Mae Jemison (b. 1956) is a physician, an astronaut, a university professor, an entrepreneur, and an advocate for science education. Dr. Jemison became the first African American woman to fly into space in 1992, aboard the NASA space shuttle Endeavor. Before becoming an astronaut, Jemison used her medical degree in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Recently, Jemison's proposal was chosen by NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the Pentagon to lead the 100-Year Starship Project, to build a foundation that can last 100 years to help foster the research needed for interstellar space travel. Listen to her 2002 TED Talk on teaching arts and sciences together. Learn more about Dr. Mae Jemison at your Milwaukee Public Library.
Kara Walker is a contemporary artist who was born in Stockton, California in 1969. She is best known for her room-size murals made from the traditional Victorian medium of black cut-paper silhouettes. Her work explores themes of race, sexuality, identity, historical stereotypes and the African American experience. In the year 1997, at the age of 28, Walker became the youngest recipient of the prestigious Catharine T. MacArthur Foundation Achievement Award which grants financial freedom to pursue creative endeavors. In 2004, Walker received the Lucelia Artist Award from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which is given to exceptional artists under the age of fifty. Walker’s work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; and Whitney Museum of American Art. Learn more about Kara Walker and her work at your Milwaukee Public Library.
Ella Jane Fitzgerald (1917-1996) was one of the most famous jazz singers in American history. Dubbed “The First Lady of Song”, her wide range and flexible voice made her popular with all audiences. Fitzgerald had her first performance at Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater in 1934. Fitzgerald took first place that night and from then on, entered every competition she could. She achieved fame in 1938 with her hit, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" which sold 1 million copies and stayed on the charts for 17 weeks. During her career, Fitzgerald won 13 Grammy awards and sold over 40 million albums. Due to complications with diabetes, Fitzgerald made her last recording in 1989 and her last public performance in 1991. She died June 15, 1996. Learn more about Ella Fitzgerald at your Milwaukee Public Library.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial commemorates the life and work of the preacher, civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize honoree at the National Mall in Washington, DC. Visitors enter through the Mountain of Despair boulder to see the sculpture of King titled "Stone of Hope" and the Inscription Wall of 14 quotations on the themes of Justice, Democracy, Hope and Love.
The Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity first proposed a national memorial in 1984. Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed a Joint Resolution in 1998 to design and build the memorial. The winning design entry is by the ROMA Design Group and construction at the Tidal Basin started in 2009. It opened on October 16th, 2011. Learn more about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at your Milwaukee Public Library.
Sylvia Robinson (1936-2011) was a mid-level record industry pioneer and former hit singer who became the “godmother of rap.” In the late 1970s she owned several record labels with her husband. After hearing a DJ rap at a party, Robinson recognized the business potential of recording rap music, which until then had been considered only suited for live musical experience. She sought out rap musicians on the streets of Englewood, New Jersey, and brought several of them together to form the Sugar Hill Gang. Robinson recorded them in a live take and the resulting song, “Rapper’s Delight,” was released on Sugar Hill Records and became the world’s first commercial rap single. Robinson quickly signed other rap artists to her new label and released several influential records in the early 1980s, including the “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Check out a music CD to hear “Rapper’s Delight” or “The Message,” or find books on the history of rap music (for adults or children), all available at your Milwaukee Public Library.
Hattie McDaniel (1895-1952) was the very first African American to win an Academy Award, for her performance as Mammy in Gone With the Wind. Hattie’s theatrical career began as a singer and songwriter in minstrel shows that toured cities in the Western United States. Her theatrical successes led to extensive travel on the black entertainment circuit.
On a local note, Hattie was once stuck in Chicago with no job and decided to head for Milwaukee hoping that she might find work as a singer at a local club. She was hired, but only as a ladies room attendant, earning one dollar per week plus tips. However, at the encouragement of patrons who had heard her sing in the ladies room, McDaniel was given the opportunity to sing on the main stage. Her show-stopping performance, singing “St. Louis Blues,” earned her $90.36 in tips, as well as a regular booking, although the club usually hired only white performers. Learn more about Hattie McDaniel at your Milwaukee Public Library.
The Tuskegee Airmen was a name given to a group of African American pilots who served in World War II. Formally, they were the men of the 332nd Fighter group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the U.S. Army Air Corps. At the time, the U.S armed forces were segregated and African Americans were not allowed to fly planes or perform serious missions. It wasn’t until April 3, 1939 that Congress passed a bill designating funds for the training of Black pilots. The pilots flew with distinction doing over 200 missions, destroying over 100 German aircraft, and escorting bombers into enemy territory. The Tuskegee Airmen overcame prejudice and racism to become one of the most highly respected fighter groups in WWII. Their accomplishments paved the way for the full integration of the U.S. Military.
Octavia Butler (1947-2006) was an African American science fiction writer. Butler had been interested in reading and writing from a young age and began submitting her work for publishing at the age of thirteen. She received an associate of arts degree from Pasadena City College and participated in several classes that helped her meet other writers. It was during the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Workshop in 1970 that Butler became immersed in the science fiction genre. In 1971 her first short story was published and her first novel followed five years later. Butler went on to publish ten more novels and several short stories and nonfiction works. She is known for incorporating African American history into the science fiction genre and dealing with African American social issues and the long-lasting repercussions of slavery. Butler has made a lasting contribution to African American literature and science fiction writing. Check out books by Octavia Butler today at your Milwaukee Public Library.
Ralph Bunche (1904-1971) was the highest-ranking American diplomat at the United Nations during its early decades. Bunche is best known for negotiating the 1949 Armistice Agreements that ended the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, for which he was awarded the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize. Bunche considered his own proudest accomplishment to be his 1956 role directing the 6000-man UN Emergency Forces that helped sustain peace for 11 years in Egypt when the Suez crisis seemed on the brink of catastrophic war. Check out a book about Ralph Bunche (for adults or for children) today at your Milwaukee Public Library.
Marie Maynard Daly (1921-2003) was the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry, which she received from Columbia University in 1948. She was known for her research on the chemistry of the cell nucleus. Her work contributed to scientists’ understanding of the underlying causes of heart attacks, discovering that cholesterol was part of the problem that caused blockage of arteries that supply oxygen and nutrition to the heart muscle. Daly also did pioneering work on the effects of cigarette smoke on the functioning of the lungs. Learn more about African American women scientists such as Marie Daly in reference books and online databases available at your Milwaukee Public Library.
The Black Panther Party (also called The Black Panther Party for Self Defense) was an African American revolutionary group founded in Oakland, California by Bobby Seale (1936- ) and Huey P. Newton (1942-1989). The group’s mission was to protect black neighborhoods from police brutality. They also encouraged Blacks to arm themselves and were in favor of armed rebellion if necessary. By the late 1960s, Panther membership surpassed 10,000 and the organization had chapters in several major cities. In the late 1960s, the U.S. government began a campaign to eradicate the party, believing them to have committed terrorist acts. By the late 1960s the Party was plagued with arrests, confrontations and expensive legal battles. The Party eventually fell apart in 1980. Learn more about the Black Panthers at your Milwaukee Public Library.
Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) was an accomplished poet and the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize. She was raised on Chicago's south side and lived there all her life. She began writing poetry at a young age; her first poem was published at the age of 13. Brooks' early writings incorporated different poetic styles but focused on the theme of urban black life. Her later works were more political in nature depending on the events of the times. Besides winning the Pulitzer in 1950 for Annie Allen, she was the recipient of many fellowships and awards including the Guggenheim Fellowship, National Medal of Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecturer. Check out Gwendolyn Brooks' works at your Milwaukee Public Library.
The Negro Theatre Project was established in 1935 as an adjunct to President Roosevelt’s Federal Theatre Project. Twenty three units were established across the country. Best known was the New York unit in Harlem that staged many successful productions, the most sensational being an all-black version of Macbeth set in Haiti (often referred to as the "Voodoo Macbeth.") Of the over 100 cast and crew members only 5 were professionals. This short-lived (1935-1939) project provided much-needed employment and apprenticeships to hundreds of black actors, directors, theatre technicians, and playwrights. It was a major boost for African American theater during the Depression era. Learn more about the history of African American theater at your Milwaukee Public Library.
Johnnetta B. Cole (b. 1936) is the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., where her leadership recently led to her being named on Washington magazine’s “100 Most Powerful Women” in Washington list. A cultural anthropologist, Cole previously had a distinguished career as a college administrator, serving as president of the only two remaining historically black female colleges in the United States: Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, and Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina. In her books Conversations: Straight Talk with America’s Sister President (1993) and Gender Talk: The Struggle for Women’s Equality in African American Communities (2003), Cole discusses some of the problems faced by African American women, such as racism and sexism, as well as ways to deal with those problems. Check out books written or edited by Johnnetta B. Cole or learn more about African Art at your Milwaukee Public Library.
The Freedom Riders were civil rights activists who traveled together on interstate buses to test the Supreme Court Decision Boynton v. Virginia which declared segregation on interstate travel unconstitutional. The first Freedom Ride took place on May 4, 1961. The riders met with unprecedented violence including mob attacks and having their bus firebombed. The group decided not to let violence interrupt their trip. Several more Freedom Rides were done and the public outcry at the violence they faced made President Kennedy take notice. On September 22, 1961, after six months of rides, protests, and arrests, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) finally enforced the desegregation of interstate buses. The Freedom Rider’s bravery and self-sacrifice inspired several other civil rights campaigns. Learn more about the Freedom Riders at your Milwaukee Public Library.
Opera singer Marian Anderson (1897-1993) was one of the most famous contraltos in history. Anderson showed such a talent for singing that her community established a fund to send her to singing lessons. She gave her first concert in 1924 at New York’s Town Hall. From there Anderson traveled to Europe for ten years, singing before the Archbishop of Salzburg and other leading musicians. She returned to the United States in 1935 to critical success. When the Daughter’s of the American Revolution refused to let her sing at Constitution Hall, The Department of the Interior scheduled a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that drew 75,000 people and millions of radio listeners. In 1955, she became the first African American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera House. Anderson received several awards during her life, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom which was presented to her by Lyndon Johnson. Learn more about and listen to Marian Anderson with these materials from your Milwaukee Public Library.
Even though professional baseball was racially segregated for the first half of the 20th century, it didn't start out that way. Before Jackie Robinson, African-American ballplayers such as John W. "Bud" Fowler and Moses Fleetwood Walker played on integrated teams in the late 1800s. Imposed segregation by white team owners in the Major Leagues inspired the creation of all-black teams throughout the country, creating its own pantheon of legendary players such as Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston and Leroy "Satchel" Paige. These teams began to die out after integration of the Major Leagues in 1947, the last few teams finally calling it quits by the early 1960s. The legacy of these teams is honored today by MLB tribute games and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.
Shirley Ann Jackson (b. 1946) is a theoretical physicist whose research has focused on particle physics and condensed matter physics. Jackson was the first African American woman to receive a doctorate from the Massachussetts Institute of Technology, and she was the first woman and the first African American to serve as chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the federal agency that regulates the use of nuclear materials and technology throughout the United States to ensure the protection of public health, safety, and the environment. In 1997, the International Nuclear Regulators Association was formed with Jackson elected as its first chair. Since 1999, she has been president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, the nation’s oldest technological university. Read more about physicist Shirley Ann Jackson at your Milwaukee Public Library!
Victor H. Green created an African-American travel guide titled, The Negro Motorist Green Book: An International Travel Guide to, in his own words, “give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable.” View an online version of the guide from the University of Michigan-Dearborn and the Benson Ford Research Center.
The guide was a response to the Jim Crow laws of the time. Green wrote, “There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment.”The Negro Motorist Green Book: An International Travel Guide was published from 1936 until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
Born in Mississippi the daughter of slaves, Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931) utilized her positions as teacher, journalist, activist and suffragette to fight for racial equality. In 1884 while a school teacher in Memphis, she was forcibly removed from a train after refusing to give up her seat and move to a segregated car. She successfully filed suit against the railroad, although the state Supreme Court later overturned the ruling. As a newspaper editor and journalist, Wells-Barnett publicly condemned lynching and denounced racial discrimination. She integrated the suffrage movement by insisting on marching along side white women instead of behind them. Along with just one other black woman, she signed the petition that led to the formation of the NAACP. Wells-Barnett devoted her life to promoting racial tolerance and equal rights for all. To learn more about Ida B. Wells-Barnett, check out these materials from your Milwaukee Public Library.
In 1913 the Milwaukee Art Institute hosted an exhibition of the paintings of Henry Ossawa Tanner, one of the first internationally acclaimed African American painters. Tanner was born in 1859 into a devoutly Christian home headed by his father who was an African Methodist Episcopal bishop. Religious themes were important to Tanner and he traveled to the Holy Land in 1897 and 1898 and in later years to study and paint. His painting Moonlight, Hebron is owned by the Milwaukee Art Museum. He was known for the beautiful use of light in his paintings and his sensitive and dignified treatment of African American subjects. He was the recipient of many artistic awards and honors during his lifetime. He died in Paris in 1937.
Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) was an American educator and civil rights leader who started a school for African Americans in Daytona, Florida that eventually turned into Bethune-Cookman University. Mary McLeod Bethune served as president of that college for decades, one of very few women to hold such a position at the time. Bethune also served as an advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt, working for his election in 1932 and becoming a member of his “Black Cabinet,” where she shared the concerns of African Americans with the president and helped spread Roosevelt’s message to African Americans, who had been Republican voters since Abraham Lincoln’s time. Learn more about Mary McLeod Bethune at your Milwaukee Public Library.
Henry Louis Gates was born September 16, 1950 in Keyser, West Virginia. He is an influential African American writer, scholar, professor, editor and literary critic. Gates is best known for his books and films documenting African American history. He is the recipient of 51 honorary degrees and has been awarded the MacArthur fellowship as well as the Andrew M. Mellon Fellowship. Gates has written sixteen books and has produced eleven PBS specials. He has dedicated his career to establishing academic institutions for the study of Black culture and history.
Alice Tallulah-Kate Walker was born on February 9, 1944 in Eatonton, Georgia. Walker is a poet, novelist, essayist, teacher, and publisher who is best known for her epistolary novel, The Color Purple. She is the recipient of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (the first African American woman to receive this award). Altogether, Walker has written six novels, three collections of short stories, three collections of essays, six volumes of poetry, and three children’s books. She is also credited with re-introducing the literary world to the work of Zora Neale Hurston, an African American writer whose works had fallen into obscurity. Alice Walker’s books have been translated into more than two dozen languages and have sold more than fifteen million copies worldwide.
Crispus Attucks (1723?-1770) was the first casualty in the American Revolutionary War. He was killed on Friday, March 2, 1770 in a street fight that escalated into what is commonly referred to as the Boston Massacre. Four others were killed that night and they were remembered as martyrs for the cause of liberty. Crispus Attucks was born around 1723. His father was believed to be a slave named Prince Younger and his mother was thought to be a Natick Indian named Nancy Attucks. It is believed that Attucks escaped from slavery early in his twenties. Little else is known about his early life. After he was killed, Attucks’s body was placed in Faneuil Hall where it lay in state until March 8, 1770. He has been immortalized as "the first to pour out his blood as a precious libation on the altar of a people's rights."
Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1961) was an African-American writer who was notably involved in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s & 1930s. She was raised in an all-black town in Florida which had a major influence on her life and writings. Although her birthdate was confirmed by the U.S. Census after her death, there were discrepancies about her age. One reason may be that she made herself 10 years younger to enroll at Morgan Academy to complete her high school education and enter college. Besides writing, Hurston was also accomplished in anthropology which was evident throughout her works. Hurston's writing was rich and filled with poignant imagery which can be found in her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. She influenced other distinguished writers such as Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. Check out books by and about Zora Neale Hurston at your Milwaukee Public Library!
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” is popularly known as the African American National Anthem. The song was written in 1900 by brothers J. Rosamond Johnson and James Weldon Johnson for a chorus of 500 schoolchildren in Jacksonville, Florida, to be performed at an event commemorating President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” continued to be sung and spread throughout the country over the following decades. In 1920 the NAACP adopted it as its official song. Check out a sound recording or read a book about this historic musical composition from your Milwaukee Public Library.
Sojourner Truth (c. 1797-1883) was the self-given name of Isabella Baumfree, an African-American abolitionist and women’s rights activist. She was born into slavery in New York state and spoke Dutch as her first language. After escaping slavery shortly before the state of New York ended that institution within its borders, Sojourner had a life-changing religious experience that led her to become an inspired and influential preacher. After William Lloyd Garrison published her memoir, Sojourner became a popular speaker in anti-slavery and women’s rights circles. Her most famous speech, known as “Ain’t I a Woman?” was delivered extemporaneously at the 1851 Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. Read or listen to a reconstruction of this famous speech, or find a book about Sojourner Truth (for adults or children) today at your Milwaukee Public Library.
The 2012 Annual Black History Theme is “Black Women in American History and Culture.” Milwaukee Public Library is pleased to feature many women on MPL’s website celebration of African American History Month this year. For perspectives on issues facing black women today, see such recent books as Sophia A. Nelson’s Black Woman Redefined: Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama and Melissa V. Harris-Perry’s Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. Visit our website throughout the month for highlights from African American history and visit your Milwaukee Public Library to check out books and videos about the lives and achievements of African American women this month and throughout the year!