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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.
Since January 2021, our Toward Communion: Undoing Racism and Embracing Diversity Committee and our Justice Promoters have 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 and shares his unique experience of growing up Black in a white family in Detroit.
The new family was moving in and the neighborhood was buzzing. They were moving into the house on the corner of Outer Drive and Byrne in our Northwest Detroit neighborhood. Most of the neighbors were white and Catholic. To this point, I was the anomaly, I was a Black kid living with white Lutheran parents. The new family would change that. They were Black and Muslim, and we were told they were scary. I remember the rumors moving through the neighborhood like a cool breeze whispering, “Black Muslims hate white people you know.” Several adults warned us to stay away from them.
The warning to stay away made the family seem more appealing. My best friend and I jumped on our bikes and slowly pedaled past their house as they unloaded furniture and knick-knacks. Their furniture looked a lot like ours, just a better quality. The children dressed the same as kids our age. I was expecting them to look different, but my eyes saw no difference. We passed by, coasting on our bikes, and we noticed there were several boys in the family and one small girl. They smiled at us. It wasn’t the sinister smile I was expecting. It was the “can you come play with us,” kind of smile. I was encouraged because I didn’t want to be the only one in the neighborhood with more melanin than most. But I was cautious because of the warnings, and I was cautious because I wasn’t sure how they would see me, a Black kid living with a white family. I wondered if their hate for white would extend to me.
A few days later, Omar and Hassan came walking around the corner as we played baseball in the street. We all tensed up as they approached. I’m not sure what we were expecting, but the assumption was they would be mean, angry, and hard to talk to. Hassan was the oldest, tall, skinny, friendly, and calm. He spoke first and introduced himself to our group and we didn’t know how to respond. He wasn’t anything like we were told he would be. Omar spoke softly and had a bigger personality and still humble and kind. They were just kids like us. I wanted to pull off their Detroit Tigers caps to unveil their horns because I was convinced genetically Muslims had to be different. There was nothing there.
Finally, one of the older kids in our group asked if they wanted to play baseball with us. They said they had never played baseball before, but they were willing to learn. We were shocked that children our age had never played baseball, and we were excited to teach them. Hassan was on my team and Omar was on the other team and it was obvious by the way Hassan stood at home plate with a bat that this was new to him. The group was patient, and he was coachable and soon he caught on.
While sitting on the porch waiting to bat, Hassan sat next to me and asked me all about myself. I told him I liked to collect comic books and said he did too. I told him I liked to build with my Erector set and he too liked to build things. Hassan turned out to be a nerd like me and I was so confused. I kept waiting for the scary Muslim to appear and scream, “All whites are the devil,” and he never did.
A few days later Hassan returned and walked straight up to me and said, “I have something to show you.” He reached into his jeans pocket and pulled up a small figurine that he made. He had saved several green bread-ties and twisted them together to create The Hulk, one of my favorite comic book characters. He wanted me to have it. Someone who hates white people can’t be this creative.
Hassan’s parents were strict, so I didn’t see him a lot. They spent a lot of time doing chores and working around the house. When Hassan would come around, he always had a new comic book character made out of bread ties. His Spiderman made from red and blue ties was my favorite.
Hassan had two younger brothers, Kareem and Abdul who were about 7 and 8 years old. They were just learning to ride bikes so they would often ride together down our street. On one of their first trips, Kareem started teasing us as he rode by calling us, “do do heads,” and my friend and I gave chase as we played along. Kareem and Abdul sped away on their bikes laughing. Their laugh was a deep, genuine, belly laugh that was simply pure joy. A sound that could drown out the loudest city sounds. From that day on Kareem and Adul would ride down our street looking for us, hoping we would chase them. We always did with no intention of ever catching them. We did it just to hear them laugh and scream. People who hate white people don’t laugh like that.
The family never lived up to the stereotype of what we thought a Muslim family should be. They were respectful, kind, gracious, and polite. They were much more kind than most of the kids in the neighborhood. What I realized was that they weren’t like that despite being Muslim. They were like that because they were Muslim and brought up that way.
One of my heroes is the bumbling genius Ted Lasso from the TV series of the same name. He has a great quote, “Be Curious, not judgmental.” I think we lean more on judgmental as we grow up and become adults. But I have to tell you: curiosity helps make better friends.
May is National Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month, a time to celebrate and honor the rich and diverse history and cultures, as well as the contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) to the United States. This month-long observance honors the struggles and triumphs of the generations of AAPI individuals who have helped shape our country.
The AAPI community is incredibly diverse, including people from more than 50 different countries and ethnicities. This diversity is reflected in the vast array of cultural traditions, languages, religions, and customs that make up the AAPI experience.
One of the most significant contributions of AAPI individuals is their contributions to the economy, science, technology, and arts. AAPI people have played a critical role in shaping American society and have contributed to a variety of fields, from politics and business to entertainment and the arts.
Asian Americans have been instrumental in advancing the field of technology, particularly in Silicon Valley. From Steve Chen, Co-founder of YouTube, to Jerry Yang, Co-founder of Yahoo!, Asian Americans have played a vital role in the development of the Internet and the tech industry.
The AAPI community has also made significant contributions to the entertainment industry, from actors and musicians to filmmakers and directors. Stars like Mindy Kaling, Constance Wu, and Daniel Dae Kim have made significant contributions to Hollywood, paving the way for other AAPI actors and filmmakers.
The AAPI community has faced significant challenges, from discrimination and xenophobia to political marginalization. These challenges have only made the AAPI community more resilient and determined to make a difference in the world.
One of the most notable examples of AAPI resilience is that of Japanese Americans during World War II. Despite being unjustly interned in camps, Japanese Americans fought bravely in the 442nd Infantry Regiment, becoming the most decorated unit in American history.
We, Adrian Dominican Sisters and Partners in Mission, are honored and so fortunate to have AAPI people as members of our community. As the recent spike in violence against this AAPI people continues, we stand with all members of the AAPI community. You all are a valuable voice and hail from diverse cultures that help to make us a better community, country, and world.
May is Indian Heritage Month, a time to reflect on the rich and diverse cultures of the indigenous peoples of North America. However, it is also a time to acknowledge the atrocities that Native Americans have suffered and the land that was stolen from them.
For centuries, Native American communities have faced violence, displacement, and cultural erasure at the hands of European colonizers. Their land was taken, their languages and traditions were suppressed, and their lives were endangered. The impact of this history is still felt today, with many Native Americans living in poverty and struggling to preserve their cultural heritage.
One of the most significant atrocities committed against Native Americans was the forced removal of thousands of people from their ancestral lands during the 19th century. This practice, known as the Trail of Tears, resulted in the deaths of thousands of Native Americans as they were forced to walk hundreds of miles to designated territories. This act of violence was just one of many in a long history of broken treaties and promises made by the US government.
Moreover, Native Americans suffered a great deal at the hands of European settlers, who brought with them diseases that decimated entire communities. In addition to the physical violence and disease, Native Americans also faced cultural genocide as European colonizers attempted to forcibly assimilate them into Western ways of life. This included the suppression of Native American languages, traditions, and religions.
It is essential to recognize that the struggles of Native Americans are ongoing. Many indigenous communities still face significant challenges today, such as poverty, lack of access to healthcare and education, and environmental degradation caused by extractive industries. It is vital to support indigenous-led movements for social and environmental justice and work towards reparations and healing for the harm that has been inflicted on Native American communities. Sr. Susan Gardner and The Catholic Native Boarding School Accountability and Healing Project of the U.S. Bishops is doing just that and the work that they are starting here will bring about equity and healing to a community so deserving of both.(https://adriandominicans.org/News/sister-susan-gardner-op-participates-in-healing-and-reconciliation-project)
This Indian Heritage Month, let us honor the resilience and strength of Native Americans while also acknowledging the atrocities that they have suffered. By acknowledging the past, we can work towards a more just and equitable future for all.
by Kevin Hofmann
Director of the Office of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion
April is Celebrate Diversity Month as well as Earth month! When I heard this is the month to celebrate diversity, I envision people all over the world inviting people who are not like them for dinner, they sit around a large table and stare at each other, waiting for cultural understanding to come through osmosis. The understanding never comes, and everyone leaves hungry because they were too nervous to eat while the powerfully diverse environment and the opportunity to learn is wasted.
My wife and I have a small garden contained in three large metal oblong troughs that stand about three feet tall. It is an elevated garden because our aging backs insisted on it. In those containers, we mostly grow all kinds of peppers, from mild jalapeños to ghost peppers, which are hot enough to remove several layers of paint.
Each year we prepare the soil because the better the soil, the better the peppers. If we don’t properly aerate the soil, the seeds will not take root or they will grow a stunted version of what they could have been. Creating an environment where the seeds are comfortable makes all the difference. A seed can’t flourish in a hostile unwelcoming environment.
People are the same, yet we often do this when we talk about diversity. So much time is spent on bringing in as many diverse people as possible and then we can’t understand why they do not thrive. They fail to thrive because no attention was paid to the environment in which they would be placed.
When I worked with schools, I would always get the question, “How can we create a more diverse teaching staff?” This was usually butted up against the statement, “We have brought in diverse candidates, but they don’t stay long.” My response is the same to both questions. “What have you done to create a welcoming environment for your new employees? What have you done to prepare the soil so the new 'seeds' can thrive? Is there a support system in place for the employee? Is there a Black community for the Black teachers that gives them a place to exhale?
Very often diversity and inclusion are used synonymously, but they are quite different. I prefer to talk about inclusion a little differently. I prefer to use the phrase, “Creating a sense of belonging,” instead of the term inclusion. Creating a sense of belonging means that we have turned over the soil, added nutrients, and prepared the soil to welcome the new seeds. Once the seeds are placed in the soil they feel “at home.” That “at home” feeling gives them room to exhale and an opportunity to be seen and heard. They, in turn, feel a part of our community. Allowing them to bring their full selves to the community benefits us all. We benefit from their unique input, ideas, and experiences.
So what does that look like? It means that we make room to talk about and learn from different cultures. We seek to hear voices different from our own and we commit to understanding we all don’t see the world the same way. It means being OK with that and being open to the fact that our way may not be the best way or the only way. It means understanding we are the cultivators of our environment. We have control over whether the environment is suitable for growth or too acidic to support life.
As spring approaches (please, oh please, let it be coming), let’s concentrate on building a community that is capable of supporting diversity. If we can do that, our community and garden will flourish.
This woman changed the game in journalism. If we are “Celebrating Women who tell our stories,“ we can’t have this conversation without mentioning this woman. Oprah Winfrey gave a platform to the unheard. She created space for all whether she agreed with them or not. She ruled the daytime talk show stage for 25 years and she made us confront things like race, sexuality, culture, sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, mental health, finances, relationships, and many other things.
Oprah Winfrey was born Orpah Gail Winfrey. She was named after the biblical character in the book of Ruth. Her name was mispronounced so much that eventually everyone called her Oprah instead of Orpah which is the name on her birth certificate. Oprah was born to a teenage mother in a poor, rural area of Mississippi. Soon after her birth her mother moved to the North and left Winfrey to live with her grandmother. Her grandmother was poor but attentive, teaching Oprah to read by the age of three. She lived with her grandmother until she was six years old. At that time, Oprah moved to Milwaukee to live with her mother. She lived with her mother for two years and during that time her mother gave birth to Oprah’s half sister, Patricia. Her mother was unable to care for both of the girls, so she sent Oprah to live with Vernon Winfrey in Nashville. This is the man Oprah refers to as her father, although he was not her biological father.
Ms. Winfrey was sent back to live with her mother in Milwaukee after a few years and was sexually abused by three family members. At age 13 she ran away from home and by 14 she was pregnant and gave birth to a son. Tragically, the son died soon after birth. Several years later a family member would sell the story of Oprah’s pregnancy and son to the National Inquirer, leaving Oprah feeling betrayed.
After early academic success in a public high school, Oprah was moved to an affluent high school in the suburbs of Milwaukee. Hoping to fit in, Oprah stole money from her mother to buy nicer clothes for school. When she was caught, she was sent back to Nashville to live with Vernon Winfrey again. Ms. Winfrey would stay with Vernon for good this time. Once in a stable environment, Oprah began to shine. She was an honor student, a member of the speech team, and voted the most popular girl in high school.
At age 17, she competed in the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant, and she won. This caught the attention of a local Black radio station whose management hired her to do the news at age 17! Ms. Winfrey would earn a full scholarship to Tennessee State, a historical Black university. She began working in TV while in college and became the youngest news anchor and the first Black woman news anchor at WLAC-TV in Nashville. Oprah took a job as a co-anchor of a news show in Baltimore and then was recruited to co-host a local talk show. She next moved to Chicago and accepted a position as the host of AM Chicago, a 30-minute failing morning news show. Within months she was outperforming Phil Donahue, the father of daytime talk shows. Two years later she would sign a syndication deal and launch the hour-long Oprah Winfrey show. On September 8, 1986, the show began and for the next 25 years she would rule the afternoon, becoming impossible to beat in the ratings during her time slot.
Today, Oprah is one of the wealthiest people in the world and one of the most recognized. She exploded the glass ceiling in the daytime talk show field that was dominated by males. She made a living giving a voice to the voiceless in a compassionate, non-exploitive way and we are all richer for it.
By Kevin Hofmann
Director of the Office of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion
Growing up my parents were close friends with the Delors: Cal and Joanne. Cal was my father’s best man at his wedding and Joanne was the first feminist I knew. A few times a year we would get together and have dinner and talk and laugh. They would either come to visit us in northwest Detroit or we would go see them at their home in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood.
Those dinners were great because the Delors would bring a dish to pass and talk about equality and justice. Mrs. Delor saw everything through her feminist mind. No matter the conversation, she would always relate it to the importance of equality for women and I liked that. It just made common sense to me. She was bold about her beliefs and ready to challenge anyone who thought differently. I felt safe around her because she was all about making sure EVERYONE was seen and heard. Long before the word was popular, she was an ally, and I felt the safety that came with that.
I first heard about Gloria Steinem and the Equal Rights Amendment over spaghetti and garlic bread, the kind that came in a loaf sealed in an aluminum foil wrapper that you put directly into the oven. I loved that bread, and I loved hearing my parents and the Delors talk about making the world a better place for people who were overlooked. It is often said that what we talk about around the dinner table affects the angle at which we view the world. Gloria Steinem was presented as a hero, so I saw her as a hero. In celebration of Women’s History month, I wanted to share and learn about this woman I was taught to admire.
Gloria Steinem was born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1934. Her grandmother is credited for rescuing several of her family members from the horrors of the Holocaust and later became the first woman elected to the Toledo Board of Education and was a prominent member of the National Women Suffrage Association. The genes for social justice run deep in the Steinem family. It appears Ms. Steinem was heavily influenced by the talk around her dinner table, too.
Gloria’s mother suffered from mental illness and often was in and out of the hospital as she struggled with her illness and finding someone to listen. Gloria witnessed how the doctors treated her mother and concluded that the doctors’ apathy toward her was because she was a woman. This would inspire Gloria to fight for equal treatment for women for the rest of her life.
Gloria Steinem was a journalist and activist. One of her first jobs was writing for Esquire magazine. Her first official piece was on how women are often forced to choose between a career and marriage. The controversy around a woman speaking out would get her noticed. A year later she posed as a Playboy bunny and wrote about the conditions and treatment of women inside the Playboy mansion in an article called “Bunny Tales.” Her involvement in this piece, although groundbreaking and eye-opening, would make it hard for her to get further work. It is said, though, that her story caused Hugh Hefner to rethink and improve the working conditions for the women at the mansion.
Eventually, she would land a job at New York Magazine. While working there, she was sent to a church basement to attend a meeting with community organizers. She would later comment that this meeting is where things “clicked” for her and she became a fierce defender of women’s rights.
In 1969, Gloria wrote an article titled “After Black Power, Women’s Liberation.” This article brought her attention and she soon became known as one of the leaders of feminism. She testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment. Her pen and voice were tireless as she protested and wrote about things like apartheid, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the rights of stewardesses, the Clarence Thomas confirmation as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, and even the powers and uniform of Wonder Woman.
DC Comics had decided to write into the comic’s storyline that Wonder Woman would lose her powers and uniform to become a special agent. This offended Ms. Steinem and prompted her to protest the removal of Wonder Woman’s powers. The protest led to the firing of writer Samuel “Chip” Delany.
Ms. Steinem changed the landscape of this country by simply creating a space where a more valuable voice could be heard. I now see why Mrs. Delor was such a fan.
Ms. Steinem has done more than I could possibly describe in this blog. Learn more about her here.
There is a picture in my office of a lion and to the right of his deadly smile is my favorite African Proverb, “Until the lion learns to write, every story will glorify the hunter.” To me, this simply means we need more voices in the room. The different perspectives that come from many different voices are what make a story more vibrant and complete.
The theme for this year’s Women’s History month is “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories.” I started researching women journalists. I wanted to highlight those women who choose to no longer glorify the hunter.
The first verified female journalist was Anna Margareta Momma née von Bragner, commonly referred to as Margareta Momma. She was a Dutch woman who lived in Sweden and is credited (albeit long after the fact) for writing the first female piece of journalism. She wrote a series of anonymous political essays in 1738.
Prior to this, there were documented female publishers, editors, and owners of printing presses, and it is assumed many of those women were journalists as well. Unfortunately, to be considered relevant, women initially had to write under male pseudonyms, so pinpointing the first woman journalist is impossible, which is why Margareta Momma is considered the “momma” of female journalism.
Margareta Momma helped build blaze a path that other women would walk, including journalist Jenni Monet. Ms. Monet is an acclaimed journalist who writes from her unique point of view. She is the founder of the weekly newsletter Indigenously: Decolonizing Your Newsfeed and tribal citizen of the Laguna Pueblo. She writes fearlessly about Indigenous affairs from a point of view rarely heard.
Momma and Monet are two trailblazers who understood the value of their voices. They understood the story isn’t complete without their perspective. In honor of these women, let us recognize that all our voices are vital and necessary. Here’s to two women who have used their gifts to give voice to lions.
To learn more about these journalists, click the links below.
Margareta Momma: Wikipedia
Jenni Monet: Website, Ms Magazine article
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.
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Black Catholic History page by Seattle University
Timeline from the National Black Catholic Congress
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