Empowered by Color: Biographies of African Americans

I am often amazed at just how much was given in order that I might have opportunities. The opportunity to walk on the same side of the street as my white counterpart, drink from the same fountain, use the front door or even hold a simple job as a cashier. The risks that were taken by other black people to make my life easier amaze me — not only the notable, like Harriet Tubman or Mary McLeod Bethune, but those in my family who didn't make the front page, yet endured unkind words and looks, educational barriers and having to be the first to cross school district boundaries or diagnose illnesses in the face of adversity where the majority doubted their abilities. This took excellence — not a choice to be excellent, but a requirement to be excellent. All of these brave men and women performed these tasks as everyday living. By positively contributing to the black culture, they were effective in enriching my faith, developing cultural heritage and adding to America's history.

There are many African Americans who have inspired, empowered and made contributions to our nation's history and helped to develop the tapestry and foundation of our future. The following are just a few of the notable forefathers.

While her exact date of birth is unknown, she was born in the decade 1815-1825 on an estate in Dorchester County, Maryland, to Benjamin Ross and Harriet Green and, as a child, was known as "Araminta."

Harriet TubmanOnce enslaved, Harriet Tubman became one of the most important leaders of the Underground Railroad. She led so many blacks into freedom and risked her life to help hundreds of people escape from slavery; she received the nickname of "Moses." She experienced more hardships and more danger than almost anyone else of her time, traveling into the South, working under the cover of night to lead small groups of scared, sore-footed and tired "passengers" along the Underground Railroad to freedom in the North. Her other accomplishments include serving for the Union Army as a spy, a scout and a nurse, as well as helping the poor and supporting women's rights after the Civil War.

Booker T. WashingtonBooker T. Washington was raised as a slave on the Burroughs plantation until the age of nine. Then his family moved to West Virginia, where he took a job in coal mines and later served as a houseboy for the mine owner's wife. At age sixteen, he enrolled at Hampton Institute, where he received his degree. In 1881, with hardly any money and no land or buildings, Booker T. Washington established one of the most influential schools for African Americans at the time — Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University. He was principal of the school from July 4, 1881, until his death in 1915. Washington was invited to have tea with Queen Victoria of England and invited to serve as counsel to U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. The President asked Washington for advice on racial issues and other political policies. Washington's autobiography, Up from Slavery, was published in 1901 and soon became a national bestseller.

Ida WellsIda Wells was born to slaves in Holly Springs, Miss., six months before the Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves. Her parents and several brothers and sisters died when yellow fever overtook her town while she was away visiting other family members. Ida took on caring for her remaining siblings by earning a living teaching. She attended Rust College and continued her education at Fisk University to become a teacher; and she joined the literary society in Memphis, Tenn. She had a passion to write essays on the social conditions of African Americans, highlighting the lynching that was escalating in regions of the country. Wells was the co-owner and eventually owner of the newspaper, Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, later shortened to Free Speech. After writing an unwelcome article about the lynching of three black men, her office was ransacked and, shortly after, she moved to Chicago, Ill. She championed anti-lynching legislation, which was never passed by Congress, although her efforts raised awareness. Wells founded a settlement house in Chicago for young African-American men and women, regularly taught a Bible class at the house, and also worked as a probation officer there.

George Washington CarverKnown internationally for his research in agriculture, George Washington Carver's scientific discoveries made a profound influence on the world. He had a vision to design practical agricultural farming techniques. In his laboratory at Tuskegee Institute, he developed more than 300 different products that could be made from peanuts and over 100 different products that could be made from sweet potatoes. Dr. Carver proved that, by using a system of plant rotation, farmers in the South could increase their crop production. Since cotton had been grown exclusively in many fields for over 200 years, Carver showed farmers the importance of planting soil-enhancing and protein rich crops, such as peanuts, peas and soybeans. As a result of his teaching, the economy in the South prospered. Dr. Carver's approach to research was grounded in a profound religious faith to which he attributed all of his accomplishments. He was an inventor, scientist, humanitarian and man of faith.

Mary McLeod Bethune was the fifteenth of seventeen children born in Maysville, S.C. She attended Scotia Seminary and, after graduating, she attended Moody Bible Institute. Desiring to be a missionary in Africa and unable to complete that task, her missionary spirit compelled her to open a school for girls. After 19 years of working to educate African-American girls and boys, Bethune-Cookman College was finally established in 1955 with 100 faculty members and 1,000 students enrolled. In 1936, Bethune gained national recognition from President Franklin D. Roosevelt when she was appointed director of African-American affairs in the National Youth Administration and a special advisor on minority affairs. Two axioms of Bethune's philosophy: "Not for myself, but for others" and "I feel that, as I give, I get."

Dr. Carter Woodson Dr. Carter Woodson was unable to go to school until he was 20 years of age, but he then attended and completed his high school diploma in two years. He furthered his education at Berea University, University of Chicago and Harvard, where he received his Ph.D. in History. His passion for education led him to note that there were no books at the time that contained information about the history of African Americans. This led him in his life's work of publishing the Journal of Negro History and establishing the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. In 1926, the inauguration Negro History Week made information about African Americans available. Woodson saw Negro History Week as a way to raise the consciousness of blacks, as well as whites, about the intimate links between the cultures and societies established by persons of African descent. In 1976, this week was officially expanded to a month and is celebrated during February, known as Black History Month.

Louis ArmstrongLouis Armstrong wrote, played and sang for over five decades. He had a unique style that formed American jazz and still influences musical styles today. Armstrong played cornet with Fletcher Henderson's orchestra, then with his own revolutionary Hot Fives and Sevens, and one of the big bands, the All-Stars, finally culminating with 1967's still-popular "What a Wonderful World." Satchmo, as he became known, was born in the "Battlefield," New Orleans, La., in 1901 and continued to live a simple life in working-class America until his passing in 1971. Armstrong was a superb entertainer and a great celebrity of the early 20th century. He entertained millions, including heads of state, royalty and kids sitting on his own front porch.

Ruby Dee & Ossie DavisAdvocate for social justice, human dignity and creative excellence, Ossie Davis was a leader. Born in Cogdell, Georgia, in 1917 to a loving family, he pursued his desire to be a playwright through his education at Howard University. Davis' career began in 1939 and consisted of performing on Broadway, in film and television. He met his future wife, Ruby Dee, in 1946 and married her in1948. Ossie and Ruby were married 56 years and their marriage is noted as extraordinary in the entertainment culture because show business is not known for nurturing long-term marriages. Davis' passion for human dignity led him to work with Martin Luther King, Jr., during the March on Washington, and to file a lawsuit in federal court for black voting rights. He was also active in supporting research for sickle cell anemia.

Born into poverty in Arkansas, John H. Johnson credits his mother Gertrude Johnson Williams for instilling in him a strong determination to succeed. Johnson was the founder and chairman of Johnson Publishing Company, Inc., a major international media and cosmetic empire known for Ebony and Jet magazines, Fashion Fair Cosmetics and the Ebony Fashion Fair show. This media empire was built on a borrowed $500. Mr. Johnson is recognized as the founder of the African-American consumer market. The highest civilian honor, The Presidential Medal of Freedom, was awarded to Mr. Johnson, along with numerous other industry honors. In 2003, Howard University in Washington, D.C., established a School of Communications in his honor.

Article copyright © 2006, Focus on the Family.
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Kim Flynn is a member of the Pastoral Ministries staff at Focus on the Family. She is also involved in lay ministry and enjoys pursuing her gifts in writing and music. She lives in Colorado Springs, Colo., with her husband, Tom.