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Steven J. Niven

Union army officer and politician, was born in New Orleans, the son of a West Indian midwife and a free black soldier who had served in the Corps d'Afrique with General Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812. His parents' names are not recorded. Family lore had it that Caesar's maternal grandfather, an African chief, had been enslaved and taken to America and that his paternal grandmother, Rose Antoine, had earned enough money from her work as a midwife to purchase her freedom. Rose Antoine also left each of her seven sons twenty thousand dollars in her will.

As a free black child in New Orleans Antoine attended private schools the public schools of the city were closed to blacks and became fluent in both English and French Upon leaving school as a teenager in the early 1850s he then apprenticed and worked as a barber one of ...

Article

Eric Gardner

politician and activist, was born into slavery in North Carolina. Both he and his mother, Susan, were owned by the wealthy Thomas Burke Burton, who moved to Fort Bend County, Texas, from Halifax County, North Carolina, in the 1850s. Most accounts claim that the slaveholder favored Burton, taught him to read and write, and, after the Civil War, sold land to him; some accounts claim that Burton supported his former owner's wife when she was widowed during Reconstruction.

On 28 September 1868 Burton married Abba Jones (sometimes listed as Abby and sometimes as Hattie). The couple had three children, Horace J., Hattie M., and an unnamed child who died in infancy. Susan Burton lived with the young family until her death c. 1890.

Propertied, literate, and articulate, Burton quickly became active in the local Republican Party, the local Union League, and larger Reconstruction efforts. In 1869 ...

Article

Benjamin R. Justesen

farmer, shoemaker, and longtime state legislator, was born in Warren County, North Carolina, the third son of free, mixed-race parents Hawkins Carter and Elizabeth Wiggins, who were married in 1845. Few details are known of his early life or education, only that his father, a prosperous farmer, could afford to hire a young white teacher, W. J. Fulford, to tutor his eight children in 1861, the last year before the Civil War.

During the Civil War, the teenage Carter served as an officer's attendant for a Warrenton acquaintance, Captain Stephen W. Jones of the Forty-sixth North Carolina Regiment's Company C, raised at Warrenton in early 1862 Jones s company saw action at Antietam and other battles and Jones was wounded at Spotsylvania Court House where Carter presumably helped care for him The eldest son of the Warren County sheriff and a former deputy sheriff himself ...

Article

Benjamin R. Justesen

journalist, businessman, and civil rights organization leader, was born into slavery, probably near Smyrna, Tennessee, to unnamed parents, and apparently orphaned soon afterward. Little is known of his childhood, except that Cooper moved at an early age to Nashville, where he was educated at the old barracks school for African American children on Knowles Street, later the nucleus of Fisk University.

Cooper later recalled working on a farm for two years before he began selling newspapers on passenger trains. He also worked briefly as a hotel waiter in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, during the Centennial Exposition there in 1876. About 1877 Cooper migrated to Indianapolis, Indiana, where he worked as a book-seller and became one of the first African Americans to graduate from the city's Shortridge High School in 1882 He began working for the Railway Mail Service and soon rose to chief clerk on the Louisville ...

Article

Debi Hamlin

North Carolina senator and U.S. congressman, was born a slave near Warrenton, Warren County, North Carolina. Nothing is known about his parents or his childhood. In 1861 Hyman worked as a janitor for a jeweler who with his wife taught Hyman to read and write. When that was discovered, the jeweler and his wife were driven from Warrenton, and Hyman was sold and sent to Alabama. Following the Civil War and his emancipation, having been at least eight times “bought and sold as a brute,” as he described it, Hyman in 1865 returned to Warren County, where he was a farmer and store manager. Sometime between 1865 and 1867 he became a trustee of one of the first public schools in Warren County.

Hyman's formal political career began in September 1866 when at the age of twenty six he was a delegate to the Freedmen s Convention of ...

Article

Antje Daub

Florida Republican political leader, lawyer, and African Methodist Episcopal (AME) minister, was born free in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Although the names of his parents are unknown, Lee was orphaned while an infant and was raised by Quakers. He attended Cheyney University, then known as the Institute for Colored Youth, the first black high school in the United States. After graduating in 1869, Lee moved to Washington, D.C., to begin a clerkship under the controversial “governor” of the District, Alexander Robey “Boss” Shepherd. Intermittently, Lee attended Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C., a historically black institution established in 1867. Lee attended Howard at a time when African American leaders were clamoring for black lawyers who could help in the struggle to secure the rights of African Americans. He graduated with an LLB degree in 1872.

Lee then relocated to Jacksonville Florida and was ...

Article

Robert Jr. Johnson

Massachusetts legislator, and civil rights and women's rights champion, was born in Hartford, Connecticut, the son of William Mitchell and Clara (Green) Mitchell, of whom nothing is known. It is probable that he had a brother, William. Other than the fact that he trained and worked as a printer, little is known of Mitchell's early life. When the Civil War broke out, Mitchell joined the Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Regiment at the age of thirty-three. Little is known of his military service, but he apparently lost a foot in the Battle of Honey Hill, South Carolina, in November 1864. He was one of the few African Americans commissioned as an officer at the close of the war. Unfortunately for Mitchell—and for George E. Stephens in the Fifty fourth as well while the Commonwealth of Massachusetts recognized his promotion the U S War Department did not He was ...

Article

Kenneth L. Kusmer

newspaper editor and politician, was born in Clarksburg, West Virginia, the son of John Smith and Sarah (maiden name unknown), occupations unknown. Accompanied by his sister and widowed mother, he came to Cleveland in 1866 and remained there for the rest of his life. A self-taught cornet player, Smith played in several bands while attending high school. After graduating in 1883 he and three friends established the Cleveland Gazette. Smith, who remained a lifelong bachelor, soon bought out his partners and became sole proprietor and editor. The first significant African American newspaper in the city, the Gazette was published weekly until Smith's death, at which time the newspaper went out of existence. Known for its militant editorial stance on racial issues, the Gazette circulated widely throughout Ohio before World War I. After 1917 its influence steadily declined as a result of competition from other African American newspapers ...

Article

Bertis English

educator, civil rights activist, and politician, was born in Virginia during the antebellum period, but his most important endeavors were carried out in post–Civil War Alabama. In 1865, while Alabama lawmakers designed oppressive black codes to control the political, occupational, and educational conduct of freedmen, Turner founded a school for former slaves at Wetumpka in Elmore County. During the next year, resistance abounded among local whites bitter about the Confederate defeat and the newly legislated status of free blacks. Because of white opposition and a scarcity of funds, Turner was forced to entrust the school to the Freedmen's Bureau. Turner regretted the decision, but he knew that he could not jeopardize his family by continuing to serve as headmaster. Students and sponsors could bring him joy, he had explained, but they could not keep his family from starving.

In addition to being an educator and administrator ...