charlie Parker, and Thelonius Monk influenced the records he tried to sell more than his customers’ requests and his business soon failed.
Gordy worked for his father for a short period and then on an assembly line at the Ford Motor Company. He did not find the work interesting, and as he worked he wrote songs in his head, some of which were recorded by local singers.
The record company Decca Records bought several of his songs, including “Reet Petite” and “Lonely Teardrops,” and when Gordy compared the money he made for writing the songs to what Decca made from the minor hits, he realized that writing the songs was not enough. He needed to own them.
Hits the big time
At the suggestion of a friend, teenage singer William “Smokey” Robinson, Gordy borrowed seven hundred dollars from his father and formed his own company to make and sell records.
Motown Records was headquartered in a house on Detroit's West Grand Boulevard, where Gordy slept on the second floor and made records on the first. In time the company grew, with nine buildings on the same street housing its various branches, such as Jobete, music publishers; Hitsville, USA, a recording studio; International Talent Management, Inc.; the Motown Artist's Development Department (which showed Gordy's personal interest in his performers, as this was where they were taught to eat, dress, and act like professionals); and the Motown Record Corporation.
In 1960 Motown released the song “Shop Around,” written by Smokey Robinson and performed by him and the Miracles. The song sold more than a million copies, and with that record Gordy's company launched the most successful and influential era in the history of popular music.
What came to be called the Motown Sound was a musical form that combined classic African American gospel singing with the new rock-and-roll sound that was being shaped by Elvis Presley and the British band the Beatles.
Motown Records made more than 110 number-one hit songs and countless top-ten records, including “Please Mr. Postman,” “Reach Out, I'll Be There,” “My Girl,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “For Once in My Life,” “How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You,” “Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “My Guy,” “Dancing in the Streets,” “Your Precious Love,” “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” “I Hear a Symphony,” “I Want You Back,” and “I'll Be There.”
Just as good is the list of artists Gordy brought into the spotlight: Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Four Tops, the Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Tammi Terrell, Marvin Gaye, the Marvelettes, Mary Wells, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas.
By the mid-1970s, though, some of the Motown artists had begun to resist Gordy's tight control and began to break up Gordy's “family” of stars. The first to leave was Gladys Knight and the Pips. In 1975, the Jackson 5 announced that they would be moving to Epic Records when their Motown contract expired.
Although Gordy kept Stevie Wonder at Motown by promising him $13 million over seven years in the famous “Wonderdeal” of 1975, Gordy's public statements usually expressed disappointment that his superstars came to value money over loyalty. This was heard often from Gordy when, in 1981, Diana Ross announced her move to RCA Records.
Ross's move was especially surprising and bitter for Gordy because in 1972 he had moved his headquarters to Los Angeles, California, to begin a career in film, not only for himself, but so he could turn Ross into a movie star. His first film was the 1972 Paramount release Lady Sings the Blues, the story of jazz singer Billie Holiday starring Ross.
The picture was nominated for five Academy Awards and took in more than $8.5 million at the box office. In 1975 Gordy directed Ross in Mahogany, the story of an African American fashion model's rise to fame. Although the film did well at the box office, it was not nearly the critical success of Lady Sings the Blues.
Other Gordy films were The Bingo Long Traveling All Stars and Motor Kings (1976), Almost Summer (1978), The Wiz (1978) starring Michael Jackson and Diana Ross, and The Last Dragon (1985).
Gives up his company
In June 1988 Gordy sold his company to MCA, Inc. He kept control of Jobete, the music publishing operation, and Motown's film division, but he sold the record company for $61 million. He told the newspaper Daily Variety that he wanted to make sure that the history of Motown remained alive.
Esther Edwards, Berry Gordy's sister, was also interested in preserving Motown's history. The brick house in Detroit once named Hitsville, USA, became the site of the Motown Museum thanks in large part to Edwards. She had saved hundreds of boxes of Motown items, including original music scores, posters, and photographs, and until 1988 most of them were stuck to the walls with thumbtacks. In an effort to have the collection preserved, Michael Jackson, whose ties to Berry were still strong in 1990, donated $125,000 to the Motown Museum.
In late 1994 a plan was announced to make a tribute album to Gordy. Even though Gordy was oftentimes recognized as an entrepreneur, he was first and foremost a song-writer. Singers who signed on to sing some of Gordy's songs on the tribute album included Diana Ross, the Four Tops, the Temptations, and Smokey Robinson.
In 2000, Gordy gave $750,000 to the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in order to help those pioneers of rhythm and blues in need. Gordy's talents as a songwriter and entrepreneur and his huge contribution to popular music were recognized in 2001, when he was inducted into the Independent Music Hall of Fame.
Dick GregoryAuthor, Civil Rights Activist, Comedian & Entrepreneur
October 12, 1932
Author, Civil Rights Activist, Comedian & Entrepreneur
Dick Gregory is an iconic, headlining comedian who became known for his trailblazing form of racial commentary during the 1960s. He later became a worldwide activist and health/fitness entrepreneur.
Background and Early Years
Richard Claxton Gregory was born on October 12, 1932, in St. Louis, Missouri. He grew up in crippling poverty, with his mother working long hours and father having left the large family behind. With the intellectually-minded Gregory taking on work as a youth to also support the household, he was eventually able to join his high school track team and was later accepted to Southern Illinois University.
As a teenager, he began his lifelong call for racial justice and activism when he first protested against segregated schools. He was drafted into the army in the mid-1950s and it was during this time that he began performing stand-up comedy and later became part of its entertainment division after winning a talent event.
After his return to the states, Gregory worked as an MC at various Chicago clubs, honing his craft as a comedian and taking on odd jobs while working the circuit. He brandished a trailblazing style of humor that was calm, satirical and full of sociopolitical, racially-tinged wit with topics pulled straight from contemporary headlines—a stark contrast to the song-and-dance routines previous African-American performers had been relegated to.
Gregory’s big break came in 1961 at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club in Chicago, where the comedian, as a replacement act, performed in front of a room of white executives visiting from the segregated South.
Nonetheless, Gregory was a huge success. “It was the first time they had seen a black comic who was not bucking his eyes, wasn't dancing and singing and telling mother-in-law jokes,” said Gregory in a 2000 Boston Globe interview. “Just talking about what I read in the newspaper.”
The comedian had his run at the club extended by weeks and gradually became a national comedy headliner. That same year, Gregory made history by appearing on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show after making it clear he wanted to be invited to sit on the couch to have a chat with the host like white entertainers, thus becoming the first guest to do so on the program. Gregory became a recurring guest on the show over the ensuing months.
Gregory was at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement during the ‘60s, becoming friends with the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers. Over the coming decades he took on a range of issues that ranged from ending the Vietnam War to feminism, Native-American rights and apartheid in South Africa, with Gregory being arrested dozens of times for his causes.
In the mid-‘60s, Gregory unsuccessfully ran against Richard Daley to be mayor of Chicago. In 1968, he also ran for U.S. president as a write-in candidate with the Freedom and Peace Party during the electoral showdown between Richard Nixon and Hubert H. Humphrey.
Over the years, Gregory became devoted to health and fitness, adopting a vegetarian diet and completing long runs in a continuation of his favored sport from his teen days. He became a noted university lecturer and looked at issues around diet within African-American communities. Gregory also regularly fasted in protest of particular world events.
During the mid-‘80s, the comedian/activist launched a weight-loss business known as the Slim/Safe Bahamian Diet. He eventually filed a lawsuit against his business partners with major money troubles leading to the loss of Gregory's 40-acre farm in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
He also turned away from stand-up for a time, citing the unhealthy environment of the clubs, but later made his way back to performing. In 1996, he starred in the critically well-received Off-Broadway production Dick Gregory Live!
Gregory has been married for more than five and a half decades to Lillian Smith, with the couple tying the knot in 1959. The two have 10 children, with one son having died in infancy. Gregory has acknowledged that his wife was the primary emotional caretaker of their children due to the demands of his work projects and traveling.
Gregory revealed in 2000 he was diagnosed with lymphoma, reportedly stating that he relied on factors like diet and alternative treatments to help put the cancer in remission.
The comedian/activist has also authored a number of books, including the controversially titled 1964 release Nigger: An Autobiography (in the foreword, he showcased his humor yet again as he wrote to his deceased mother: “Wherever you are, if ever you hear the word ‘nigger’ again, remember they are advertising my book…”), 1971’s No More Lies: The Myth and the Reality of American History, 1973’s Dick Gregory’s Natural Diet for Folks Who Eat: Cookin’ With Nature and the 2000 memoir Callus on My Soul.
May 26, 1949
“And as I reinvent myself and I'm constantly curious about everything, I can't wait to see what's around the corner in newfound art and entertainment and exploration.”
Pam Grier is best known for acting in many “blaxploitation” films in the 1970s, such as Coffy and Foxy Brown.
Pamela Suzette Grier was born on May 26, 1949, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Her mother was a nurse and her father was a mechanic in the United States Air Force. Due to her father's job, the family moved around from base to base often during Grier's childhood, including spending several years in England, before settling down in Denver, Colorado, after her father left the military.
Raised in a strict, conservative household, Grier says that she was raised with a rural sensibility, learning to “sleep in a tent at night in the rain and go fish for your food in the morning.” And growing up in a rough working-class Denver neighborhood, she also learned to stand up for herself. “Denver was tough,” Grier recalls. “That was where I learned you had to fight all the time. I mean fight for your lunch money or act like you didn't have any. I used to keep mine in my sock. It was pretty rough for a kid who had been sheltered on Air Force bases, but I am a quick study.”
Growing up, Grier was a good student who dreamed of becoming a doctor. “When I was a young girl, I never thought of acting,” she remembers. “I never thought of television, of fans, movie stars, signing autographs. It never crossed my mind.”
Only very recently, in her 2010 memoir Foxy: My Life in Three Acts, did Grier reveal that she also silently endured two incidents of sexual assault. She was raped by a group of older students when she was only six years old, and at the age of 18 she was the victim of a date rape. Fearing repercussions on her family, Grier never said a word to anyone about either incident until she sat down to write her memoirs as an adult.
“I wanted others out there to understand the emotional trauma that is involved in sexual aggression and abuse and that not all of us get over it or even survive the abuse,” she says about her decision to finally reveal the incidents. “I have that opportunity to speak about this as the icon—the object and let others know that in spite of it all, I am still here.”
In 1967, Grier entered the Colorado state competition for the Miss Universe Beauty Pageant and placed third. She then entered another beauty contest at a Colorado Springs hotel where she was spotted by agent Dave Baumgarten, who invited her to travel to Hollywood to try her hand at acting. After initially declining, Grier eventually decided to accept the offer at the encouragement of her mother. “What can you lose?” her mother asked her.
“You can always go back to school. Why don't you try it?” Grier moved to Los Angeles and enrolled in acting classes while working as a switchboard operator for American International Pictures to pay the bills. Grier then made her big screen debut at the age of 22 as one of several sexy inmates in the 1971 film Big Doll House.
Following that role, Grier quickly established herself as a staple of the so-called “blaxploitation” films of the 1970s—films specifically geared toward African-American audiences that played heavily on black stereotypes. They were typically set in ghettos and featured drug dealers, pimps, and gangsters. After appearing in Hit Man (1972) and Black Mama, White Mama (1973), Grier landed her breakthrough role as the title character–“the baddest one-chick hit-squad that ever hit town”–in Coffy (1973). The next year she delivered her most iconic performance to date as a high-class prostitute out for revenge in Foxy Brown, perhaps the definitive film of the “blaxploitation” genre. In 1975, Grier scored another hit with Sheba Baby.
While Grier's films have sometimes been criticized for portraying negative black stereotypes, she insists that they served a social function by exposing the ugly elements of the black community that still existed even in the wake of the civil rights movement. “I showed this in the pictures and it was just so ugly and people saw it and said, ‘Wow! That's really the way it is.’ All of a sudden there was a kind of violent reaction to it.”
In the 1980s, Grier broke through into a couple of mainstream blockbusters with roles opposite Paul Newman in Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981) and opposite Steven Seagal in Above the Law (1988). However, despite roles in TV series such as Crime Story (1986-1988) and Miami Vice (1985-1990) and an appearance opposite Jack Nicholson in Mars Attacks (1996), by the late 1990s Grier appeared to have passed the heyday of her career.
Then, in 1997, Quentin Tarantino chose Grier to play the titular role in his acclaimed film Jackie Brown. Portraying a flight attendant caught up in a crime scheme, Grier received rave reviews and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress for her performance. Propelled by Jackie Brown, Grier enjoyed a late-career revival on the TV series The L Word (2004-2009) and Smallville (2010).
Grier has never been married and does not have children. She has previously been involved in high-profile relationships with basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and comedian Richard Pryor.
Grier will be best remembered as the leading heroine of the “blaxploitation” film genre of the 1970s. Grier's characters always stood out as empowered black women who relied on nothing but their own strength to achieve their goals. As one film producer put it, “She exists in the American imagination in a way that is permanent. She represents a self-reliant, dynamic female figure that doesn't have to forgo femininity for potency, for militant power.”
Grier has said that her philosophy is to pour her all into every character regardless of the size of the role or the overall tenor of the film–a lesson she learned by reading about the famed Russian theater director Constantin Stanislavski. “He said there's no such thing as a small role, there's no such thing as a small heart,” she recalls. “He said I should approach any role as if it's my life, and that's what I did.”
Redd FoxxCivil Rights Activist & Philanthropist
October 6, 1917
March 14, 1977
Civil Rights Activist & Philanthropist
“With the people, for the people, by the people. I crack up when I hear it; I say, with the handful, for the handful, by the handful, cause that's what really happens.”
Fannie Lou Hamer was a civil rights activist who helped African Americans register to vote and who co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
Civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer was born Fannie Lou Townsend on October 6, 1917, in Montgomery County, Mississippi. She was the youngest of 20 children. Her parents were sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta area. Hamer began working the fields when she was only 6 years old.
Around the age of 12, Hamer dropped out of school in order to work full-time and help out her family. She continued to be a share cropper after her 1944 marriage to Perry “Pap” Hamer. The couple worked on a cotton plantation near Ruleville, Mississippi. They were unable to have children after Hamer had a surgery to remove a tumor. During the operation, her surgeon gave Hamer a hysterectomy without her consent.
Civil Rights Activist
In the summer of 1962, Hamer made a life-changing decision to attend a protest meeting. She met civil rights activists there who were there to encourage African Americans to register to vote. Hamer was one of a small group of African Americans in her area who decided to register themselves. On August 31, 1962, she traveled with 17 others to the county courthouse in Indianola to accomplish this goal. They encountered opposition from local and state law enforcement along the way.
Such bravery came at a high price for Hamer. She was fired from her job and driven from the plantation she had called home for nearly two decades–just for registering to vote. But these actions only solidified Hamer's resolve to help other African Americans get the right to vote. According to The New York Times, she said “They kicked me off the plantation, they set me free. It's the best thing that could happen. Now I can work for my people.”
Hamer dedicated her life to the fight for civil rights, working for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. This organization was comprised mostly of African-American students who engaged in acts of civil disobedience to fight racial segregation and injustice in the South. These acts often were met with violent responses by angry whites.
During the course of her activist career, Hamer was threatened, arrested, beaten, and shot at. She was severely injured in 1963 in a Winona, Mississippi jail. She and two other activists were taken in by police after attending a training workshop. Hamer was beaten so badly that she suffered permanent kidney damage.
In 1964, Hamer helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which was established in opposition to her state's all-white delegation to that year's Democratic convention. She brought the civil rights struggle in Mississippi to the attention of the entire nation during a televised session at the convention. The following year, Hamer ran for Congress in Mississippi, but was unsuccessful in her bid.
Along with her political activism, Hamer worked to help the poor and families in need in her Mississippi community. She also set up organizations to increase business opportunities for minorities and to provide childcare and other family services. She helped establish the National Women's Political Caucus in 1971.
Death and Legacy
In 1976, Hamer was diagnosed with breast cancer. She continued to fight for civil rights, despite her illness. Hamer died on March 14, 1977, in a hospital in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. Hundreds crowded into a Ruleville church to say good-bye to this tireless champion for racial equality.
Andrew Young Jr., then a U.S. delegate to the United Nations, gave the eulogy at Hamer's funeral. He explained, “None of us would be where we are today had she not been here then,” according to The New York Times. Young said that the progress of the Civil Rights Movement had been made through “the sweat and blood” of activists like Hamer. On her tombstone is written one of her most famous quotes: “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Lorraine HansberryPlaywright & Writer
May 19, 1930
January 12, 1965
Playwright & Writer
“There is always something left to love. And if you ain't learned that, you ain't learned nothing.”
Playwright and activist Lorraine Hansberry wrote A Raisin in the Sun and was the first black playwright and the youngest American to win a New York Critics’ Circle award.
Playwright, author, activist. The granddaughter of a freed slave, and the youngest by seven years of four children, Lorraine Vivian Hansberry 3rd was born on May 19, 1930, in Chicago, Illinois. Hansberry’s father was a successful real estate broker, and her mother was a schoolteacher. Her parents contributed large sums of money to the NAACP and the Urban League.
In 1938, Hansberry's family moved to a white neighborhood and was violently attacked by neighbors. They refused to move until a court ordered them to do so, and the case made it to the Supreme Court as Hansberry v. Lee, ruling restrictive covenants illegal. Hansberry broke her family’s tradition of enrolling in Southern black colleges and instead attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison. While at school, she changed her major from painting to writing, and after two years decided to drop out and move to New York City.
In New York, Hansberry attended the New School for Social Research and then worked for Paul Robeson’s progressive black newspaper, Freedom, as a writer and associate editor from 1950 to 1953. She also worked part-time as a waitress and cashier, and wrote in her spare time.
By 1956, Hansberry quit her jobs and committed her time to writing. In 1957, she joined the Daughters of Bilitis and contributed letters to their magazine, The Ladder, about feminism and homophobia. Her lesbian identity was exposed in the articles, but she wrote under her initials, L.H., for fear of discrimination.
During this time, Hansberry wrote The Crystal Stair, a play about a struggling black family in Chicago, which was later renamed A Raisin in the Sun, a line from a Langston Hughes poem. The play opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on March 11, 1959, and was a great success, having a run of 530 performances.
It was the first play produced on Broadway by an African-American woman, and Hansberry was the first black playwright and the youngest American to win a New York Critics’ Circle award. The film version of A Raisin in the Sun was completed in 1961, starring Sidney Poitier, and received an award at the Cannes Film Festival.
In 1963, Hansberry became active in the Civil Rights Movement. Along with other influential people, including Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne and James Baldwin, Hansberry met with then attorney general Robert Kennedy to test his position on civil rights. In 1963, her second play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, opened on Broadway to unenthusiastic reception.
Personal Life and Legacy
Hansberry met Robert Nemiroff, a Jewish songwriter, on a picket line, and the two were married in 1953. Hansberry and Nemiroff divorced in 1962, though they continued to work together. In 1964, the same year The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window opened, Hansberry was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She died on January 12, 1965. After her death, Nemiroff adapted a collection of her writing and interviews in To Be Young, Gifted and Black, which opened off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theatre and ran for eight months.
A Raisin in the Sun is considered one of the hallmarks of the American stage and has continued to find new audiences throughout the decades, including Emmy-nominated television productions from both 1989 and 2008. The play has earned accolades from Broadway as well, winning Tony Awards in 2004 and 2014, including Best Revival of a Play.
Issac HayesActor, Musician & Singer
August 20, 1942
August 10, 2008
Actor, Musician & Singer
“There's always hurdles. So I just keep moving, just constantly redefining myself. That's how you stay in the race.”
Issac Hayes was an American musician and actor. His hit song “Soul Man” and the musical score for the 1971 film Shaft are legendary contributions to modern music.
Singer, songwriter and actor Isaac Lee Hayes, Jr. was born August 20, 1942, in a tin shack in Covington, Tennessee, about 40 miles north of Memphis. After his mother died and his father left, he was raised by his maternal grandparents. The family moved to Memphis when he was 6. He never forgot his humble beginnings with his sharecropper family.
At the height of his fame, Hayes bought an estate in East Memphis overlooking the same cotton fields where he grew up. Hayes began singing in church at age five and in high school caught the attention of a guidance counselor who persuaded him to enter a talent show. He won it singing Nat King Cole's “Looking Back.” “When I finished, the house was on its feet, man, and I was a hit … So I started pursuing music big time,” Hayes said on his official website.
Hayes played saxophone and piano in high school and performed in “doo-wop” and jazz bands. After graduating in 1962, he turned down seven college scholarships for music, and instead landed a job playing piano with saxophonist Floyd Newman's band in West Arkansas.
Newman was a staff musician at Memphis's Stax Records recording studio and Hayes eventually found work there playing keyboards. He worked with some of Rhythm and Blues biggest names at the time, including Otis Redding, Booker T. & the MGs, The Bar-Kays and Rufus Thomas, playing a key role in creating what became known as the Memphis Sound.
Hayes also wrote some 200 songs with David Porter, including “Soul Man” for Sam and Dave. The song was inspired television coverage of the 12 Street Detroit Riot, which indicated that African-American owned and operated institutions were marked with the word “soul” so that rioters would not destroy them.
His career took off in 1969 with the landmark Hot Buttered Soul album, which included rap-vocals and longer songs, including an 18-minute version of Jimmy Webb's “By The Time I Get to Phoenix.” The album topped the Billboard R&B chart for 10 weeks and forced the music industry to conceive of soul music as an album art form.
At the time of emerging Black Power and with the death of Martin Luther King as a conscience building experience, Hayes transformed his image into a revolutionary statement, dressing in black leather, draping his bare chest in rows of gold chains and shaving his head completely.
Next came his career-defining soundtrack for the 1971 movie Shaft, for which Hayes picked up an Oscar, three Grammy awards and a Golden Globe award. Hayes began acting in scores of movies and television series.
Success as an Actor
His guest star appearances included TV shows The Rockford Files, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Miami Vice. He also appeared in more than three dozen feature films, including I'm Gonna ‘Git You, Sucka (1988), Guilty as Charged (1991), Escape from New York (1996) and Hustle & Flow (2005). Isaac Hayes returned to the music charts in 1986 with a new record deal with Columbia and a new album, U-Turn. In 1997 Hayes found a second career in with Comedy Central's animated cable series South Park. He was the voice of Chef, the cafeteria cook and self-professed ladies man who became a mentor to the students of South Park. The character was “the perfect alter ego for Hayes,” said his Web site. However, he angrily quit in 2006 after an episode mocked Scientology, a religion he followed since the mid 1990s.
In 2002, Hayes was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his influence on disco, urban-contemporary music and rap. He also moved back home to Memphis where he pursed business interests, including two restaurants, a best-selling cookbook and barbecue sauces. He also wrote a self-help book, The Way to Happiness, and summarized his life experience in an interview: “At the end of the day, we are responsible for our own lives.”
Hayes was married four times and fathered 12 children. He died of a stroke August 10, 2008, after his wife, son and his wife's cousin found him unconscious at his home in Memphis, Tennessee. He is survived by his fourth wife, Adjowa, whom he married in 2005 and with whom he had a son.
Dorothy HeightCivil Rights Activist & Women's Rights Activist
March 24, 1912
April 20, 2010
Civil Rights Activist & Women's Rights Activist
“We have to improve life, not just for those who have the most skills and those who know how to manipulate the system. But also for and with those who often have so much to give but never get the opportunity.”
Dorothy Height was a civil rights and women's rights activist focused primarily on improving the circumstances of and opportunities for African-American women.
Born on March 24, 1912, in Richmond, Virginia, African-American activist Dorothy Height spent her life fighting for civil rights and women's rights. The daughter of a building contractor and a nurse, Height moved with her family to Rankin, Pennsylvania, in her youth. There, she attended racially integrated schools.
In high school, Height showed great talent as an orator. She also became socially and politically active, participating in anti-lynching campaigns. Height's skills as a speaker took her all the way to a national oratory competition. Winning the event, she was awarded a college scholarship.
Height had applied to and been accepted to Barnard College in New York, but as the start of school neared, the college changed its mind about her admittance, telling Height that they had already met their quota for black students. Undeterred, she applied to New York University, where she would earn two degrees: a bachelor's degree in education in 1930 and a master's degree in psychology in 1932.
After working for a time as a social worker, Height joined the staff of the Harlem YWCA in 1937. She had a life-changing encounter not long after starting work there. Height met educator and founder of the National Council of Negro Women Mary McLeod Bethune when Bethune and U.S. first lady Eleanor Roosevelt came to visit her facility. Height soon volunteered with the NCNW and became close to McLeod.
One of Height's major accomplishments at the YWCA was directing the integration of all of its centers in 1946. She also established its Center for Racial Justice in 1965, which she ran until 1977. In 1957, Height became the president of the National Council of Negro Women.
Through the center and the council, she became one of the leading figures of the Civil Rights Movement. Height worked with Martin Luther King Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, John Lewis and James Farmer–sometimes called the “Big Six” of the Civil Rights Movement–on different campaigns and initiatives.
In 1963, Height was one of the organizers of the famed March on Washington. She stood close to Martin Luther King Jr. when he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Despite her skills as a speaker and a leader, Height was not invited to talk that day.
Height later wrote that the March on Washington event had been an eye-opening experience for her. Her male counterparts “were happy to include women in the human family, but there was no question as to who headed the household,” she said, according to the Los Angeles Times. Height joined in the fight for women's rights. In 1971, she helped found the National Women's Political Caucus with Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and Shirley Chisholm.
While she retired from the YWCA in 1977, Height continued to run the NCNW for two more decades. One of her later projects was focused on strengthening the African-American family. In 1986, Height organized the first National Black Family Reunion, a celebration of traditions and values. The event is still held annually.
Height received many honors for her contributions to society. In 1994, President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She stepped down from the presidency of the NCNW in the late 1990s, but remained the organization's chair of the board until her death in 2010. In 2002, Height turned her 90th birthday celebration into a fundraiser for the NCNW; Oprah Winfrey and Don King were among the celebrities who contributed to the event.
In 2004, President George W. Bush gave Height the Congressional Gold Medal. She later befriended the first African-American president of the United States, Barack Obama, who called her “the godmother of the Civil Rights Movement,” according to The New York Times. Height died in Washington, D.C., on April 20, 2010.
Former first lady Hillary Clinton was among the many who mourned the passing of the famed champion for equality and justice. Clinton told the Washington Post that Height “understood that women's rights and civil rights are indivisible. She stood up for the rights of women every chance she had.”
Jimi HendrixGuitarist, Songwriter, & Singer
November 27, 1942
September 18, 1970
Guitarist, Songwriter, & Singer
“I used to live in a room full of mirrors; all I could see was me. I take my spirit and I crash my mirrors, now the whole world is here for me to see.”
Guitarist, singer, and songwriter, Jimi Hendrix delighted audiences in the 1960s with his outrageous electric guitar playing skills and his experimental sound.
Guitarist, singer and songwriter Jimmy Hendrix was born Johnny Allen Hendrix (later changed to James Marshall) on November 27, 1942, in Seattle, Washington. Learning to play guitar as a teenager, Hendrix grew up to become a rock guitar legend. He had a difficult childhood, sometimes living in the care of relatives and even acquaintances at times.
His mother, Lucille, was only 17 years old when Hendrix was born. She had a stormy relationship with his father, Al, and eventually left the family after the couple had two more children together, sons Leon and Joseph. Hendrix would only see his mother sporadically before her death in 1958.
In many ways, music became a sanctuary for Hendrix. He was a fan of blues music and taught himself to play guitar. At the age of 14, Hendrix saw Elvis Presley perform. He got his first electric guitar the following year and eventually played with two bands–the Rocking Kings and the Tomcats. In 1959, Hendrix dropped out of high school. He worked odd jobs while continuing to follow his musical aspirations.
Hendrix enlisted in the United States Army in 1961 and trained at Fort Ord in California to become a paratrooper. Even as a soldier, he found time for music, creating a band named The King Casuals. Hendrix served in the army until 1962 when he was discharged due to an injury.
After leaving the military, Hendrix pursued his music, working as a session musician and playing backup for such performers as Little Richard, Sam Cooke and the Isley Brothers. He also formed a group of his own called Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, which played gigs around New York City's Greenwich Village neighborhood.
In mid-1966, Hendrix met Chas Chandler–a former member of the Animals, a successful rock group–who became his manager. Chandler convinced Hendrix to go to London where he joined forces with musicians Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell to create The Jimi Hendrix Experience. While there, Hendrix built up quite a following among England's rock royalty.
Members of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who and Eric Clapton were all great admirers of Hendrix's work. One critic for the British music magazine Melody Maker said that he “had great stage presence” and looked at times as if he was playing “with no hands at all.”
Released in 1967, the band's first single, “Hey Joe” was an instant smash in Britain, and was soon followed by other hits such as “Purple Haze” and “The Wind Cried Mary.” On tour to support his first album, Are You Experienced? (1967), Hendrix delighted audiences with his outrageous guitar-playing skills and his innovative, experimental sound.
He won over American music fans with his stunning performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, which ended with Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire.
Quickly becoming a rock music superstar, Hendrix scored again with his second album, Axis: Bold as Love (1968). His final album as part of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Electric Ladyland (1968), was released and featured the hit “All Along the Watchtower,” which was written by Bob Dylan. The band continued to tour until it split up in 1969.
That same year, Hendrix performed at another legendary musical event: the Woodstock Festival. His rock rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” amazed the crowds and demonstrated his considerable talents as a musician. He was also an accomplished songwriter and musical experimenter. Hendrix even had his own recording studio in which he could work with different performers and try out new songs and sounds.
Hendrix tried his luck with another group, forming Band of Gypsys in late 1969 with his army buddy Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles. The band never really took off, and Hendrix began working on a new album tentatively named First Rays of the New Rising Sun, with Cox and Mitch Mitchell from the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Unfortunately Hendrix did not live to complete the project.
Hendrix died on September 18, 1970, from drug-related complications. While this talented recording artist was only 27 years old at the time of his passing, Hendrix left his mark on the world of rock music and remains popular to this day.
As one journalist wrote in the Berkeley Tribe, “Jimi Hendrix could get more out of an electric guitar than anyone else. He was the ultimate guitar player.”
Billie HolidaySinger, Songwriter & Actress
April 7, 1915
July 17, 1959
Singer, Songwriter & Actress
“You can't copy anybody and end with anything. If you copy, it means you're working without any real feeling.”
Billie Holiday was one of the most influential jazz singers of all time. She had a thriving career for many years before she lost her battle with addiction.
Born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Some sources say Baltimore, Maryland. Her birth certificate reportedly reads “Elinore Harris.”) One of the most influential jazz singers of all time, Billie Holiday had a thriving career for many years before her battles with substance abuse got the better of her.
Holiday spent much of her childhood in Baltimore, Maryland. Her mother, Sadie, was only a teenager when she had her. Her father is widely believed to be Clarence Holiday, who eventually became a successful jazz musician, playing with the likes of Fletcher Henderson. Unfortunately for Billie, he was only an infrequent visitor in her life growing up. Sadie married Philip Gough in 1920 and for a few years Billie had a somewhat stable home life. But that marriage ended a few years later, leaving Billie and Sadie to struggle along on their own again. Sometimes Billie was left in the care of other people.
Holiday started skipping school, and she and her mother went to court over Holiday's truancy. She was then sent to the House of Good Shepherd, a facility for troubled African American girls, in January 1925. Only 9 years old at the time, Holiday was one of the youngest girls there. She was returned to her mother's care in August of that year. According to Donald Clarke's biography, Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon, she returned there in 1926 after she had been sexually assaulted.
In her difficult early life, Holiday found solace in music, singing along to the records of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. She followed her mother who had moved to New York City in the late 1920s and worked in a house of prostitution in Harlem for a time. Around 1930, Holiday began singing in local clubs and renamed herself ‘Billie’ after the film star Billie Dove.
At the age of 18, Holiday was discovered by producer John Hammond while she was performing in a Harlem jazz club. Hammond was instrumental in getting Holiday recording work with an up-and-coming clarinetist and bandleader Benny Goodman. With Goodman, she sang vocals for several tracks, including her first commercial release “Your Mother's Son-In-Law” and the 1934 top ten hit “Riffin’ the Scotch.”
Known for her distinctive phrasing and expressive, sometimes melancholy voice, Holiday went on to record with jazz pianist Teddy Wilson and others in 1935. She made several singles, including “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and “Miss Brown to You.” That same year, Holiday appeared with Duke Ellington in the film Symphony in Black.
Count Basie Orchestra
Around this time, Holiday met and befriended saxophonist Lester Young, who was part of Count Basie's orchestra on and off for years. He even lived with Holiday and her mother Sadie for a while. Young gave Holiday the nickname “Lady Day” in 1937–the same year she joined Basie's band. In return, she called “Prez,” which was her way of saying that she thought it was the greatest.
Holiday toured with the Count Basie Orchestra in 1937. The following year, she worked with Artie Shaw and his orchestra. Holiday broke new ground with Shaw, becoming one of the first female African American vocalists to work with a white orchestra. Promoters objected to Holiday–for her race and for her unique vocal style–and she ended up leaving the orchestra out of frustration.
Striking out on her own, Holiday performed at New York's Café Society. She developed some of her trademark stage persona there–wearing gardenias in her hair and singing with her head tilted back.
During this engagement, Holiday also debuted two of her most famous songs “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit.” Columbia, her record company at the time, was not interested in “Strange Fruit” (1939), which was a powerful story about the lynching of African Americans in the South. Holiday recorded the song with the Commodore label instead. This ballad is considered to be one of her signature ballads, and the controversy that surrounded it–some radio stations banned the record–helped make it a hit.
Over the years, Holiday sang many songs of stormy relationships, including “T’ain't Nobody's Business If I Do” and “My Man.” These songs reflected her personal romances, which were often destructive and abusive. She married James Monroe in 1941. Already known to drink, Holiday picked up her new husband's habit of smoking opium. The marriage didn't last, but Holiday's problems with substance abuse continued. (They later divorced.)
That same year, Holiday had a hit with “God Bless the Child.” She later signed with Decca Records in 1944 and scored an R&B hit the next year with “Lover Man.” Her boyfriend at the time was trumpeter Joe Guy, and with him she started using heroin. After the death of her mother in October 1945, Holiday began drinking more heavily and escalated her drug use to ease her grief.
Despite her personal problems, Holiday remained a major star in the jazz world–and even in popular music as well. She appeared with her idol Louis Armstrong in the 1947 film New Orleans, albeit playing the role of a maid. Unfortunately, Holiday's drug use caused her a great professional setback that same year. She was arrested and convicted for narcotics possession in 1947. Sentenced to one year and a day of jail time, Holiday went to a federal rehabilitation facility in Alderston, West Virginia.
Released the following year, Holiday faced new challenges. Because of her conviction, she was unable to get the necessary license to play in cabarets and clubs. Holiday, however, could still perform at concert halls and had a sold-out show at the Carnegie Hall not long after her release. With some help from John Levy, a New York club owner, Holiday was later to get to play in New York's Club Ebony. Levy became her boyfriend and manager by the end of the 1940s, joining the ranks of the men who took advantage of Holiday. Also around this time, she was again arrested for narcotics, but she was acquitted of the charges.
While her hard living was taking a toll on her voice, Holiday continued to tour and record in the 1950s. She began recording for Norman Granz, the owner of several small jazz labels, in 1952. Two years later, Holiday had a hugely successful tour of Europe.
Holiday also caught the public's attention by sharing her life story with the world in 1956. Her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues (1956), was written in collaboration by William Dufty. Some of the material included, however, must be taken with a grain of salt. Holiday was in rough shape when she worked with Dufty on the project, and she claimed to have never read the book after it was finished.
Around this time, Holiday became involved with Louis McKay. The two were arrested for narcotics in 1956, and they married in Mexico the following year. Like many other men in her life, McKay used Holiday's name and money to advance himself. Despite all of the trouble she had been experiencing with her voice, she managed to give an impressive performance on the CBS television broadcast The Sound of Jazz with Ben Webster, Lester Young, and Coleman Hawkins.
After years of lackluster recordings and record sales, Holiday recorded Lady in Satin (1958) with the Ray Ellis Orchestra for Columbia. The album's songs showcased her rougher sounding voice, which still could convey great emotional intensity. She gave her final performance in New York City on May 25, 1959.
Not long after this event, Holiday was admitted to the hospital for heart and liver problems. She was so addicted to heroin that she was even arrested for possession while in the hospital. On July 17, 1959, Holiday died from alcohol and drug-related complications.
More than 3,000 people turned out to say goodbye to Lady Day at her funeral held in St. Paul the Apostle Roman Catholic Church on July 21, 1959. A who's who of the jazz world attended the solemn occasion, including Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Tony Scott, Buddy Rogers, and John Hammond.
Considered one of the best jazz vocalists of all time, Holiday has been an influence on many other performers who have followed in her footsteps. Her autobiography was made into the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues with famed singer Diana Ross playing the part of Holiday, which helped renew interest in Holiday's recordings. In 2000, Billie Holiday was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Diana Ross handling the honors.
Lena HorneSinger, Actress, Civil Rights Activist & Dancer
June 30, 1917
May 9, 2010
Actress, Singer, Dancer, Pin-up & Civil Rights Activist
“Don't be afraid to feel as angry or as loving as you can, because when you feel nothing, it's just death.”
Actress and singer Lena Horne was one of the most popular performers of her time, known for films such as The Wiz and her trademark song, “Stormy Weather.”
Lena Mary Calhoun Horne was born on June 30, 1917, in Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of a banker and an actress. Her parents divorced when she was 3, and because her mother traveled as part of various theater troupes, Horne alternately accompanied her on the road and stayed with family and friends around the country.
At age 16, Horne dropped out of school and began performing at the Cotton Club in Harlem. A few years later, she joined the Noble Sissle Society Orchestra, using the name Helena Horne. Then, after appearing in the Broadway musical revue Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1939, she joined a well-known white swing band, the Charlie Barnet Orchestra.
Charlie Barnet was one of the first bandleaders to integrate his band, but because of racial prejudice, Horne was unable to stay or socialize at many of the venues in which the orchestra performed, and she soon left the tour. In 1941, she returned to New York to work at the Café Society nightclub, popular with both black and white artists and intellectuals.
A long run at the Savoy-Plaza Hotel nightclub in 1943 gave Horne’s career a boost. She was featured in Life magazine and became the highest-paid black entertainer at the time. After signing a seven-year contract with MGM Studios, she moved to Hollywood, where she filmed movies like Stormy Weather and Cabin in the Sky. Producers quickly realized that she was a difficult woman to cast, however. She could only get limited roles in films with whites, and her light skin made it difficult to cast her alongside popular African-American actors in full-color films. Horne also refused to accept parts that stereotyped African-American women, and she was shunned by the community of black actors.
Activism and Blacklists
By the end of the 1940s, Horne had sued a variety of restaurants and theaters for discrimination and become an outspoken member of the leftist group Progressive Citizens of America. McCarthyism was sweeping through Hollywood, and Horne soon found herself blacklisted. Since she was unable to work in film, television, theater or recording, she performed primarily in posh nightclubs around the country. The ban eased in the mid-1950s, and Horne returned to the screen in the 1956 comedy Meet Me in Las Vegas.
In spite of having been blacklisted, Horne remained active in the civil rights movement. She performed at rallies around the country on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Council for Negro Women, and participated in the 1963 March on Washington.
In 1970 and 1971, Horne’s son, father and brother all died. Though she toured with Tony Bennett in 1973 and 1974 and made some television appearances, she spent several years mourning and was less visible.
Horne made her final film appearance in the 1978 movie, The Wiz. The film was a version of The Wizard of Oz that featured an entirely African-American cast including Michael Jackson and Diana Ross, and Horne played Glinda the Good Witch.
In 1981, she made a triumphant return to Broadway with her one-woman show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music. The show ran on Broadway for 14 months, then toured in the United States and abroad, and won a Drama Desk Award and a Tony Award, as well as two Grammy Awards for its soundtrack.
In 1994, Horne gave one of her last concerts, at New York’s Supper Club. The performance was recorded and was released in 1995 as An Evening With Lena Horne: Live at the Supper Club, which won a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album. Though she contributed occasional recordings after this, she largely retreated from public life.
Horne was married to Louis Jones from 1937 to 1944, and they had two children. She married Lennie Hayton, a white bandleader, in 1947, but they kept their marriage a secret for three years. They separated in the 1960s but never divorced. Lena Horne died of heart failure on May 9, 2010, in New York City.
Whitney HoustonSinger & Actress
August 9, 1963
February 11, 2012
Singer & Actress
“I decided long ago never to walk in anyone's shadow; if I fail, or if I succeed at least I did as I believe.”
Whitney Houston was an American singer and actress whose first four albums, released between 1985 and 1992, amassed global sales in excess of 86 million copies.
Born August 9, 1963 in Newark, New Jersey, Whitney Houston almost seemed destined from birth to become a singer. Her mother Cissy Houston, cousin Dionne Warwick and godmother Aretha Franklin were all legendary figures in American gospel and soul music.
Cissy Houston was the choir minister at New Hope Baptist Church, and it was there that a young Whitney got her start. Even as a child, Whitney was able to wow audiences; she later told interviewer Diane Sawyer that a rapturous response from the congregation at New Hope had a powerful effect upon her: “I think I knew then that (my singing ability) was an infectious thing that God had given me.”
By the time she turned 15, Whitney was performing often with her mother and trying to get a record deal of her own. Around the same time, she was discovered by a photographer who was awed by her natural beauty. She soon became an extremely sought–after teenage model, one of the first African American women to appear on the cover of Seventeen magazine. But music remained her true love.
When she was 19, Whitney Houston was discovered in a nightclub by the renowned Clive Davis of Arista Records, who signed her immediately and took the helm of her career as she navigated from gospel to pop stardom. In 1983, Houston made her debut on national television, appearing on The Merv Griffin Show to sing “Home” from the musical The Wiz.
She and Davis spent the next two years working on her debut album, finding the best producers and songwriters available to showcase her amazing vocal talent.
In 1985, she released her debut album Whitney Houston and almost immediately became a smash pop sensation. Over the next year, her hit singles “Saving All My Love for You” and “How Will I Know” helped the album reach the top of the charts, where it stayed for fourteen non-consecutive weeks.
Houston won a Grammy in 1986 for “Saving All My Love for You”; the award was presented to the singer by her cousin Dionne Warwick. Houston followed the monumental success of her first album with a second release, Whitney, in 1987. That record, too, went platinum many times over and won more Grammy Awards, leading to a successful world tour.
During this time, the singer also appeared at a concert for Nelson Mandela's birthday and founded the Whitney Houston Foundation for Children, a nonprofit organization that funds projects to help needy children over the world.
By 1992, Whitney Houston was on top of the world, but her life was about to get very complicated very quickly. That year she married the R&B singer Bobby Brown, formerly of New Edition, after a three-year engagement. At first the marriage was passionate and loving, but things turned sour as the decade progressed and both Brown and Houston battled substance abuse and increasingly erratic behavior.
In spite of these growing personal troubles, Whitney Houston continued to progress in her career, crossing over successfully into acting in 1992 by starring opposite Kevin Costner in the wildly popular The Bodyguard. With this movie, she set a trend for her films to follow: in each film she also released a hit single, creating sensational record sales for the soundtracks.
Her smash single from The Bodyguard, a cover of Dolly Parton's 1974 “I Will Always Love You,” proved to be Houston's biggest hit ever, spending a record-breaking fourteen weeks atop the U.S. charts. The soundtrack album went on to win Houston three Grammys, including Album of the Year and Record of the Year. Later in the 1990s, Houston also starred in The Preacher's Wife and Waiting to Exhale, both accompanied by hit soundtracks as well.
In 1998, Houston released My Love Is Your Love, her first non-soundtrack studio album in many years, and it earned her another Grammy but could not top the chart performance of her previous albums. However, her collaboration with Mariah Carey in the animated film The Prince of Egypt produced a single, “When You Believe,” which won an Academy Award.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Houston's increasingly rocky marriage, struggles with drugs and health problems threatened to derail her career. Several concert cancellations and a notorious TV interview with Diane Sawyer in 2002 in which Houston appeared far too thin and in very poor health led many to speculate that she was on the verge of a breakdown.
In 2004, Bobby Brown began filming a reality show for Bravo entitled Being Bobby Brown; Houston received substantial airtime. The show aired during the worst years of the couple's crumbling marriage; drug use, lifestyle excess and bad behavior were all caught on tape and Houston's reputation sunk to new lows.
Houston tried to ignore the controversy, charging ahead with her music by releasing Just Whitney… to combat her detractors, but it did not match the success of her earlier works. In spite of her troubled relationship, Houston was still celebrated as a singer, being named the most-awarded female artist of all time by Guiness World Records in 2006.
Over the next few years, Houston attempted to repair her marriage and to break her drug habit, but after several relapses her mother, Cissy, had to step in. As Whitney Houston explained to Oprah Winfrey in 2009: “(My mother) walks in with the sheriff and she says: ‘I have a court injunction here. You do it my way or we're not going to do this at all. You're going to go on TV, and you're going to retire. And say you're going to give this up because it's not worth it.’” Whitney took a break from her career, divorced Bobby Brown in 2007, and won sole custody of their child, Bobbi Kristina Houston Brown.
After almost a decade of struggling with her personal life, Houston seemed to be pulling herself together. She released a new album, I Look To You, in 2009. “The songs themselves will speak to you and you'll understand where I am and some of the changes I've gone through for the better,” Houston told Entertainment Tonight.
The recording received a warm welcome from music fans, making to the top of album charts. Her live shows, however, garnered mixed reviews with some complaining about the quality of her voice.
Death and Legacy
In early 2012, Houston rumored to be experiencing financial trouble, but she denied this claim. She, in fact, seemed to be poised for a career upswing.
Houston worked on a new musical film Sparkle with Jordin Sparks, a remake of the 1976 movie about an all-girl musical group similar to the Supremes. She had reportedly been approached to join the singing competition The X Factor as a judge. Unfortunately, Houston did not live long enough to see the latest comeback reach fruition.
Whitney Houston died on February 11, 2012, in Los Angeles. Houston had been seen out in the days before her death, including at one of the pre-Grammy Award parties. According to a report released by the Los Angeles County coroner's office on March 22, 2012, the official cause of her death was accidental drowning.
The effects of heart disease and cocaine found in her system were contributing factors. With her passing, the music world has lost one of its most legendary stars. Her longtime supporter and mentor Clive Davis once said that Houston “is in the great tradition of great, great singers, whether it's Lena Horne or Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughn or Gladys Knight.”
Langston HughesPoet, Social Activist, Novelist, Playwright & Columnist
February 1, 1902
May 22, 1967
Poet, Social Activist, Novelist, Playwright & Columnist
“Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.”
Langston Hughes was an American poet, novelist, and playwright whose African-American themes made him a primary contributor to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.
James Langston Hughes was born February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. His parents divorced when he was a small child, and his father moved to Mexico. He was raised by his grandmother until he was thirteen, when he moved to Lincoln, Illinois, to live with his mother and her husband, before the family eventually settled in Cleveland, Ohio. It was in Lincoln, Illinois, that Hughes began writing poetry. Following graduation, he spent a year in Mexico and a year at Columbia University.
During these years, he held odd jobs as an assistant cook, launderer, and a busboy, and travelled to Africa and Europe working as a seaman. In November 1924, he moved to Washington, D.C. Hughes's first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1926. He finished his college education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania three years later. In 1930 his first novel, Not Without Laughter, won the Harmon gold medal for literature.
Hughes, who claimed Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Carl Sandburg, and Walt Whitman as his primary influences, is particularly known for his insightful, colorful portrayals of black life in America from the twenties through the sixties. He wrote novels, short stories and plays, as well as poetry, and is also known for his engagement with the world of jazz and the influence it had on his writing, as in “Montage of a Dream Deferred.” His life and work were enormously important in shaping the artistic contributions of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.
Unlike other notable black poets of the period – Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and Countee Cullen – Hughes refused to differentiate between his personal experience and the common experience of black America. He wanted to tell the stories of his people in ways that reflected their actual culture, including both their suffering and their love of music, laughter, and language itself.
Langston Hughes died of complications from prostate cancer in May 22, 1967, in New York. In his memory, his residence at 20 East 127th Street in Harlem, New York City, has been given landmark status by the New York City Preservation Commission, and East 127th Street has been renamed “Langston Hughes Place.”
In addition to leaving us a large body of poetic work, Hughes wrote eleven plays and countless works of prose, including the well-known “Simple” books: Simple Speaks His Mind, Simple Stakes a Claim, Simple Takes a Wife, and Simple's Uncle Sam. He edited the anthologies The Poetry of the Negro and The Book of Negro Folklore, wrote an acclaimed autobiography (The Big Sea) and co-wrote the play Mule Bone with Zora Neale Hurston.
The Ballad Of The Landlord
My roof has sprung a leak.
Don't you ‘member I told you about it
Way last week?
These steps is broken down.
When you come up yourself
It's a wonder you don't fall down.
Ten Bucks you say I owe you?
Ten Bucks you say is due?
Well, that's Ten Bucks more’n I'l pay you
Till you fix this house up new.
What? You gonna get eviction orders?
You gonna cut off my heat?
You gonna take my furniture and
Throw it in the street?
Um-huh! You talking high and mighty.
Talk on-till you get through.
You ain't gonna be able to say a word
If I land my fist on you.
Come and get this man!
He's trying to ruin the government
And overturn the land!
Headlines in press:
Man Threatens landlord
Tenant Held Bail
Judge Gives Negro 90 Days In County Jail!
Sylvester's Dying Bed
I woke up this mornin’
‘Bout half-past three.
All the womens in town
Was gathered round me.
Sweet gals was a-moanin’,
“Sylvester's gonna die!”
And a hundred pretty mamas
Bowed their heads to cry.
I woke up little later
‘Bout half-past fo’,
The doctor ‘n’ undertaker's
Both at ma do’.
Black gals was a-beggin’,
“You can't leave us here!”
Brown-skins cryin’, “Daddy!
Honey! Baby! Don't go, dear!”
But I felt ma time's a-comin’,
And I know'd I's dyin’ fast.
I seed the River Jerden
A-creepin’ muddy past–
But I's still Sweet Papa ‘Vester,
Yes, sir! Long as life do last!
So I hollers, “Com’ere, babies,
Fo’ to love yo’ daddy right!”
And I reaches up to hug ‘em–
When the Lawd put out the light.
Then everything was darkness
In a great … big … night.
As I Grew Older
It was a long time ago.
I have almost forgotten my dream.
But it was there then,
In front of me,
Bright like a sun––
And then the wall rose,
Between me and my dream.
Rose until it touched the sky––
I am black.
I lie down in the shadow.
No longer the light of my dream before me,
Only the thick wall.
Only the shadow.
My dark hands!
Break through the wall!
Find my dream!
Help me to shatter this darkness,
To smash this night,
To break this shadow
Into a thousand lights of sun,
Into a thousand whirling dreams
Good morning, daddy!
Ain't you heard
The boogie-woogie rumble
Of a dream deferred?
You'll hear their feet
Beating out and beating out a –
It's a happy beat?
Listen to it closely:
Ain't you heard
like a –
What did I say?
Take it away!
Life Is Fine
I went down to the river,
I set down on the bank.
I tried to think but couldn't,
So I jumped in and sank.
I came up once and hollered!
I came up twice and cried!
If that water hadn't a–been so cold
I might've sunk and died.
But it was Cold in that water! It was cold!
I took the elevator
Sixteen floors above the ground.
I thought about my baby
And thought I would jump down.
I stood there and I hollered!
I stood there and I cried!
If it hadn't a–been so high
I might've jumped and died.
But it was High up there! It was high!
So since I'm still here livin',
I guess I will live on.
I could've died for love––
But for livin' I was born
Though you may hear me holler,
And you may see me cry––
I'll be dogged, sweet baby,
If you gonna see me die.
Life is fine! Fine as wine! Life is fine!
Zora HurstonFolklorist, Anthropologist & Author
January 7, 1891
January 28, 1960
Writer & Anthropologist
“It is one of the blessings of this world that few people see visions and dream dreams.”
Anthropologist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston was a fixture of the Harlem Renaissance before writing her masterwork, ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God.’
On January 7, 1891, Zora Neale Hurston was born in the tiny town of Notasulga, Alabama. She was the fifth of eight children in the Hurston household. Her father John was a carpenter, a sharecropper, and a Baptist preacher; her mother Lucy, a former schoolteacher. Within a year of Zora's birth, the family moved to Eatonville, Florida. Eatonville was the first incorporated black municipality in the United States.
In 1904, thirteen-year-old Zora was devastated by the death of her mother. Later that same year, her father removed her from school and sent her to care for her brother's children. A rambunctious and restless teenager, Zora was eager to leave the responsibility of her brother's household. She became a member of a traveling theater at the age of sixteen, and subsequently began domestic work in a white household. The woman for whom Zora worked bought her her first book and arranged for her to attend high school at Morgan Academy (now known as Morgan State University) in Baltimore. She graduated in June 1918.
The following summer, Zora worked as a waitress and manicurist before enrolling in Howard Prep School. She later attended Howard University. Although she spent nearly four years at Howard, she graduated with only a two-year Associates degree. Perhaps this is explained by the fact that Zora spent most of her time at Howard writing. Beginning with a college publication, and then branching out into writing contests in newspapers and magazines, the early 1920s marked the beginning of Zora Neale Hurston's career as an author.
In 1925, as the Harlem Renaissance was building steam, Hurston headed to New York City. She enrolled in Barnard College to study under Franz Boas, an important founder of the discipline of anthropology. While there, Hurston married an her boyfriend from Howard, Herbert Sheen, but the marriage was short-lived. After graduation, Zora returned to her hometown of Eatonville to collect stories as material for her blossoming writing career. In the late 1920s, Hurston published several works and consequently gained financial sponsorship from wealthy New York patrons.
The 1930s and early 1940s marked the peak of Hurston's literary career. She completed graduate work at Columbia, published four novels and an autobiography, and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. She traveled to the Caribbean where she became intrigued by the practice of voodoo and she began to incorporate supernatural elements into her novels and stories. Although her work received increasing acclaim from the white literati of New York, Zora often felt under attack by members of the Black Arts Movement. She termed these detractors as members of the “niggerati” for being close-minded in their criticism of her racial politics.
By the mid-1940s Hurston's writing career was faltering, and she was arrested and charged with molesting a ten-year-old boy. Although she was acquitted, the scars to her image remained permanent. Hurston sunk into depression as publishers rejected one after another of her works.
Around 1950, Hurston returned to Florida where she worked cleaning houses. After a slew of unsuccessful career changes (including newspaper journalist, librarian, and substitute teacher), Hurston became a penniless recluse. She suffered a fatal stroke in 1959 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Fort Pierce, Florida.
Janet JacksonProducer, Dancer & Singer
May 16, 1966
Producer, Dancer & Singer
“Dreams can become a reality when we possess a vision that is characterized by the willingness to work hard, a desire for excellence, and a belief in our right and our responsiblity to be equal members of society.”
The younger sister of Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson is one of the best-selling artists in contemporary history. Her albums include Control and Rhythm Nation 1814.
Singer, songwriter and actress Janet Damita Jo Jackson was born May 16, 1966, in Gary, Indiana. The youngest of nine children born to Joseph Walter Jackson and his wife, Katherine, Jackson grew up in the affluence of a show business family.
Her five brothers–Jackie, Tito, Marlon, Jermaine and Michael–signed a contract with Motown Records in 1968 and would go on to rule the charts as The Jackson Five, with such hits as “I Want You Back,” “Stop, the Love You Save,” “ABC” and “Dancing Machine.”
In late 1969, Jackson took her daughters Rebbie, LaToya and Janet, and her youngest son, Randy, to join her husband in Los Angeles, where they had moved to further the band's career. (Marlon's twin brother, Brandon, had died within 24 hours of the twins’ premature birth in 1957.)
The Jackson children were raised in the Jehovah's Witness faith, as Katherine Jackson had been baptized as a Jehovah's Witness in 1963. LaToya Jackson famously chronicled their tumultuous childhood–including charges of physical and sexual abuse by Joseph Jackson–in her tell-all autobiography, but Janet and others of her siblings disputed LaToya's account. The tensions within the family certainly increased on account of Michael Jackson's emergence as a solo artist and a superstar beginning in the early 1970s.
Janet Jackson first appeared on stage in April 1974, singing and doing impressions alongside her brother Randy in the Jackson family's Las Vegas act. In 1976, she appeared on The Jacksons, a summer replacement television show.
Her performance earned her the attention of a producer who hired her to play Penny, a regular on the TV comedy series Good Times, from 1977-79. She continued her television work in the short-lived A New Kind of Family (1979-80), the sitcom Different Strokes (1981-2), and the teen drama Fame (1984-5), based at a New York City performing arts high school.
Topping the Pop Charts
Unlike many of her siblings, Janet Jackson attended public school in Encino, California, for some time before switching to Valley Professional School, from which she graduated in 1984. During her time on Fame, she was able to break away from her family's supervision while on location in New York.
In September 1984, she eloped with James DeBarge, a musician in the group DeBarge, also on the Motown label. Jackson's family disapproved of DeBarge, and the marriage was brief, as she applied for an annulment in January 1985, which was granted the following November.
With the guidance of her brother Michael, she released her debut album Janet Jackson, in 1982. The album reached No. 84 on the pop charts and had three hit singles, including “Young Love” and “Give Your Love to Me.” The self-titled album sold about 250,000 copies, as did her follow-up, Dream Street, which featured contributions from her brothers Michael, Tito, Jackie and Marlon.
Jackson scored her first major success in 1986 with Control, released on the A&M label. Control, produced with the writing-producing team of Jimmy Jam (James Harris III) and Terry Lewis, sold eight million copies worldwide and featured two No. 1 singles, “What Have You Done For Me Lately” and the title track. Nominated for three Grammy Awards and nine American Music Awards, it won two of the latter. Jackson's new, sexier style, stage presence, and dancing ability were all showcased in her videos, and combined to make her a star.
Her next album, Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814, was a more socially conscious album, also produced by Jam and Lewis, who wrote nearly half the songs. The album spawned a number of hit singles, including “Black Cat” (written by Jackson herself), “Miss You Much,” and “Escapade,” and again sold around eight million copies.
Rhythm Nation, which won three American Music Awards, made Jackson the first artist to have seven Top 5 hits from a single album. Jackson embarked on her first tour, in support of the album, in the spring of 1990.
On the Big Screen
Janet Jackson's contract with Virgin Records, signed in March 1991, was at the time the largest recording contract in history, at $32 million. (Michael Jackson reportedly held off signing his so-called “billion-dollar” contract until after Janet signed so as not to steal her publicity.)
In the summer of 1993, Jackson unveiled her fifth album, titled Janet as well as her first starring film role, in the drama Poetic Justice, directed by John Singleton, who had received two Oscar nominations for writing and directing his debut feature, Boyz N the Hood. The film received disappointing reviews, but Jackson received an Oscar nomination for “Again,” which she performed on the soundtrack.
Janet (another Jam and Lewis collaboration), sold more than six million copies, and featured “Any Time, Any Place,” which became Jackson's 14th gold single, tying her with Aretha Franklin as the female solo singers with the most gold singles. In addition, “That's the Way Love Goes” earned a Grammy nomination for best rhythm and blues song. Jackson also produced a song with brother Michael entitled “Scream” in 1995. The music video cost $7 million to produce, making it the most expensive video ever made.
Continued Success and Controversy
Jackson's sixth album, The Velvet Rope (1997), brought her sexually suggestive style to a whole new level, generating some impressive buzz from critics but did not reach the sales records of her three previous blockbusters.
On a more personal level, Jackson made headlines in when it was revealed that she had been secretly married to her manager and longtime boyfriend, Rene Elizondo, for eight years. Jackson announced their separation in 1999, but the fact of their marriage (which Jackson's sisters LaToya and Rebbie had earlier alleged to the press) became public when Elizondo filed for divorce in May of 2000.
Jackson continued her acting career with a role opposite Eddie Murphy in the blockbuster comedy The Nutty Professor II (summer 2000). A year later, she released another smash hit album, All For You, which like The Velvet Rope was more sexually explicit than her early albums. The success of All For You and her subsequent world tour, along with a reported $80 million recording deal with Virgin, put Janet Jackson squarely back on top of the pop world. As if to confirm her success, Jackson won an American Music Award for favorite female pop/rock artist in January 2002.
Jackson's star continued to rise until an incident at the Super Bowl halftime show in 2004 caused a slight falter. During a live performance with Justin Timberlake, Jackson's right breast was exposed during a “costume reveal.” The “wardrobe malfunction” stunt caused an uproar among both fans and the Federal Communications Commission, and Jackson subsequently failed to appear at the Grammy Awards and dropped out of a television project in which she was to play Lena Horne at the elder actress's request.
After parting ways with Virgin she released her tenth studio album Discipline (2008), her first and only album with Island Records.
Marriage to Wissam Al Mana
These days, however, Jackson's life seems to be on the upswing. She got engaged to Qatari billionaire Wissam Al Mana in December 2012.
The couple will reportedly wed the following spring with a ceremony in Al Mana's native country, but never publicly announced that the marriage was official. News outlets began reporting in February 2013 that the couple had wed the previous year. According to a statement the couple made to Entertainment Tonight, their wedding was a “quiet, private and beautiful ceremony.”
In 2015, Jackson returned to the spotlight. She announced a new tour beginning that August. Jackson also plans to release a new album in the fall. This will be her first studio recording in seven years.
In 2015, she also partnered with BMG Rights Management to launch her own record label, Rhythm Nation Records.
Michael JacksonSinger, Music Producer, Songwriter & Dancer
August 29, 1958
June 25, 2009
Singer, Music Producer, Songwriter & Dancer
“Let us dream of tomorrow where we can truly love from the soul, and know love as the ultimate truth at the heart of all creation.”
Singer-songwriter Michael Jackson's award-winning career as the “King of Pop” transformed the face of pop music and popular culture. He released the best-selling album in history, Thriller, in 1982. He died unexpectedly in 2009.
The Bio History of Michael Joseph Jackson began when he was born on the 29th of August 1958 in Gary, Indiana. He was the 7th of nine children. (brothers: Sigmund “Jackie”, Toriano “Tito”, Jermaine, Marlon, Steven “Randy”, and sisters Rebbie, Janet and La Toya Jackson.
Michael began his musical career at the age of 5 as the lead singer of the Jackson 5 who formed in 1964. In these early years the Jackson 5, Jackie, Jermaine, Tito, Marlon and lead singer Michael played local clubs and bars in Gary, Indiana and moving further afield as there talents grew and they could compete in bigger competitions. From these early days Michael would be at the same clubs as big talented stars of there days, such as Jackie Wilson and would be learning from them even back then.
In 1968, the Bobby Taylor and The Vancouvers discovered the Jackson five and from there they got an audition for Berry Gordy of Motown Records. The Jackson 5 signed for Motown and moved to California. Their first 4 singles, “I Want You Back”, “ABC”, “The Love You Save”, and “I'll Be There” all made US Number 1 hits. The Jackson 5 recorded 14 albums and Michael recorded 4 solo albums with Motown.
The Jackson 5 stayed with Motown until 1976, wanting more artistic freedom they felt they had to move on and signed up with Epic. The group name Jackson 5 had to be changed as it was owned by Motown, so they reverted to The Jacksons as they had be known in the early days. Brother Jermaine married Berry Gordy's daughter and stayed with Motown. Youngest brother Randy joined in his place. The Jacksons had a number of hit records and in total made 6 albums between the years of 1976 and 1984.
In 1977, Michael made his first film debut when he starred in the musical ‘The Wiz’ playing Scarecrow with Diana Ross in the lead role of Dorothy. It was at this time Michael met Quincy Jones who was doing the score for the film.
Michael teamed up with Quincy Jones as his producer for his first solo album with Epic Records. The album titled Off The Wall was a big success around the world and the first ever album to release a record breaking 4 Number 1 singles in the US.
In 1982, Michael Jackson released the world's largest selling album of all time, Thriller. This album produced 7 hit singles, breaking yet again more records, and went on to sell over 50 million copies worldwide. Michael was keen to use music video or short films as he called them to promote his singles from the album. He worked with the best directors and producers, using the latest technology and special effects for the hit song “Billie Jean”.
The short film, ‘Thriller’ used the latest make-up artists technology combined with fantastic dancing and cherography, to produce a 14 minute video, with a start, a middle and an ending. So successful was this video that ‘The Making Of Michael Jackson's Thriller’ became the world's largest selling home video combined with soaring album sales. In 1983, Michael performed the now legendary moonwalk for the first time on the ‘Motown 25 years’ anniversary show. This performance alone set Michael undoubtable into the realm of a superstar.
In 1984, Michael won a record breaking 8 Grammy awards in one night. The awards were for his work on the Thriller album and his work on the narrative for the ET Storybook.
On December 9th 1984 at the last concert of the Jackson's Victory Tour, Michael announced he was splitting from the group and going solo.
In 1987, Michael released his much awaited third solo album, titled Bad, and lauched his record breaking first solo world tour. 1988, Michael wrote his first autobiography, Moonwalk, talking for the first time on his childhood and his career. At the end of the 1980s, Michael was named ‘Artist Of The Decade’ for his success off of his Thriller and Bad albums.
In 1991, Michael signed with Sony Music the largest ever recording contract and released his fourth solo album, Dangerous. He toured the world again in 1992, taking his concerts to countries that had never before been visited by a pop/rock artist. Also, Michael founded the ‘Heal the World Foundation’ to help improve the lives of children across the world.
In 1994, Michael married Lisa Marie Presley, daughter of rock legend Elvis Presley. The marriage only lasted for 19 months, as they divorced in 1996.
1995 saw Michael release a fifth solo album, HIStory, which was a double album, first half new material and second half half greatest hits. Michael toured again over a legs covering a 2 year period. In between legs of the tour on November 14th 1996, Michael married for his second time to Debbie Rowe who was a nurse that Michael had met in the treatment of his skin pigment disorder. Together they had their first child Prince Michael Joseph Jackson, Jr. born on February 13, 1997 and a daughter Paris Michael Katherine Jackson born on April 3rd, 1998.
In 1997, Michael released the remix album Blood On The Dance Floor which also contained 5 new song linked with a 38min film Ghosts. This film Michael played 5 roles using the latest special effects and make-up artistry, combined with his dance and music.
In September 2001, Michael celebrated his 30th anniversary as a solo artist with two concerts to be held in New York, USA. Many artists such as Whitney Houston, Usher, Destiny's Child, Shaggy and many more performed their own and Michael's past songs. Michael then reunited with all of his brothers and performed their biggest hits. Michael then went on to perform some of his biggest hits solo.
In October 2001, Michael released the album Invincible, releasing only 2 singles including the big hit “You Rock My World”. Shortly after the albums release there were rumours of a rift with Sony Music and a clear lack of promotion of the album. The second single “Cry” was released with a very poor music video which did not feature Michael and no other singles were released.
In November 2003, a new single “One More Chance” was released as a single and was also a track on new compilation album Number Ones.
In March 2009, Michael announced a shock comeback tour at the O2 Arena in London to start in July 2009, initially for 10 dates but the total grew to a sold out 50 dates with over 750,000 tickets sold. All sold tickets sold out within minutes of being released.
While preparing for his comeback concert series titled This Is It, Jackson died of acute propofol and benzodiazepine intoxication on June 25, 2009, after suffering from cardiac arrest. The Los Angeles County Coroner ruled his death a homicide, and his personal physician Conrad Murray was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Jackson's death triggered a global outpouring of grief and a live broadcast of his public memorial service was viewed around the world.
Quincy JonesChildren's Activist, Trumpet Player, Music Producer, Songwriter & Television Producer
March 14, 1933
Activist, Musician, Music Producer, Songwriter & T.V. Producer
“Greatness occurs when your children love you, when your critics respect you and when you have peace of mind.”
Quincy Jones is best known as a composer and record producer for legendary musicians such as Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, Celine Dion and Aretha Franklin.
Famed musician Quincy Jones was born Quincy Delight Jr. on March 14, 1933, in Chicago, Illinois. A multifaceted jazz and pop figure who became the most Grammy-nominated artist in history with 79 nominations and 27 wins, he began with his Seattle teenage friend Ray Charles, who interested him in arranging.
He played trumpet and arranged for Lionel Hampton (1951–3), then worked as a freelance arranger on many jazz sessions. He served as musical director for Dizzy Gillespie's overseas big-band tour (1956), worked for Barclay Records in Paris (1957-8), and led an all-star big band for the European production of Harold Arlen's blues opera, “Free and Easy” (1959).
Returning to New York, Jones composed and arranged for Count Basie, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan, while holding an executive post at Mercury Records and producing his own increasingly pop-oriented records. In the mid–1960s he began composing for films and television, eventually producing over 50 scores and serving as a trailblazing African-American musician in the Hollywood arena.
Jones produced Aretha Franklin's 1973 album Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky).
In 1975, Jones founded Qwest Productions, for which he arranged and produced hugely successful albums by Frank Sinatra and other major pop figures. In 1978, he produced the soundtrack for the musical adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, The Wiz, starring Michael Jackson and Diana Ross. In 1982, Jones's produced Michael Jackson's all-time best-selling album Thriller.
In June 2009, a statement on his website regarding the sudden death of Jackson, Jones stated “I am absolutely devastated at this tragic and unexpected news. For Michael to be taken away from us so suddenly at such a young age, I just don't have the words. Divinity brought our souls together on The Wiz and allowed us to do what we were able to throughout the 80's.
To this day, the music we created together on Off The Wall, Thriller and Bad is played in every corner of the world and the reason for that is because he had it all… talent, grace, professionalism and dedication. He was the consummate entertainer and his contributions and legacy will be felt upon the world forever. I've lost my little brother today, and part of my soul has gone with him.”
In 1985, Quincy Jones used his clout among major American recording artists to record the much celebrated anthem “We Are the World” to raise money for victims of famine in Ethiopia. His work on behalf of social causes has spanned his career, including the Quincy Jones Listen Up Foundation, which built more than 100 homes in South Africa in 2001. The charity aims to connect youths with technology, education, culture and music and sponsors an intercultural exchange between teens in Los Angeles and South Africa.
Ventures Beyond Music
Jones also produced the 1985 film The Color Purple directed by Steven Spielberg and starred Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Danny Glover; the television series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air starring Will Smith (1990–96) and published the magazines Vibe and SPIN. In 1990, Quincy Jones formed Quincy Jones Entertainment (QJE), a co-venture with Time Warner, Inc.
Jones has been married three times; to Jeri Caldwell from 1957 to 1966 (they have one daughter), to Ulla Andersson from 1967 to 1974 (they have a son and a daughter), and to Peggy Lipton from 1974 to 1990 (they have two daughters). He also has two daughters from prior relationships. Q: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones was published in 2001.
Barbara JordanCivil Rights Activist & U.S. Representative
February 21, 1936
January 17, 1996
Civil Rights Activist & U.S. Representative
“One thing is clear to me: We, as human beings, must be willing to accept people who are different from ourselves.”
Barbara Jordan was a U.S. congressional representative from Texas and was the first African American congresswoman to come from the Deep South.
A groundbreaking African-American politician, Barbara Jordan worked hard to achieve her dreams. She grew up in a poor black neighborhood in Houston, Texas. The daughter of a Baptist minister, Jordan was encouraged by her parents to strive for academic excellence. Her gift for language and building arguments was apparent in high school, where she was an award-winning debater and orator.
After graduating from Texas Southern University in 1956, Jordan continued her studies at Boston University Law School. She was one of the few black students in the program. Jordan returned to Texas after earning her degree and set up her law practice.
At first, she worked out of her parents’ home. Before long, Jordan became active in politics by campaigning for the Democratic presidential ticket of John F. Kennedy and fellow Texan Lyndon B. Johnson. In 1962, Jordan launched her first bid for public office, seeking a spot in the Texas legislature. It took two more tries for her to make history.
In 1966, Jordan finally won a seat in the Texas legislature, becoming the first black woman to do so. She did not receive a warm welcome from her new colleagues initially, but she eventually won some of them over.
Jordan sought to improve the lives of her constituents by helping usher through the state's first law on minimum wage. She also worked to create the Texas Fair Employment Practices Commission. In 1972, her fellow lawmakers voted her in as president pro tempore of the state senate. Jordan became the first African American woman to hold this post.
Advancing in her career, Jordan won election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1972. As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, she was thrust into the national spotlight during the Watergate scandal. Jordan stood as a moral compass during this time of crisis, calling for the impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon for his involvement in this illegal political enterprise.
“I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution,” she said in a nationally televised speech during the proceedings.
At the 1976 Democratic National Convention, Jordan once again captured the public's attention with her keynote address. She told the crowd, “My presence here… is one additional bit of evidence that the American dream need not forever be deferred.”
Jordan had reportedly hoped to secure the position of U.S. attorney general within Jimmy Carter's administration after he won the election, but Carter gave the post to someone else.
Announcing that she wouldn't seek reelection, Jordan finished up her final term in 1979. Some thought that she might have gone farther in her political career, but it was later revealed that Jordan had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis around this time.
She took some time to reflect on her life and political career, penning Barbara Jordan: A Self-Portrait (1979). Jordan soon turned her attention toward educating future generations of politicians and public officials, accepting a professorship at the University of Texas at Austin. She became the Lyndon B. Johnson Centennial Chair of Public Policy in 1982.
While her educational work was the focus of her later years, Jordan never fully stepped away from public life. She served as a special counsel on ethics for Texas Governor Ann Richards in 1991.
The following year, Jordan once again took the national stage to deliver a speech at the Democratic National Convention. Her health had declined by this point, and she had to give her address from her wheelchair. Still, Jordan spoke to rally her party with the same powerful and thoughtful style she had displayed 16 years earlier.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton appointed Jordan to head up the Commission on Immigration Reform. He also honored her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom that same year. She passed away two years later, on January 17, 1996, in Austin, Texas. Jordan died of pneumonia, a complication of her battle with leukemia.
The nation mourned the loss of a great pioneer who shaped the political landscape with her dedication to the Constitution, her commitment to ethics and her impressive oratory skills. “There was simply something about her that made you proud to be a part of the country that produced her,” said former Texas governor Ann Richards in remembrance of her colleague. President Clinton said, “Barbara always stirred our national conscience.”
Big Daddy KaneHip-Hop Recording Artist, Actor, Record Producer & Model
September 10, 1968
Rapper, Actor, Record Producer & Model
“The source is knowledge. Wanna go to college, or wanna be garbage?”
– ‘Lean On Me’
He is widely considered to be one of the most influential and skilled MCs in hip hop, Big Daddy Kane, is a Grammy Award-winning American rapper who started his career in 1986 as a member of the rap group the Juice Crew.
Big Daddy Kane is today regarded as a legendary lyricist and rap icon of Brooklyn New York and across the global community of hip-hop. Faded by rising stars and seasons of ever changing faces of the rap genre, his image is continually remodelled through the post-generation of artists. Kane stood tall in custom designed suits with a creamy chocolate complexion and hi-top faded haircut giving him a majestic aura and oozing coolness that left him forever immortalized as an iconic sex symbol and the original ladies man. A playboy who gave the rap industry sex appeal, Kane was a smooth operator in the old school of rap music.
Kane, (King Asiatic Nobody Equals) grew up in the notorious section of Brooklyn, in Bed-Stuy. Kane was educated first hand in the rapidly expanding culture, embracing hip-hop for his own disposal of. He found strong influence in the lyrical proficiency of Grandmaster Caz from the Cold Crush Brothers. As a late teenager he joined the local group called the Juice Crew headed by legendary Marley Marl. He was a writer for many peers in the game, Biz Markie and Roxanne Shante who who were Juice Crew members also. He solely wrote the majority of lyrics for Biz Markie he opened his vocal abilities on Biz’s track, “Just Rhymin’ with Biz” soon to be a mere glimpse of the Kane’s ferocious flurry of poetry.
His first single dropped early 1987 called “Raw” a nonstop barrage of abuse upon the mic without a pause for breath, Kane had proven he had what it takes and beyond and stole centre spotlight from the Juice Crew only to pursue a solo identity. He soon dropped his second single forcing us to recognize another facet to his repertoire by way of a smooth, silk wrapped performance, “Ain’t No Half Steppin’”. Hank Shocklee of the Bomb Squad had said, “Kane is like a Jedi rapper.” This side of Kane showed he was not always showing off a hyperactive rap to dominate but sincerely proclaimed his reign over his peers through whispered lyrics,
- “Competition I just devour/Like a pit bull against a Chihuahua” and the boastful “Steppin’ to me that’s a wrong move/ So what you on huh?/Dope or dog food.”
His delivery was confident and composed. At this heightened climax of Kane’s career strolled the stage with an Islamic militant equanimity providing his young black market proud guidance. His alignment with the Five Percent nation of Islam meant he was to represent a pro-black mystique barring all distractions his lifestyle serves. This black midnight stature only placated the women with untapped sexuality. Kane was swallowed whole by this new branch of fame. He began wearing tailored designer suits and sipping champagne dripping with females off his arms. By the time his third single “Set it Off” was out he was the new archetype of a ladies man. Gossip of selling out and crossing over to R&B contemporary music, his subject matter was swerving from political rebellion to ‘All Of Me’ collaborating with the late, great Barry White with very soft sweet lyrics to the ladies. The altitude of his downfall steadily decreased with an off-side project with singer, Madonna and her infamous sex book displaying his shiny black booty in nude shots. Together with photo shoots with Playgirl magazine, this was not the pro-black stance that gave him his Malcolm X reputation in the rap community.
The 90’s saw Kane heavily overshadowed by the emerging hardcore gangsta rap category dominance. Later album, “Looks Like a Job For…” was an acclaimed release for 1993 but never did he surpass the greatness of his reign over the golden age of hip-hop from 1986 to ’89. By 1996, Kane was still touring to crowds of old school appreciation and working on several projects with DJs sampling old hip-hop and had appeared in Mario Van Peebles' western Blaxploitation movie, ‘Posse’. During 1996 Kane had been rumoured to be joining the Death Row label heading their east coast New York venture alongside Wu-Tang Clan and Rakim. Kane had worked with Death Row star, Tupac and Kam on the track, ‘Wherever U Are’.
In 2002, Kane was working alongside underground alternative DJs Alchemist and DJ Babu who produced his latest solo release, ‘The Man, The Icon’. Big Daddy Kane is remembered for his influence on today’s rap music allowing the marketability of sex appeal to invade the business of hip-hop music. The dopest rhyme spitter and ghost writer from the golden age, and the original Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy philosophy, all due respect and Long Live the Kane.
Jim KellyMartial Artist, Actor & Athletic Instructor
May 5, 1946
June 29, 2013
Martial Artist, Actor & Athletic Instructor
“I don’t waste my time with it. When it comes I won’t even notice… I’ll be too busy lookin’ good.”
– Enter The Dragon (1973)
Jim Kelly was an athlete, actor, and martial artist who rose to fame during the Blaxploitation film era of the early 1970s. Kelly is perhaps best known for the films Enter the Dragon (1973) and Black Belt Jones (1974).
James Milton “Jim” “the Dragon” Kelly was born on May 5, 1946 in Paris, Kentucky. He grew up there, but later moved to San Diego, where he devoloped an uncanny athletic ability in high school. He was a gifted athlete that was involved in sports such as track and field, football, and basketball.
He was also voted most inspirtational junior high athlete in the entire city of San Diego, and was pursuing a football career, but decided otherwise after leaving the University of Louisville as a freshman.
Shortly after leaving UL, Kelly moved to Lexington where he began his study of the martial arts under acclaimed instructor of Shorin-Ryu karate, Parker Sheldon. It was that decision that would cement his star status.
In 1971, Kelly proved he was an excellent fighter, by capturing the 1971 Long Beach International Middleweight Karate Championship. Realizing that he had a potential career in the martial arts, Kelly opened a karate studio.
His recognition as a champion fighter gave him the opportunity to appear in a movie called Melinda in 1972. The part wasn't big, but it led to other offers. Six months later, Kelly was flown out to Hong Kong to showcase some of his fighting techniques to Warner Brothers.
Kelly had no idea he'd be getting a part in one of the biggest martial arts films in cinematic history. Kelly was asked to play ‘Williams’ in a movie co-starring Bruce Lee, and it was that role that brought him ‘star status’. Enter the Dragon's huge popularity, largely due to Bruce Lee, showed that fans were eager to have a new kung fu hero.
In 1974, Jim Kelly made his first appearance in the lead role in the film Black Belt Jones with Robert Clause, the director of Enter the Dragon and then in 1976 he starred in The Black Samurai, directed by genre veteran Al Adamson. He went on to make several other films which include Three the Hard Way, Hot Potato and Death Dimension>. Kelly retired after a string of low budget movies. His last appearance, in 1982, was in a movie called One Down, Two To Go.
More athlete than actor, Kelly retired from the screen to pursue a successful career in professional tennis. Jim Kelly still gets offered roles in movies, but simply says that he ‘just doesn't dig the scripts’. He wouldn't mind acting again, but he wants the roles to be respectable. He's also very proud of the movies he did, and doesnt want to spoil that image.
So where's Jim Kelly now? He's almost 58 years old, and can still be considered one of the best ‘ass kickers’ in the history of cinema. He's made various appearances and done interviews, most recently at the Alamo Drafthouse. He is currently studying Brazilian grappling and is developing his own style of hybrid fighting. In his last film, Kelly made a cameo appearance as Cleavon Washington in Afro Ninja (2009), produced, directed by, and starring veteran stuntman Mark Hicks.
On June 29, 2013, Kelly died of cancer at his home in San Diego, California. He was 67 years old.
Chaka KhanActress, Singer, & Songwriter
March 23, 1953
Actress, Singer, & Songwriter
“But really, we also need to learn how to love one another as women. How to appreciate and respect each other.”
Grammy Award-winning singer Chaka Khan, formerly with the band Rufus, has an array of hit songs like “I'm Every Woman,” “Ain't Nobody” and “Through the Fire.”
Early Singing Career
Chaka Khan was born Yvette Marie Stevens on March 23, 1953, in Chicago, Illinois. Known for her powerful voice, her great volume of curly hair, and her charismatic stage presence, Khan first exploded on to the music scene in the 1970s.
She formed her first group, the Crystalettes, with her sister Yvonne when she was only 11 years old. Some of Khan's early musical heroines included Billie Holiday and Gladys Knight. The sisters later became involved in the Afro-Arts Theater and started another musical group known as The Shades of Black.
In 1969, Khan became active in the black power movement, joining the Black Panther Party and working on the organization's free breakfast program for children. Around this time, she took on a new name: Chaka Adunne Aduffe Yemoja Hodarhi Karifi. She also said good-bye to her formal education, dropping out from high school.
In the early 1970s, after performing with a few other groups, Khan joined the band Rufus, which had a strong R&B and funk sound. The world got its first taste of Khan’s powerhouse vocals when the group released its first self-titled album in 1973, which spawned such modest hits as “Whoever's Thrilling You” and ”Feel Good.”
The follow-up album, Rags to Rufus (1974), was a smash commercially and critically. Stevie Wonder penned the hit single, “Tell Me Something Good,” for them, which sold more than a million copies. The group also scored a Grammy Award for best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus for the song in 1974.
Rufus, which was renamed Rufus featuring Chaka Khan and then Rufus & Chaka, continued to have a number of successes over the coming years. Khan helped write their number one hit, “Sweet Thing,” climbed to the top of the charts in 1975. Later hits included “Do You Love What You Feel” and “Ain't Nobody.”
Success as a Solo Artist
While she recorded with Rufus until the early 1980s, Chaka made an impressive debut as a solo artist in the late 1970s. In 1978, she released Chaka, which featured the hit “I'm Every Woman,” which was written by Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. In an odd twist of synchronicity, she won two Grammy Awards as a solo artist and one as a member of Rufus in 1983.
The next year, however, Chaka the solo artist reigned supreme. Covering a Prince song, she reached the top of the R&B, hip-hop and dance charts with “I Feel for You.” Featuring one of the most famous rap cameos of all time by Grandmaster Melle Mel, the infectious track incorporated elements of rap, R&B, and electronic dance music. It also won her another Grammy Award in 1984. Other hits from the album included “This Is My Night” and “Through the Fire.”
Though she continued to make music, Khan saw her popularity decline in the late 1980s and 1990s. Her albums may not have been selling as much as they had previously, she was still producing critically acclaimed music. She won a Grammy Award in 1990 for her duet with the legendary Ray Charles on “I'll Be Good to You,” and another one in 1992 for “The Woman I Am.”
In the early 1990s, Khan left the United States for London to have a better environment to raise her two children. Her daughter Milini was born in 1973, and her son Damien was born in 1979.
While there, she branched out into acting, appearing as Sister Carrie in the musical Mama, I Want to Sing. Near the end of the decade, she established the Chaka Khan Foundation, which provides education programs to at-risk children and helps low-income families with autistic children.
In 2002, Chaka Khan scored her eighth Grammy Award–this time for her cover of Marvin Gaye's “What's Going On” with the Funk Brothers. The next year, she shared her life story with the world in her autobiography, Chaka! Through the Fire. In it, she detailed her career as well as her years of substance abuse.
Chaka described the loneliness she felt while touring. She was often away from her two children, which only compounded her sadness and guilt. Chaka told JET magazine that “I think a big part of my drug thing was escaping from those feelings.” She also revealed that she had a history of bad luck when it came to relationships.
With her life on track, Khan experimented with different musical styles. She did an album of standards with the London Symphony Orchestra entitled ClassiKhan in 2004. That same year, Khan faced a personal tragedy. Her son Damien was arrested and charged with murder. He and a friend had been fighting in her home when Damien accidentally shot him. Rallying her family together, Khan attended the trial and testified on her son's behalf. He was found not guilty in 2006.
Making her first original recording in years, Khan returned to the studio to make Funk This (2007). The album features a diverse mix of songs and guests. The ballad “Angel” came from a poem she wrote while high years earlier. The up-tempo “Disrespectful” paired Khan with one of her musical protégées, Mary J. Blige.
On the cover of “You Belong to Me,” she sang with former member of the rock group the Doobie Brothers, Michael McDonald. She included a few more covers on the album, including tracks by Prince, Jimi Hendrix and Joni Mitchell.
In 2008, Chaka Khan appeared as Sofia in the Broadway musical The Color Purple, based on the book by Alice Walker.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.Civil Rights Clergyman, Activist & Leader
January 15, 1929
April 4, 1968
Civil Rights Clergyman, Activist & Leader
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist minister and social activist, who led the Civil Rights Movement in the United States from the mid-1950s until his death by assassination in 1968.
Born Michael King, Jr., Martin Luther King Jr. was the middle child of Michael King, Sr. and Alberta Williams King. The King and Williams families were rooted in rural Georgia. Martin Jr.'s grandfather, A.D. Williams, was a rural minister for years and then moved to Atlanta in 1893. There he took over the small, struggling Ebenezer Baptist Church with around 13 members and made it into a forceful congregation. He married Jennie Celeste Parks and they had one child that survived, Alberta. Michael King Sr. came from a sharecropper family in a poor farming community. He married Alberta in 1926 after an eight-year courtship. The newlyweds moved to A.D. Williams home in Atlanta.
Michael King, Sr. stepped in a pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church upon the death of his father-in-law in 1931. He too became a very successful minister and adopted the name Martin Luther King, Sr. in honor of the German Protestant religious leader Martin Luther. In due time, Michael, Jr. would follow his dad's lead and adopt the name himself.
Young Martin had an older sister, Willie Christine and a younger brother, Alfred Daniel Williams King. The King children grew up in a secure and loving environment. Martin Sr. was more the disciplinarian, while his wife's gentleness easily balanced out the father's more strict hand. Though they undoubtedly tried, Martin Jr.'s parents couldn't shield him completely from racism. Martin Luther King, Sr. fought against racial prejudice, not just because his race suffered, but because he considered racism and segregation to be an affront to God's will. He strongly discouraged any sense of class superiority in his children which left a lasting impression on Martin Jr.
Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, Martin Jr. entered public school at age five. In May, 1936, he was baptized, but the event made little impression on him. In May, 1941, Martin was 12 years old when is grandmother, Jennie, died of a heart attack. The event was traumatic for Martin, more so because he was out watching a parade against his parents' wishes when she died. Distraught at the news, young Martin attempted suicide by leaping from a second story window at the family home.
Martin Luther King, Jr. attended Booker T. Washington High School, where he was said to be a precocious student, having skipped both the ninth and eleventh grades and entered Morehouse College in Atlanta at age 15, in 1944. He was a popular student, especially with the girls, but an unmotivated student who floated though his first two years. Although his family was deeply involved in the church and worship, young Martin questioned religion in general and felt uncomfortable with overly emotional displays of religious worship.
This discomfort continued through much of his adolescence, initially leading him to decide against entering the ministry, much to his father's dismay. But in his junior year, Martin took a Bible class, renewed his faith and began to envision a career in the ministry. In the fall of his senior year, he told his father of his decision, which pleased his father.
Advanced Education and Spiritual Growth
In 1948, Martin Luther King, Jr. took his sociology degree from Morehouse College and attended the liberal Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. There he thrived in all his studies becoming valedictorian of his class in 1951 and elected student body president. He also earned a fellowship for graduate study. But Martin also rebelled against his father's more conservative influence by drinking beer and playing pool while at college. He became involved with a white woman and went through a difficult time before he could break off the affair.
During his last year in seminary, Martin Luther King, Jr. came under the influence of theologian Reinhold Niebbuhr, a classmate of his father's at Morehouse College. Niebbuhr became a mentor to Martin, challenging his liberal views of theology. Niebuhr was probably the single most important influence in Martin's intellectual and spiritual development. After being accepted at several colleges for his doctoral study including Yale and Edinburgh in Scotland, King enrolled in Boston University.
During the work on this doctorate, Martin Luther King, Jr. met Coretta Scott, an aspiring singer and musician at the New England Conservatory School in Boston. They were married in June, 1953 and had four children, Yolanda, Martin Luther King, III, Dexter Scott, and Bernice. In 1954, while still working on his dissertation, King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church of Montgomery, Alabama. He completed his Ph.D. and was award his degree in 1955. King was only 25 years old.
Montgomery Bus Boycott
On March 2, 1955, a fifteen-year-old girl refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery city bus in violation of local law. Claudette Colvin was arrested and taken to jail. At first, the local chapter of the NAACP felt they had an excellent test case to challenge Montgomery's segregated bus policy. But then it was revealed that she was pregnant and civil rights leaders feared this would scandalize the deeply religious black community and make Colvin (and, thus the group's efforts) less credible in the eyes of sympathetic whites. On December 1, 1955, they got another chance to make their case.
On that evening, 42 year-old Rosa Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus to go home from an exhausting day at work. She sat in the first row of the “colored” section in the middle of the bus. As the bus traveled its route, all the seats it the white section filled up, then several more white passengers boarded the bus. The bus driver noted there were several white men standing and demanded that Parks and several other African Americans give up their seats. Three other African American passengers reluctantly gave up their places, but Parks remained seated. The driver asked her again to give up her seat and again she refused. She was arrested and booked for violating the Montgomery City Code. At her trial a week later, in a thirty minute hearing, Parks was found guilty and fined $10 and assessed $4 court fee.
On the night Rosa Parks was arrested, E.D. Nixon, head of the local NAACP chapter met with Martin Luther King, Jr. and other local civil rights leaders to plan a city-wide bus boycott. King was elected to lead the boycott because he was young, well-trained with solid family connections and had professional standing. But he was also new to the community and had few enemies, so it was felt he would have strong credibility with the black community.
In his first speech as the group's president, King declared: “We have no alternative but to protest. For many years we have shown an amazing patience. We have sometimes given our white brothers the feeling that we liked the way we were being treated. But we come here tonight to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice.”
Martin Luther King Jr.'s fresh and skillful rhetoric put a new energy into the civil rights struggle in Alabama. The bus boycott would be 382 days of walking to work, harassment, violence and intimidation for the Montgomery's African American community. Both King's and E.D. Nixon's homes were attacked. But the African American community also took legal action against the city ordinance arguing that it was unconstitutional based on the Supreme Court's “separate is never equal” decision in Brown v. Board of Education. After being defeated in several lower court rulings and suffering large financial losses, the city of Montgomery lifted the law mandating segregated public transportation.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference
Flush with this victory, African American civil rights leaders recognized the need for a national organization to help coordinate their efforts. In January, 1957, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, and 60 ministers and civil rights activists founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to harness the moral authority and organizing power of black churches. They would help conduct non-violent protests to promote civil rights reform. King's participation in the organization gave him a base of operation throughout the South, as well as a national platform.
The organization felt the best place to start to give African Americans a voice was to enfranchise them in the voting process. In February, 1958, SCLC sponsored over 20 mass meetings in key southern cities to register black voters in the South. King met with religious and civil rights leaders and lectured all over the country on race–related issues.
In 1959, with the help of the American Friends Service Committee, and inspired by Gandhi's success with non-violent activism, Martin Luther King visited Gandhi's birthplace in India. The trip affected him in a deeply profound way, increasing his commitment to America's civil rights struggle. African American civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who had studied Gandhi's teachings, became one of King's associates and counseled him to dedicate himself to the principles of non-violence.
Rustin served as King's mentor and advisor throughout his early activism and was the main organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. But Rustin was also a controversial figure at the time, being a homosexual and alleged to have close ties with the Communist Party, USA. Though his counsel was invaluable to King, many of his other supporters urged him to distance himself from Rustin.
In February, 1960, a group of African American students began what became known as the ‘sit-in’ movement in Greensboro, North Carolina. The students would sit at racially segregated lunch counters in the city's stores. When asked to leave or sit in the colored section, they just remained seated, subjecting themselves to verbal and sometimes physical abuse. The movement quickly gained traction in several other cities. In April, 1960, SCLC held a conference at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina with local sit-in leaders. Martin Luther King, Jr. encouraged students to continue to use nonviolent methods during their protests. Out of this meeting, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) formed and for a time, worked closely with SCLC. By August, 1960, the sit-ins had been successful in ending segregation at lunch counters in 27 southern cities.
By 1960, Martin Luther King, Jr. was gaining national notoriety. He returned to Atlanta to become co-pastor with his father at Ebenezer Baptist Church, but also continued his civil rights efforts. On October 19th, King and 75 students entered a local department store and requested lunch-counter service but were denied. When they refused to leave the counter area, King and 36 others were arrested. Realizing the incident would hurt the city's reputation, Atlanta's mayor negotiated a truce and charges were eventually dropped.
But soon after, King was imprisoned for violating his probation on a traffic conviction. The news of his imprisonment entered the 1960 presidential campaign when candidate John F. Kennedy made a phone call to Coretta Scott King expressing his concern for the harsh treatment for a traffic ticket and political pressure was quickly set in motion. King was soon released.
I Have A Dream
In the spring of 1963, Martin Luther King organized a demonstration in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. Entire families attended. City police turned dogs and fire hoses on demonstrators. Martin Luther King was jailed along with large numbers of his supporters, but the event drew nationwide attention. However, King was personally criticized by black and white clergy alike for taking risks and endangering the children who attended the demonstration. From the jail in Birmingham, King eloquently spelled out his theory of non-violence. “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”
By the end of the Birmingham campaign, Martin Luther King and his supporters were making plans for a massive demonstration on the nation's capital composed of multiple organizations, all asking for peaceful change. On August 28, 1963, the historic March on Washington drew more than 200,000 people in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial. It was here that King made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech emphasizing his belief that someday all men could be brothers.
The rising tide of civil rights agitation produced a strong effect on public opinion. Many people in cities not experiencing racial tension began to question the nation's Jim Crow laws and the near century second class treatment of African American citizens. This resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 authorizing the federal government to enforce desegregation of public accommodations and outlawing discrimination in publicly owned facilities. This also led to Martin Luther King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for 1964.
The struggle continued for Martin Luther King throughout the 1960s. It seemed as though progress was “two steps forward and one step back.” On March 7, 1965, a civil rights march, planned from Selma to Alabama's capital in Montgomery, turned violent as police with nightsticks and tear gas met the demonstrators as they tried to cross the Edmond Pettus Bridge. King was not in the march, however the attack was televised showing horrifying images of marchers being bloodied and severely injured. Seventeen marchers were hospitalized leading to the naming the event “Bloody Sunday.” A second march was cancelled due to a restraining order to prevent the march from taking place.
A third march was planned and this time King made sure he was on it. Not wanting to alienate southern judges by violating the restraining order, a different tact was taken. On March 9, 1965, a procession of 2,500 marchers, both black and white, set out once again to cross the Pettus Bridge and confronted barricades and state troopers. Instead of forcing a confrontation, King led his followers to kneel in prayer and then they turned back. The event caused King the loss of support among some younger African American leaders, but it nonetheless aroused support for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
During the latter part of 1965 through 1967, Martin Luther King expanded his civil rights movement into other larger American cities like Chicago and Los Angeles. But he met with increasing criticism and public challenges from young black-power leaders. King's patient, non-violent approach and appeal to white middle-class citizens alienated many black militants who considered his methods too weak and too late. In the eyes of the sharp-tongued, blue jean young urban black, King's manner was irresponsibly passive and deemed non-effective.
To address this criticism King began making a link between discrimination and poverty. He expanded his civil rights efforts to the Vietnam War. He felt America's involvement in Vietnam was politically untenable and the government's conduct of the war discriminatory to the poor. He sought to broaden his base by forming a multi-race coalition to address economic and unemployment problems of all disadvantaged people.
Assassination and Legacy
By 1968, the years of demonstrations and confrontations were beginning to wear on Martin Luther King, Jr. He was tired of marches, going to jail, and living under the constant threat of death. He was becoming discouraged at the slow progress civil rights in America and the increasing criticism from other African American leaders. Plans were in the works for another march on Washington to revive his movement and bring attention to a widening range of issues. In the spring of 1968, a labor strike by Memphis Tennessee's sanitation workers drew King to one last crusade.
On April 3, in what proved to be an eerie prophetic speech, he told supporters, “I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” The next day, while standing on a balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel, Martin Luther King, Jr. was struck by a sniper's bullet. The shooter, a malcontent drifter and former convict named James Earl Ray, was eventually apprehended after a two-month international manhunt. The killing sparked riots and demonstrations in over 100 cities across the country. In 1969, Ray pleaded guilty to assassinating King and was sentenced to 99 years. He died in prison on April 23, 1998.
Martin Luther King's life had a seismic impact on race relations in the United States. Years after his death, he is the most widely known African American leader of his era. His life and work have been honored with a national holiday, schools and public buildings named after him, and a memorial on Independence Mall in Washington, D.C.
But his life remains controversial as well. In the 1970s, FBI files, released under the Freedom of Information Act, revealed that he was under government surveillance and suggested adulterous relationships and communist influences. Over the years, extensive archival study has led to a more balanced and comprehensive assessment of his life, portraying him as a complex figure: flawed, fallible, and limited in his control over the mass movements with which he was associated, yet also a visionary leader who was deeply committed to achieving social justice through nonviolent means.
Gladys Knight & the PipsR&B & Soul Music Group
September 4, 1952
R&B & Soul Music Group
“We all have a responsibility, and since I've been so wonderfully blessed, I really want to share and to make life at least a little better. So every chance I get to share the gospel or uplift people, I will take full advantage of that opportunity.”
– Gladys Knight
Gladys Knight & the Pips were an R&B/soul family musical act from Atlanta, Georgia that remained active on the music charts and performing circuit for three decades.
Gladys Knight, her brother Merald “Bubba”, sister Brenda and cousins Elenor Guest and William Guest formed their first vocal group in their native Atlanta in 1952.
Calling themselves the Pips, after their cousin James “Pips” Woods, the youngsters sang supper-club material in the week and gospel music on Sundays. They first recorded for Brunswick Records in 1958, releasing the unsuccessful single “Whistle My Love”. Another cousin of the Knights, Edward Patten, and Langston George were brought into the group line-up the following year when Brenda and Elenor left to get married.
Three years elapsed before the Pips’ next sessions, which produced a version of Johnny Otis’ “Every Beat Of My Heart” for the small Huntom Records label. This song, which highlighted Knight’s bluesy, compelling vocal style, was leased to Vee Jay Records when it began attracting national attention, and went on to top the US R&B charts and reach the pop Top 10.
By this time, the group, now credited as Gladys Knight And The Pips, had signed a long-term recording contract with Bobby Robinson's Fury Records, where they issued a re-recording of “Every Beat Of My Heart” which competed for sales with the original release.
Subsequent singles such as “Letter Full Of Tears” and “Operator” sealed the group’s R&B credentials. A switch to the Maxx label in 1964 – where they worked with producer Van McCoy – generated minor hits with “Giving Up” and “Lovers Always Forgive”. Langston George retired from the group in 1962, leaving the four strong line-up that survived into the 80s.
In 1966, Gladys Knight And The Pips signed to Motown Records’ Soul subsidiary, where they were teamed up with producer/songwriter Norman Whitfield. Knight’s tough vocals left them slightly out of the Motown mainstream, and throughout their stay with the label the group was regarded as a second-string act.
Between 1967 and 1968, they had major R&B and minor pop hits in America with “Everybody Needs Love”, “The End Of The Road”, “It Should Have Been Me” and “I Wish It Would Rain”, but enjoyed most success with the original release of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”, an uncompromisingly tough performance of a song that became a Motown standard in the hands of its author Marvin Gaye in 1969. Gladys Knight And The Pips’ version topped the R&B chart for six weeks at the end of 1967 and also reached number 2 on the US pop charts.
The group enjoyed further R&B and pop hits at the end of the decade with “Didn’t You Know (You’d Have To Cry Sometime)”, “The Nitty Gritty”, “Friendship Train” and “You Need Love Like I Do (Don’t You)”, while the poignant “If I Were Your Woman” was one of the label’s biggest-selling releases of 1970 and provided the group with their third R&B chart-topper.
In the early 70s, Gladys Knight And The Pips slowly moved away from their original blues-influenced sound towards a more middle-of-the-road harmony blend. Their new approach brought them success in 1973 with the smash hit “Neither One Of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye)”, while further hits during this period included “I Don’t Want To Do Wrong”, “Make Me The Woman That You Go Home To”, “Help Me Make It Through The Night” and “Daddy Could Swear, I Declare”.
In late 1973, Gladys Knight And The Pips elected to leave Motown for Buddah Records, unhappy at the former label’s shift of operations from Detroit to Hollywood. At Buddah, the group found immediate success with “Where Peaceful Waters Flow” and “Midnight Train To Georgia”, an arresting soul ballad which topped both the R&B and pop charts.
Major hits such as “I’ve Got To Use My Imagination” and “Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me” mined a similar vein. In 1974, the group performed Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack songs for the movie Claudine, spawning the major hit “On And On”, and the following year the title track of I Feel A Song gave them another R&B number 1.
Their smoother approach was epitomized by the medley of “The Way We Were/Try To Remember”, released the same year (1975) that saw Knight and the group host their own US television series.
Gladys Knight made her acting debut in Pipe Dreams in 1976, for which the group recorded a soundtrack album. Legal problems then dogged their career until the end of the decade, forcing Knight and the Pips to record separately until they could sign a new recording contract with CBS Records.
Knight enjoyed minor R&B hits at the end of the decade with the solo singles “I’m Coming Home Again” and “Am I Too Late?”. About Love in 1980 teamed the reunited group with the Ashford And Simpson writing/production partnership, and produced a strident piece of R&B social comment in “Landlord” and “Bourgie’ Bourgie’”.
Subsequent releases alternated between the group’s R&B and MOR modes, generating hits such as the R&B chart-topper “Save The Overtime (For Me)” and “You’re Number One In My Book” (both in 1983). In 1985, Knight appeared on the chart-topping pop hit “That’s What Friends Are For”, alongside Elton John, Dionne Warwick and Stevie Wonder.
After a move to MCA Records in 1986, “Love Overboard” demonstrated that Gladys Knight And The Pips could work equally well in both R&B and pop genres, taking the group back to the top of the R&B charts and into the pop Top 20 at the end of 1987. The latter song earned them a Grammy Award for the Best R&B performance in early 1989, while the group enjoyed two final R&B hits at the end of the decade with “Lovin’ On Next To Nothin’” and “It’s Gonna Take All Our Love”.
In 1989, Gladys Knight and the Pips parted company. Merald remained with his sister when she achieved a UK Top 10 hit that year with the James Bond movie song “Licence To Kill” (her highest UK chart position since Gladys Knight And The Pips’ 1977 Top 5 hit “Baby Don’t Change Your Mind”), and released her second solo album, Good Woman, in 1991.
Her subsequent work has alternated between gospel and mainstream pop, although apart from the R&B Top 5 hit “Men” she has enjoyed relatively minor chart success. She collaborated with Chaka Khan, Brandy and Tamia on the minor hit “Missing You” in 1996, taken from the Queen Latifah movie Set It Off. The same year she was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame with the Pips. A noteworthy album of standards was released in 2006.
Spike LeeActor, Director & Producer
March 20, 1957
Actor, Director & Producer
“I think it is very important that films make people look at what they've forgotten.”
Producer, director, writer and actor Spike Lee creates controversial films that explore race relations, political issues and urban crime and violence. His films include She's Gotta Have It and Do the Right Thing.
Spike Lee was born Shelton Jackson Lee on March 20, 1957, in Atlanta, Georgia. Growing up in a relatively well-off African-American family, Lee was making amateur films by age 20. His first student film, Last Hustle in Brooklyn, was completed when he was an undergraduate at Morehouse College. Lee went on to graduate from the New York University Film School in 1982. His thesis film, Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, won a Student Academy Award.
Lee became a director of promise with his first feature film, She's Gotta Have It, in 1986. The film was shot in two weeks and cost $175,000 to make, but grossed more than $7 million at the box office, making it one of the most profitable films made in 1986.
No stranger to controversy for certain provocative elements in both his films and public statements, Lee often takes a critical look at race relations, political issues and urban crime and violence. His next film, 1989's Do The Right Thing, examined all of the above and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1989.
Subsequent films, including Malcolm X, Mo' Better Blues, Summer of Sam and She Hate Me, continued to explore social and political issues. 4 Little Girls, a piece about the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary in 1997.
In 2006, Lee directed and produced a four-hour documentary for television, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, about life in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He also did well at the box office that year with the crime caper Inside Man starring Clive Owen, Jodie Foster and Denzel Washington.
Lee has also had success in directing television commercials, most famously opposite Michael Jordan in Nike's Air Jordan campaign. Other commercial clients include Converse, Taco Bell and Ben & Jerry's. His production company, 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks, is located in his childhood neighborhood of Fort Green in Brooklyn.
His most recent feature film release, Miracle at St. Anna (2008), tells the story of four African-American soldiers trapped in an Italian village during World War II.
This movie was praised for bringing the often overlooked experience of black infantrymen –– known as buffalo soldiers –– to the big screen. Critics, however, debated over how well the film was done. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times wrote that Miracle at St. Anna “shows what happens when a film's execution does not measure up to its ideas.”
Currently, Lee is rumored to be making on a sequel to his 2006 hit Inside Man. He is also reportedly working on documentaries on basketball greats Kobe Bryant (2009) and Michael Jordan (2010) and a remake of the Korean revenge film Oldboy. In 2012, he reprised his Do the Right Thing character of Mookie in Red Hook Summer.
Lee's 2015 film Chi-Raq, an adaptation of Aristophanes's Lysistrata set in modern-day Chicago, was the first feature produced by Amazon Studios. That year, the acclaimed filmmaker also received an honorary Oscar at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ annual Governors Awards.
Joe LouisProfessional Boxing Athlete
May 13, 1914
April 12, 1981
Professional Boxing Athlete
“You need a lot of different types of people to make the world better.”
The world heavyweight boxing champion from June 22, 1937, until March 1, 1949, Joe Louis held the title longer than anyone else in history.
Widely considered one of the greatest and most beloved boxers in the sport's history, Joseph Louis Barrow was born May 13, 1914 in the cotton-field country near Lafayette, Alabama. The son of a sharecropper, and the great-grandson of a slave, he was eighth child of Munn and Lilly Barrow.
Louis's family life was shaped by financial struggle. The Louis kids slept three to a bed and Louis’ father was committed to a state hospital when he was just two years old. Louis had little schooling and as a teen took on odd jobs in order to help out his mother and siblings. The family eventually relocated to Detroit where Louis found work as a laborer at the River Rouge plant of the Ford Motor Company.
For a time Louis set his sights on a career in cabinet making. He briefly attended the Bronson Vocational School for training and in his off-time took violin lessons. But it was while at school that a friend recommended he try boxing.
While not an immediate success–he debuted as a lightweight and was knocked down three times in his first fight–he showed promise. By 1934 he held the national Amateur Athletic Union light-heavyweight title and finished his amateur career with an astonishing 43 knockout victories in 54 matches.
Louis bruised his opponents with a crushing left jab and hook. By the end of 1935 the young fighter was showing that his amateur success was no fluke. He fought 14 bouts that year, earning nearly $370,000 in prize money.
On June 19, 1936 Louis suffered his first professional defeat, a 12th round knockout to Max Schmeling, a German fighter and former heavyweight champion who'd earned the adoring praise of Adolf Hitler.
The defeat stung Louis, but it was offset by the chance to fight Jim Braddock on June 22, 1937 for the heavyweight crown. The Brown Bomber, as he came to be known, knocked out the defending champ in the eighth round setting the stage for a 12-year-run as the heavyweight king all the while becoming a sports icon for blacks and white across America.
Part of it could be chalked up to the sheer fact that fans loved a winner. Of Louis' 25 title defenses, only three went the full 15 rounds. But in winning, Louis also showed himself to be a gracious, even generous victor. Louis, who enlisted with the army in 1942, threw his support behind the country's war effort, and went so far as to twice donate his purse money to military relief funds.
He officially retired on March 1, 1949. A short-lived comeback, owed more in part because he was broke, soon followed. But Louis failed to capture his earlier magic. On October 26, 1951 he called it quits for good after Rocky Marciano knocked him out in the eighth round at Madison Square Garden.
The years after his retirement from the ring proved uneven for Louis. He was still a revered American figure, but money was a constant issue for him. In an effort to find some footing he tried out a number of careers. He wrestled and partnered with a rival in setting up a chain of interracial food shops.
In 1970 his wife Martha committed Louis to a psychiatric hospital in Colorado because of his cocaine addiction and paranoia. He was later confined to a wheelchair following surgery to correct an aortic aneurism.
When he passed away from a heart attack on April 12, 1981, Louis, who married four times in his life and had two children, was working as an “official greeter” at Caesars Palace.
Louis was inducted to the Ring Magazine Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954 and the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. In 1982 he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
March 19, 1894
May 23, 1975
“Black women, white women - all of them. I'm colorblind. I don't know the difference. I only know you're a human being and you're my children.”
Moms Mabley was a trailblazing African-American 20th century comedian known for warm yet raunchy stand-up routines and hit albums.
The woman who would become known as famed comedian Moms Mabley was born Loretta Mary Aiken in Brevard, North Carolina, on March 19, 1894 (some sources say 1897), to a large family. She experienced a horrifying, traumatic childhood.
Her firefighter father was killed in an explosion when she was 11 and her mother was later hit and killed by a truck on Christmas Day. And by the beginning of her teens, Aiken had been raped twice and become pregnant from both encounters, with both children being given away.
Becoming Moms Mabley
Aiken left home at the age of 14 and pursued a show business career, joining the African-American vaudeville circuit as a comedian under the Theatre Owners Booking Association. Fellow performer Jack Mabley became her boyfriend for a short time, and she took on his name, becoming Jackie Mabley, with “Moms” coming from her eventual reputation as a mentoring, mothering spirit.
By the early 1920s she had begun to work with the duo Butterbeans & Susie, and eventually became an attraction at the Cotton Club. Mabley entered the world of film and stage as well, working with writer Zora Neale Hurston on the 1931 Broadway show Fast and Furious: A Colored Revue in 37 Scenes and taking on a featured role in Paul Robeson's Emperor Jones (1933).
Public vs. Private Persona
Starting in the late 1930s, Mabley became the first woman comedian to be featured at the Apollo, going on to appear on the theater's stage more times than any other performer. She returned to the big screen as well with The Big Timers (1945), Boarding House Blues (1948), and the musical revue Killer Diller (1948), which featured Nat King Cole and Butterfly McQueen.
Mabley's standup routines were riotous affairs augmented by the aesthetic she presented as being an older, housedress-clad figure who provided sly commentary on racial bigotry to African-American audiences. Her jokes also pointed towards a lusty zest for younger men. Yet, belying that persona, offstage she had a glamorous, chic look and was known to be a lesbian.
Mabley began a recording career with her Chess Records debut album The Funniest Woman Alive, which became gold-certified. Subsequent albums like Moms Mabley at the Playboy Club, Moms Mabley at the “UN” and Young Men, Si - Old Men, No continued to broaden Mabley's reach (she ultimately recorded many albums). She landed spots on some of the top variety shows of the day, including The Ed Sullivan Show, and graced the stage of Carnegie Hall.
Legacy, Whoopi Goldberg Film
Mobley had a starring role in the 1974 picture Amazing Grace, which she was able to complete despite having a heart attack during filming. She died on May 23, 1975, in White Plains, New York.
Actress Clarice Taylor, who portrayed Bill Cosby's mother on The Cosby Show and was a major fan of Mabley's work, staged the 1987 play Moms at the Astor Place Theater, in which she portrayed the trailblazing icon.
More than 20 years later, fellow comedian Whoopi Goldberg made her directorial debut with the documentary Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin’ to Tell You, which was presented at the Tribeca Film Festival and is slated to air on HBO in 2013.
Nelson MandelaPresident (non-U.S.), Writer & Civil Rights Activist
July 18, 1918
December 5, 2013
President (non-U.S.), Writer & Civil Rights Activist
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
Nelson Mandela became the first black president of South Africa in 1994, serving until 1999. A symbol of global peacemaking, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
Nelson Mandela was born Rolihlahla Mandela on July 18, 1918, in the tiny village of Mvezo, on the banks of the Mbashe River in Transkei, South Africa. “Rolihlahla” in the Xhosa language literally means “pulling the branch of a tree,” but more commonly translates as “troublemaker.”
Nelson Mandela's father, who was destined to be a chief, served as a counselor to tribal chiefs for several years, but lost both his title and fortune over a dispute with the local colonial magistrate. Mandela was only an infant at the time, and his father's loss of status forced his mother to move the family to Qunu, an even smaller village north of Mvezo.
The village was nestled in a narrow grassy valley; there were no roads, only foot paths that linked the pastures where livestock grazed. The family lived in huts and ate a local harvest of maize, sorghum, pumpkin and beans, which was all they could afford. Water came from springs and streams and cooking was done outdoors. Mandela played the games of young boys, acting out male rights-of-passage scenarios with toys he made from the natural materials available, including tree branches and clay.
At the suggestion of one of his father's friends, Mandela was baptized in the Methodist Church. He went on to become the first in his family to attend school. As was custom at the time, and probably due to the bias of the British educational system in South Africa, Mandela's teacher told him that his new first name would be Nelson.
When Mandela was 9 years old, his father died of lung disease, causing his life to change dramatically. He was adopted by Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, the acting regent of the Thembu people–a gesture done as a favor to Mandela's father, who, years earlier, had recommended Jongintaba be made chief. Mandela subsequently left the carefree life he knew in Qunu, fearing that he would never see his village again. He traveled by motorcar to Mqhekezweni, the provincial capital of Thembuland, to the chief's royal residence. Though he had not forgotten his beloved village of Qunu, he quickly adapted to the new, more sophisticated surroundings of Mqhekezweni.
Mandela was given the same status and responsibilities as the regent's two other children, his son and oldest child, Justice, and daughter Nomafu. Mandela took classes in a one-room school next to the palace, studying English, Xhosa, history and geography. It was during this period that Mandela developed an interest in African history, from elder chiefs who came to the Great Palace on official business.
He learned how the African people had lived in relative peace until the coming of the white people. According to the elders, the children of South Africa had previously lived as brothers, but white men had shattered this fellowship. While black men shared their land, air and water with whites, white men took all of these things for themselves.
When Mandela was 16, it was time for him to partake in the traditional African circumcision ritual to mark his entrance into manhood. The ceremony of circumcision was not just a surgical procedure, but an elaborate ritual in preparation for manhood. In African tradition, an uncircumcised man cannot inherit his father's wealth, marry or officiate at tribal rituals. Mandela participated in the ceremony with 25 other boys.
He welcomed the opportunity to partake in his people's customs and felt ready to make the transition from boyhood to manhood. His mood shifted during the proceedings, however, when Chief Meligqili, the main speaker at the ceremony, spoke sadly of the young men, explaining that they were enslaved in their own country.
Because their land was controlled by white men, they would never have the power to govern themselves, the chief said. He went on to lament that the promise of the young men would be squandered as they struggled to make a living and perform mindless chores for white men. Mandela would later say that while the chief's words didn't make total sense to him at the time, they would eventually formulate his resolve for an independent South Africa.
From the time Mandela came under the guardianship of Regent Jongintaba, he was groomed to assume high office, not as a chief, but a counselor to one. As Thembu royalty, Mandela attended a Wesleyan mission school, the Clarkebury Boarding Institute and Wesleyan College, where, he would later state, he achieved academic success through “plain hard work.” He also excelled at track and boxing. Mandela was initially mocked as a “country boy” by his Wesleyan classmates, but eventually became friends with several students, including Mathona, his first female friend.
In 1939, Mandela enrolled at the University College of Fort Hare, the only residential center of higher learning for blacks in South Africa at the time. Fort Hare was considered Africa's equivalent of the University of Oxford or Harvard University, drawing scholars from all parts of sub-Sahara Africa. In his first year at the university, Mandela took the required courses, but focused on Roman Dutch law to prepare for a career in civil service as an interpreter or clerk–regarded as the best profession that a black man could obtain at the time.
In his second year at Fort Hare, Mandela was elected to the Student Representative Council. For some time, students had been dissatisfied with the food and lack of power held by the SRC. During this election, a majority of students voted to boycott unless their demands were met. Aligning with the student majority, Mandela resigned from his position.
Seeing this as an act of insubordination, the university's Dr. Kerr expelled Mandela for the rest of the year and gave him an ultimatum: He could return to the school if he agreed to serve on the SRC. When Mandela returned home, the regent was furious, telling him unequivocally that he would have to recant his decision and go back to school in the fall.
A few weeks after Mandela returned home, Regent Jongintaba announced that he had arranged a marriage for his adopted son. The regent wanted to make sure that Mandela's life was properly planned, and the arrangement was within his right, as tribal custom dictated.
Shocked by the news, feeling trapped and believing that he had no other option than to follow this recent order, Mandela ran away from home. He settled in Johannesburg, where he worked a variety of jobs, including as a guard and a clerk, while completing his bachelor's degree via correspondence courses. He then enrolled at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg to study law.
Mandela soon became actively involved in the anti-apartheid movement, joining the African National Congress in 1942. Within the ANC, a small group of young Africans banded together, calling themselves the African National Congress Youth League. Their goal was to transform the ANC into a mass grassroots movement, deriving strength from millions of rural peasants and working people who had no voice under the current regime.
Specifically, the group believed that the ANC's old tactics of polite petitioning were ineffective. In 1949, the ANC officially adopted the Youth League's methods of boycott, strike, civil disobedience and non-cooperation, with policy goals of full citizenship, redistribution of land, trade union rights, and free and compulsory education for all children.
For 20 years, Mandela directed peaceful, nonviolent acts of defiance against the South African government and its racist policies, including the 1952 Defiance Campaign and the 1955 Congress of the People. He founded the law firm Mandela and Tambo, partnering with Oliver Tambo, a brilliant student he'd met while attending Fort Hare. The law firm provided free and low-cost legal counsel to unrepresented blacks.
In 1956, Mandela and 150 others were arrested and charged with treason for their political advocacy (they were eventually acquitted). Meanwhile, the ANC was being challenged by Africanists, a new breed of black activists who believed that the pacifist method of the ANC was ineffective. Africanists soon broke away to form the Pan-Africanist Congress, which negatively affected the ANC; by 1959, the movement had lost much of its militant support.
In 1961, Mandela, who was formerly committed to nonviolent protest, began to believe that armed struggle was the only way to achieve change. He subsequently co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe, also known as MK, an armed offshoot of the ANC dedicated to sabotage and guerilla war tactics to end apartheid.
In 1961, Mandela orchestrated a three-day national workers’ strike. He was arrested for leading the strike the following year, and was sentenced to five years in prison. In 1963, Mandela was brought to trial again. This time, he and 10 other ANC leaders were sentenced to life imprisonment for political offenses, including sabotage.
Nelson Mandela was incarcerated on Robben Island for 18 of his 27 years in prison. During this time, he contracted tuberculosis and, as a black political prisoner, received the lowest level of treatment from prison workers. However, while incarcerated, Mandela was able to earn a Bachelor of Law degree through a University of London correspondence program.
A 1981 memoir by South African intelligence agent Gordon Winter described a plot by the South African government to arrange for Mandela's escape so as to shoot him during the recapture; the plot was foiled by British intelligence. Mandela continued to be such a potent symbol of black resistance that a coordinated international campaign for his release was launched, and this international groundswell of support exemplified the power and esteem that Mandela had in the global political community.
In 1982, Mandela and other ANC leaders were moved to Pollsmoor Prison, allegedly to enable contact between them and the South African government. In 1985, President P.W. Botha offered Mandela's release in exchange for renouncing armed struggle; the prisoner flatly rejected the offer.
With increasing local and international pressure for his release, the government participated in several talks with Mandela over the ensuing years, but no deal was made. It wasn't until Botha suffered a stroke and was replaced by Frederik Willem de Klerk that Mandela's release was finally announced–on February 11, 1990. De Klerk also unbanned the ANC, removed restrictions on political groups and suspended executions.
Prison Release and Presidency
Upon his release from prison, Nelson Mandela immediately urged foreign powers not to reduce their pressure on the South African government for constitutional reform. While he stated that he was committed to working toward peace, he declared that the ANC's armed struggle would continue until the black majority received the right to vote.
In 1991, Mandela was elected president of the African National Congress, with lifelong friend and colleague Oliver Tambo serving as national chairperson. Mandela continued to negotiate with President F.W. de Klerk toward the country's first multiracial elections. White South Africans were willing to share power, but many black South Africans wanted a complete transfer of power.
The negotiations were often strained and news of violent eruptions, including the assassination of ANC leader Chris Hani, continued throughout the country. Mandela had to keep a delicate balance of political pressure and intense negotiations amid the demonstrations and armed resistance.
In 1993, Mandela and President de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work toward dismantling apartheid. And due in no small part to their work, negotiations between black and white South Africans prevailed: On April 27, 1994, South Africa held its first democratic elections. Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the country's first black president on May 10, 1994, at the age of 77, with de Klerk as his first deputy.
Also in 1994, Mandela published an autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, much of which he had secretly written while in prison. The following year, he was awarded the Order of Merit.
From 1994 until June 1999, Mandela worked to bring about the transition from minority rule and apartheid to black majority rule. He used the nation's enthusiasm for sports as a pivot point to promote reconciliation between whites and blacks, encouraging black South Africans to support the once-hated national rugby team. In 1995, South Africa came to the world stage by hosting the Rugby World Cup, which brought further recognition and prestige to the young republic.
Mandela also worked to protect South Africa's economy from collapse during his presidency. Through his Reconstruction and Development Plan, the South African government funded the creation of jobs, housing and basic health care. In 1996, Mandela signed into law a new constitution for the nation, establishing a strong central government based on majority rule, and guaranteeing both the rights of minorities and the freedom of expression.
Retirement and Later Career
By the 1999 general election, Nelson Mandela had retired from active politics. He continued to maintain a busy schedule, however, raising money to build schools and clinics in South Africa's rural heartland through his foundation, and serving as a mediator in Burundi's civil war. He also published a number of books on his life and struggles, among them “No Easy Walk to Freedom”; Nelson Mandela: The Struggle is my Life; and Nelson Mandela's Favorite African Folktales.
Mandela was diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer in 2001. In June 2004, at the age of 85, he announced his formal retirement from public life and returned to his native village of Qunu.
On July 18, 2007, Mandela convened a group of world leaders, including Graca Machel (whom Mandela wed in 1998), Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan, Ela Bhatt, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Jimmy Carter, Li Zhaoxing, Mary Robinson and Muhammad Yunus, to address some of the world's toughest issues.
Aiming to work both publicly and privately to find solutions to problems around the globe, the group was aptly named “The Elders.” The Elders‘ impact has spanned Asia, the Middle East and Africa, and their actions have included promoting peace and women's equality, demanding an end to atrocities, and supporting initiatives to address humanitarian crises and promote democracy.
In addition to advocating for peace and equality on both a national and global scale, in his later years, Mandela remained committed to the fight against AIDS–a disease that killed Mandela's son, Makgatho, in 2005.
In Recent Years
Nelson Mandela made his last public appearance at the final match of the World Cup in South Africa in 2010. He remained largely out of the spotlight in his later years, choosing to spend much of his time in his childhood community of Qunu, south of Johannesburg. He did, however, visit with U.S. first lady Michelle Obama, wife of President Barack Obama, during her trip to South Africa in 2011.
After suffering a lung infection in January 2011, Mandela was briefly hospitalized in Johannesburg to undergo surgery for a stomach ailment in early 2012. He was released after a few days, later returning to Qunu. Mandela would be hospitalized many times over the next several years–in December 2012, March 2013 and June 2013–for further testing and medical treatment relating to his recurrent lung infection.
Following his June 2013 hospital visit, Mandela's wife, Graca Machel, canceled a scheduled appearance in London to remain at her husband's his side, and his daughter, Zenani Dlamini, Argentina's South African ambassador, flew back to South Africa to be with her father.
Jacob Zuma, South Africa's president, issued a statement in response to public concern over Mandela's March 2013 health scare, asking for support in the form of prayer: “We appeal to the people of South Africa and the world to pray for our beloved Madiba and his family and to keep them in their thoughts,” Zuma said.
Death and Legacy
On December 5, 2013, at the age of 95, Nelson Mandela died at his home in Johannesburg, South Africa. Zuma released a statement later that day, in which he spoke to Mandela's legacy: “Wherever we are in the country, wherever we are in the world, let us reaffirm his vision of a society … in which none is exploited, oppressed or dispossessed by another,” he said. For decades to come, Nelson Mandela will continue to be a source of inspiration for civil rights activists worldwide.
In 2009, Mandela's birthday (July 18) was declared Mandela Day, an international day to promote global peace and celebrate the South African leader's legacy. According to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, the annual event is meant to encourage citizens worldwide to give back the way that Mandela has throughout his lifetime. A statement on the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory's website reads: “Mr. Mandela gave 67 years of his life fighting for the rights of humanity. All we are asking is that everyone gives 67 minutes of their time, whether it's supporting your chosen charity or serving your local community.”
Mandela was married three times, beginning with Evelyn Ntoko Mase (m. 1944-1957). The couple had four children together: Madiba Thembekile, Makgatho (d. 2005), Makaziwe and Maki. Mandela wed Winnie Madikizela in 1958; the couple had two daughters together, Zenani and Zindziswa, before splitting in 1996. Two years later, Mandela married Graca Machel, with whom he remained until his death in 2013.
Bob MarleySinger, Songwriter, Musician & Guitarist
February 6, 1945
May 11, 1981
Singer, Songwriter, Musician & Guitarist
“Life is one big road with lots of signs. So when you riding through the ruts, don't complicate your mind. Flee from hate, mischief and jealousy. Don't bury your thoughts, put your vision to reality. Wake Up and Live!”
Jamaican singer, musician and songwriter Bob Marley served as a world ambassador for reggae music and sold more than 20 million records throughout his career–making him the first international superstar to emerge from the so-called Third World.
Early Life in Jamaica
Born on February 6, 1945, in St. Ann Parish, Jamaica, Bob Marley helped introduce reggae music to the world and remains one of the genre's most beloved artists to this day. The son of a black teenage mother and much older, later absent white father, he spent his early years in St. Ann Parish, in the rural village known as Nine Miles.
One of his childhood friends in St. Ann was Neville “Bunny” O'Riley Livingston. Attending the same school, the two shared a love of music. Bunny inspired Bob to learn to play the guitar. Later Livingston's father and Marley's mother became involved, and they all lived together for a time in Kingston, according to Christopher John Farley's Before the Legend: The Rise of Bob Marley.
Arriving in Kingston in the late 1950s, Marley lived in Trench Town, one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. He struggled in poverty, but he found inspiration in the music around him. Trench Town had a number of successful local performers and was considered the Motown of Jamaica. Sounds from the United States also drifted in over the radio and through jukeboxes. Marley liked such artists as Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, and the Drifters.
Marley and Livingston devoted much of their time to music. Under the guidance of Joe Higgs, Marley worked on improving his singing abilities. He met another student of Higgs, Peter McIntosh (later Peter Tosh) who would play an important role in Marley's career.
A local record producer, Leslie Kong, liked Marley's vocals and had him record a few singles, the first of which was “Judge Not,” released in 1962. While he did not fare well as a solo artist, Marley found some success joining forces with his friends.
In 1963, Marley, Livingston, and McIntosh formed the Wailing Wailers. Their first single, “Simmer Down,” went to the top of the Jamaican charts in January 1964. By this time, the group also included Junior Braithwaite, Beverly Kelso and Cherry Smith.
The group became quite popular in Jamaica, but they had difficulty making it financially. Braithewaite, Kelso, and Smith left the group. The remaining members drifted a part for a time. Marley went to the United States where his mother was now living. However, before he left, he married Rita Anderson on February 10, 1966.
After eight months, Marley returned to Jamaica. He reunited with Livingston and McIntosh to form the Wailers. Around this time, Marley was exploring his spiritual side and developing a growing interest in the Rastafarian movement. Both religious and political, the Rastafarian movement began in Jamaica in 1930s and drew its beliefs from many sources, including Jamaican nationalist Marcus Garvey, the Old Testament, and their African heritage and culture.
For a time in the late 1960s, Marley worked with pop singer Johnny Nash. Nash scored a worldwide hit with Marley's song “Stir It Up.” The Wailers also worked with producer Lee Perry during this era; some of their successful songs together were “Trench Town Rock,” “Soul Rebel” and “Four Hundred Years.”
The Wailers added two new members in 1970: bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett and his brother, drummer Carlton “Carlie” Barrett. The following year, Marley worked on a movie soundtrack in Sweden with Johnny Nash.
The Wailers got their big break in 1972 when they landed a contract with Island Records, founded by Chris Blackwell. For the first time, the group hit the studios to record a full album. The result was the critically acclaimed Catch a Fire.
To support the record, the Wailers toured Britain and the United States in 1973, performing as an opening act for both Bruce Springsteen and Sly & the Family Stone. That same year, the group released their second full album, Burnin’, featuring the hit song “I Shot the Sheriff.” Rock legend Eric Clapton released a cover of the song in 1974, and it became a No. 1 hit in the United States.
Before releasing their next album, 1975's Natty Dread, two of the three original Wailers left the group; McIntosh and Livingston decided to pursue solo careers as Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, respectively. Natty Dread reflected some of the political tensions in Jamaica between the People's National Party and the Jamaica Labour Party.
Violence sometimes erupted due to these conflicts. “Rebel Music (3 O'clock Road Block)” was inspired by Marley's own experience of being stopped by army members late one night prior to the 1972 national elections, and “Revolution” was interpreted by many as Marley's endorsement for the PNP.
For their next tour, the Wailers performed with I-Threes, a female group whose members included Marcia Griffiths, Judy Mowatt and Marley's wife, Rita. Now called Bob Marley & The Wailers, the group toured extensively and helped increase reggae's popularity abroad. In Britain in 1975, they scored their first Top 40 hit with “No Woman, No Cry.”
Already a much-admired star in his native Jamaica, Marley was on his way to becoming an international music icon. He made the U.S. music charts with the album Rastaman Vibration in 1976. One track stands out as an expression of his devotion to his faith and his interest in political change: “War.”
The song's lyrics were taken from a speech by Haile Selassie, the 20th century Ethiopian emperor who is seen as a type of a spiritual leader in the Rastafarian movement. A battle cry for freedom from oppression, the song discusses a new Africa, one without the racial hierarchy enforced by colonial rule.
Politics and Assassination Attempt
Back in Jamaica, Marley continued to be seen as a supporter of the People's National Party. And his influence in his native land was seen as a threat to the PNP's rivals. This may have led to the assassination attempt on Marley in 1976.
A group of gunmen attacked Marley and the Wailers while they were rehearsing on the night of December 3, 1976, two days before a planned concert in Kingston's National Heroes Park. One bullet struck Marley in the sternum and the bicep, and another hit his wife, Rita, in the head.
Fortunately, the Marleys were not severely injured, but manager Don Taylor was not as fortunate. Shot five times, Taylor had to undergo surgery to save his life. Despite the attack and after much deliberation, Marley still played at the show. The motivation behind the attack was never uncovered, and Marley fled the country the day after the concert.
Living in London, England, Marley went to work on Exodus, which was released in 1977. The title track draws an analogy between the biblical story of Moses and the Israelites leaving exile and his own situation. The song also discusses returning to Africa.
The concept of Africans and descendents of Africans repatriating their homeland can be linked to the work of Marcus Garvey. Released as a single, “Exodus” was a hit in Britain, as were “Waiting in Vain” and “Jamming,” and the entire album stayed on the U.K. charts for more than a year. Today, Exodus is considered to be one of the best albums ever made.
Marley had a health scare in 1977. He sought treatment in July of that year on a toe he had injured earlier that year. After discovering cancerous cells in his toe, doctors suggested amputation. Marley refused to have the surgery, however, because his religious beliefs prohibited amputation.
While working on Exodus, Marley and the Wailers recorded songs that were later released on the album Kaya (1978). With love as its theme, the work featured two hits: “Satisfy My Soul” and “Is This Love.” Also in 1978, Marley returned to Jamaica to perform his One Love Peace Concert, where he got Prime Minister Michael Manley of the PNP and opposition leader Edward Seaga of the JLP to shake hands on stage.
That same year, Marley made his first trip to Africa, and visited Kenya and Ethiopia–an especially important nation to him, as it's viewed as the spiritual homeland of Rastafarians. Perhaps inspired by his travels, his next album, Survival (1979), was seen as a call for both greater unity and an end to oppression on the African continent. In 1980, Bob Marley & The Wailers played an official independence ceremony for the new nation of Zimbabwe.
A huge international success, Uprising (1980) featured “Could You Be Loved” and “Redemption Song.” Known for its poetic lyrics and social and political importance, the pared down, folk-sounding “Redemption Song” was an illustration of Marley's talents as a songwriter. One line from the song reads: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds.”
On tour to support the album, Bob Marley & The Wailers traveled throughout Europe, playing in front of large crowds. The group also planned a series of concerts in the United States, but the group would play only two concerts–at Madison Square Garden in New York City–before Marley became ill. The cancer discovered earlier in his toe had spread throughout his body.
Death and Memorial
Traveling to Europe, Bob Marley underwent unconventional treatment in Germany, and was subsequently able to fight off the cancer for months. It soon became clear that Marley didn't have much longer to live, however, so the musician set out to return to his beloved Jamaica one last time. Sadly, he would not manage to complete the journey, dying in Miami, Florida, on May 11, 1981.
Shortly before his death, Marley had received the Order of Merit from the Jamaican government. He had also been awarded the Medal of Peace from the United Nations in 1980. Adored by the people of Jamaica, Marley was given a hero's send-off. More than 30,000 people paid their respects to the musician during his memorial service, held at the National Arena in Kingston, Jamaica. Rita Marley, Marcia Griffiths, Judy Mowatt sang and the Wailers performed at the ceremony.
Bob Marley achieved several great accomplishments during his lifetime, including serving as a world ambassador for reggae music, earning induction into the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame in 1994, and selling more than 20 million records–making him the first international superstar to emerge from the so-called Third World.
Decades after his passing, Marley's music remains widely acclaimed. His musical legacy has also continued through his family and longtime bandmates; Rita continues to perform with the I-Threes, the Wailers and some of the Marley children. (Bob Marley reportedly fathered nine children, though reports vary.) Marley's sons, David “Ziggy” and Stephen, and daughters Cedella and Sharon (Rita's daughter from a previous relationship who was adopted by Bob) played for years as Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers, later performing as the Melody Makers.
(Ziggy and Stephen have also had solo successes.) Sons Damian “Gong Jr.”, Ky-Mani and Julian are also talented recording artists. Other Marley children are involved in related family businesses, including the Tuff Gong record label, founded by Marley in the mid-1960s.
Marley's commitment to fighting oppression also continues through an organization that was established in his memory by the Marley family: The Bob Marley Foundation is devoted to helping people and organizations in developing nations.
June 3, 1942
December 26, 1999
Singer, Songwriter, Musician & Record Producer
“I used to love to sit and listen to the old people talk about yesterday. There's a lot of good information there.”
Curtis Mayfield was a singer-songwiter known for his racially conscious soul and funk who had a number one album with his score for the film Superfly.
Rhythm and blues singer, songwriter and producer Curtis Mayfield was born on June 3, 1942, in Chicago, Illinois. In his four decades in the music business, Mayfield helped bring a unique racial consciousness to popular music and introduced an innovative sound that greatly influenced following generations of musicians.
Mayfield began singing by the age of 7. He also taught himself to play guitar, led his own gospel and soul group, the Alphatones, and began composing music and writing lyrics before he was a teenager. In 1956, Mayfield moved with his family to Chicago's North Side, where he met singer Jerry Butler while performing in a church choir.
Butler convinced the 14-year-old Mayfield to join his soul band, then called the Roosters. Two years later, after renaming itself the Impressions, the group scored a No. 11 hit with “For Your Precious Love.”
After Butler left the Impressions to pursue a solo career, the group reformed with Curtis Mayfield as its leader. Mayfield wrote the songs, produced the records, played guitar and sang lead.
During the 1960s, the heyday of the Impressions, the group brought its potent mixture of gospel, soul, and doo-wop to a total of 14 Top 10 recordings, including “Gypsy Woman” and “It's All Right.” In 1964, with the hit song “Keep on Pushing,” Mayfield became one of the first R&B singer-songwriters to bring a racial and political consciousness to his music.
“Keep on Pushing,” along with other inspirational anthems such as “People Get Ready” and “I'm So Proud,” established Mayfield as both a pioneer of soul music and a singular voice of the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1970, Mayfield began a solo career, recording a series of albums and working as a producer for artists like Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight and the Pips. His most memorable solo project was the classic 1972 funk album Superfly, the soundtrack to the hit “blaxploitation” film of the same name.
Superfly was the No. 1 album on the pop charts for four weeks and solidified Mayfield's legacy as one of the late-20th century's most innovative songwriters and performers. Though his popularity began to fade in the late 1970s with the rise of disco, Mayfield continued to record hopeful, inspirational music and tour actively in the United States, Europe, and Japan.
In 1990, during an outdoor concert in Brooklyn, New York, a lighting scaffold fell on Mayfield; the accident left him paralyzed from the neck down. The amazingly indefatigable musician continued to compose and record music, learning to sing while lying flat on his back and letting gravity create the necessary pressure on his lungs.
In 1996, the year after he received a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement, Mayfield released his final album, New World Order. In the years following his accident, Mayfield's health continued to deteriorate, and in 1998, his right leg was amputated due to complications from diabetes. On December 26, 1999, Mayfield died at the age of 57, in Roswell, Georgia.
A two-time inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (he gained admission with the Impressions in 1991 and as a solo performer in 1999), Mayfield had been living in Atlanta, Georgia, with his wife, Altheida. He had 10 children and seven grandchildren.
Curtis Mayfield's influence on other performers over the past several decades is undeniable. As early as the 1960s, performers like Sam Cooke, James Brown and Marvin Gaye had followed Mayfield's lead and brought a new kind of social awareness to their music.
In the 1990s, the musician inspired two different tribute albums (including 1994's All Men are Brothers: A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield, featuring Whitney Houston, Elton John, the Isley Brothers and Aretha Franklin).
Over the past several years, his songs have been sampled or covered by a host of performers, from rappers like Snoop Dogg, LL Cool J, Coolio and Dr. Dre to singers like Herbie Hancock, Deneice Williams, En Vogue and Mary J. Blige.
Cynthia McKinneyCivil Rights Activist & U.S. Representative
March 17, 1955
Civil Rights Activist & U.S. Representative
“Eight generations of African-Americans are still waiting to achieve their rights – compensation and restitution for the hundreds of years during which they were bought and sold on the market.”
Cynthia McKinney was the first African American woman to represent Georgia in the House of Representatives and the Green Party presidential candidate in 2008.
Born on March 17, 1955, in Atlanta, Georgia. An experienced state and national legislator, Cynthia McKinney is now seeking the highest elected office in the United States – the presidency. She is the Green Party candidate for the 2008 presidential election, following in the footsteps of earlier African American female politicians, such as Shirley Chisholm, who have also tried to win the top executive post.
Her father, Billy McKinney, was one of the first African American police officers in Atlanta. Her mother, Leola, worked as a nurse at one of the city's hospitals for several decades. From an early age, McKinney was active in the civil rights movement, participating in sit-ins and demonstrations. After graduating from St. Joseph High School, she went to the University of Southern California. There McKinney earned a bachelor's degree in international relations in 1978.
McKinney continued her studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. She earned a master's degree from the program and then became a diplomatic fellow at Atlanta's Spelman College in 1984.
In the mid-1980s, McKinney married Jamaican politician Coy Grandison. The couple had one child together, a son named Coy Jr., before divorcing. McKinney's father submitted her name as a write-in candidate for the state legislature in Georgia in 1986. Despite the fact that she was still living in Jamaica at the time, McKinney was able to get more than 40 percent of the popular vote. She launched a campaign for that seat two years later and won a post in the state's House of Representatives.
By this time, McKinney's father was a well-established member of the House of Representatives in Georgia. The two became the first father-daughter team to serve in the legislature at the same time in the state. In 1992, Cynthia McKinney broke new ground on a national level. She became the first African American woman to represent Georgia in the House of Representatives.
Taking office in January 1993, McKinney led the Women's Caucus Task Force on Children, Youth and Families and served on the Armed Forces and International Relations Committees. She showed an interest in foreign policy and was handpicked by President Bill Clinton to attend the presidential inauguration in Nigeria. McKinney was also involved in trying to open up diplomatic relations with the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In addition to her support for many liberal causes and ideas, McKinney was also known around the capital for her braided hair and gold-colored tennis shoes. She faced a new political challenge in 1995 when the district she represented – the 11th – was redrawn after the Supreme Court ruled that its boundaries were unconstitutional. She then ran for the seat from the 4th district and won in 1996.
Holding on to her post for two more terms, McKinney remained active in foreign affairs. She campaigned for the creation of a Palestinian state within Israel-occupied lands and questioned some of the nation's positions on the Middle East. In the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001, she wrote a letter of support to a Saudi prince who called the U.S. government to review its Middle East policies. The letter brought McKinney a lot of unpleasant media attention, including criticism from other members of Congress. Senator Zell Miller said that “No one … should be saying anything in a time of war that could even remotely be interpreted as agreeing with the position of our enemy,” according to an article in The New York Times.
In 2002, McKinney found herself in a tough primary race with Denise Majette, a former judge and a more moderate Democrat. Adding to her challenge were reports that some of her campaign contributions came from Arab-American individuals and organizations that were under investigation for possible links to terrorism. In the end, McKinney lost to Majette.
Two years later, McKinney regained her post in the House representing the 4th district. She continued to be outspoken, criticizing the government's handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
In April 2006, McKinney got into an altercation with a Capitol Hill police officer when she tried to go around a metal detector. She reportedly struck him in the chest with her hand when he tried to stop her, but she was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing by a grand jury. Later that year, McKinney faced another challenging fight for re-election. She was the subject of a positive documentary American Blackout, which was released before the primaries. This was not enough, however, for her to beat out challenger Henry C. Johnson. He became the Democratic candidate for the 4th district after a runoff primary.
Defeated but undeterred, McKinney soon returned to the political arena. She was selected as the Green Party candidate for the 2008 presidential election at the party's national convention in Chicago that year. Community activist Rosa A. Clemente became her vice-presidential running mate. This all-female ticket faces an uphill battle in the general election from Democrats Barack Obama and Joe Biden and Republicans John McCain and Sarah Palin.
McKinney lives in DeKalb County, Georgia.
The MiraclesR&B Music Group
R&B Music Group
“That's because we did not set out to make black music. We set out to make quality music that everyone could enjoy and listen to.”
– Smokey Robinson
The Miracles, one of Motown's earliest and most enduring groups; released 16 Top 20 pop singles, with and without Smokey, from 1960 through 1976.
Scoring over 40 hits in the R&B Top 40 charts, the Miracles started out as the Five Chimes in the mid-‘50s while the members were still in high school. The Detroit vocal group consisted of William “Smokey” Robinson, Warren “Pete” Moore, Clarence “Humble” Dawson, Donald Wicker, and James “Rat” Grice.
Not too long after the group formed, Wicker and Grice left and were replaced by cousins Emerson “Sonny” Rogers and Bobby Rogers, who both sang tenor, and baritonist Ronnie White was in Dawson's place. The vocal quintet then changed their name to the Matadors, and in 1956 Claudette Rogers joined the band after her brother Sonny Rogers was drafted.
The Matadors auditioned for Jackie Wilson's manager, Nat Tarnapol, in 1956. Although Tarnapol wasn't interested, finding the group too similar to the Platters, Jackie Wilson's songwriter Berry Gordy Jr. was, and he soon began producing the band, who now went by the name the Miracles. Gordy produced their first single, “Get a Job,” which was issued by the N.Y. label End Records in 1958.
After one more release on this label, the Miracles recorded their first song for Gordy's new Motown/Tamla label, 1959's “Bad Girl” (which was issued nationally on the Chess label). Next came the first hit for both the group and the label, 1960's “Shop Around,” which reached number one on the R&B charts and number two pop.
The next song by the Miracles to hit the number one R&B spot and reach the pop Top Ten came two years later with “You've Really Got a Hold on Me.” Smokey and Claudette got married in 1963, and she retired from the group a year later. The band's last big hit before they changed their name from the Miracles was “Going to a Go-Go” (1966), which climbed into the Top Five on the R&B charts, and the pop Top 20.
Later that year, “I'm the One You Need” reached the Top 20. After this, the group's name changed to Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and they scored two more number one songs: “I Second That Emotion” (1967) and “The Tears of a Clown” (1970).
Smokey left the group to pursue a solo career in 1972 and 20-year-old Billy Griffin was brought in to replace the lead singer. Once again the Miracles, the band scored several more hits, including “Do It Baby” and “Don't Cha Love It,” which both reached the R&B Top Ten. The Miracles experienced a big success in early 1976 with “Love Machine (Part 1),” which reached number one on the pop charts.
The multi-million selling single came off of their second album without Smokey, 1975's City of Angels, and stayed on the charts for over six months, making it the longest-running hit the band ever had. Their final album on the Motown label, The Power of Music, followed.
After this, the Miracles added a new member, Billy Griffin's brother Don, and the band switched over to Columbia Records. Their first CBS release was Love Crazy (1977), which contained a single, “Spy for the Brotherhood,” that was pulled off the record after complaints from the FBI. The group's last charting single, “Mean Machine,” made the R&B Top 100 in 1978.
Billy Griffin pursued a solo career, and Warren “Pete” Moore became a record producer in Detroit. In the late ‘80s, Bobby Rogers started the New Miracles, and in 1990 the Miracles (including Billy Griffin and Claudette Robinson) reunited to re-record “Love Machine” for the U.K. Motorcity label. Ronnie White died from leukemia in 1995 and Griffin died in 2013 from diabetes complications.
N.W.AHip-Hop Recording Group
Hip-Hop Recording Group
“Yeah, I was a brother on the streets of Compton doing a lot of things most people look down on but it did pay off. Then we started rapping about real stuff that shook up the LAPD and the FBI. But we got our message across big time, and everyone in America started paying attention to the boys in the hood.”
Incendiary Compton rappers who introduced the world to gangsta rap and boasted a now-legendary lineup featuring Dr. Dre and Ice Cube.
N.W.A, the unapologetically violent and sexist pioneers of gangsta rap, are in many ways the most notorious group in the history of rap. Emerging in the late '80s, when Public Enemy had rewritten the rules of hardcore rap by proving that it could be intelligent, revolutionary, and socially aware, N.W.A capitalized on PE's sonic breakthroughs while ignoring their message.
Instead, the five-piece crew celebrated the violence and hedonism of the criminal life, capturing it all in blunt, harsh language. Initially, the group's relentless attack appeared to be serious, vital commentary, and it even provoked the FBI to caution N.W.A's record company, but following Ice Cube's departure in late 1989, the group began to turn to self-parody.
With his high-pitched whine, Eazy-E's urban nightmares now seemed like comic book fantasies, but ones that fulfilled the fantasies of the teenage white suburbanites who had become their core audience, and the group became more popular than ever.
Nevertheless, clashing egos prevented the band from recording a third album, and they fell apart once producer Dr. Dre left for a solo career in 1992. Although the group was no longer active, their influence –– from their funky, bass-driven beats to their exaggerated lyrics –– was evident throughout the ‘90s.
Ironically, in their original incarnation N.W.A were hardly revolutionary. Eazy-E (born Eric Wright), a former drug dealer who started Ruthless Records with money he earned by pushing, was attempting to start a rap empire by building a roster of successful rap artists.
However, he wasn't having much success until Dr. Dre (born Andre Young) –– a member of the World Class Wreckin’ Cru –– and Ice Cube (born O'Shea Jackson) began writing songs for Ruthless. Eazy tried to give one of the duo's songs, “Boyz-n-the Hood,” to Ruthless signees HBO, and when the group refused, Eazy formed N.W.A –– an acronym for Niggaz With Attitude –– with Dre and Cube, adding World Class Wreckin' Cru member DJ Yella (born Antoine Carraby), the Arabian Prince, and the D.O.C. to the group. N.W.A's first album, N.W.A. and the Posse, was a party-oriented jam record that largely went ignored upon its 1987 release.
In the following year, the group added MC Ren (born Lorenzo Patterson) and revamped their sound, bringing in many of the noisy, extreme sonic innovations of Public Enemy and adopting a self-consciously violent and dangerous lyrical stance.
Late in 1988, N.W.A delivered Straight Outta Compton, a vicious hardcore record that became an underground hit with virtually no support from radio, the press, or MTV. N.W.A became notorious for their hardcore lyrics, especially those of “Fuck tha Police,” which resulted in the FBI sending a warning letter to Ruthless and its parent company, Priority, suggesting that the group should watch their step.
Most of the group's political threat left with Cube when he departed in late 1989 amid many financial disagreements. A nasty feud between N.W.A and the departed rapper began that would culminate with Cube's “No Vaseline,” an attack on the group's management released on his 1991 Death Certificate album. By the time the song was released, N.W.A, for all intents and purposes, was finished.
In the two years between Cube's departure and the group's dissolution, N.W.A was dominated by Eazy's near-parodic lyrics and Dre's increasingly subtle and complex productions. The group quickly released an EP, 100 Miles and Runnin’, in 1990 before following it up early the next year with Efil4zaggin (“Niggaz 4 Life” spelled backward). Efil4zaggin was teaming with dense, funky soundscapes and ridiculously violent and misogynist lyrics.
Naturally, the lyrics provoked outrage from many critics and conservative watchdogs, but that only increased the group's predominately male, white suburban audience. Even though the group was at the peak of their popularity, Dre began to make efforts to leave the crew, due to conflicting egos and what he perceived as an unfair record deal.
Dre left the group to form Death Row Records with Marion “Suge” Knight, Jr. in early 1992. According to legend, Knight threatened to kill N.W.A's manager Jerry Heller if he refused to let Dre out of his contract. Over the next few years, Dre and Eazy engaged in a highly publicized feud, which included both of the rappers attacking each other on their respective solo albums.
Ren and Yella both released solo albums, which were largely ignored, and Eazy continued to record albums that turned him into a complete self-parody until his tragic death from AIDS in March 1995. Before he died, Dre and Cube both made amends with Eazy. With his first solo album, 1992's The Chronic, Dre established himself as the premier hip-hop producer of the mid-'90s, setting the pace for much of hardcore rap with its elastic bass and deep, rolling grooves.
Gangsta rap established itself as the most popular form of hip-hop during the '90s –– in other words, N.W.A's amoralistic, hedonistic stance temporarily triumphed over the socially conscious, self-award hip-hop of Public Enemy, and it completely rewrote the rules of hip-hop for the ‘90s.
Naughty By NatureHip-Hop Recording Group
Hip-Hop Recording Group
“Yeah, I was a brother on the streets of Compton doing a lot of things most people look down on but it did pay off. Then we started rapping about real stuff that shook up the LAPD and the FBI. But we got our message across big time, and everyone in America started paying attention to the boys in the hood.”
Incendiary Compton rappers who introduced the world to gangsta rap and boasted a now-legendary lineup featuring Dr. Dre and Ice Cube.
Naughty by Nature pulled off the neat trick of landing big, instantly catchy anthems on the pop charts while maintaining their street-level credibility among the hardcore rap faithful; one of the first groups to successfully perform such a balancing act.
The group was formed in East Orange, NJ, in 1986, while all three members –– MCs Treach (born Anthony Criss) and Vinnie (born Vincent Brown), and DJ Kay Gee (born Keir Gist) –– were attending the same high school. Initially called New Style, they began performing at talent shows and were discovered by Queen Latifah a few years later; she signed the group to her management company and helped them land a deal with Tommy Boy Records.
Naughty by Nature's self-titled debut was released in 1991 and produced an inescapable Top Ten hit in “O.P.P.” (which supposedly stood for “other people's property,” though a close listen to the lyrics revealed that the second P represented male or female genitals).
“O.P.P.” made Naughty by Nature crossover stars, yet their ghetto sensibility and gritty street funk (not to mention Treach's nimble rhyming technique) made them popular in the hip-hop underground as well. Treach began a secondary acting career in 1992, appearing in Juice; he would go on to supporting roles in The Meteor Man, Who's the Man?, and Jason's Lyric, among others.
Naughty by Nature repeated their success with the 1993 follow-up album, 19 Naughty III, which produced another ubiquitous crossover smash in the “hey! ho!” chant of “Hip Hop Hooray”; the album hit the Top Five and, like its predecessor, went platinum. 1995's Poverty's Paradise was the group's final album for Tommy Boy; though it didn't spawn any major hits, it went on to win a Grammy for Best Rap Album.
A recording hiatus of several years followed; during that time, Treach pursued his acting career, most notably landing a recurring role on the HBO prison drama Oz; and Kay Gee greatly expanded his outside production work, helming records for Zhané, Aaliyah, Krayzie Bone, and Next, among others.
Even outside of music, the group made headlines; in 1997, both Treach and Vinnie were arrested in Harlem for illegal weapons possession, and, in 1999, Treach married Pepa, of Salt-N-Pepa (a union that would dissolve two years later). Also in 1999, Naughty by Nature finally returned with a new album on Arista, titled 19 Naughty Nine: Nature's Fury.
“Jamboree,” featuring Zhané, was a sizable hit, but though the group looked to be back on track, Kay Gee departed to concentrate full-time on his production career. Treach and Vinnie struck a deal with TVT, and the first Naughty by Nature album as a duo, IIcons, was released in early 2002.
Momentum slowed for the group by the latter half of the 2000's, but in 2011, rumors circulated that Naughty by Nature were working on a comeback album, titled Anthem Inc, which came out on December 13, 2011. It featured brand new material as well as re-recordings of the group's past hits.
In March 2012, following the release of a documentary on fellow New Jersey based hip hop group Sugar Hill Gang, Naughty by Nature performed in Asbury Park, NJ at the Garden State film festival.
The Notorious B.I.G.Hip-Hop Recording Artist
May 21, 1972
March 9, 1997
Hip-Hop Recording Artist
“I'm making music for the people. If y'all love the music, y'all gonna buy the music.”
Biggie Smalls, also known as “The Notorious B.I.G.,” was a revered hip-hop artist and face of East Coast gangsta rap. He was shot and killed on March 9, 1997.
The Notorious B.I.G. was born as Christopher George Latore Wallace on May 21, 1972 in Brooklyn, New York, in the neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. Biggie, or “Biggie Smalls,” as he'd later become known, experienced a rough childhood—at an early age, he was surrounded by drug addicts and dealers.
As a result, by his early teens, Biggie had joined the life that was all around him. “Hustlers were my heroes,” he once said. “Everything happened on the strip I grew up in. It didn't matter where you went, it was all in your face.”
At the age of 17, Biggie was arrested for selling crack, and spent nine months in a North Carolina prison before making bail. As he navigated his young, uncertain life, Biggie started making music. He hooked on with a crew called the “Old Gold Brothers,” and began experimenting on his own.
Around his neighborhood, Biggie Smalls, as he called himself then, began building a reputation as a musician. After a tape of his landed in the hands of Mister Cee, a well-known DJ, Smalls was featured in the hip-hop publication, The Source.
The article was enough to catch the attention of Sean “Puffy” Combs, a young producer at Uptown Entertainment, a New York-based label specializing in hip-hop and rhythm and blues. When Combs split off from Uptown to start his own label, Bad Boy Entertainment, he brought Smalls with him.
Immediately, The Notorious B.I.G., as he now called himself, got to work, appearing on a 1993 remix of Mary J. Blige's single, “Real Love,” and followed it up with a second Blige remix, “What's the 411?” His debut as a solo artist came with the single, “Party and Bullshit,” on the soundtrack to the film, Who's the Man? (1993).
In 1994, The Notorious B.I.G. released his debut album, Ready to Die, which told the story of his life, from drug dealer to rapper. Backed with hits like “Juicy” and “Big Poppa,” the record went platinum and the young hip-hop artist became a full-fledged star. That same year, The Source named the rapper “Best New Artist,” “Best Live Performer” and “Lyricist of the Year.”
As his star power increased, Biggie did his best to share his prestige. He backed the work of several rappers that he'd originally performed with while starting out in Brooklyn, and took to the studio in support of other artists on Sean “Puffy” Combs's label. He also teamed up with such stars as Michael Jackson and R. Kelly. By the close of 1995, Biggie was one of music's best-selling and most sought after performers.
However, success and wealth hardly brought peace to Biggie's life. In the immediate aftermath of Ready to Die's popularity, the rapper found himself in constant fear. In 1994, he told The New York Times that he was disliked for having more money, which came with his fame.
The large rapper–at 6 feet and three inches, and tipping the scales at nearly 400 pounds–said that he jumped whenever the door to his apartment building opened, fearing that someone might want to hurt him.
Biggie's fear led to anxiety, which led to spurts of aggression. In May 1995, he allegedly beat up a man after they got into a dispute over a canceled performance. Later, he took a baseball bat to a group of autograph seekers. His most famous battles, however, occurred with others in the hip-hop industry, most notably with Tupac Shakur, Marion “Suge” Knight and Death Row Records.
The rivalry turned into an East Coast-West Coast feud (with Combs and Biggie representing the East), and the tension escalated in 1994, when Shakur and a member of the Wu-Tang Clan were shot and robbed. The two men survived and Shakur came out blazing, accusing Biggie and Combs of orchestrating the attack. Both vehemently denied the accusation.
Shakur added fuel to the flames with a pointed slam on the East Coast rap world in the single, “Hit ‘Em Up,” in which he claimed to have slept with Biggie's wife, Faith Evans. In September 1996, East Coast-West Coast battle heated up even further, when Shakur was murdered in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas.
Rumors of Biggie's involvement immediately began to make the rounds, and when the rapper was one of the few hip-hop artists not to make an appearance at an anti-violence summit that was held in Harlem a few weeks later, the finger-pointing intensified.
Murder and Speculation
Shakur's death amplified Biggie's fears about his own life, and his concern was tragically validated on March 9, 1997. Biggie, who had just come out of the Soul Train Music Awards, was sitting in an SUV when another vehicle pulled up to his car, opened fire and killed him. Biggie was only 24 years old at the time.
For many fans, the murder was viewed as retaliation for Shakur's murder. Biggie's death shook the music world, prompting fears that the hip-hop world might erupt into a full-fledged war, ending numerous other lives. That didn't happen, fortunately, but Biggie's friends, family and fans never received any answers regarding his death.
Despite years of speculation regarding the identity of the gunman, Biggie's case was never solved. Biggie's family has been outspoken about its disappointment with the handling of the case, going as far as accusing the Los Angeles Police Department of employing rogue officers who were involved in the murder.
In 2002, filmmaker Nick Broomfield released the documentary Biggie and Tupac, which featured a round of interviews with people associated with both men. More recently, in May 2012, former L.A. police detective Greg Kading, who had worked on Biggie's case, told VH1 that he had incriminating evidence against Wardell “Poochie” Fouse, a gang member belonging to the Mob Piru Bloods. Kading, who had quit the LAPD after he was pulled from the case, asserts that the murder will never be solved.
Biggie's death came just as the rapper was about to put out his second album, Life After Death. In the wake of Biggie's killing, the record was a giant hit, selling nearly 700,000 copies in its first week. Two years later, Born Again, an album of unreleased material from Biggie, was released. A third album of extra material, Duets: The Final Chapter, was released in 2005.
Today, Biggie is still one of the music industry's most admired hip-hop artists. Several musicians have paid tribute to Biggie by mentioning him in their songs, and his musical style has been emulated by countless up-and-coming artists. Undoubtedly, Biggie's talent as a writer and rapper will continue to be acknowledged for decades to come.
Patrice O'NealActor, Comedian & Radio Personality
December 7, 1969
November 29, 2011
Actor, Comedian & Radio Personality
“People have tried to corner the market on being offended, corner the market on language and corner the market on opinion. Should I lose my job ‘cause I offended somebody? No, of course not. Your life should never be affected by public opinion.”
In 1969, Patrice O’Neal got his start in a uterus.
He was born in New York City, and 22 years later, he began his comedy career in Boston, Massachusetts where he grew up since he was one year old. Prior to his calling from God to pursue comedy, he held many other jobs that could have been more lucrative.
For instance, sausage cart vendor at Ruggles Street train station, selling flowers out of a bucket on Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester, and at the pinnacle of his earning potential, he sold popcorn and peanuts at the old Boston Garden Arena. In addition to a flourishing popcorn career, O’Neal was also a world-class High School athlete at West Roxbury High School.
Ending his career with 3 letters in varsity football, and a state championship senior year. During this time, an overwhelming amount of Division 3 and community college football scholarship offers poured in. All of which were turned down to attend North Eastern University on a public housing grant. For the next 4 years, Patrice took great measures to trick his mother into believing he was attending classes regularly.
During a cool, clear night in October of 1992, Patrice attended an open mic comedy night at Estelle’s Bar and Grill on Tremont Street where he decided to heckle one of the comics on stage. He challenged O’Neal to perform on stage at the next open mic night. The following week, the universe would change forever.
After conquering the Boston comedy circuit in just under 6 years, Patrice took his comedic gifts to New York City. Once there, Hollywood soon called. O’Neal’s first of many television appearances was on The Apollo Comedy Hour where he performed his now famous Malcolm XXL bit.
From there, he moved on to prestigious appearances on Showtime at the Apollo, Friday Night Videos, and a brief stint as a writer for the WWE. O’Neal had a string of TV guest star appearances on MTV’s Apt 2F, Assy McGee, Ed, Z Rock, Yes Dear, Arrested Development, Chappelle Show and The Office.
O’Neal was a regular on the FOX series The Jury, and he starred in the Comedy Central animated program Shorties Watching Shorties, along with Nick DiPaolo. He supplied the voice of Harold Jenkins on Noggin’s animated program O’Grady High and was featured as Jesus in Denis Leary’s Contest Searchlight.
Patrice made his Def Comedy Jam debut in 2007, but had 3 prior half hour comedy specials with Showtime, Comedy Central, and HBO. He’s had many appearances on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, The Late Show with David Letterman, and The Ellen DeGeneres Show to promote his ground breaking VH1 series Web Junk 20. Additionally, O’Neal is the measure of excellence on the many talking head comment shows littering the airwaves.
O’Neal has also made occasional appearances on various Fox News shows like Hannity and Colmes to discuss issues regarding both race and censorship. But, of all the many television appearances to date, his favorite is Comedy Central’s Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn.
In addition, O’Neal’s movie appearances include Head of State, In the Cut, 25th Hour, Furry Vengeance, and deleted scenes from Scary Movie 4 and When in Rome. With his dominance of television and film, the natural transition to radio was inevitable. O’Neal is a frequent guest on the popular Opie and Anthony radio show, and had his own hit weekly relationship advice program entitled The Black Phillip Show.
Reluctantly, he has made his presence on the internet more available with Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, Patriceoneal.com, Google, and hundreds of Youtube videos, including the under valued greatness of The Patrice O’Neal Show – Coming Soon web series. In 2011, Patrice released his first hour Comedy Central stand-up comedy special “Elephant in the Room”.
On October 19, 2011, O'Neal reported being unable to move his legs. He was rushed to Jersey City Medical Center, and later Englewood Hospital, where doctors performed surgery to remove a blood clot. He lost his ability to speak, and later his ability to move, for a time communicating by eye movements before losing that ability as well. Doctors warned that if he survived, he would likely remain permanently paralyzed and unable to speak.
Initially, the family made efforts to keep news of O'Neal's illness quiet. On October 26, 2011, it was announced to the public on The Opie and Anthony Show that O'Neal had suffered a stroke a week earlier. At 7:00 am on November 29, 2011, he died from complications from his stroke. O'Neal was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes while in his early twenties, and also struggled with weight issues for years. He is survived by his longtime partner (whom he often referred to as his wife) Vondecarlo Brown, mother Georgia, stepdaughter Aymilyon, and sister Zinder.
His funeral was held on December 5, two days before what would have been his 42nd birthday, at Park Avenue Christian Church, in New York City, and was attended by, among others, Chris Rock, Colin Quinn, Nick DiPaolo, Artie Lange, Louis C.K., Jim Norton, Dane Cook, Bill Burr, Wanda Sykes, Opie Hughes, Anthony Cumia, and Kevin Hart.
Jesse OwensProfessional Track & Field Athlete
September 12, 1913
March 31, 1980
Professional Track & Field Athlete
“The battles that count aren't the ones for gold medals. The struggles within yourself––the invisible, inevitable battles inside all of us––that's where it's at.”
American track-and-field athlete Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. His long jump world record stood for 25 years.
Jesse Owens, the son of a sharecropper and grandson of a slave, achieved what no Olympian before him had accomplished. His stunning achievement of four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin has made him the best remembered athlete in Olympic history.
The seventh child of Henry and Emma Alexander Owens was named James Cleveland when he was born in Alabama on September 12, 1913. “J.C.”, as he was called, was nine when the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where his new schoolteacher gave him the name that was to become known around the world. The teacher was told “J.C.” when she asked his name to enter in her roll book, but she thought he said “Jesse”. The name stuck and he would be known as Jesse Owens for the rest of his life.
His promising athletic career began in 1928 in Cleveland, Ohio where he set Junior High School records by clearing 6 feet in the high jump, and leaping 22 feet 11 3/4 inches in the broad jump. During his high school days, he won all of the major track events, including the Ohio state championship three consecutive years. At the National Interscholastic meet in Chicago, during his senior year, he set a new high school world record by running the 100 yard dash in 9.4 seconds to tie the accepted world record, and he created a new high school world record in the 220 yard dash by running the distance in 20.7 seconds.
A week earlier he had set a new world record in the broad jump by jumping 24 feet 11 3/4 inches. Owens' sensational high school track career resulted in him being recruited by dozens of colleges. Owens chose the Ohio State University, even though OSU could not offer a track scholarship at the time.
He worked a number of jobs to support himself and his young wife, Ruth. He worked as a night elevator operator, a waiter, he pumped gas, worked in the library stacks, and served a stint as a page in the Ohio Statehouse, all of this in between practice and record setting on the field in intercollegiate competition.
Jesse gave the world a preview of things to come in Berlin, while at the Big Ten Championships in Ann Arbor on May 25, 1935, he set three world records and tied a fourth, all in a span of about 45 minutes.
Jesse was uncertain as to whether he would be able to participate at all, as he was suffering from a sore back as a result from a fall down a flight of stairs. He convinced his coach to allow him to run the 100–yard dash as a test for his back, and amazingly Jesse recorded an official time of 9.4 seconds, once again tying the world record. Despite the pain, he then went on to participate in three other events, setting a world record in each event. In a span of 45 minutes, Jesse accomplished what many experts still feel is the greatest athletic feat in history… setting 3 world records and tying a fourth in four grueling track and field events.
His success at the 1935 Big Ten Championships gave him the confidence that he was ready to excel at the highest level. Jesse entered the 1936 Olympics, which were held in Nazi Germany amidst the belief by Hitler that the Games would support his belief that the German "Aryan" people were the dominant race. Jesse had different plans, as he became the first American track & field athlete to win four gold medals in a single Olympiad.
This remarkable achievement stood unequaled until the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, when American Carl Lewis matched Jesse's feat. Although others have gone on to win more gold medals than Jesse, he remains the best remembered Olympic athlete because he achieved what no Olympian before or since has accomplished.
During a time of deep-rooted segregation, he not only discredited Hitler's master race theory, but also affirmed that individual excellence, rather than race or national origin, distinguishes one man from another.
Jesse Owens proved in Berlin and thereafter that he was a dreamer who could make the dreams of others come true, a speaker who could make the world listen and a man who held out hope to millions of young people.
Throughout his life, he worked with youths, sharing of himself and the little material wealth that he had. In this way, Jesse Owens was equally the champion on the playground of the poorest neighborhoods as he was on the oval of the Olympic games.
Athletes didn't return from the Olympics to lucrative advertising and product endorsement campaigns in those days, and Owens supported his young family with a variety of jobs. One was of special significance – playground director in Cleveland. It was his first step into a lifetime of working with underprivileged youth, which gave him his greatest satisfaction. After relocating to Chicago, he devoted much of his time to underprivileged youth as a board member and former director of the Chicago Boys' Club.
Owens traveled widely in his post-Olympic days. He was an inspirational speaker, highly sought after to address youth groups, professional organizations, civic meetings, sports banquets, PTAs, church organizations, brotherhood and black history programs, as well as high school and college commencements and ceremonies. He was also a public relations representative and consultant to many corporations, including Atlantic Richfield, Ford and the United States Olympic Committee.
A complete list of the many awards and honors presented to Jesse Owens by groups around the world would fill dozens of pages. In 1976, Jesse was awarded the highest civilian honor in the United States when President Gerald Ford presented him with the Medal of Freedom in front of the members of the U.S. Montreal Olympic team in attendance. In February, 1979, he returned to the White House, where President Carter presented him with the Living Legend Award.
On that occasion, President Carter said this about Jesse:
- “A young man who possibly didn't even realize the superb nature of his own capabilities went to the Olympics and performed in a way that I don't believe has ever been equaled since… and since this superb achievement, he has continued in his own dedicated but modest way to inspire others to reach for greatness.”
Jesse Owens died from complications due to lung cancer on March 31, 1980 in Tucson, Arizona. Although words of sorrow, sympathy and admiration poured in from all over the world, perhaps President Carter said it best when he stated:
- “Perhaps no athlete better symbolized the human struggle against tyranny, poverty and racial bigotry. His personal triumphs as a world-class athlete and record holder were the prelude to a career devoted to helping others. His work with young athletes, as an unofficial ambassador overseas, and a spokesman for freedom are a rich legacy to his fellow Americans.”
Jesse's spirit still lives in his three daughters, Gloria, Marlene, and Beverly, and their work with the Jesse Owens Foundation. The Foundation continues to carry on Jesse's legacy by providing financial assistance, support, and services to young individuals with untapped potential in order to develop their talents, broaden their horizons, and become better citizens. There is no doubt that Jesse would be proud.
Gordon ParksWriter, Photographer, Pianist, Songwriter & Director
November 30, 1912
March 7, 2006
Writer, Photographer, Pianist, Songwriter & Director
“At first I wasn't sure that I had the talent, but I did know I had a fear of failure, and that fear compelled me to fight off anything that might abet it.”
Gordon Parks was a prolific, world-renowned photographer, writer, composer and filmmaker known for his work on projects like Shaft and The Learning Tree.
Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks was born on November 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, Kansas. His father, Jackson Parks, was a vegetable farmer, and the family lived modestly.
Parks faced aggressive discrimination as a child. He attended a segregated elementary school and was not allowed to participate in activities at his high school because of his race. The teachers actively discouraged African-American students from seeking higher education.
After the death of his mother, Sarah, when he was 14, Parks left home. He lived with relatives for a short time before setting off on his own, taking whatever odd jobs he could find.
Parks purchased his first camera at the age of 25 after viewing photographs of migrant workers in a magazine. His early fashion photographs caught the attention of Marva Louis, wife of the boxing champion Joe Louis, who encouraged Parks to move to a larger city. Parks and his wife, Sally, relocated to Chicago in 1940.
Parks began to explore subjects beyond portraits and fashion photographs in Chicago. He became interested in the low-income black neighborhoods of Chicago's South Side. In 1941, Parks won a photography fellowship with the Farm Security Administration (FSA) for his images of the inner city. Parks created some of his most enduring photographs during this fellowship, including “American Gothic, Washington, D.C.,” picturing a member of the FSA cleaning crew in front of an American flag.
After the FSA disbanded, Parks continued to take photographs for the Office of War Information and the Standard Oil Photography Project. He also became a freelance photographer for Vogue. Parks worked for Vogue for a number of years, developing a distinctive style that emphasized the look of models and garments in motion, rather than in static poses.
Relocating to Harlem, Parks continued to document city images and characters while working in the fashion industry. His 1948 photographic essay on a Harlem gang leader won Parks a position as a staff photographer for LIFE magazine, the nation's highest-circulation photographic publication.
Parks held this position for 20 years, producing photographs on subjects including fashion, sports and entertainment as well as poverty and racial segregation. He was also took portraits of African-American leaders, including Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and Muhammad Ali.
Parks launched a writing career during this period, beginning with his 1962 autobiographical novel, The Learning Tree. He would publish a number of books throughout his lifetime, including a memoir, several works of fiction and volumes on photographic technique.
In 1969, Parks became the first African American to direct a major Hollywood movie, the film adaptation of The Learning Tree. He wrote the screenplay and composed the score for the film.
Parks's next film, Shaft, was one of the biggest box-office hits of 1971. Starring Richard Roundtree as detective John Shaft, the movie inspired a genre of films known as blaxploitation. Isaac Hayes won an Academy Award for the movie's theme song.
Parks also directed a 1972 sequel, Shaft's Big Score. His attempt to deviate from the Shaft series, with the 1976 Leadbelly, was unsuccessful. Following this failure, Parks continued to make films for television, but did not return to Hollywood.
Parks was married and divorced three times. He and Sally Alvis married in 1933, divorcing in 1961. Parks remarried in 1962, to Elizabeth Campbell. The couple divorced in 1973, at which time Parks married Genevieve Young.
Young had met Parks in 1962 when she was assigned to be the editor of his book The Learning Tree. They divorced in 1979. Parks was also romantically linked to railroad heiress Gloria Vanderbilt for a period of years. Parks had four children. His oldest son, filmmaker Gordon Parks Jr., died in a 1979 plane crash in Kenya.
The 93-year-old Gordon Parks died of cancer on March 7, 2006, in New York City. He is buried in his hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas. Today, Parks is remembered for his pioneering work in the field of photography, which has been an inspiration to many.
The famed photographer once said, “People in millenniums ahead will know what we were like in the 1930's and the thing that, the important major things that shaped our history at that time. This is as important for historic reasons as any other.”
Melvin Van PeeblesActor, Director, Screenwriter, Playwright, Novelist & Composer
August 21, 1932
Actor, Director, Screenwriter, Playwright, Novelist & Composer
“I make a film like I cook for friends. I hope they like it, but if they don't, I'm prepared to enjoy it all by myself.”
Melvin Van Peebles was a filmmaker and auteur who pioneered the “blaxsploitation” genre of African American action films in the 1970s.
The American filmmaker who wrote, directed, and starred in Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), a groundbreaking film that spearheaded the rush of African American action films known as “blaxploitation” in the 1970s. He also served as the film's composer and editor.
The son of a black Chicago tailor, Melvin attended West Virginia State College, then earned a Bachelor's (BA) at Ohio Wesleyan University (B.A., 1953). Van Peebles traveled extensively in Europe, Mexico, and the United States, working a variety of jobs that included painter (while making a handful of amateur films), postal worker, and a San Francisco cable-car grip, along with a three-year stint in the United States Air Force as a navigator/bombardier. While in Mexico, he attended graduate school in Holland and picked up spare change (and a few overnight jail terms) as an unlicensed street entertainer in Paris.
While still a relatively young man living in Paris, he wrote several English-language novels including La Permission (the story of a star-crossed interracial romance). On the strength of his book, Van Peebles became eligible for admission to the French Cinema Center as a director. Unexpectedly receiving a grant of $70,000, he converted La Permission into his first feature film, The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968). On the strength of this film, Van Peebles was courted by several Hollywood studios, who had no idea he was African American and assumed he was a French auteur.
While few studios in 1968 were willing to take a chance on a black director, Columbia Pictures gave Van Peebles carte blanche to direct a satirical comedy-fantasy on the topic of black-white stereotyping, Watermelon Man (1970), a comedy about racial bigotry. He kept the costs low on this project so that he could invest his salary into a privately financed labor of love, Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song (1970).
Crude and offensive by “establishment” standards, this tale of a black fugitive's one-man vendetta against white authority proved to be an enormous success with African American audiences (it was one of the top box-office earners that year). This film is credited with opening the doors that led to the explosive creation of 1970s blaxploitation films. It also proved that Hollywood had itself a genuine “renaissance man” in Van Peebles; he not only produced, directed, wrote and starred in Sweet Sweetback, but also edited and scored the film.
Having briefly satiated his filmmaking aspirations, Van Peebles turned to Broadway, writing and scoring the 1971 musical Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death. His next theatrical project was 1972's Don't Play Us Cheap, which won first prize at the Belgian Film Festival when a hastily produced movie version was offered in competition.
Since that time, Van Peebles has developed a TV-movie pilot, Just an Old Sweet Song (1977), and has written and acted in a number of movie and TV projects, frequently in collaboration with his actor/director son Mario Van Peebles. As of this writing, Melvin Van Peebles' only movie directorial effort of the past two decades has been the hit-and-miss fantasy Identity Crisis (1990).
He then continued to write, act, compose, and direct for films and television. Later films in which he appeared on include The Hebrew Hammer (2003) and BlacKout (2007). He also wrote the screenplays for Badasssss! (2003) and Confessions of a Ex-Doofus-Itchy Footed Mutha (2008), the latter of which he also directed. In addition to his film career, Van Peebles became involved in commodities trading in the 1980s and was the first African American to hold a seat on the American Stock Exchange.
Melvin Van Peebles is also considered one of the forerunners of rap music. He wrote the musical scores for a number of his films (i.e. The Story of a Three Day Pass, Sweet Sweetback's and The Watermelon Man) and has released several albums that combine rap with jazz and funk.
Sidney PoitierActor & Filmmaker
February 20, 1927
Actor & Filmmaker
“I never had an occasion to question color, therefore, I only saw myself as what I was… a human being.”
Sidney Poitier became the first black Academy Award winner for Best Actor in 1964, receiving the honor for his performance in Lilies of the Field (1963).
Sidney Poitier was born on February 20, 1927, in Miami, Florida. He arrived two and a half months prematurely while his Bahamian parents were on vacation in Miami. As soon as he was strong enough, Poitier left the United States with his parents for the Bahamas. There Poitier spent his early years on his father's tomato farm on Cat Island. After the farm failed, the family moved to Nassau when Poitier was around the age of 10.
In Nassau, Poitier seemed to have a knack for getting himself into trouble. His father decided to send the teenager to the United States for his own good. Poitier went to live with a brother when he was in his mid-teens. In New York City, he first worked menial jobs, such as dishwashing, to support himself before he found his life's passion.
Poitier made a deal with the American Negro Theater in New York City to receive acting lessons in exchange for working as a janitor for the theater. He eventually made his way to the ANT stage, filling in for Harry Belafonte in their production of Days of Our Youth.
In 1946, Poitier appeared in a Broadway production of Lysistrata to great acclaim. For years, Poitier worked as a stage actor. He made his Hollywood debut in 1950 in No Way Out. He also appeared in Cry, the Beloved Country, a drama set in South Africa during the time of apatheid.
Cast mainly in supporting roles, Poitier had a career breakthrough with Blackboard Jungle (1955). He scored his first Academy Award nomination for the 1958 crime drama The Defiant Ones with Tony Curtis. The following year, Poitier lit up the screen as a leading man in the musical Porgy and Bess, co-starring with Dorothy Dandridge. This film and his impressive turn in 1961's A Raisin in the Sun helped make a top star.
In 1964, Poitier won an Academy Award (best actor) for his performance in Lilies of the Field (1963)–marking the first Oscar win by an African-American actor. This accolade helped make Poitier cinema's first Caribbean-American superstar, one who consciously defied racial stereotyping.
Handsome and unassuming, Poitier brought dignity to the portrayal of noble and intelligent characters. In 1967, he gave two very different yet equally strong performances. He played Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs in the Southern crime drama In the Heat of the Night, and in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, he played a black man engaged to a white woman in this groundbreaking look at interracial marriage. Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy play his fiancée's parents in the film.
While he helped break down the color barrier in film, Poitier found himself under fire for not being more politically radical in the late 1960s. He was especially upset by a harsh article about him in The New York Times and decided to step out of the spotlight for a time. Poitier lived in the Bahamas before making his return to Hollywood.
Poitier teamed up with friend Harry Belafonte for the western Buck and the Preacher (1972), which also marked Poitier's directorial debut. The pair appeared in the comedy Uptown Saturday Night with Bill Cosby in 1974. In 1980, Poitier directed the successful Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder comedy Stir Crazy.
After roughly 10-year absence from the big screen as an actor, Poitier returned with a pair of dramas in 1988–Shoot to Kill and Little Nikita. Other notable later films include Sneakers (1992), and One Man, One Vote (1997).
On the small screen, Poitier earned accolades for portraying some of history's famous men. He played U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in Separate but Equal in 1991 and South African leader Nelson Mandela in Mandela and De Klerk in 1997.
Retired from acting, Poitier has turned his attention to sharing his many personal experiences. He penned The Measure of a Man, which was billed as a spiritual autobiography and published in 2000. That same year, Poitier picked up a Grammy Award for best spoken word album for the audio version of the book. He shared his years of wisdom for future generations with 2008's Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter.
Poitier has received numerous honors during his legendary career. In 2009, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. Poitier was also feted by the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 2011, earning the organization's Chaplin Lifetime Achievement Award.
Poitier was married to Juanita Hardy from 1950 to 1965, and together they had four children: Beverly Poitier-Henderson, Pamela Poitier, Sherri Poitier and Gina Poitier. He is currently married to Canadian-born actress Joanna Shimkus, and they have two children, Anika Poitier and Sydney Tamiia Poitier.
Poitier was appointed a Knight Commander of the British Empire in 1974, which entitles him to use the title “sir,” though he chooses not to do so. He has also served as non-resident Bahamian ambassador to Japan and to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
PrinceSinger, Music Producer & Songwriter
June 7, 1958
Singer, Music Producer & Songwriter
“The key to longevity is to learn every aspect of music that you can.”
American musician Prince achieved wide fame in the 1980s with 1999 and Purple Rain, the latter album sharing a title with a film starring the musician.
Prince arrived on the scene in the late Seventies, and it didn’t take long for him to upend the music world with his startling music and arresting demeanor. He rewrote the rulebook, forging a synthesis of black funk and white rock that served as a blueprint for cutting-edge music in the Eighties.
Prince made dance music that rocked and rock music that had a bristling, funky backbone. From the beginning, Prince and his music were androgynous, sly, sexy and provocative. His colorful image and revolutionary music made Prince a figure comparable in paradigm-shifting impact to Little Richard, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and George Clinton. While 1999, Purple Rain and Sign ‘O’ the Times remain Prince’s best-known albums, the artist’s deep discography is full of funky treasure.
To understand Prince, one must appreciate the extent of his musical obsession. He has always been a willing servant of his tireless muse. “There’s not a person around who can stay awake as long as I can,” he claimed in a 1985 interview. “Music is what keeps me awake.” Because he is a workaholic, it’s difficult to keep track of all he’s recorded for himself and others in his orbit. There are reputedly hundreds of unreleased songs in Prince’s vault. In 1998, he unveiled some of these leftovers on the five-CD set, Crystal Ball. That leviathan followed Emancipation (1996), a three-disc set of new material.
The single discs Chaos and Disorder (1996) and Newpower Soul (1998) also came out during the same time frame. That’s 10 CDs’ worth of music in a three-year period – much more material than most artists manage in a lifetime – and it doesn’t even include albums by Chaka Khan (Come 2 My House) and Graham Central Station (GCS 2000) on which Prince played a major role. Given such prolific output, it doesn’t take long to realize that Prince isn’t just a musician but a force of nature.
One must also accept the fact that Prince is a genuine American eccentric who defiantly marches to the beat of his own funky drummer. Consider that in 1993 he changed his name from Prince to an unpronounceable cipher: a hybrid of the symbols for male and female. He was thereafter referred to (at his own suggestion) as “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince” or simply “The Artist.”
“I follow what God tells me to do,” Prince explained. “It said, ‘Change your name,’ and I changed my name to a symbol ready for Internet use before I knew anything about the Internet.” In May 2000, he went back to being Prince. Although his motivations may sometimes seem mysterious, Prince is never uninteresting and always capable one more hit record or a return to stardom.
Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day, Batman, and Diamonds and Pearls have sold more than 2 million copies apiece. Purple Rain alone sold 13 million copies and topped the album charts for nearly half a year at the height of Prince’s reign in the mid-Eighties. As Rolling Stone contended in 1989, “Perhaps more than any other artist, Prince called the tune for pop music in the Eighties, imprinting his Minneapolis sound on an entire generation of musicians both black and white.”
Prince Rogers Nelson was born and raised in Minneapolis. He was named after his jazz musician father. The product of a broken home, Prince found refuge in music. By his early teens he’d mastered multiple instruments and was fronting his first band, Grand Central. A demo tape by the young prodigy resulted in major-label interest, and an 18-year-old Prince signed to Warner Bros., insisting on the right to self-produce. His first two albums, For You (1978) and Prince (1979), unveiled a budding genius and one-man band.
For You included “Soft and Wet,” an early glimpse at Prince’s uncensored sexuality, while the latter produced Prince’s first hit, “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” Interest in the youthful rising star was further kindled by Dirty Mind (1980), a provocative and sinuously funky album that appeared like a directional marker at the start of the Eighties. The jittery, New Wavish “When You Were Mine” became a club hit, yet Dirty Mind largely proved too hot to handle for radio. Still, the rising buzz about Prince continued when he opened for the Rolling Stones on their 1980–81 tour. Prince’s fourth album, Controversy (1981), was highlighted by the pulsing title track.
Prince’s breakthrough was 1999 (1982), a self-produced double album made at his home studio. He’d toned down, if not entirely tamed, the hardcore sexuality, and the longish, danceable tracks appealed to disco and New Wave fans alike. Whereas many saw divisions in the culture – in terms of everything from musical preferences to skin color – Prince forged a party-minded unity around the various audiences’ shared interests in “dance, music, sex, romance.” Those were the priorities outlined in “D.M.S.R.,” one of 1999’s key tracks.
The album launched three major singles: “Little Red Corvette”, “1999” and “Delirious.” As Kurt Loder wrote, “ marked the point at which Prince’s seamless fusion of white rock and roll and black dance-funk became commercially undeniable.” The way had been paved the way for Prince’s stratospheric ascent with the album and movie Purple Rain.
One of the defining releases of the Eighties – along with Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. – Purple Rain (1984) elevated Prince from cult hero to superstar. The movie, loosely based on Prince’s life story, was set in Minneapolis and his real-life hangout, the First Avenue & 7th Street Entry Club. Prince wrote the treatment and played the lead role of “The Kid.”
The film included electrifying performances by Prince and the Revolution – his racially and sexually integrated band, which included guitarist Wendy Melvoin, keyboardists Matt Fink and Lisa Coleman, bassist Brown Mark and drummer Bobby Z. Purple Rain also showcased other acts under his umbrella, most notably The Time, who were fronted by Prince’s extroverted foil, Morris Day.
The film grossed $80 million and the album, which won Prince an Oscar for Best Soundtrack, rained hits for a year: “When Doves Cry”, “Let’s Go Crazy”, “Purple Rain”, “I Would Die 4 U” and “Take Me With You.” Even Prince’s non-LP B sides from the period, such as “17 Days” and “Erotic City,” achieved a certain popularity.
For any other artist Purple Rain would have been a hard act to follow, but Prince already had another album, Around the World in a Day, in the can. A tour de force of psychedelic soul released in 1985, it became his second consecutive Number One album and the first to appear on his own Paisley Park label (a Warner Bros. subsidiary).
With Prince-mania in full effect, the album generated two more Top 10 hits: “Raspberry Beret” and “Pop Life.” Even a bad film, Under the Cherry Moon – Prince’s first real miscue – couldn’t halt his momentum, as the accompanying soundtrack, Parade (1986), included the classic “Kiss,” his third Number One single.
Prince hit an artistic peak with Sign ‘O’ the Times (1987), his first album since 1999 not to be co-credited to the Revolution. A double album that was trimmed down from an intended triple, Sign ‘O’ the Times was Prince’s most musically expansive and lyrically incisive album.
On the sobering “Sign ‘O’ the Times”, Prince enumerated a catalog of social ills (AIDS, crack, gang violence) over a skeletal funk track. Other hits from the album included “U Got the Look”, a duet with Sheena Easton, and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man.” Paisley Park – a 65,000-square-foot multimedia production facility, with three studios and a soundstage – opened for business that same year.
Around this time Prince talked of dueling identities within himself, conjuring characters that represented his good side (“Camille”) and dark side (“Spooky Electric”). The latter had its say on The Black Album, a controversial, hardcore set that was aborted shortly before its intended release. In its place came Lovesexy (1988), which contained the terrific “Alphabet St.”
Commercially, Prince found himself back on top in 1989 with his soundtrack to the first Batman movie. Prince’s dense, tangled funk meshed with film producer Tim Burton’s dark, gothic vision, and his Batman album and “Batdance” single both shot to the top of the charts. A year later, Prince made another of his own movies, Graffiti Bridge.
Although it was panned, the double-album soundtrack – with performances by Prince, a reunited Time, Mavis Staples and Tevin Campbell – was compelling, particularly the impassioned “Thieves in the Temple.”
In the early Nineties, Prince assembled a backing band, the New Power Generation. They debuted on Diamonds and Pearls (1991), Prince’s most accessible and hit-filled album since Purple Rain. Everything about it was elaborately conceived, including the holographic cover.
The album returned Prince to radio with a string of funky, upbeat hits: “Gett Off”, “Cream”, “Diamonds and Pearls” and “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night.” It would turn out to be Prince’s biggest album of the Nineties. It was followed in 1992 by an album that marked the first appearance of the symbol that Prince would formally adopt a year later as his name.
Ironically, the disc whose title was a symbol – and therefore referred to as The Love Symbol Album – opened with a song called “My Name Is Prince.” The numerology-minded “7” peaked at Number Seven, but Prince’s most infectious funk workout, “Sexy MF,” proved too profane for radio.
Still, Prince seemed to be on a roll. In August 1992, he signed a contract extension with Warner Bros. for six more albums (at $10 million apiece), and he acquired the title of vice-president with the label. By mid-decade, however, relations would sour as he began appearing in public with the word “SLAVE” scrawled on his face while agitating to get off the label.
In 1993, Prince’s greatest hits were released in two volumes – The Hits 1 and The Hits 2 – and as a deluxe package that appended a third disc, The B-Sides. All three configurations went platinum, though the three-pack charted highest.
The artist’s final album as Prince, Come, appeared in 1994, as did (for a limited time) the long-shelved Black Album. That same year, Prince launched an independent label, NPG Records, with a various-artists compilation, 1-800-NEW-FUNK. His next single – “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World”, which also appeared on NPG – marked a return to hitmaking form.
Meanwhile, relations with Warner Bros., to which he was still contracted, were deteriorating badly. The release of The Gold Experience (1995), which contained “I Hate U”, was delayed while he squabbled with the label. Disenchanted with what he saw as an unfairly one-sided relationship between label and artist that rendered the latter a “slave,” Prince was let out of his contract with Warner Bros. in 1996.
His last album of new music for the label was Chaos and Disorder (1996). “The problems I had with so-called majors,” he later said, “were regarding ownership and long-term contracts.” Liberated from such concerns, he quickly resumed his prolific ways. Emancipation (1996), a three-disc set, attested to the artist’s creative explosion after being granted contractual freedom.
Subsequent releases have included Newpower Soul (1998), an earthy album credited to New Power Generation; 1999: The New Master, a re-recording of “1999,” plus six remixes; and Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999), the most visible of Prince’s later discs.
Distributed through a special arrangement with Arista Records, Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic gave Prince the best of both worlds: artistic ownership of his work and major-label distribution. The album was notable for its production credit: Prince, which marked the first time he’d reverted to his old name (and not the unpronounceable symbol) in six years.
It was followed by a series of releases that were largely marketed via Prince’s website, including The Rainbow Children (2001), a mystical and spiritually themed suite, and One Nite Alone… Live (2002), a three-disc box set. NEWS (2003), an album of lengthy, jazz-funk instrumentals, garnered a Grammy nomination for the ever-resourceful artist known formerly and forever as Prince.
Richard PryorActor, Comedian & Screenwriter
December 1, 1940
December 10, 2005
Actor, Comedian & Screenwriter
“I believe the ability to think is blessed. If you can think about a situation, you can deal with it. The big struggle is to keep your head clear enough to think.”
Richard Pryor was a groundbreaking African-American comedian and one of the top entertainers of the 1970s and '80s.
Born on December 1, 1940, in Peoria, Illinois. A skilled social satirist with a fondness for profanity, Richard Pryor was a groundbreaking African-American comedian who became one of the top entertainers of the 1970s and ‘80s. He got a rough start in life. His mother reportedly worked as a prostitute and his father was a bartender and boxer who served in the military during World War II. His parents married when he was three years old, but the union did not last.
For much of his youth, Pryor was left in his grandmother's care and lived in the brothel she ran. He also experienced sexual abuse as a child, according to his official website. To step away from the grim reality of his life, Pryor found solace in going to the movies.
At school, Pryor played the part of the class clown. He went on to discover acting in his early teens. A natural performer, Pryor was cast in a production of Rumplestiltskin by Juliette Whittaker, the director of a local community center. She believed in his talent and encouraged him throughout the years.
At the age of 14, Pryor was expelled from school and ended up working a string of jobs until he joined the military in 1958. He served in the army for only two years–he was discharged for fighting with another soldier.
Early Comedy Career
Upon his return home, Pryor married Patricia Price in 1960. The couple had one child together before divorcing. After ending his marriage, Pryor pursued a career as an entertainer. He found work as a comic throughout the Midwest, playing African American clubs in such cities as East St. Louis and Pittsburgh.
In 1963, Pryor moved to New York City. The following year, he made his television debut on the variety show On Broadway Tonight. More guest appearances followed on such shows as The Merv Griffin Show and the Ed Sullivan Show. At the time, his act was modeled after two African American comedians he admired, Bill Cosby and Dick Gregory.
By the late 1960s, Pryor had landed a few small parts on the big screen, appearing in The Busy Body (1967) and Wild in the Streets (1968). He also released his first self-titled comedy album around this time. Pryor even gave marriage another try–he wed Shelly Bonus in 1967. (The couple had one child together–a daughter named Elizabeth–before divorcing in 1969.)
Pryor toured extensively, doing his stand-up act. Playing Las Vegas, he served as Bobby Darin's opening act at the Flamingo Hotel for a time. He reached an interesting career turning point while playing at the Aladdin in the late 1960s. Tired of the constraints and limitations on his material, Pryor walked off stage and took a break from stand up. He retreated to Berkeley, California, where he met a variety of counterculture figures, including Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton.
In the early 1970s, Pryor scored several successes as an actor and comedian. He earned positive reviews for his supporting role in the Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues (1972) starring Diana Ross. In 1973, he netted his first Emmy Award nomination (outstanding writing achievement in comedy, variety) for his work on The Lily Tomlin Show.
The following year, Pryor took home his first Emmy (best writing in comedy, variety) for another collaboration with Lily Tomlin: the comedy special Lily (1973). Pryor also wrote for such shows as The Flip Wilson Show and Sanford and Son, which starred comedian Redd Foxx.
Continuing to thrive professionally, Pryor worked with Mel Brooks on the screenplay for western spoof Blazin' Saddles (1974). His own work was also attracting a lot of attention. Despite its X-rated content, his third comedy album sold extremely well and the Grammy Award for Best Comedy Recording in 1974–a feat that he repeated over the next two years.
Comedy fans–of all racial backgrounds–were captivated by Pryor's comedy, which consisted of situational and character-driven humor–not straightforward jokes. He poked fun at the white establishment and explored the racial divide. In one bit, Pryor describes how differently the horror film The Exorcist would have been if it had featured an African American family instead of a white one. Another routine about Muhammad Ali covered how white people never gave Ali enough credit as a fighter.
By the late 1970s, Pryor had a thriving career as an actor. He starred in the box office hit Silver Streak (1976) with Gene Wilder and Jill Clayburgh. Pryor went on to play the first African American stock car racing champion in Greased Lightning (1977) with Beau Bridges and Pam Grier. He and Grier were involved off-screen for a while before Pryor married his third wife, Deboragh McGuire, in 1977. (They separated after a short while and officially divorced in 1979.)
Troubled Personal Life
Off screen and off stage, Pryor had a long history of substance abuse and stormy relationships. In 1978, Pryor had another run-in with the law after he shot his estranged wife's car. He was on put on probation, fined, and ordered to get psychiatric treatment and make restitution. Four years earlier, Pryor had gotten into legal trouble for failing to file tax returns from 1967 to 1970. He received a fine and probation.
His health began to suffer. He had his first heart attack in 1978. After this health crisis, Pryor started work on what has been considered by many critics to be his finest performance. The film Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (1979) garnered a lot of praise and sold out at many urban movie theaters. That same year, Pryor traveled to Kenya and after that visit he announced that he would no longer be using the n-word in his act.
Pryor reteamed with Gene Wilder for the popular crime comedy Stir Crazy (1980), which was directed by Sidney Poitier. The film was a huge hit at the box office, earning more than $100 million.
His drug use spiraled out of control the following year. In June 1980, after several days of freebasing cocaine, he lit himself on fire in a suicide attempt. It was initially reported as an accident, but he later admitted in his autobiography that he had done it on purpose in a drug haze. He had third-degree burns on more than 50 percent of his body. Reflective of his comic style, Pryor found the humor in his own suffering. “You know something I noticed? When you run down the street on fire, people will move out of your way.”
After a lengthy recovery, Pryor returned to stand up and acting. He won two more Grammy Awards for Best Comedy Recording–one for Rev. Du Rite in 1981 and one for Live on the Sunset Strip in 1982. Live on the Sunset Strip was also released as a concert film that same year. He also starred in several films, including Some Kind of Hero (1982) with Margo Kidder and The Toy (1982) with Jackie Gleason. Marrying for the fourth time, Pryor wed Jennifer Lee in 1981, but the couple divorced the following year.
In 1983, Pryor became one of the highest-paid African American actors at the time. He took home $4 million to play an evil henchman in Superman III–reportedly earning more than the film's star Christopher Reeve. He drew from his own life experience for another important project from this era–Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling (1986).
In the autobiographical film, he played a popular stand-up comic who takes a look at his life while recuperating in a hospital after suffering serious burns in a drug-related incident. Around this time, Pryor was briefly married to actress Flynn BeLaine. (The couple made another short-lived attempt at marriage in the early 1990s, as well.)
The following year, Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease that affects the central nervous system. He did the best he could to not let the degenerative illness slow him down, starring in several movies, including Critical Condition (1987), See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) with Gene Wilder, and Harlem Nights (1989) with Eddie Murphy and Redd Foxx. By the early 1990s, however, once kinetic Pryor was confined to a wheelchair. Still he kept performing stand-up and acting.
He wrote his autobiography, Pryor Convictions: And Other Life Sentences (1995) with Todd Gold, which earned critical acclaim. That same year, he appeared in an episode of the medical drama Chicago Hope with his daughter Rain as a man with multiple sclerosis. His last film appearance was in David Lynch's Lost Highway (1997).
Pryor became the first person to receive the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor from the Kennedy Center in 1998. He said at the time, “I am proud that, like Mark Twain, I have been able to use humor to lessen people's hatred.”
In 2001, Pryor remarried Jennifer Lee. He spent his final years with her at his California home. Outside of performing, Pryor was an advocate for animal rights and opposed animal testing. He established Pryor's Planet, a charity for animals.
On December 10, 2005, Pryor died of a heart attack at a Los Angeles area hospital. He paved the way for such comedians as Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, and countless others. “Pryor started it all. He made the blueprint for the progressive thinking of black comedians, unlocking that irreverent style,” comedian and filmmaker Keenen Ivory Wayans explained to The New York Times.
Public EnemyHip-Hop Recording Group
Hip-Hop Recording Group
“Music and art and culture is escapism, and escapism sometimes is healthy for people to get away from reality. The problem is when they stay there.”
– Chuck D
Public Enemy is an American hip hop group consisting of Chuck D, Flavor Flav, DJ Lord, The S1W group, Khari Wynn and Professor Griff.
In the late Eighties, Public Enemy introduced a hard, intense, hip-hop sound that changed the sound of hip-hop. PE's inventive production team, the Bomb Squad, tailored a unique, noisy, layered avant-garde-inspired sound that incorporated sirens, skittering turntable scratches, and cleverly juxtaposed musical and spoken samples. The group features two vocalists with wildly different styles: Lead rapper Chuck D, who delivers anti-establishment rhymes in a booming, authoritarian voice, and his sidekick/jester, Flavor Flav, who broke in with taunts, teases, and questions.
The members of Public Enemy came together at Adelphi University on Long Island, where Carlton Ridenhour studied graphic design and worked at student radio station WBAU. There he met Hank Shocklee (future brainchild of the Bomb Squad) and Bill Stephney (future Def Jam executive), and the trio became fast friends, talking philosophy, politics, and hip-hop late into the night. After rapping over a track Shocklee had created, “Public Enemy No. 1,” Ridenhour started appearing regularly on Stephney's radio show as Chuckie D. Def Jam cofounder Rick Rubin heard a tape of the rap and started calling Ridenhour.
At first the rapper shunned Rubin, feeling he was too old to begin a career as an entertainer. But he eventually came up with an elaborate plan that involved Shocklee as producer, Stephney as marketer, and DJ Norman Rogers on the turntables. He recruited his Nation of Islam cohort Richard Griffin to, as Professor Griff, coordinate the group's backup dancers, the Security of the First World (S1W), whose members carried fake Uzis and did stiff, martial-arts moves as a parody of Motown-era dancers. Ridenhour enlisted old friend William Drayton, who, as Flavor Flav, would act as a foil to Chuck D's more sober character.
Calling themselves “prophets of rage,” Public Enemy released their debut album, Yo!, Bum Rush the Show, in 1987. A more sophisticated version of early East Coast gangsta rappers like Boogie Down Productions or Schoolly D, the group at first went nearly unnoticed except by hip-hop insiders and New York critics. The second album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, took the pop world by storm.
Reaching Number 42, it was immediately hailed as hip-hop's masterpiece and eventually sold a million copies. Nation contained the minor hit “Bring the Noise”, which foreshadowed Public Enemy's knack for controversy, with Chuck D calling Black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan a prophet. Having referred to rap as “CNN for black culture,” he castigates white-controlled media in “Don't Believe the Hype.”
In May 1989, just after the group released “Fight the Power”, the theme song for Spike Lee's film Do the Right Thing, Professor Griff, who had previously made racist comments onstage, dropped a verbal bomb. In an interview with the Washington Times, he said Jews are responsible for “the majority of wickedness that goes on across the globe.” Public Enemy leader Chuck D responded indecisively, first firing Griff, then reinstating him, then temporarily disbanding the group.
When Griff then attacked his band mates in another interview, he was dismissed permanently. Chuck D responded to the fiasco by writing “Welcome to the Terrordome”, a ferociously noisy track in which the rapper asserts, “they got me like Jesus.” That lyric fanned the coals of controversy yet again, with Chuck D himself being branded an anti-Semite.
Public Enemy followed with its first Top 10 album, Fear of a Black Planet, which explored the nature of white racism in songs like “Burn Hollywood Burn” and “911 Is a Joke”, and called on African-Americans to unite in “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” and “War at 33 1/3.” By the end of 1990, DJ Terminator X had left for a solo career, followed by the exits of Bomb Squad members Shocklee and Stephney.
But Public Enemy's momentum only accelerated. Upon its release in 1991, Apocalypse 91 shot to Number Four, spawning the hits “Can't Truss It” and “Shut Em Down.” Greatest Misses reached Number 13 in 1992 and was criticized for its unexciting remixes. The same year, Public Enemy teamed up with thrash-metal band Anthrax for a successful update of “Bring the Noise” and a joint tour. They also opened for U2's Zoo TV Tour.
Public Enemy returned in 1994 with Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age, which included lyrics critical of the fast-rising gangsta-rap genre and its frequent glorification of violence, drugs, and money. But, like those of other older rap artists, the album debuted fairly high on the chart only to quickly fall in sales.
Beginning in 1991, Flavor Flav had some run-ins with the law. That year, he was convicted of assaulting his girlfriend and served a 20-day jail sentence. In 1993, he was charged with attempted murder when he allegedly shot at a neighbor in a domestic squabble; he chose to undergo drug rehabilitation, and the charges were dropped.
By 1996, Chuck D founded the Sony-supported Slam Jamz rap label, created the Rapp Style clothing company, and released his first solo album, The Autobiography of Mistachuck. The following year he published a book, Fight the Power: Rap, Race and Reality, and soon reconvened the original lineup of Public Enemy to record the soundtrack album to Lee's 1998 film He Got Game.
The project brought the group renewed visibility: The album reached Number 26, while the title track hit Number 78 on the R&B singles chart and won regular rotation on MTV. Chuck D closed the –90s as a typically outspoken champion of Internet distribution of music, even making Public Enemy's 1999 album There's a Poison Goin' On available first as a low-cost download.
During the 2000s, PE members stayed visible, with Chuck D lecturing on the college circuit and hosting a talk radio show and Flava Flav becoming a reality TV superstar with Flavor of Love. The group found time to put out four studio albums; none sold well but each was strong in its own way – especially Rebirth of a Nation, a collaboration with producer-rapper Paris, whose hammering beats sound straight out of 1990, and How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul?, which featured a heavier, more expansive sound.
Queen LatifahSinger, Songwriter, Hip-Hop Recording Artist, Actress, Model, Comedian & Talk Show Host
March 18, 1970
Singer, Songwriter, Hip-Hop Recording Artist, Actress, Model, Comedian & Talk Show Host
“When I was around 18, I looked in the mirror and said, ‘You're either going to love yourself or hate yourself.’ And I decided to love myself. That changed a lot of things.”
Queen Latifah is an American rapper, record producer and actress known for her roles in the films Set it Off, Bone Collector, Last Holiday and Chicago.
Queen Latifah was born Dana Elaine Owens on March 18, 1970, in Newark, New Jersey. The second child of Lance and Rita Owens, Latifah is best known for her social politics, acting skills and gift for rhyme. When she was 8 years old, a Muslim cousin gave her the nickname Latifah, meaning “delicate and sensitive” in Arabic.
Latifah began singing in the choir of Shiloh Baptist Church in Bloomfield, New Jersey, and had her first public performance when she sang a version of “Home” as one of the two Dorothys in a production of The Wizard of Oz at St. Anne's parochial school.
In her first year of high school, Latifah began informal singing and rapping in the restrooms and locker rooms. In her junior year, she formed a rap group, Ladies Fresh, with her friends Tangy B and Landy D in response to the formation of another young women's group. Soon the group was making appearances wherever they could. Latifah's mother was a catalyst; she was in touch with the students and the music.
She invited Mark James, a local disc jockey known as D.J. Mark the 45 King, to appear at a school dance. The basement of James's parents' house in East Orange, which was equipped with electronic and recording equipment, became the hangout of Latifah and her friends. They began to call themselves “Flavor Unit.”
James was beginning a career as a producer and made a demo record of Queen Latifah's rap Princess of the Posse. He gave the demo to the host of Yo! MTV Raps, Fred Braithwaite (professionally known as “Fab 5 Freddy”).
The recording captured the attention of Tommy Boy Music employee Dante Ross, who immediately signed Latifah, and in 1988 issued her first single, “Wrath of My Madness.” The track met with a positive response and afforded her the opportunity to launch a European tour, and to perform at the Harlem's famed Apollo Theater. The next year Latifah released her first album, All Hail to the Queen, which went on to sell more than 1 million copies.
As she began to earn money, Latifah displayed an interest in investment, putting money into a delicatessen and a video store on the ground floor of the apartment in which she was living. She came to realize that she had a knack for business, and realized that there was an opening for her in record production.
In 1991, Latifah organized and became chief executive officer of the Flavor Unit Records and Management Company headquartered in Jersey City, New Jersey. By late 1993, the company had signed 17 rap groups, including the very successful Naughty by Nature. In 1993, Latifah recorded a jazz- and reggae-influenced album titled Black Reign. While the album sold more than 500,000 copies, the single “U.N.I.T.Y.” earned Latifah her first Grammy Award in 1995.
In the 1990s, Latifah branched out into acting. She made her big screen debut in Spike Lee's interracial romance drama Jungle Fever (1991). The following year, Latifah appeared in the crime thriller Juice with Omar Epps and Tupac Shakur. She soon landed a leading role on the small screen, appearing in the sitcom Living Single from 1993 to '98. The comedy, which also starred Kim Coles, Kim Fields and Erika Alexander, proved to be a ground-breaking show. It remains one of the few sitcoms to focus on a group of African-American women.
A talented performer, Latifah continued to tackle both comedic and dramatic parts. She co-starred in 1996's Set It Off with Jada Pinkett Smith and Vivica A. Fox, playing as a lesbian bank robber. Two years later, Latifah teamed up with Holly Hunter and Danny DeVito for the comedy Living Out Loud (1998). She also appeared with Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie in The Bone Collector.
Perhaps Latifah's most acclaimed film role to date came in the 2002 hit musical Chicago, starring Richard Gere, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger. Her portrayal of prison matron Mama Morton gave her a chance to show off both her singing talents and acting skills. For her work in the film, Latifah earned an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress. She lost to Chicago co-star Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Latifah went on to receive strong reviews for 2003's romantic comedy Bringing Down the House co-starring with Steve Martin. The following year, she experienced some disappointment with Taxi, which co-starred Jimmy Fallon. The comedy proved to be a critical and commercial dud. She fared better with Beauty Shop (2005) and her voice-over work in the hit animated film Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006).
In 2007, Queen Latifah again delighted movie-goers with her musical talents. She appeared as Motormouth Maybelle in Hairspray with John Travolta. Her crime caper Mad Money (2008) with Diane Keaton and Katie Holmes received much colder reception. Returning to drama, Latifah gave a strong performance in The Secret Life of Bees (2008).
On the small screen, Latifah has made a number of guest television appearances over the years, including on the shows 30 Rock and Single Ladies. She also co-starred in the 2012 TV remake of Steel Magnolias with Alfre Woodard, Phylicia Rashad and Jill Scott. Latifah branched out in a new direction the following year. She will enter the daytime television market with a new talk show. The Queen Latifah Show will debut in the fall of 2013. The program promises to be a mix of interviews and comedic and musical performances, according to BET.com.
In addition to acting, Queen Latifah serves as a spokesperson for CoverGirl cosmetics. She even has her own line with the company: The Queen Collection.
RakimHip-Hop Recording Artist
January 28, 1968
Hip-Hop Recording Artist
“I'm rated R, my brain contains graphic things, its turns traumatic teens into addicts and fiends, it's like watchin’ a movie through a panoramic screen, which means I can see the whole planet in the scene.”
– ‘The Watcher 2’
Although he never became a household name, Rakim is near-universally acknowledged as one of the greatest MCs –– perhaps the greatest –– of all time within the hip-hop community.
It isn't necessarily the substance of what he says that's helped him win numerous polls among rap fans in the know; the majority of his lyrics concern his own skills and his Islamic faith.
But in terms of how he says it, Rakim is virtually unparalleled. His flow is smooth and liquid, inflected with jazz rhythms and carried off with an effortless cool that makes it sound as though he's not even breaking a sweat. He raised the bar for MC technique higher than it had ever been, helping to pioneer the use of internal rhymes –– i.e., rhymes that occurred in the middle of lines, rather than just at the end.
Where many MCs of the time developed their technique through improvisational battles, Rakim was among the first to demonstrate the possibilities of sitting down and writing intricately crafted lyrics packed with clever word choices and metaphors (of course, he also had the delivery to articulate them).
Even after his innovations were worshipfully absorbed and expanded upon by countless MCs who followed, Rakim's early work still sounds startlingly fresh, and his comeback recordings (beginning in the late '90s) only added to his legend.
Rakim was born William Griffin, Jr. on January 28, 1968, in the Long Island suburb of Wyandanch. The nephew of '50s R&B legend Ruth Brown, Griffin was surrounded by music from day one, and was interested in rap almost from its inception. At age 16, he converted to Islam, adopting the Muslim name Rakim Allah.
In 1985, he met Queens DJ Eric B., whose intricately constructed soundscapes made an excellent match for Rakim's more cerebral presence on the mike. With the release of their debut single, “Eric B. Is President,” in 1986, Eric B. & Rakim became a sensation in the hip-hop community, and their reputation kept growing as they issued classic tracks like “I Ain't No Joke” and “Paid in Full.”
Their first two full-length albums, 1987's Paid in Full and 1988's Follow the Leader, are still regarded as all-time hip-hop classics; Rakim's work set out a blueprint for other, similarly progressive-minded MCs to follow, and helped ensure that even after the rise of other fertile scenes around the country, East Coast rap would maintain a reputation as the center of innovative lyrical technique. The last two Eric B. & Rakim albums, 1990's Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em and 1992's Don't Sweat the Technique, weren't quite as consistent as their predecessors, but still had plenty of fine moments.
Unfortunately, their legacy stopped at four albums. Both Eric B. and Rakim expressed interest in recording solo albums to one another, but the former, fearful of being abandoned by his partner when their contract was up, refused to sign the release.
That led to their breakup in 1992, and Rakim spent a substantial amount of time in the courts, handling the legal fallout between himself, his ex-partner, and their ex-label, MCA. His only solo output for a number of years was the track “Heat It Up,” featured on the 1993 soundtrack to the Mario Van Peebles film Gunmen.
Moreover, a reshuffling at MCA effectively shut down production on Rakim's solo debut, after he'd recorded some preliminary demos. Finally, Rakim got a new contract with Universal, and toward the end of 1997 he released his first solo record, The 18th Letter (early editions contained the bonus disc Book of Life, a fine Eric B. & Rakim retrospective).
Anticipation for The 18th Letter turned out to be surprisingly high, especially for a veteran rapper whose roots extended so far back into hip-hop history; yet thanks to Rakim's legendary reputation, it entered the album charts at number four, and received mostly complimentary reviews. His follow-up, The Master, was released in 1999 and failed to duplicate its predecessor's commercial success, barely debuting in the Top 75.
Moreover, while The Master received positive reviews in some quarters, others seemed disappointed that Rakim's comeback material wasn't reinventing the wheel the way his early work had, and bemoaned the lack of unity among his array of different producers.
Seeking to rectify the latter situation, Rakim signed with Dr. Dre's Aftermath label in 2001, and the two began recording a new album early the next year, to be titled Oh My God. In the meantime, to help heighten anticipation for the summit between two legends, Rakim guested on the single “Addictive” by female R&B singer and Aftermath labelmate Truth Hurts; “Addictive” hit the Top Ten in the summer of 2002, marking the first time Rakim had visited that territory since he and Eric B. appeared on Jody Watley's “Friends” in 1989.
Disagreements between Dre and Ra, however, prevented the album from coming out, though the rapper was able to retain the tracks he had made with the producer. For the next couple of years, Rakim continued to talk about the record, since retitled The Seventh Seal, even going so far as to promise a release on July 7, 2007.
The date came and went however, without any signs of a full length, though, in early 2008, The Archive: Live, Lost & Found, a mostly live album that also contained four new previously unreleased songs, hit shelves. The Seventh Seal finally did arrive a year later on the SMC label.
A. Philip RandolphCivil Rights Activist
April 15, 1889
May 16, 1979
Civil Rights Activist
“A community is democratic only when the humblest and weakest person can enjoy the highest civil, economic and social rights that the biggest and most powerful possess.”
A. Philip Randolph was a labor leader and social activist who fought for the rights of African-American laborers, including better wages and working conditions.
A. Philip Randolph was born Asa Philip Randolph on April 15, 1889, in Crescent City, Florida. He was the second son of James Randolph, a Methodist minister, and his wife, Elizabeth, both of whom were staunch supporters of equal rights for African Americans.
In 1891, the Randolph family moved to Jacksonville, Florida, where Asa would live for most of his youth, and where he would eventually attend the Cookman Institute, one of the first institutions of higher education for blacks in the country.
After graduating from Cookman, in 1911, Randolph moved to the Harlem neighborhood of New York City in the hopes of becoming an actor. During this time, he studied English literature and sociology at City College; held a variety of jobs, including as an elevator operator, a porter and a waiter; and developed his rhetorical skills.
In 1912, Randolph made one of his earliest significant political moves when he founded an employment agency called the Brotherhood of Labor with Chandler Owen–a Columbia University law student who shared Randolph's socialist political views–as a means of organizing black workers. He began his efforts when, while working as a waiter on a coastal steamship, he organized a rally against their impoverished living conditions.
In 1913, Randolph married an intellectual Howard graduate named Lucille Green, and shortly thereafter organized the Shakespearean Society in Harlem. He would play several title roles in subsequent productions by the group. In 1917, during World War I, Randolph and Chandler Owen founded a political magazine, The Messenger, and began publishing articles calling for the inclusion of more blacks in the armed forces and war industry, and demanding higher wages. Randolph also tried to unionize African-American shipyard workers in Virginia and elevator operators in New York City during this time.
After the war ended, Randolph lectured at the Rand School of Social Science. In 1920 and 1922, he unsuccessfully ran for offices in New York State on the Socialist Party ticket. By this time, Randolph had also become more convinced than ever that unions would be the best way for African Americans to improve their lot.
The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters
In 1925, Randolph founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Serving as its president, he sought to gain the union's official inclusion in the American Federation of Labor, the affiliates of which, at that time, frequently barred African Americans from membership.
The BSCP met with resistance primarily from the Pullman Company, which was the largest employer of blacks at that time. But Randolph battled on, and in 1937, won membership in the AFL, making the BSCP the first African-American union in the United States. Randolph withdrew the union from the AFL the following year, however, in protest of ongoing discrimination within the organization, and then turned his attention toward the federal government.
Taking on the Federal Government
During the 1940s, Randolph twice used mass protest as a means of influencing the policies of the federal government. Following the United States' entrance into World War II, he organized the March on Washington to protest discrimination in the war industry workforce.
Randolph called off the march after President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order that banned racial discrimination on government defense factories and established the first Fair Employment Practices Committee.
After World War II, Randolph again took on the federal government by organizing the League for Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Against Military Segregation. That group's actions eventually led President Harry S. Truman to issue a 1948 executive order banning racial segregation in the U.S. Armed Forces.
Fighting for Civil Rights
During the 1950s, Randolph served as a principal member of various labor boards, but also began to devote his time to civil rights work. In 1957, he organized a prayer pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. to draw attention to civil rights issues in the South, and began organizing the first Youth March for Integrated Schools.
In 1963, Randolph was a principal organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, during which he would speak to a crowd of nearly 250,000 supporters. He shared the podium that day with Martin Luther King Jr., who would deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech during the event. Randolph and King were among the handful of civil rights leaders to meet with President John F. Kennedy after the march.
The following year, for these and other civil rights efforts, Randolph was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Soon after, he founded the A. Philip Randolph Institute, an organization aimed at studying the causes of poverty. In 1966, at a White House conference, he proposed a poverty-elimination program called the “Freedom Budget.”
Retirement and Death
Suffering from a heart condition and high blood pressure, Randolph resigned from his more than 40-year tenure as president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1968. He also retired from public life. He then moved from Harlem to New York City's Chelsea neighborhood, and spent the next few years writing his autobiography until his health worsened, forcing him to stop.
A. Philip Randolph died in bed at his New York City home on May 16, 1979, at age 90. He was cremated, and his ashes were interred at the A. Philip Randolph Institute in Washington, D.C.
Faith RinggoldWomen's Rights Activist, Author, Educator, Civil Rights Activist & Painter
October 8, 1930
Women's Rights Activist, Author, Educator, Civil Rights Activist & Painter
“I had something I was trying to say and sometimes the message is an easy transmission and sometimes it's a difficult one but I love the power of saying it so I'm gonna do it whether it's hard or easy.”
Faith Ringgold is an artist who uses different materials to tell the stories that are important to her family and her people. Whether working with quilting squares, African masks, paint and brush, or her own words, Faith gives the rich colors and textures a life of their own. There's motion in her work, a striving upward and pushing at the edges of her world.
Growing up on Sugar Hill
She was raised in 1940s New York City, in an African-American neighborhood called Sugar Hill in Harlem. Her family didn't have a lot of money, but there was enough to feed and clothe Faith, her brother Andrew, and her sister, Barbara––just not a lot for extras. Their mother, Willi Posey Jones, was an excellent seamstress. She sewed stylish clothes for her daughters and eventually made a living as a fashion designer.
Faith had asthma as a little girl which affected her life in several ways. She had to go for regular hospital visits so she missed early schooling. While other kids were spending their time in kindergarten and first grade, Faith was resting at home, learning to love drawing. Because Faith needed a special diet of lean meats and vegetables, the rest of the family ate healthier, too.
She became the class artist in school and was asked in second grade to copy a scene onto a huge mural. In the original picture, George Washington's troops fed some ragged black boys watermelon. When she told her mother about it, Mrs. Jones informed the teacher that black men had fought in the American Revolution, too, and, after all, didn't everybody like watermelon? So, in Faith's mural, some of the boys were white, and some of them were black, but they all enjoyed the watermelon.
Prejudice and racism were everywhere, and Faith certainly didn't escape its effects. Most of her white teachers at public school decided that their black students were shiftless, lazy, and happy-go-lucky. Dr. Bernath, her principal, was an exception. He gave Faith and her best friend special responsibilities, and when they graduated he told the girls to select two books each from his personal library.
Sugar Hill was a hub of the black middle class, and many famous entertainers–Marian Anderson, Duke Ellington, Willie Mays, and Harry Belafonte–made their homes there. All the while that Faith was growing up, her mother would tell her children how they should make contributions to society, and the way to do that was to get a college education.
She went to City College where she studied art. Some of her professors were terrific, but others tried to discourage her from becoming an artist. Yet she persevered. Years later, when she came back to City College to receive an honorary doctorate in fine arts, she decided not to mention her problems there in her speech, but instead gave them some advice:
- “The harder you work, the more talented you will become because your talent can only be defined by you.”
She joined the up-and-coming radical art scene in New York. Once again, she faced prejudice, but this time it was from galleries who refused to give exhibit space to artists who were black or female. She and her group, Women Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation, held sit-ins and other public demonstrations. Many of her paintings from that time showed her anger with society.
Teaching and Learning
For several years in the 1960s and 1970s, Faith Ringgold taught art in the New York City public school system, at Wagner College and Bank Street College of Education. It was challenging work and sometimes discouraging. At college she taught her students African art, specifically art forms that were traditionally done by women: jewelry, clothing, beadwork, and dolls.
She developed her own art in three-dimensional forms: soft sculpture, masks, and story quilts. Faith took her masks and clothing with her on the road, giving performances where she combined her stories of struggle with her art.
Old Art/New Art
Faith and her mother stayed very close through the years. When Faith switched her focus to sewn arts, she and her mother worked side-by-side. In this way they were continuing a family tradition that stretched back through the centuries, for Faith's great-grandmother, Susie Shannon, had sewn quilts when she was a slave.
Stories for Children
Faith Ringgold's story quilts are more than just a collection of bright fabrics in a pretty design. Faith's quilts have something to say for themselves.
Readers are fortunate that several of her quilts have been turned into books. Tar Beach, a remembrance of childhood summer nights spent on rooftops in Harlem, was a Caldecott Honor Book and won the Coretta Scott King Award. Aunt Harriet's Underground Railroad in the Sky brings back the characters Be Be and Cassie from Tar Beach. Their soaring dreams on Tar Beach keep right on going when they hop a ride on Harriet Tubman's Underground Railroad. With Aunt Harriet's guidance, they follow the North Star and experience what it was like to be runaway slaves.
Dinner at Aunt Connie's House was based on a piece called The Dinner Quilt. Young Lonnie and Melody explore Aunt Connie's attic just before dinnertime. They find their aunt's paintings of Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Mary McLeod Bethune, Augusta Savage, Dorothy Dandridge, Zora Neale Hurston, Maria W. Stewart, Bessie Smith, and other famous black women. Each tells a little bit of her story to the children, and those stories become part of the family's traditions.
Jackie RobinsonProfessional Baseball Athlete
January 31, 1919
October 24, 1972
Professional Baseball Athlete
“Life is not a spectator sport. If you're going to spend your whole life in the grandstand just watching what goes on, in my opinion you're wasting your life.”
Jackie Robinson made history in 1947 when he broke baseball’s color barrier to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
A talented player, Robinson won the National League Rookie of the Year award his first season, and helped the Dodgers to the National League championship – the first of his six trips to the World Series. In 1949 Robinson won the league MVP award, and he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. Despite his skill, Robinson faced a barrage of insults and threats because of his race. The courage and grace with which Robinson handled the abuses inspired a generation of African Americans to question the doctrine of “separate but equal” and helped pave the way for the Civil Rights Movement.
When general manager Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers offered Robinson the chance to break organized baseball’s powerful but unwritten color line, the fiery ballplayer not only accepted, he also agreed to Rickey’s condition: that he not respond to the abuse he would face.
Jackie Robinson’s debut in organized baseball is a legend (April 18, 1946, with the Montreal Royals of the International League, the Dodgers’ best farm club). In five at-bats he hit a three-run homer and three singles, stole two bases, and scored four times, twice by forcing the pitcher to balk. Promoted to the Dodgers the following spring, Robinson thrived on the pressure and established himself as the most exciting player in baseball. His playing style combined traditional elements of black sports–the opportunistic risk taking known as “tricky baseball” in the Negro Leagues–with an aggressiveness asserting his right to be at the plate or on the basepaths. According to his manager Leo Durocher, “This guy didn’t just come to play. He come to beat ya.”
In their response to Jackie Robinson, African-Americans rejected “separate but equal” status and embraced integration. Robinson’s presence in baseball electrified them, and they flocked to see the Dodgers in huge numbers and from great distances. African-American sportswriters, many of whom had advocated baseball integration for years, focused their attentions on Robinson and the black players who followed him. His success encouraged the integration of professional football, basketball, and tennis, while the Negro Leagues, which in a sense depended on segregation, began an irreversible decline, losing ballplayers, spectators, and reporters.
During his first two years with the Dodgers, Robinson kept his word to Rickey and endured astonishing abuse amid national scrutiny without fighting back. His dignified courage in the face of virulent racism–from jeers and insults to beanballs, hate mail, and death threats–commanded the admiration of whites as well as blacks and foreshadowed the tactics that the 1960s civil rights movement would develop into the theory and practice of nonviolence.
Robinson, however, finally broke his emotional and political silence in 1949, becoming an outspoken and controversial opponent of racial discrimination. He criticized the slow pace of baseball integration and objected to the Jim Crow practices in the southern states where most clubs conducted spring training. Robinson led other ballplayers in urging baseball to use its economic power to desegregate southern towns, hotels, and ballparks. Because most baseball teams integrated relatively calmly, the “Jackie Robinson experiment” provided an important example of successful desegregation to ambivalent white southern political and business leaders.
Having watched baseball integrate through a combination of individual black achievements, white goodwill, economic persuasion, and public outspokenness, Robinson, when he retired from baseball in 1957, sought to bring the same tactics to bear on increasing African-American employment opportunities.
His lifelong struggle continued to his last public appearance nine days before he died: he told television viewers of an Old-Timers’ Game, “I’d like to live to see a black manager.” Fittingly, his eulogy was delivered by the outstanding advocate of African-American self-help and employment opportunity–the Reverend Jesse Jackson. “When Jackie took the field,” Jackson declared, “something reminded us of our birthright to be free.”
“Sugar” Ray RobinsonProfessional Boxing Athlete
May 3, 1921
April 12, 1989
Professional Boxing Athlete
“To be a champ you have to believe in yourself when no one else will.”
Considered one of the greatest boxers of all time, “Sugar” Ray Robinson held the world welterweight title from 1946 to 1951, and by 1958, he had become the first boxer to win a divisional world championship five times.
“Pound for pound, the best.” The claim has been used to describe many boxers, but it was invented for “Sugar” Ray Robinson. Never mind the weight class. When it came to boxing, Robinson was as good as it got.
Muhammad Ali called Sugar Ray “the king, the master, my idol.” “Robinson could deliver a knockout blow going backward,” boxing historian Bert Sugar said.