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In response to the proposal from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) that congregations focus on the dismantling of racism, the Adrian Dominican Sisters began by identifying resources that can assist us in raising our consciousness of white privilege and white supremacy, both personally and systematically.
From January 2021 through June of 2023, our Toward Communion: Undoing Racism and Embracing Diversity Committee and our Justice Promoters collaborated on a project to provide information on prominent Black and Indigenous Catholics who have made significant contributions to the church and society, along with reflection questions and a prayer.
In May of 2022, Kevin D. Hofmann was named the founding Director of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion for the Congregation. With the goal of normalizing conversations about race and culture and discussing what it means to feel included and excluded, Kevin began contributing to this blog in June of 2022. He shares his unique experience of growing up Black in a white family in Detroit and educates on topics of equity and inclusion.
By Kevin Hofmann
Director of the Office of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion
Over this last month, I have learned more about Black History than I ever knew. I loved reading about the strong woman who did so much for so many. It was truly inspiring to see these women excel in countless different areas. Their energy, dedication, intelligence, resistance, and creativity left me awe-struck. Some of the women crammed two or three careers in one lifetime while trying to avoid the many obstacles purposely put in their way. Being heard as a woman in the early 20th Century was an unsurmountable challenge for many. Being heard and seen as a Black woman was almost impossible, yet these women weren’t only successful, they thrived, outperformed others, and changed the world.
As I got the opportunity to study these women, I couldn’t help but think about how we have all been cheated. We were sold a version of American history that is incomplete at best. We were told Rosa Parks was the first, yet Lillie Mae Bradford beat her by four years. We were taught Madam C.J. Walker was the first and only Black female millionaire, yet she was preceded by her mentor and teacher, Annie Turnbo Malone. Mary Ellen Pleasant ear hustled her way to millions long before Madam C.J. Walker as well.
I marveled at the young Amanda Gorman whose pen was kissed by God. Her ability to write, draw us in, and heal us all in one sentence is unmatched, and I am comfortable knowing Ms. Gorman will help lead the next generation.
We should have been taught in grade school about wonderful women of color and how strong they were, how smart they were, and how ferocious they were. I am proud to be a part of their lineage and upset that most of us were deprived of the history of Black women and their contributions to this country.
As we escort Black History Month out and usher in Women’s History Month in March, I am excited to be given the honor of continuing to recognize women. The theme for this Women’s History Month is "Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories." As a result, I will be publishing a weekly blog in March celebrating Women who have made a living telling us stories. I am excited about this opportunity to learn and share the stories of more amazing women.
The theme for this year's Black History Month is “Black Resistance.” I thought there would be no better way to showcase Black resistance than to highlight Black women. They are the backbone of the Black community and have played a monumental role in creating change through their resistance. Each week throughout the month of February we will learn about women who stood up, spoke out, and changed the world.
֎ Ruth Ellis ֎ Annie Turnbo Malone ֎ Kamala Harris
֎ Dr. Shirley Jackson ֎ Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Used with permission from the Ruth Ellis Center
Oldest open lesbian and LGBT rights activist, living to age of 101
Co-Founder of Ellis and Franklin Printing Co.
“I never thought about hiding who I was. I guess I didn’t go around telling everybody I was a lesbian, but I wasn’t lying about it either. If anyone asked me, I’d tell them the truth, but it wasn’t the sort of thing people talked about much.”
Ruth Ellis was the daughter of enslaved parents and was born in Springfield, Illinois. She is the youngest of four children. Sadly, Ruth’s mother passed away when she was a teenager. Ruth was raised by her father who was the first Black mail carrier in Illinois.
Ruth Ellis was a trailblazer. In 1915, at the age of 16, she came out publicly as a lesbian. Fortunately, her family was very accepting of her and her lifestyle. Her family and friends were so accepting that Ruth has said, "I was always out of the closet. I didn't have to come out." It was this feeling of acceptance by her that led her to be a safe place for many LGBTQ youth in the future. In 1919 she graduated from high school during a time when only about 7% of Blacks graduated. If you think about her also being an openly gay women in the early 1900s, you get a better sense of just what a trailblazer she was.
Soon after she graduated, she met Ceciline “Babe” Franklin who would become her partner for over 30 years. Ruth worked for several years in Springfield for a printing company before she and Babe moved to Detroit in 1937 in hopes of getting a better wage. In Detroit she was initially the caregiver for a young boy where she made $7.00 a week. Fortunately, that job was only temporary, and she was able to find a better paying job with Waterfield and Heath Publishing. She worked there until she opened her own printing press out of her West Side home in Detroit. She and Babe ran the Ellis and Franklin Printing Company which was Michigan’s first women-owned printing shop and Detroit’s first offset printing press owned by a Black woman.
The home that Ruth and Babe shared became known as the “gay spot,” a safe place for young members of the LGBTQ community to enjoy a night club atmosphere. This was important because often members of this community were denied entrance into the white gay clubs and Black straight clubs. This was decades before the advances made by the civil rights movement and the Stonewall Riots. Ruth often offered more than just her home. She not only gave support to a community that had little, she also gave food and even assistance with college tuition. Fighting for the rights of the LGBTQ and Black communities became her life’s mission. She worked tirelessly until she passed away at the age of 101. Ruth had a heart attack while on her way to work.
In commemoration of the great work she did, the Ruth Ellis Center was opened in Detroit in 1999. The center honors her work, while also being one of only four centers in the United States that is dedicated to homeless LGBTQ youth and adults. Every year during Black History Month, Detroit celebrates Ruth Ellis Day, a day to celebrate the wonderful work of Ruth Ellis. Learn more about Ruth Ellis.
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Julius F. Taylor, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
America’s First Black Woman Millionaire
Founder of Poro College
Inventor of Wonderful Hair Grower
Superpower: Seeing a future no one else could see.
Annie Turnbo was born the tenth of 11 children in Metropolis, Illinois, to parents Robert and Isabella Turnbo – both formerly enslaved. Annie’s father fought for the Union in the Civil War and while away fighting, Annie’s mother took the children and fled from Kentucky to the free state of Illinois.
Annie attended public school in Illinois but was soon orphaned and forced to move to Peoria to live with an older sister. She began high school and became fascinated with chemistry. Unfortunately, she dropped out of high school after an illness caused her to miss a great deal of school. While away from school, Annie turned her attention to hair and hair care. She began experimenting – combining her two loves, chemistry and hair care. Soon she was making her own Black hair care products to provide an alternative to what Black women were already using.
At the time, Black women were very limited when it came hair care products. They often had to resort to using household items such as soap, oils, goose fat, harsh chemicals, or bacon grease to care for their hair. Unfortunately, many of these items caused hair and scalp damage. Black women needed a healthier alternative and Annie was determined to provide it.
In four short years, Annie developed her own line of hair care products. She began manufacturing hair care products to prevent damage as well as products to encourage hair growth. Her product named the Wonderful Hair Grower was bottled and sold door to door.
Along with three employees, Annie moved to St. Louis, hoping to grow the business. At the time, St. Louis had the fourth largest Black population in the United States. The move allowed her to be closer to her customers and it paid off. Her products became so in demand she was able to open her own store front and began marketing her product in the Black press and recruiting Black woman to sell her products.
One of her early recruits was Sarah Breedlove. Sarah began selling for Annie in St. Louis and then moved to Denver, Colorado to sell. Sarah left the company due to disagreements with Annie and start her own line of Black hair care products under the name Madam C.J. Walker. Many believe Madame C.J. Walker took Annie’s original formula to create her own brand.
Annie continued to build her empire, opening Poro College, a cosmetology school. In 1918, Annie’s college included a plant to manufacture her line of products, a store, offices, an auditorium that could seat 500 people, a dorm, a gym, a chapel, a bakery, and a roof-top garden. Located in an upper-middle-class Black neighborhood, Poro College was also a gathering place for the local Black community who were often refused service by white owned establishments. The college employed over 200 people, and through the school and business franchises, Annie’s company created over 75,000 jobs in the North and South Americas, Africa, and the Philippines. Annie made sure her Black employees were paid well and made sure there was plenty of room for advancement in the company.
Although Madame C.J. Walker has been heralded as the first Black woman millionaire, it seems Annie beat her to it. Annie was a multi-millionaire by the early 1920s with an estimated worth of $14,000,000. A few years later, her husband filed for divorce and demanded half of the business. The educator Mary Mcleod Bethune, stepped in to help and eventually Annie negotiated a $200,000 settlement to buy out her soon-to-be ex-husband. She was the sole owner of Poro College.
After the divorce, she moved most of the business to Chicago where she was able to purchase an entire city block. (Imagine what that would be worth today!) Unfortunately, in the mid 1930s a former employee filed a suit claiming credit for the success of Poro college. The lawsuits didn’t stop there. The government also got in line and sued Annie several times for unpaid taxes. Eventually, the government seized the Poro College property in St. Louis to pay the debt.
At the time of her death, she had lost most of her future. Her estate, valued at $100,000, went to her nieces and nephews since she never had children herself. Like many successful Black people in the early 1900s, the wealth they acquired was stripped from them, preventing the possibility of generational wealth that the successful white community amassed.
Annie lived very modestly and choose to give generously to the Black community. She gave to the YMCA, Tuskegee Institute, and Howard University. She also paid for the education of many Black students, including paying for the education of two Black students at every Black college in America. It was said she bought several homes for her relatives and friends. Her generosity carried over to her employees and she often gave out monetary rewards for work, attendance, and performance. She gave of her time as well, serving as the president of the board for St. Louis’ Colored Orphan Home for 24 years, serving children who were beginning life a lot like she did.
What Annie did was amazing for anyone at that time – creating her own haircare line, establishing a college and business, and buying a city block in Chicago were unheard of for women and nearly unimaginable for a Black, orphaned, high school dropout in the early 1900s. Learn more about Annie Turnbo Malone.
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Lawrence Jackson, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
First female Vice President
Second Vice President who is a person of color
“There will be a resistance to your ambition, there will be people who say to you, ‘You are out of your lane.’ They are burdened by only having the capacity to see what of what has always been instead can be.”
And my personal favorite quote from 2020, “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking.”
Superpower: Unbreakable – The ability to shatter glass ceilings without getting cut.
Becoming Vice President of the United States was probably the only way Kamala Harris could out-do her parents. Kamala was born in Oakland, California, in 1964 to her parents, Dr. Shyamala Gopalan and Dr. Donald Harris. Her mother, a Tamil Indian, is a biologist whose research has helped further advances in breast cancer research. Her Jamaican-American father was an Economics professor at Stanford University.
Early in life, Kamala moved around quite a bit while her parents worked at several Midwest universities. Eventually, Kamala, her sister Maya, and mother moved to Berkley, California, into an area known as the “Flatlands.” She sang in the choir at a Black church in Oakland and occasionally participated at the Hindu temple her mother attended. She also spent time in India with her mother’s family and in Jamaica with her father’s family.
At age 12 her family moved to Quebec where Kamala attended a French speaking school. She continued her education going to Howard University (a Historical Black College/University or HBCU) where she graduated with a degree in Political Science and Economics. She went on to graduate from University of California’s Hastings College of Law where she was the president of the Black Law Students Association.
After law school she held the following positions:
Deputy District Attorney of Alameda County, California
Assistant District Attorney of San Francisco
Attorney working for San Francisco’s City Attorney
District Attorney of San Francisco
California Attorney General
California U.S. Senator
Vice President of the United States
Kamala Harris’ speeches on the Senate Floor questioning fellow Senators during Senate hearings are legendary. Her prosecutorial background made quick work of several Senators she questioned during those hearings. She continued this ability in her debates against Joe Biden and Mike Pence. Her infamous retort to Mike Pence during their debate almost broke the internet when she calmly repeated, “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking.” So many women who had been shouted down by men in power deeply felt those words.
On January 20, 2021, Senator Harris became Vice President Harris and the glass ceiling shattered. She became the first female Vice President and the first female Vice President who happened to be Black and Indian. Learn more about Kamala Harris.
Shirley_Ann_Jackson_-_Annual_Meeting_of_the_New_Champions_Tianjin_2010.jpg: World Economic Forum (Qilai Shen) derivative work: Gobonobo, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
First Black woman to earn a PhD from MIT
Second Black woman to earn a Doctorate in Physics
First Black woman to be name President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Inductee into the Capital Region Philanthropy Hall of Fame in 2019 (She helped raise over a billion dollars for philanthropic causes
2021 Recipient of the Hans Christian Oersted Medal from the American Association of Physics Teachers
Member of President Obama’s President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology
Recipient of the National Medal of Science
Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
“Do not be limited by what others expect of you, but reach confidently for the stars.”
Superpower: X-ray vision to see the impossible
Dr. Shirley Jackson was born in Washington D.C. in 1946. Upon graduating from high school, she attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where she earned a bachelor’s degree in theoretical physics. Shirley remained at MIT to pursue a doctorate, and in 1973 she earned her PhD in nuclear physics. She was the first Black woman to earn a doctorate from MIT in any field. She was the second Black woman in the United States who earn a doctorate in physics.
She said, “I am interested in the electronic, optical, magnetic, and transport properties of novel semiconductor systems. Of special interest are the behavior of magnetic polarons in semi magnetic and dilute magnetic semiconductors, and the optical response properties of semiconductor quantum-wells and superlattices. My interests also include quantum dots, mesoscopic systems, and the role of antiferromagnetic fluctuations in correlated 2D electron systems.”
For most, this quote is a string of words placed together in English, but it appears to be another language. Dr. Jackson is so intelligent you need 20 minutes, a thesaurus, and a dictionary to decipher what she said.
After earning her PhD, she went to work for AT&T in the Bell Labs researching materials to be used in the semiconductor industry. While still doing research and consulting for AT&T she accepted a position as a professor at Rutgers University. She taught for four years and was asked by President Clinton to serve as Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Dr. Jackson was the first Black woman to serve in this position as well. While serving on the NRC she was named chairperson for the International Regulators Association, a group of nuclear regulatory officials from Canada, France, Germany, and Spain.
She remained in her next position as the President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for 23 years. During her time at Rensselaer, she helped raise over a billion dollars for philanthropic causes. Her intelligence and ability to raise funds made her invaluable. After serving as President for 10 years, the Rensselaer board approved the construction of a guest house on Dr. Jackson’s property to allow her to “to receive and entertain, appropriately, Rensselaer constituents, donors, and other high-level visitors." When the construction project was completed, the new structure was over 9,500 square feet with enough room to entertain large groups.
In 2015, Dr. Jackson was the highest paid University President with a salary and incentive package exceeding 1.1 million dollars. She is worth every penny. Learn more about Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson.
James J. Kriegsmann, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
“Oh, these kids and rock and roll — this is just sped up rhythm and blues. I've been doing that forever."
Superpower: The ability to blaze a trail and not get burned
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was born Rosetta Nubin in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, on March 20, 1915. Her parents were cotton pickers by day and singers by night. Rosetta’s mother was also a women’s speaker for the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) where she also sang. COGIC, unlike many other churches, allowed women to dance, sing, and teach. Rosetta’s mother did all the above. The church encouraged musical expression, and in this space Rosetta flourished. She began singing and playing the guitar at six years old. Soon she performed with her mother as part of a traveling Gospel group. Rosetta was often called a musical prodigy. Her ability to play the guitar better than most men, in a male dominated field, caused her to stand out.
At age 19 she married Thomas Thorpe, a COGIC preacher who often toured with Rosetta and her mother. Unfortunately, the marriage did not last long. Rosetta performed under the stage name Sister Rosetta Tharpe for the rest of her life. Shortly after she divorced, she and her mother moved to New York, and she began producing Gospel albums. She became an instant success as a Gospel artist and her style of playing the guitar influenced many musical giants such as Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Chuck Berry. Guitarists Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck also were influenced by her style. Because of her influential style, many referred to her as the “godmother of Rock and Roll.” Listen to some of her music here.
She performed in nightclubs all over the world, fusing her Gospel with Blues and Jazz, performing with Cab Calloway, Muddy Waters, and the Jordanaires. The lyrics were Gospel, but the music was secular; combining the two was unheard of at the time. Soon she would fall out of favor with many churchgoers because they felt she was too secular. They did not understand that her star and the light that it cast could not be contained to one genre of music. In 2018, Sister Rosetta was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an institution that might not exist if it weren’t for her contributions. Learn more about Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
֎ Valerie Thomas ֎ Bessie Blount Griffin ֎ Lillie Mae Bradford
֎ Anna Julia Haywood Cooper ֎ Angela Davis
NASA, restored by Adam Cuerden, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Associate Chief of Space Science Data Operations Office
Inventor of the Illusion Transmitter (3D/hologram technology)
Winner of the Goddard Space Flight Center Award of Merit
Winner of NASA Equal Opportunity Medal
Project Manager for Space Physics Analysis Network
“Hobbies are for wimps who don’t have the guts to follow their passion.”
Superpower: Her brain
Valerie Thomas was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and she grew up with a love for math and physics. She decided to pursue that love in college where she majored in physics at Morgan State University. Valerie was only one of two women who majored in physics at Morgan State. She graduated with the highest honors and immediately began her career at NASA as a data analyst. She was tasked with creating real time computer data systems that would help interpret what the satellites were seeing when they looked at Earth. She would later take this technology and lead a team of 50 people, including scientists from NASA, Johnson Space Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They were able to prove that the use of this system could accurately gauge and measure yearly wheat yields. It was an unprecedented accomplishment to bring all these agencies together to collaborate and share information in a field that is very territorial when it comes to information.
While at an exhibition in 1976, she saw an optical illusion that projected a 3D image using light and mirrors. She went home wondering how she could use this technology in her work at NASA. A year later she invented the illusion transmitter. She was able to create a way to send a 3D image of an object across a distance, creating a hologram that allows you to view the object from all angles. This technology is still used today by NASA and is now expanding into the medical field to aid with surgery. This technology is also used in televisions and video screens. She received a patent for this invention in 1980.
In the mid 1980s, Valerie Thomas was project leader of the Space Physics Analysis Network (SPAN). Her job was to create a large computer network that would connect scientists from all over the world to allow more sharing and collaboration. Valerie and SPAN continued to develop this technology which would give way to the beginning of the Internet and networking. Indirectly, we can thank Valerie Thomas for Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and all the hours we have wasted on the Internet.
Valerie Thomas is now retired but spends much of her free time encouraging and mentoring women and girls in the fields of science and math. Learn more about Valerie Thomas.
"Portable Receptacle Support," B.V. Griffin, April 24, 1951, U.S. Pat. No. 2,550,554 U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
Inventor of three assistive medical devices
First Black woman to be accepted into advanced studies at the Document Division of Scotland Yard
“I’m gonna live just for spite, ’cause my work is not done.”
Superpower: The inability to sit still
Bessie Blount Griffin was born in 1914 in Hickory, Virginia. She attended school in a one room schoolhouse that was built by Blacks to educate children of freed enslaved people, enslaved children, and Native Americans. Early in life, when faced with an obstacle, Bessie found a unique solution. While attending school, Bessie, who was left-handed, would get her knuckles slapped with a ruler for using her left hand. Out of defiance and creativity she taught herself to write with the pencil in her right hand, her mouth, and in between her toes. Her resourcefulness would prove helpful later in her career.
By the time she was in sixth grade, she had learned all the schoolhouse had to teach her. She continued to learn on her own and eventually earned her high school diploma. Bessie studied to become a nurse at the Black run Community Kennedy Memorial Hospital in Newark. During her free time while working at Kennedy Memorial, she turned her attention to physical therapy. After earning her degree in physical therapy, she worked as a physical therapist and taught physiotherapy at the same hospital.
After World War II she found her calling when she began working with veterans that had lost limbs or been paralyzed during the war. Remembering back to her school days, she even taught some amputees how use their feet to type.
She became a huge proponent for the disabled soldiers and worked tirelessly to help them become more self-reliant. While working with the soldiers, a doctor suggested, “If you really want to do something for these boys, why don’t you make something by which they can feed themselves?” So, every morning for the next five years, between 1:00-4:00 a.m. Bessie would sit in her kitchen creating a machine that would feed soldiers who weren’t able to feed themselves. Finally, after investing about $3,000 of her own money, she had created a self-feeding device that dispensed food when the patient would bite down on the feeding tube. Small pieces of food would be fed through the tube and then shut off to allow the patient to chew. She had the device patented and attempted to shop the device to the Veterans Administration (VA). Even after several surgeons praised the invention and what it could do for amputees and quadriplegics, the head of the VA said it was impractical because they had nurses and aids who could feed patients. Bessie would later sign over the patent to the French government who would use it in their military hospitals. When she was asked about not getting any money for her invention, she simply replied that she was contributing to the progress of Black people by “proving that a black woman can invent something for the benefit of humankind.”
Bessie continued her work as a nurse, a physical therapist, and inventor, yet she desired to do more. She began studying how certain things affected handwriting such as medication, disease, stress, or a person’s physical environment. She went on to publish a paper detailing her research with handwriting. Soon police departments were calling for her expertise as a handwriting expert. She trained at the Document Division of the Metropolitan Police Forensic Science Laboratory in Scotland Yard. She was the first Black woman given this opportunity. When she returned home, she was often asked to testify in court as an expert where evidentiary handwriting samples were involved.
When she wasn’t a nurse, physical therapist, inventor, or expert witness, she spent her free time building a consulting business that reviewed historical documents relating to slavery, the Civil War, and Native American treaties for their authenticity.
At the age of 94, she took up another project. She wanted to create a museum where her small one room schoolhouse once stood to honor all the students that attended the school and their amazing accomplishments. A year later, she passed away before she could complete this project. What an amazing woman, inventor, nurse, physical therapist, expert witness, and museum curator she was! Learn more about Bessie Blount Griffin.
Bradford Arrest Report, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
A pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement
The Original Rosa Parks
“But that day, I said to myself ‘If you don’t defend your right today, you never will.’”
Four years before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, four years before Rosa refused to give up her seat, Lillie Mae had a decision to make that would impact her for the rest of her life.
When Lillie Mae was 20 years old, she boarded a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, to go home. She had just finished a long day as a caregiver for disabled children and was going home to rest. Her bus ride required her to get a transfer so she could catch a second bus to finish her commute. She boarded the bus, gave the driver her fare and requested a transfer. Even though she paid for the transfer, she did not get it. This happened routinely to Blacks who rode the bus. It happened to her before, and she had chosen not to say anything and paid the extra fare. But this day was different. When she noticed the mistake, she approached the driver and requested she get what she paid for knowing the act of her simply questioning a white man could have gotten her killed. When he refused to give her a transfer or a refund, he ordered her to sit down several times. Finally, she sat down right behind the driver, in the section for whites only.
The driver pulled the bus over to make a call and then continued his route. A few moments later, the police stopped the bus, pulled Lillie Mae off the bus, arrested her, and charged her with disorderly conduct. She later would be ordered to pay a small fine to resolve the case, at least she thought.
Over the next several years, she applied for jobs and was denied over and over. Finally, she recalled the small box on each application, the box that asked if you have ever been convicted of a crime. She answered honestly every time and would never get hired. Her quiet act of civil disobedience costed her several jobs and stayed on her record for over 50 years.
Fifty-five years after she sat in the “wrong seat,” the Rosa Parks Act was passed allowing civil rights activists to request a pardon for prior arrests. Although she was now 78 years old and wouldn’t be applying to too many jobs at her age, she requested a pardon because, “I want to have it removed, frame it, and put it on the wall. It will show I was arrested fighting for my rights.” Learn more about Lillie Mae Bradford.
C. M. Bell, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Received a PhD from the University of Paris
President of Frelinghuysen University
Adoptive mother of five
“Mother of Black Feminism”
“Let our girls feel that we expect something more of them than that they merely look pretty and appear well in society.”
Superpower: The ability to succeed in hostile environments
Anna Julia Hayward Cooper and her mother Hanna Hayward were enslaved women owned by George Hayward in North Carolina. Hanna was taken advantage of by either George Hayward or his brother, Dr. Fabius Hayward – or possibly both – and as a result become pregnant with Anna.
At nine years old, Anna began her education. She was the recipient of a scholarship to St. Augustine's Normal School and Collegiate Institute in Raleigh. The institute was founded to help train and graduate teachers who would go on to help educate former enslaved families. While at St. Augustine’s she studied math, science, Latin, French, Greek, and literature. This was part of the “Ladies Course,” a track for women that also discouraged them from pursuing higher education. There she successfully argued for the right to take a course reserved only for men. She met and married her husband, George Cooper, at St. Augustine’s. Sadly, George died two years after they married.
Upon graduation, Anna remained at St. Augustine’s as an instructor but soon left to pursue her studies at Oberlin College in Ohio and continued taking courses reserved for men. She earned her bachelor’s degree in two years and went on to get a master’s degree in mathematics. She, along with fellow classmate Mary Church Terrell, were the first two Black woman to receive a master’s degree. Two years after graduation she wrote and published her essay, “Higher Education of Women." In her essay, she argued the importance of access to education for Black women. Almost ten years later, W.E.B. Du Bois, wrote a similar essay, “Of the Training of Black Men.” In a field designed and dominated by men, Anna not only competed with but out-performed the men in her field.
Anna become a high school teacher, principal, and author on the side. She wrote a critically acclaimed book, A Voice from the South: By a Black Woman of the South. In her book of essays, she spoke about race, racism, gender, and the socioeconomics of Black families. She also wrote about the duty of successful Black women to assist those after them.
At 56, she began to work toward her doctorate degree at Columbia but was forced to postpone her studies a year later when she adopted her five orphaned nieces and nephews. She returned to pursue her doctorate at the University of Paris, but unfortunately, they did not accept the thesis she started at Columbia. Finally, at age 65 she become the fourth Black woman in America to earn a PhD.
After retiring as a high school teacher and principal, she became the President of Frelinghuysen University where stayed for another 30 years before retiring again. She lived to be 105 and remained an active writer and speaker. Learn more about Anna Julia Haywood Cooper.
Philippe Halsman, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Founding member of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS)
Member of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA)
Made the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list (only the third woman to make the list)
TIME Woman of the Year 1972
Professor at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
“We know the road to freedom has always been stalked by death.”
Superpower: The ability to speak up for those who can’t
Angela Davis was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and grew up in the Black middleclass neighborhood known as “Dynamite Hill.” It was coined this nickname in the 1950s when several homes were bombed to scare Blacks from buying homes in this area. Angela’s mother, Sallye Belle Davis was a leader in the Southern Negro Youth Congress, an organization that had roots in Communism. Her senior year in high school she accepted a scholarship and attended Elisabeth Irwin High School in New York. While at Elisabeth Irwin, Angela was recruited by the Communist group, Advance.
Upon graduating from high school, Angela was awarded a scholarship from Brandeis University in Massachusetts. The summer after her freshman year, she attended the World Festival of Youth and Students in Finland, a communist-sponsored festival. When she returned to the United States, she was approached by the FBI and questioned about her presence at the festival. This would be the beginning of a long relationship between Angela and the FBI.
She studied abroad in France her junior year, and it was here where she heard about the bombing of a church in her hometown Birmingham, Alabama. Angela knew the families of the four girls killed in the bombing. Angela graduated magna cum laude, a member of Phi Beta Kappa, and left to pursue her master’s degree at the University of Frankfurt. After studying abroad for two years, she returned to finish her master's degree at the University of California, San Diego. She went on to complete her Doctor of Philosophy in East Berlin at the Humboldt University.
She began her professional career when she accepted the position of assistant professor at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She was also recruited by Princeton and Swarthmore in Pennsylvania but chose UCLA because of its urban location. Soon after her arrival she joined the Black Panther Party. Her affiliation with the Communist Party and the Black Panthers concerned those in leadership and they began targeting her. The then Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, urged UCLA to take a hard line against communism and as a result later that same year, she was fired. A judge would later rule they could not fire Angela Davis simply because of her connection to the Communist Party. She was reinstated only to be fired at the end of the next school year for using “inflammatory language,” in several speeches.
A few months after she was fired, an armed 17-year-old walked into a court room in California, gave weapons to the defendants on trial, and took the prosecutor, judge, and three jurors as hostages. The 17-year-old was the brother of one of the defendants in the Soledad Brother’s case who was in jail charged with the murder of a prison guard. It is assumed the brother was trying to use this takeover as leverage to free his brother. During the escape attempt, shots were exchanged, and the three defendants and judge were killed. The prosecutor and a juror were injured as well. The guns used in the failed takeover attempt were owned by Angela Davis. The weapon used to kill the judge was said to have been purchased by her a few days before the murder. The police also said she had connections with those behind the escape attempt through the Black Panther party. Angela Davis was charged with aggravated kidnapping and first-degree murder of the judge. For several months, she refused to turn herself in and as a result was added to the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted fugitives list. She was eventually found and arrested.
Several groups across the country began organizing and working to gain her release as soon as they heard of her arrest. A month after she was arrested and charged, over 200 communities in the United States and 67 in other countries were fighting for her release. Many public figures joined in the fight including musicians John Lennon and Yoko Ono who wrote the song “Angela” to bring attention to her story. The Rolling Stones also penned a song after Angela, called “Sweet Black Angel.” When the trial ended, Angela Davis was acquitted by an all-white jury. They found no evidence she played a role in the planning of the takeover.
Angela Davis continued to teach and speak all over the world. She clearly expressed her opposition to racism, sexism, the prison-industrial complex, and the Vietnam war. She lent her support to many social justice movements, including fighting for the rights of LBGTQIA+ community. Learn more about Angela Davis.
֎ Mary McLeod Bethune ֎ Amanda Gorman ֎ Kimberly Jones
֎ Madam C.J. Walker ֎ Mary Ellen Pleasant
Carl Van Vechten, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Founder of Daytona Beach Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls
Co-founder of Bethune-Cookman University, the first historically Black College and University (HBCU)
President of National Association of Colored Women’s Club
Founding President of National Council of Negro Woman
Director of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration
Vice President of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
Creator of Women’s Army Corps
Journalist for Pittsburgh Courier and Chicago Defender
Opened the first Black hospital in Daytona, Florida
Co-founder of Central Life Insurance of Florida
Advisor and friend to President Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt
“If we have the courage and tenacity of our forebears, who stood firmly like a rock against the lash of slavery, we shall find a way to do for our day what they did for theirs.”
Superpower: The energy of 1,000 men
Mary McLeod Bethune was the daughter of parents who had been enslaved. She came from a large family. She was the 15th of 17 children born to Sam and Patsy McLeod. They all lived in a small cabin on a rice and cotton farm in Mayesville, South Carolina. Sam McLeod was a cotton farmer and by age five Mary was working in the fields alongside her father. Her mother worked for her former owner and would often take Mary with her to deliver the clothes Patsy had washed for several white families in the area. On one visit, Mary was playing with a white girl in the girl’s nursery. Mary picked up a book and the little girl ordered her to put it down because Mary didn’t know how to read. This interaction inspired Mary to not only learn how to read but to make sure more Black people could read and write.
Mary was the only child in her family to attend school. Every day Mary would walk five miles to school. Each night she would teach the rest of the family what she learned that day. Her calling to be an educator was loud and started early.
She received a scholarship to attend 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. She had hope of becoming an African missionary. Bethune completed her studies there two years later but was told there was no room for Black missionaries. Returning to the South, she began her career as a teacher believing education was the key to Black advancement.
After teaching for a decade, she started a school for African American girls in Daytona Beach, Florida. It later merged with a private institute for African American boys and was known as the Bethune-Cookman School. She was the president of Bethune-Cookman School for almost 20 years.
Mary McLeod Bethune also became very active in civic organization for women and became nationally known. After working on the presidential campaign for Franklin D. Roosevelt, he invited her as a member of his “Black Cabinet.” She advised him on issues with the Black community and help share his messages with Blacks. Roosevelt would make her his director of The Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration. Her relationship with the President and First Lady evolved and she was considered a close friend and advisor to them both.
She also worked on child welfare with President Coolidge and with President Hoover; she began serving on the Commission on Home Building and Home Ownership in 1931. Learn more about Mary McLeod Bethune.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from Washington D.C, United States, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Named the inaugural National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017
Wrote and recited the poem “The Hill We Climb” at the inauguration of President Joe Biden
Two-time best-selling author
Named in the 2021 TIME100 Next list
First poet to perform at the Super Bowl
“There is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.” - The Hill We Climb
Superpower: The ability to see and speak about the invisible
Amanda Gorman was born in Los Angeles and raised Catholic by her single mother who was a sixth grade English teacher. It seems greatness comes in twos in the Gorman family. Amanda’s twin sister is also an activist and a filmmaker.
Amanda was born with several challenges. She has an auditory processing disorder, and a speech impediment and spent a lot of time in speech therapy to overcome those challenges. As a result, Amanda spent a lot of time reading and writing. What began as a deficit fed her greatest assets: her gift of writing and speaking. She writes well beyond her years and her cadence calls back to Dr. Martin Luther King’s rhythm when he spoke. Her class and elegance remind us of a young Maya Angelou, yet she is clearly Amanda Gorman.
Amanda attended and graduated with honors from Harvard. Her writing often focuses on oppression, racism, feminism, marginalization, and the Black experience. She is also known for her sense of fashion. She has said, "Fashion brings a distinct visual aesthetic to language. When I'm performing on stage, I'm not just thinking about my clothing, but what my Wakanda Forever t-shirt and yellow skirt is saying about my identity as a poet.”
The future is bright for this young game changer, and I can’t wait to see what she can do. Learn more about Amanda Gorman.
Frypie, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
New York Times best-selling author
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Image Award nominee
GQ Germany "Voice of the Year" Award 2020
Black Women in Media Honoree 2020
The Root 100 Most Influential African Americans
School for Ethics and Global Leadership Golden Mug Award 2021
Served on Library of Congress’ Selection Committee for National Ambassador for Young People's Literature
Co-author of “I’m Not Dying with You Tonight”
Creator of “How Can We Win” viral video in response to George Floyd killing (Video includes explicit language)
Author of “How We Can Win: Race, History and Changing the Money Game That's Rigged”
“They are lucky that what Black people are looking for is equality and not revenge.”
Kimberly Jones spoke for millions during the summer of 2020. While still in lock down from the pandemic, sequestered to our homes as the video of George Floyd’s murder played on a loop, Kimberly spoke from the front lines of a protest that some were calling a riot. Her passion, pain, frustration, anger, and determination grabbed at you from the start of her video “How Can We Win.” She made so much sense. She spoke for me, my community, and this country. The video went viral. In six minutes and 46 seconds she taught me more than any history class I ever attended.
In 2020, Kimberly Jones signed a television deal with Warner Bros. Television Group, so we will be seeing more of her. I think she has the potential to be this generation’s Angela Davis. Kimberly’s role in Black history is just a foot note today, but she is the Black future. Learn more about Kimberly Jones.
Addison N. Scurlock, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
One of the first Black woman millionaires
Founder of Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company
“As I bent over the washboard and looked at my arms buried in soapsuds, I said to myself, 'What are you going to do when you grow old and your back gets stiff?' This set me to thinking, but with all my thinking I couldn't see how a poor washerwoman was going to better my condition.”
Superpower: Entrepreneurial spirit
Madame Walker was the fifth child born to sharecroppers Owen and Minerva Breedlove. She was born Sarah Breedlove, the first of the Breedlove children to be born and not enslaved. Her early life was challenging. She was an orphan by seven and married by 14. She gave birth to her daughter A’Lelia at 19-years-old and a widow at age 20. Soon after, she relocated to St. Louis where she met Charles J. Walker, for whom her business was later named. They were married for a short period of time and divorced after only a few years together. She then moved to Pittsburgh where she opened a school to train her “Beauty Culturalists,” her female workforce.
Madame Walker began creating her empire when she started losing her hair due to a scalp disorder. She became obsessed with creating better hair care products for Black women. Her products were all homemade and sold directly to Black women. At the height of her business, she employed over 3,000 people, most of those women.
Giving back to the community was very important to Madame Walker. She often gave bonuses to her employees who also did work in the community. She became one of the first Black woman millionaires and an inspiration to generations to come. Learn more about Madam C.J. Walker.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
First self-made Black female millionaire
Nicknamed “The mother of Civil Rights in California”
“You know my cause well. My cause was the cause of freedom and equality for myself and for my people and I’d rather be a corpse than a coward.”
Superpower: Ability to listen
Mary Ellen Pleasant began as a mystery and remained that way throughout her life. There is some discrepancy about where she was born and if she was born enslaved or not. There is not much known about her parents. As an adolescent, she went to live with a family other than her biological family. The Williams family took her in and cared for her, yet then gave her to a family in Massachusetts to be their indentured servant. She lived with the Hussey-Gardner family who were Quakers, abolitionists, and store owners. On top of being their servant, she also worked in the family store. It is here where she learned to listen. She would learn a great deal just from listening to others converse around her as if she wasn’t there. While working at the store she learned about business and how to talk with people.
Her first husband, James Smith from Boston, was an abolitionist who worked to move enslaved people from the South up to the North and into Nova Scotia. After four years of marriage James died, leaving his estate to Mary Ellen. Soon after his death, she left to travel out West to take advantage of the freedom and the gold rush. She understood she could make a living cooking and providing lodging for the miners. She used some of her inheritance from her late husband to buy a boarding house and then rented out rooms to miners. She also worked to bring more enslaved people out West.
Mary Ellen began to invest in property and gold and silver, buying low and selling high, exchanging cash for silver or gold at the bank to sell high. She maintained a low profile and still worked as a domestic worker where she would listen to her wealthy bosses talk about investing. She would then invest according to what the men spoke about.
Mary Ellen used her wealth to help fund the Underground Railroad. She taught investing and business to other women of color while playing matchmaker, finding wealthy businessmen for her “trainees.” She kept detailed notes of who was with who, who had children outside of their marriages, and financial and political secrets. It is thought she used this information to blackmail the wealthy men.
To help keep her fortune a secret as her empire grew, Mary Ellen partnered with a white banker and investor, Mr. James Bell. At the time, a Black woman with a large amount of property and investments would garner attention she did not want. Together, through their investments and properties, their fortune was thought to be about $30 million (the equivalent of ~$740 million in 2021). Unfortunately, when Thomas Bell died, his widow contested their partnership, and the widow convinced the court that Mary Ellen had no rights to the money.
Mary Ellen Pleasant died poor, but through her service, financial savvy, and strategic mind, she helped many gain physical and financial freedom. Learn more about Mary Ellen Pleasant.
֎ Fannie Lou Hamer ֎ Ida B. Wells-Barnett ֎ Stacey Abrams
֎ The Founders of Black Lives Matter ֎ Afeni Shakur
Vice-chair of the Freedom Democratic Party
1964 Democratic National Convention Representative
Organized Mississippi’s Freedom Summer Project
Organized the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
Co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus
Mother of two adopted daughters
Inductee of the National Women's Hall of Fame
“I don’t want to hear you say, ‘Honey, I’m behind you.’ Well, move. I don’t want you back there because you could be 200 miles behind. I want you to say, ‘I’m with you.’ And we’ll go up this freedom road together.”
Fannie Lou Townsend was born in 1917, the last of 20 children to be born to Ella and James Lee Townsend, sharecroppers in Montgomery County, Mississippi. She began picking cotton at age six and by age 13 she was able to pick up to 300 pounds of cotton each day while fighting the effects of polio. During the winter months, when not picking cotton, she attended a one-room schoolhouse on the plantation where she worked. She excelled in reading, spelling, and reciting poetry. Unfortunately, by age 12 she had to leave school to pick cotton to help support the family.
In 1944 she married Perry Hamer and the couple continued their plantation work. In 1962, Fannie Lou was fired from the plantation when the owner discovered she tried to vote. Once the harvest was complete, her husband, Perry, was fired as well.
In 1961, she found out she had a uterine tumor. She scheduled the procedure to have the tumor removed but when the doctor went to remove the tumor, he chose to give Fannie Lou a “Mississippi Appendectomy” – the forcible removal of a Black women’s uterus without the woman’s consent to control the “spread” of Black people. Although Fannie Lou was unable to have children, she and Perry eventually became parents to two adopted girls.
In June 1963, after successfully completing a voter registration program in Charleston, South Carolina, Fannie Lou and several other Black women were arrested for sitting in a “whites only” bus station restaurant in Winona, Mississippi. At the Winona jailhouse, she and several of the women were brutally beaten, leaving Fannie Lou with lifelong injuries – a blood clot in her eye, kidney damage, and leg damage.
In 1964, Fannie Lou helped organize Freedom Summer, which brought hundreds of college students, Black and white, to help with African American voter registration in the segregated South.
Frustrated by the political process, Fannie Lou turned to economics as a strategy for greater racial equality. In 1968, she began a “pig bank” to provide free pigs for Black farmers to breed, raise, and slaughter. A year later she launched the Freedom Farm Cooperative, buying up land that Blacks could own and farm collectively. With the assistance of donors (including famed singer Harry Belafonte), she purchased 640 acres and launched a co-op store, boutique, and sewing enterprise. In 1977, Fannie Lou died of breast cancer at age 59.
Despite all that happened to her she never stayed down. Hardship, disease, racism, malpractice, and violence never stopped her from achieving what she was called to do. Learn more about Fannie Lou Hamer.
Early founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
Co-owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight newspaper
“I am only a mouthpiece through which to tell the story of lynching and I have told it so often that I know it by heart. I do not have to embellish; it makes its own way.”
Ida B. Wells-Barnett was born into slavery in Holly Springs Mississippi, and at age three she was declared free by the Emancipation Proclamation. At age 14 she went to visit relatives; while away from home her parents and a sibling contracted yellow fever and died soon after. Ida was left to raise herself and her surviving siblings. She found a better paying job as a teacher and moved the family to Memphis.
It was in Memphis where she co-founded the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight newspaper where she was also an investigative reporter. Ida chose to expose the truth behind white mob violence and lynching. The white media continued to report that those getting lynched were criminals and those doing the lynching were the real victims. Ida’s articles showed the brutality of the lynching and how they were used to intimidate and control Blacks who were gaining power and prominence in society.
Ida became a trusted and needed voice in the struggle for civil rights. Soon her articles were being carried nationally by other Black newspapers and as her readership spread, she became a target. Her presses in Memphis were destroyed by an angry white mob and she and her family were forced to flee to Chicago for safety.
She continued to write and speak both nationally and internationally, pointing out the realities of racism in America and the brutality of lynching. She also became a leader for women’s rights and a leader in the women’s suffrage movement. She was present during the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) but is rarely listed as one of the founders.
In 2020, Ida B. Wells-Barnett was awarded a Pulitzer Prize posthumously for her investigative writing. Learn more about Ida B. Wells-Barnett.
Gage Skidmore from Surprise, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Founder of Fair Fight Action
Democratic Georgia gubernatorial nominee 2018 and 2022
Co-founder of NOWaccount Network, a financial services firm
First African American woman to give a response to the Presidential State of the Union address
New York Times best-selling author (twice)
CEO of Sage Works, a legal consulting firm that has represented clients including the Atlanta Dream of the Women's National Basketball Association
“Our ability to participate in government, to elect our leaders and to improve our lives is contingent upon our ability to access the ballot. We know in our heart of hearts that voting is a sacred right – the fount from which all other rights flow.”
Superpower: The ability to organize
Stacey Yvonne Abrams was born to Robert and Carolyn Abrams in 1973 in Madison, Wisconsin, and raised in Gulfport, Mississippi. In 1989, the family moved to Atlanta where both her parents pursued graduate degrees in Divinity from Emory University.
While still in high school, Stacey was hired to work on a congressional campaign where she was given the opportunity to be a speechwriter. She continued her education after college and graduated magna cum laude from Spellman University in 1995. Her post-graduate work was done at the University of Texas in Austin, and she graduated with a Master of Public Affairs degree in 1998. Stacey continued to law school and earned a Juris Doctorate degree from Yale Law School.
In 2018, Abrams founded Fair Fight Action, an organization to address voter suppression. She has been widely credited with boosting voter turnout in Georgia, including in the 2020 presidential election, when Joe Biden narrowly won the state, and in Georgia's 2020–21 regularly scheduled and special U.S. Senate elections, which gave Democrats control of the Senate. Learn more about Stacey Abrams.
Left: Patrisse Cullors on Ashley Graham, Pretty Big Deal with Ashley Graham, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons | Center: Alicia Garza, Citizen University, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons | Right: Ayọ Tometi, Web Summit, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Superpower: Their ability to create change
In 2013, in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman, Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Ayọ Tometi (formerly Opal Tometi) created Black Lives Matter (BLM). There has been so much misinformation about this group, so it is important to hear directly from the founders about the inspiration behind this movement.
Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ humanity, our contributions to this society, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.
As organizers who work with everyday people, BLM members see and understand significant gaps in movement spaces and leadership. Black liberation movements in this country have created room, space, and leadership mostly for Black heterosexual, cisgender men — leaving women, queer and transgender people, and others either out of the movement or in the background to move the work forward with little or no recognition. As a network, we have always recognized the need to center the leadership of women and queer and trans people. To maximize our movement muscle, and to be intentional about not replicating harmful practices that excluded so many in past movements for liberation, we made a commitment to placing those at the margins closer to the center. (Source: https://blacklivesmatter.com/herstory/)
BLM is unique is so many ways. It appears the founders looked to the successes and failures of the past civil rights groups to guide them. As stated above, they wanted to create a more inclusive group that honors women, queer, and transgender people as leaders and show all are integral in creating real change. Learn more about Black Lives Matter.
University of Central Arkansas, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, via Flickr
Defended herself in the Panther 21 Trial in which all members were acquitted.
CEO of Amaru Entertainment
Founder of Tupac Shakur Foundation
“Trust me, you can't change anything without causing some degree of disruption. It's impossible, that is exactly what change is. Some people are uncomfortable with the disruption that change causes, but the disruption is necessary if anything is going to change.”
Superpower: Fierce litigator
When Afeni Shakur, born Alice Faye Williams, was 21 years old, she heard Black Panther Bobby Seale speak. When the Black Panther Party opened an office close to her home in Harlem she joined right away. She would soon meet and marry fellow Black Panther Lumumba Shakur. She changed her name to Afeni Shakur and became a section leader of the Harlem chapter for Black Panthers.
Six months after she joined the Black Panther Party, Afeni was arrested along with 20 other members, accused of plotting to bomb several New York police stations. During the trial she represented herself and described it in her autobiography, “I was young. I was arrogant. And I was brilliant in court... because I thought this was the last time I could speak. The last time before they locked me up forever... I was writing my own obituary." Her work in the trial is credited for getting her and the 20 others acquitted.
In total, Afeni spent two years in jail. During that time, she had the opportunity to get to know several Gay inmates who helped her to see the oppression the gay community was experiencing and how similar their fight was to the Black community’s fight. After her release, Afeni participated in the Gay Liberation Front and continued to fight for gay rights and the fight against homophobia within the Black Panthers.
On June 16, 1971, she welcomed son Lesane Parish Crooks. She would later rename him Tupac Amaru Shakur. Tupac grew up to be a gifted rapper and a critically acclaimed actor before being murdered in Las Vegas by a drive-by shooter. His murder is still unsolved. Learn more about Afeni Shakur.
Tyre Nichols loved photographing sunsets. We share this photo in his memory.
I didn’t plan on writing a blog this week. I was going to begin Black History Month focusing on Black history, but the Black present seems to be competing with the history to see which can be more traumatic. Last week the present was the clear winner… well, loser.
I haven’t watched the videos yet. It’s part of the process. I must charge myself up to watch it. I must take several days or weeks to prepare myself. I listen to – not watch – the news because I don’t want to be assaulted with the video when I’m not ready. I slowly page through social media keeping one eye out for videos of the beating. If I see something I accelerate past it. I’m not ready yet.
I concentrate on the positive stories (if that is possible after such a brutal tragedy). I like to hear what kind of person they were, what they liked to do, and the food they enjoyed. I listen to family members refer to them in the past tense and I wonder how they did it. How did they come to terms with their loved one that was so recently present but now past?
Through the consistent tragedy of Black lives meeting an early unjustified death, I have come to understand that ancestry has nothing to do with age. I always thought of my ancestors as older folks that are no longer here. I picture white-haired Frederick Douglass or frail little Miss Jane Pittman. Ancestors should never be younger than me. Yet, we keep adding to our ancestors from the same fountain. The fountain that convinces some that the color of our skin makes us a threat and blinds them to the threat that they have become.
The list goes on and on it seems. Emmett Till, Jordan Davis, Michael Brown, John Crawford III, George Floyd, Sandra Bland, Oscar Grant III, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, and now Tyre Nichols.
I can see each of their faces just like Frederick Douglass or Miss Jane Pittman. They were killed for a number of reasons:
Talking to a white woman
Playing music too loud
Buying a toy
Passing a fake $20 bill
Playing in the park
Carrying a licensed firearm
Asking for directions
Walking in a neighborhood
Jogging in a neighborhood
No matter how I look at them, none of these “offenses” warrant the death penalty. There was a better way to resolve every one of these situations.
I’m tired of adding to the list. What can we do to stop the growth of this list?
In less than a week, we will launch Black History Month. I have mixed feelings about it. Part of me is upset that we have only 28 days to prove Black history is valid and worth studying. Part of me enjoys the attention given to people like me who have made monumental contributions to this country. Then part of me is sick of hearing about Martin, Malcolm, Rosa, Fredrick, James, Barack, Michelle, etc. We hear about the same few every year.
Each year, on February 1, my teacher would roll out the Black History Month kit that flashed bios of the same people, as if only a handful of Black people did anything noteworthy for this country. I would hear Martin’s “I Have a Dream” speech over and over, as if that was the only one he ever gave. I would hear about Eli Whitney and the cotton gin, Malcolm X and why he was a bad leader and a bad human, and of course, sister Rosa would be mentioned.
Then we would move into March and the promise of spring. The blooming of tulips washed away the Black historical figures for the year. We exhausted all the notable Black people in those 28 days, so only a rare few would garner attention outside of February.
As I started to pull out my Black History Month kit this year, I decided to do things a bit differently. I chose to highlight 20 people in U.S. history who happen to be Black. Each working day in February, I will highlight a Black woman who has helped shape this country into what it is today. I choose Black women because we don’t honor them enough. I chose women most of us have never heard of because they have not been honored enough.
It pains me to admit that of the 20 women I chose to highlight, I only know surface-level information on 10 of them. My hope is that we all can learn and be inspired by the contributions these women have made. My ultimate hope is that someday we will no longer need Black History Month because we have grown to understand that Black history is American history and we can study the contributions of Black people all year.
“I’ve written a play and I was hoping you would consider playing a part in the play,” Sister Connie said to me after church one Sunday. She was Sister Connie because that is how we referred to each other at our church. We are all part of the same family. She would call me Brother Kevin. I liked that.
I asked her what the play was about, and she explained the play was called, “A Morsel of Bread: The Coretta Scott King Story.” Sister Connie had reserved the Valentine Theatre in Toledo, Ohio, a venue that is used primarily to host traveling Broadway plays. We didn’t have one rehearsal yet and Sister Connie had already booked the venue. She was a talented woman with a clear vision. She wanted me to play Coretta’s husband, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Before she finished her sentence I had agreed. It was an honor to attempt to play this man, and although these were colossal shoes to fill, I wanted to give it a shot.
Sister Connie asked me to practice one of his speeches and be prepared to “preach,” like the good Reverend had done so many times. She had suggested I do part of the “I Have a Dream” speech and I respectfully declined. As a writer, I really loved the poetic way in which Dr. King’s speeches flowed. His use of imagery combined with his southern preacher’s diction created a visual masterpiece in my head. I wanted to showcase what an amazing orator Dr. King was; I wanted people to hear he was more than just a “Dream.”
I was enthralled when I came across the “I’ve Been to The Mountaintop” speech. The fact that this was the speech he gave the night before he was murdered, the last speech he gave, made it irresistible. Below is my favorite part from that speech:
You know, several years ago, I was in New York City autographing the first book that I had written. And while sitting there autographing books, a demented Black woman came up. The only question I heard from her was, “Are you, Martin Luther King?”
And I was looking down writing, and I said yes. And the next minute I felt something beating on my chest. Before I knew it, I had been stabbed by this demented woman. I was rushed to Harlem Hospital. It was a dark Saturday afternoon. And that blade had gone through, and the X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery. And once that’s punctured, you drown in your own blood–that’s the end of you.
It came out in the New York Times the next morning, that if I had sneezed, I would have died. Well, about four days later, they allowed me … to read some of the mail that came in … there was another letter that came from a little girl…. It said simply, “Dear Dr. King: I am a ninth-grade student at the Whites Plains High School.” She said, “While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I am a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”
And I want to say tonight, I want to say that I am happy that I didn’t sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters. … If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they go somewhere because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation, and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill. If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had. If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been down in Selma, Alabama, to see the great movement there. If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been in Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering. I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze.
- Excerpt from Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” April 3, 1968
The first time I attempted this speech I summoned all the great Baptist preachers that had gone on before me and I poured myself in to the character. The speech calmly and gradually builds to a crescendo with these final powerful words:
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And 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. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
The speech ends in a fiery conclusion and when I stood still, I was dizzy, breathless, and close to passing out. I too was so happy he didn’t sneeze and even happier that I didn’t lose consciousness. Over time I got the breathing down and the rhythm of the speech gave me energy instead of taking it away. We did three shows at the Valentine Theatre, and for three shows I got to take on this man’s amazing life. It was an honor to be him for such a short time.
Through the rehearsals I often wondered what would have happened if he sneezed and we lost this great man so early. Then it became very clear to me why he didn’t sneeze. He didn’t sneeze because his work wasn’t done. He did such great work after the stabbing. He didn’t sneeze because his purpose wasn’t complete. When he felt he led us to the mountaintop he understood intimately that his purpose was to lead us to the promised land even though he might not step foot in the promised land. He understood he wasn’t the movement but simply a gear in the movement that kept things moving forward. He understood the movement was greater than himself.
Dr. King is no bigger than anyone of us. We all have purpose. We all have a job to fulfill. We might be called to be caregivers to patients or children. We may be called to lead co-workers or called to speak for the voiceless. We may be called to protect people or protect this planet. We all have value and worth and Dr. King inspires me to chase my purpose until my last breath. Even though he didn’t get to the promised land he left us a map and our journey is not done.
When I think back about my own education, I get a little angry. My curriculum rarely included any mention of people who look like me. One of the only times Black people were brought up in my history classes was when we talked about the enslavement of a race of people, and that history was filtered and bleached. We would talk about a few Black individuals who made contributions to this country, but they were always the same people every year. Eli Whitney and the cotton gin often came up. George Washington Carver and the wonders he could do with peanuts was a yearly lesson. Frederick Douglass and his wild hair would make an appearance. Malcolm X would be mentioned casually, but we couldn’t dive too deep into him because he was "dangerous." Of course, Martin Luther King Jr., was mentioned, but the vitriol that was often directed towards him when he was alive was "forgotten." The poet Gwendolyn Brooks and author James Baldwin (he was dangerous too) appeared as our only literary heroes. I heard more about Black athletes and entertainers, but the pathway to those careers was narrow and treacherous. Nowhere else did I see where people like me contributed to this country’s creation, which made me mad. I felt like valuable information was kept from me, information that would have helped me create a more confident me. I felt cheated.
In the ’90s, long after my elementary school years, it happened again. A friend of mine asked me if I celebrated Kwanzaa and I replied I hadn’t because I didn’t know what it was. He was generous enough to explain it to me and I couldn’t believe this had been around since the '60s and I had never heard about it. No one had ever taught me about Kwanzaa. It has such a rich and powerful message that I wished I had been made aware of it much sooner.
Sister Joan called me a few weeks ago and asked if I was going to do anything with Kwanzaa and I shared candidly that I didn’t know much about it. I was ashamed to admit that, but it was true. Sister Joan was kind enough to share with me a summary of Kwanzaa from the Black Catholic Project, which I have linked below. I hope you will join me in learning about and celebrating such an amazing tradition. Next year I will do more around Kwanzaa, now that I know more about it.
Black Catholic Project: Kwanzaa
By Kevin Hofmann
Director of the Office of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion
The downtown Detroit air was cold and every time the wind blew it reminded you that it was one week before Christmas. We park the car and the six of us walk against the wind to the Greyhound Bus station. We enter and the terminal is buzzing. Some are waiting to get on a bus and others, like our family, are waiting to greet a loved one.
I was excited to see my grandmother who boarded the bus in Cleveland five hours ago and soon would be with us. My grandmother, Louise Hofmann, was a German immigrant who settled in a German neighborhood in Cleveland. In my head, I was her favorite. I felt like we had a special bond and she always treated me like I was her only grandchild. Years later, I would find out she made all the grandkids feel like I did.
She was a small, thick woman hovering just under five feet tall, with hair the color of Santa’s and a wonderfully calming German accent. She was my favorite grandparent and I treasured her visits.
Over the loudspeaker, they announced that the bus from Cleveland would be late, arriving in 30 minutes. As we waited, I looked for things to keep my mind occupied so I wouldn’t stare at the clock, willing it to move faster. I watched as travelers exited bus after bus and they were greeted by excited friends or relatives. They kissed and hugged and walked out of the bus station with their arms interlocked. I went and played with the seats that had the small TVs attached to them. I merely played with them because to watch the TV you had to insert a quarter and I had no money. Occasionally, someone would put money in the TV and then be called to board a bus or pick up a traveler. I would wait until they were a safe distance away and then I would slide into the warm plastic seat to catch the remaining minutes of TV someone else paid for.
Finally, the announcement came: "Bus now arriving from Cleveland, Ohio. Passengers will enter the station at door three." We assemble as a family and move as one towards door three. Passenger after passenger enter through door three but none are a small German woman. Finally, between two shoulders, I see Grandma’s white hair. My excitement and anticipation catapult me forward, and I run to hug her, almost tackling her. She smiles through her glasses and my impact forces her trademark "Oy" to spill from her lips. I grab her hand; we interlock arms and we walk out of the station.
We arrive home and try to close out the cold as we shut the front door. It is bitterly cold and once again we are on pipe watch at the house. The upstairs bathroom is located directly above the foyer. The foyer has no heating ducts, so cold air gets trapped in the foyer and causes the upstairs bathroom pipes to freeze if not watched.
When it got this cold, we would set up the kerosene heater in the foyer to avoid the freeze and the ensuing mess that accompanies frozen pipes. We light the heater and pray that we will avoid the mess. Dad is especially stressed, constantly checking to make sure the heater is still on and functioning. Frozen pipes and the money it will cost to clean up a damaged ceiling could literally cancel Christmas.
We let Grandma get settled into her room and my brother announces the toilet in the upstairs bathroom is clogged. Dad responds by heading upstairs to see if he can make the toilet cough up the clog. Dad grabs the plunger and off he goes pumping feverishly. From the bathroom there is a chorus of water splashing and Dad cussing. Then Dad chooses to waste his time by yelling down to us in the living room, “Who did this?” As usual, no one fesses up to the crime. It doesn’t take the skills of Sherlock Holmes to understand the child who reported the clog is most likely the child who caused the clog. My brother was infamous for using a generous portion of toilet paper about the size of my head. Frustrated with the lack of empathy and concern from the rest of the family, Dad goes back to fighting with the toilet. Splashing and cussing continue to harmonize as Dad’s frustration grows when the toilet won’t release the clog.
Dad yells down to me to run across the street to the neighbors and ask to borrow a snake. I have no idea how a reptile will help in this situation, but I am not about to question Dad while he is at war with pipes and clogged toilets
I throw on my coat and slide my feet into my snowmobile boots. I run across the street and ask to borrow a snake. I am handed an object I don’t recognize, and since I don’t know what a snake is I accept the item I am given as a "snake." I inspect the item as I walk back home and what I see is a small piece of hose, duct taped to a large funnel. Looks like a snake to me! I run inside past the kerosene heater and up the stairs to the bathroom where Dad is in the second hour of his brutal battle. He is plunging and yelling and cussing and I don’t dare step one foot in the bathroom. Dad looks my way as I stand in the doorway of the bathroom. I extend the item towards my father who looks disgusted. "What the hell is that?" Dad asks. I respond confidently, "A snake."
I thought Dad’s head was going to explode. The cussing becomes more intense, and Dad orders me to exit the bathroom and take my "damn snake" with me. I run downstairs to the living room, feeling like I let my dad down, and sit next to Grandma.
She has a strange smile on her face, and she puts her arm around me. She asks to see “the snake,” and I hold it up. She starts to laugh and in between her chuckles she explains to me what a snake or toilet auger is. What I am holding is NOT a snake. She asks me what I said to the neighbor, and I explain I asked for a snake to unclog the toilet. We all then start to envision how the neighbor got this so confused. Did he even know what a snake was, or did he just give us the closest item he had to get rid of us? As we spin possible scenarios that led to this misunderstanding, we laugh even more. Tears are rolling down my cheeks and as we laugh, the kind of laughs that steal your breath. Dad is still upstairs sloshing in the toilet, cussing, and cursing the neighbor. The background input from Dad only makes this funnier and we begin to howl.
Grandma joins us in laughing at the situation and it feels so delicious to be given permission, from the only person in the world that can offer permission, to make fun of my father. It feels wrong and so so right, but his own mother started it. Dad wasn’t going to spank Grandma, so I felt safe.
This is one of my most cherished Christmas memories. The time I spent in her lap while she encouraged us to make fun of my father was priceless. I remember the white sweater she wore and that she smelled like Icy Hot which she used to quiet her arthritis. I remember her pure white hair and how she styled it. I remember the feeling of being her most special grandchild. What I don’t remember about that Christmas was what we talked about or argued about at the Christmas table. I don’t remember who believed what, or whom they voted for in the most recent election.
A few years later, Grandma’s decades of cigarette smoking placed a call, and it was time for Grandma to settle her debt. Grandma was diagnosed with cancer and in two weeks the wonderful German grandmother was gone.
If you choose to gather with loved ones over this holiday season, create memories with family and friends, not arguments. Show grace to those who say the wrong thing, at the wrong time, in the wrong way. Simply choose to love and be kind over proving your point. In the end, who won the argument just doesn’t matter.
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Black Catholic Project posts
Hofmann's Equity & Inclusion posts
All blog posts
Printable bookmark of African Americans on their Way to Sainthood (PDF)
Black Catholic History page by Seattle University
Timeline from the National Black Catholic Congress
Sister Jamie T. Phelps, OP, discusses Black Catholics in America with Dr. Paul Lakeland for Fairfield University's "Voices of Others" video series
News report on one of the oldest Black Catholic parishes in the U.S., St. Elizabeth Catholic Church (formerly St. Monica) in Chicago, Illinois