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Peter Wallenstein

educator and civil rights litigant, was born in Norfolk, Virginia, the son of William Henry “Sonnie” Alston, a drayman, and Mary Elizabeth “Lizzie” Smith, a laundress. The Alstons owned their home, and Melvin grew up in a middle-class environment. After attending Norfolk's segregated black public schools and graduating from Booker T. Washington High School, he graduated in 1935 from Virginia State College, where he was honored for his debating and for excellence in scholarship. Following graduation he began teaching math at Booker T. Washington High School. Beginning in 1937 he served as president of the Norfolk Teachers Association, and he also held local leadership positions in the Young Men's Christian Association and the First Calvary Baptist Church.

Alston played a key role in an effort by black teachers in the Norfolk city public schools to challenge racial discrimination in their salaries. In 1937 the Virginia Teachers Association VTA and ...

Article

Charles Rosenberg

one of the first four graduates from Fisk University, school teacher, missionary, founder of the Tennessee and National Baptist Women's Convention, was born free in Nashville, Tennessee, to Nelson and Eliza Smart Walker. Her father had been enslaved in Virginia, but was allowed to hire his time, earning enough money to purchase both his own freedom and that of his wife. Moving to Tennessee, by 1870 he had accumulated $1,200 in real property working as a barber, while Eliza Walker worked as a dressmaker, supporting three daughters and three sons (1870 Census). Virginia was named for the state of her father's nativity, “which he never ceased to praise” (Broughton, p. 7).

At an early age she enrolled at a private school in Nashville, opened in the 1850s by Daniel Watkins, later pastor of the First Colored Christian Church. When Fisk School convened 9 January 1866 Walker ...

Article

Steven J. Niven

slave narrative author, minister, and politician, was born in rural tidewater Virginia. All that is known about Cook's early life appears in an unpublished, handwritten, thirty-two-page autobiographical narrative, which is the only surviving memoir written by a slave while still in the South. Unlike nearly all of the autobiographical memoirs written by nineteenth-century African American slaves, Cook's narrative is not addressed to a Northern abolitionist audience, but rather was written solely for the author's “own benefit in future years.” Cook may also have had a larger audience in mind, since he promises at one point “to be candid before an enli[ghtened] community,” though it is possible that he intended his children and grandchildren to read it. The narrative also makes clear Cook's extensive knowledge of the Scriptures, and it may have served as a guide for his later work as a minister.

Episodic occasionally rambling and often vague in ...

Article

Sandy Dwayne Martin

Baptist leader and race advocate, was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, to free parents, Eliza (maiden name unknown) and William De Baptiste. Born in a slave state at a time when individuals were fined and incarcerated for teaching blacks, enslaved or free, Richard was fortunate to have parents who earnestly sought to educate their children and some relatives in their home, despite the law and heavy surveillance. In 1846 his family moved to Detroit, Michigan. Richard received additional education and for a time attended classes at the University of Chicago. Once the leading building and manufacturing contractor in Fredericksburg, William De Baptiste, following an unsuccessful partnership in a grocery enterprise, returned to the construction business. Richard became a partner in the business before his twenty-first birthday and served for some years as its manager. From 1858 to about 1861 he also taught black youth in the public schools of ...

Article

Donna Tyler Hollie

educator, was born enslaved in Prince William County, Virginia, the eldest of four children of Charles and Annie Dean. She was named Jane Serepta but was called Jennie by her family and Miss Jennie by those on whose behalf she labored. It is probable that her only formal education was obtained in a school established by the Freedmen's Bureau when the Civil War ended.

Dean's father was a literate and ambitious man who, immediately after the end of the Civil War, contracted to buy a farm. Within a short time he died, and Dean assumed responsibility for the support of the family. She found employment as a domestic in Washington, D.C., and by living frugally, amassed the funds to pay off the mortgage. She also provided tuition for her siblings, at least one of whom became a teacher.

Dean became an active member of the 19th Street ...

Article

Sholomo B. Levy

preacher, was born Clarence LaVaughn Pitman in Sunflower, Mississippi, to Elijah J. Pitman and Willie Ann Pitman, sharecroppers. Elijah served in Europe during World War I, returned to Mississippi briefly, and then departed. Shortly thereafter, Willie Ann married Henry Franklin, a farmer; the family took his name, and Franklin became Clarence's father. As a boy Clarence usually went to school from December to March, which was when he was not needed in the field. His mother took him and his stepsister, Aretha, to St. Peter's Rock Baptist Church, where he sang in the choir, and eventually became lead tenor. His father, religious but not a churchgoer, exposed Clarence to the blues idiom of Blind Lemon Jefferson and other soulful musicians.

At the age of nine or ten Clarence attended a revival meeting and took his first step toward a career in the ministry when he joined the ...

Article

Crystal Renée Sanders

Baptist minister and community leader. Clarence LaVaughn Franklin was born in Sunflower, Mississippi, to Willie Walker and Rachel Pittman Walker, who were sharecroppers. Before 1920, his mother remarried, to Henry Franklin, who subsequently adopted Clarence. Young “C. L.” picked cotton with his parents and three siblings, which prevented him from completing grade school.

In the summer of 1931, Franklin preached his trial sermon at Saint Peter's Rock Missionary Baptist Church. He served as an itinerant minister for several years at churches throughout the Mississippi Delta. On 16 October 1934, Franklin married Alene Gaines, but little is known about the marriage. On 3 June 1936, Franklin married Barbara Vernice Siggers and adopted her young son, Vaughn. To this union were born four children: Erma, Cecil, Aretha, and Carolyn. Aretha became a Grammy Award–winning singer.

Aware of the limited opportunities and ...

Article

Jeremy Rich

a Baptist minister and a pioneer of African American settlement in Sierra Leone, was born in the early 1740s in Essex County, Virginia. His parents, John and Judith, were both slaves born in Africa.

George s family was owned by a man named Chapel who carried out brutal punishments on George s parents and siblings For example George watched as his brother Duck was hung up in a cherry tree whipped five hundred times had salt rubbed into his wounds and then sent to work in the tobacco fields Horrified by such torture George ran away at the age of nineteen He met some traveling white people the day after he fled Chapel s plantation on the Roanoke River George worked for one of them for three weeks until he heard Chapel had put out a bounty of thirty guineas for George s capture His white patron told him to ...

Article

Milton C. Sernett

lay preacher and émigré to Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, was born on a Nottoway River plantation in Essex County, Virginia. His parents, slaves known as John and Judith, were of African origin and had nine children. While a youth David labored in the corn and tobacco fields and witnessed frequent whippings of other slaves, including his mother, who was the master's cook.

When he was about nineteen, George ran away to North Carolina, worked for a brief time, but was pursued and fled to South Carolina. He worked as a hired hand for about two years. After hearing that his first master was again pursuing him, George escaped to central Georgia where he hid among the Creek Indians. George became the personal servant of Chief Blue Salt, who later sold him to the Natchez chief, King Jack.

A trader with the white settlers King Jack sold George to ...

Article

Scott A. Miltenberger

David George was born into slavery in Virginia. Both of his parents, John and Judith George, had been captured in Africa and sold to the especially cruel Chapel family in Virginia. George recalled that his mother was often whipped viciously and that one of his brothers nearly died at the hands of their master. In 1762 his master's treatment of his mother prompted George to run away to Georgia.

There George found work with a white man, John Green, but the son of George's former master found him two years later. George fled and for several years eluded his master successfully. Captured first by the Creek chief Blue Salt and later the Natchez chief King Jack, he found enslavement and treatment by Native Americans more equitable and more humane than that by whites. King Jack ultimately sold George to a man named George Galphin who owned a plantation ...

Article

Andre D. Vann

businessman, civic leader, churchman, and author, was born the eldest son of William Jesse Kennedy, a public school principal, and Katie (Riley) Kennedy, a homemaker, in Andersonville, Georgia. He received his public school training under his father, who was the principal of the local school. Later he was educated at Americus Institute in Americus, Georgia, which was under the auspices of the black Southwestern Georgia Baptist Association, and graduated in 1912. He studied law for a year through textbooks and a correspondence course from LaSalle University, and did special work in business administration through a Columbia University extension course, but did not graduate from either institution. He held a number of jobs ranging from carpenter to meat cutter.

Influenced by an uncle who worked in the insurance industry, he began working at Guaranty Mutual Life Insurance Company of Savannah, Georgia, in 1913 ...

Article

Michele Valerie Ronnick

professor of Latin, educator, and editor, was born in the small town of Culpepper in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. He was the youngest son of James M. and Letetia B. Lightfoot. A teacher in the area, Enoch H. Grastie (also known as Grasty), who had earned a certificate from the Preparatory Department at Howard University in 1872, took an interest in the young Lightfoot and helped him get additional training in Washington, D.C. Lightfoot was able to study at the Howard University Academy from 1884 to 1887. In the fall of 1888 Lightfoot matriculated at Williams College as a sophomore. There he majored in Latin and took German as an elective. Among his professors was Edward Parmalee Morris, who taught Latin from 1885 to 1981 at Williams College Lightfoot was a member of Williams College s Classical Society and along ...

Article

farmer, miller, the first elected public official of African American descent in the state of Virginia, and the first and only African American representative to the House of Delegates for Lancaster County. Nickens was born in Lancaster County, Virginia, the youngest child of Armistead Stokalas Nickens Sr. and Polly Weaver Nickens. Armistead Sr. and Polly were wed on 21 January 1819 in Lancaster County, Virginia, and had two other children, Robert V. Nickens and Judith A. Nickens. The Nickens family had been free since the late seventeenth century, and several members of that family served in the American Revolution. Armistead's maternal grandfather, Elijah Weaver, was also a seaman during the Revolution.

Home schooled as a youth Nickens was taught to read and write by his father and went on to further self study with books he purchased on his own Armistead lost his father as ...

Article

Charles Rosenberg

business owner, barber, and local church leader, stands out for his success in running a Main Street business in a small town in Mississippi during the most virulent years of Jim Crow. His mother, Mary Ollie Shuler, was a domestic worker who managed in 1883 to purchase a small home in Starkville, Mississippi, where Wier was born.

He attended a grade school designated for “colored” students from the age of 6 to 14, but spent a year after completing 8th grade recovering from an accidental sling shot wound to his eye. Wier never went back to school. He worked at construction jobs, as a water carrier, and shining shoes, until he was taught the basic skills of cutting hair by H. M. Carpenter, a barber classified by the laws of Mississippi as “white.” Carpenter advised Wier to gain some experience in the trade, so starting in 1904 ...

Article

Benjamin R. Justesen

carpenter, public official, and legislator, was born on a cotton plantation near Tarboro in Edgecombe County, North Carolina, the son of slave parents whose names are not known. Little is known of his education before the Civil War, although he briefly attended the common schools of Tarboro after the war ended.

Wimberly was raised as a field hand, working for planter James S. Battle at the Walnut Creek plantation. After the war ended, Wimberly initially chose to remain as a wageworker on the Battle plantation, and he established a strong relationship with new overseer Kemp Plummer Battle, a future president of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Wimberly was given new responsibilities and was trusted enough to be allowed to drive delivery wagons of poultry and other produce to Raleigh, a two-day trip, alone.

A farmer and skilled carpenter he gradually became an active member ...