Benjamin Banneker -- author, scientist, mathematician, farmer, astronomer, publisher and urban planner -- was descended from enslaved Africans, an indentured English servant, and free men and women of color. His grandmother, Molly Welsh, was an English dairy maid who was falsely convicted of theft and indentured to a Maryland tobacco farmer. After working out her indenture, Welsh rented and farmed some land, eventually purchasing two African slaves whom she freed several years later.
In violation of Maryland law, Welsh wed one of her former slaves, Bannke or Bannaka, said to be the son of a chief. Their daughter Mary also married an African -- a man from Guinea who had been enslaved, baptized as Robert, and freed -- who took Banneker as his surname upon their marriage. In 1731, they named their first child Benjamin.
Young Benjamin grew up in Baltimore County, one of two hundred free blacks among a population of four thousand slaves and thirteen thousand whites. He was taught to read by his grandmother Molly, and briefly attended a one-room interracial school taught by a Quaker. He showed an early interest in mathematics and mechanics, preferring books to play.
At the age of 22, having seen only two timepieces in his lifetime -- a sundial and a pocket watching -- Banneker constructed a striking clock almost entirely out of wood, based on his own drawings and calculations. The clock continued to run until it was destroyed in a fire forty years later.
Banneker became friendly with the Ellicott brothers, who built a complex of gristmills in the 1770s. Like Banneker, George Ellicott was a mathematician and amateur astronomer. In 1788, with tools and books borrowed from Ellicott, Banneker nearly accurately predicted the timing of an eclipse of the sun, discovering later that his minor error was due to a discrepancy in his expert sources rather than a miscalculation on his part.
In 1791, Banneker accompanied Major Andrew Ellicott to the banks of the Potomac to assist him in surveying the new federal city that would become the nation's capital. A notice first printed in the Georgetown Weekly Ledger and later copied in other newspapers stated that Ellicott was "attended by Benjamin Banneker, an Ethiopian, whose abilities, as a surveyor, and an astronomer, clearly prove that Mr. Jefferson's concluding that race of men were void of mental endowments, was without foundation."
In 1792, Banneker published an almanac, based on his own painstakingly calculated ephemeris (table of the position of celestial bodies), that also included commentaries, literature, and fillers that had a political and humanitarian purpose. The previous summer, he had sent a copy of the ephemeris to Thomas Jefferson, along with a letter in which he challenged Jefferson's ideas about the inferiority of blacks.
Between 1792 and 1797, Banneker published six almanacs in twenty-eight editions. He continued to live alone, selling off and renting his land, then giving the rest to the Ellicotts in exchange for a small pension. He died in 1806. On the day of his burial, his house and its contents (including his clock) caught fire and burned to the ground.
“Mary McLeod Bethune (July 10, 1875 – May 18, 1955) was the founder of Bethune-Cookman College. She also served as a New Deal government official — she was one of the 20 highest-level offices held by women in the administration, and the highest held by an African American woman. She played a key role in founding FDR’s “black cabinet.” She also served as president of the National Association of Colored Women, and she founded and served as president of the National Council of Negro Women. She was known for improving educational opportunities for African Americans; president, National Association of Colored Women; founder, National Council of Negro Women. Her statue in Washington, DC, was the first statue depicting any woman or African American in any park in the nation’s capital. Her home is a National Historic Landmark. “
When called upon to name one of America’s greatest inventors, most people mention names like Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone or Thomas Alva Edison and his achievements ranging from the electric light to the phonograph. However, a contemporary of those two greats who most people do not know about is a Black man by the name of Granville T. Woods.
A sound argument can be made that Woods’ inventive genius was equal to if not superior to that of both Bell and Edison. During his brief life (he died at 53) Woods with the aid of his brother Lyates registered over 65 patents for electrical, mechanical, and communications devices which today we take for granted with virtually no awareness of their connection to Granville T. Woods. His inventions ranged from the electrified third rail common to most subway systems worldwide to 12 devices which modernized the railroad to an advanced telephone transmitter.
Woods’ “advanced telephone transmitter” was so advanced in fact that Alexander Graham Bell’s company purchased the rights to it from Woods both because it was superior to what Bell had invented and out of fear that Woods might become a major competitor to the Bell company. Woods called his invention “telegraphony” featuring a combination of the best of the telegraph and the telephone.
Selling his invention to the Bell Company gave Woods the money he needed to spend full time as an inventor. He added air brakes and an egg hatching machine to his list of inventions during this period.
In 1887, he patented the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph which for the first time allowed communications between train stations and moving trains. It was this invention that ran him afoul of the powerful Thomas Alva Edison – the man generally considered America’s most prolific inventor. Despite his own genius, Edison was a hard nose capitalist who had a penchant for suing other inventors and claiming their inventions. Edison sued Woods charging that he (Edison) was the first to invent the multiplex telegraph. After a costly court battle, Woods won the case. But even after losing to Woods, Edison remained so impressed with him that he offered the Black genius a partnership in one of his companies. In order to maintain his independence, Woods rejected the offer.
Woods’ success is even more astounding when you factor in from whence he came. Born on April 23, 1856 in Columbus, Ohio, Woods did not receive any formal education beyond age 10. At 10, he began an apprenticeship in a machine shop. Later he worked in a rail yard where he fell in love with trains. Thirty-five of his patents related to improvements in electric railway cars. He eventually moved to Cincinnati, Ohio where he, along with his brother, launched his own company – Woods Railway Telegraph Company.
Besides the tendency of American historians to forget or ignore the achievements of great men and women of color, another reason Woods is not widely known is because he sold most of his inventions to General Electric, Westinghouse, and the Bell Telephone Company.
Nevertheless, his inventive genius was widely known and publicized in the late 1800’s. At his height, the Cincinnati, OhioCatholic Tribune (January 14, 1886) wrote of Woods: “… the greatest colored inventor in the history of the race and equal, if not superior, to any inventor in the country …”
Although she was born on 7 June 1917 in Topeka, Kansas--the first child of David and Keziah Brooks--Gwendolyn Brooks is "a Chicagoan." The family moved to Chicago shortly after her birth, and despite her extensive travels and periods in some of the major universities of the country, she has remained associated with the city's South Side. What her strong family unit lacked in material wealth was made bearable by the wealth of human capital that resulted from warm interpersonal relationships. When she writes about families that--despite their daily adversities--are not dysfunctional, Gwendolyn Brooks writes from an intimate knowledge reinforced by her own life.
Brooks attended Hyde Park High School, the leading white high school in the city, but transferred to the all-black Wendell Phillips, then to the integrated Englewood High School. In 1936 she graduated from Wilson Junior College. These four schools gave her a perspective on racial dynamics in the city that continues to influence her work.
Her profound interest in poetry informed much of her early life. "Eventide," her first poem, was published in American Childhood Magazine in 1930. A few years later she met James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes, who urged her to read modern poetry--especially the work of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and e. c. cummings--and who emphasized the need to write as much and as frequently as she possibly could. By 1934 Brooks had become an adjunct member of the staff of the Chicago Defender and had published almost one hundred of her poems in a weekly poetry column.
In 1938 she married Henry Blakely and moved to a kitchenette apartment on Chicago’s South Side. Between the birth of her first child, Henry, Jr., in 1940 and the birth of Nora in 1951, she became associated with the group of writers involved in Harriet Monroe's still-extant Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. From this group she received further encouragement, and by 1943 she had won the Midwestern Writers Conference Poetry Award.
In 1945 her first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville (published by Harper and Row), brought her instant critical acclaim. She was selected one of Mademoiselle magazine's "Ten Young Women of the Year," she won her first Guggenheim Fellowship, and she became a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her second book of poems, Annie Allen (1949), won Poetry magazine's Eunice Tietjens Prize. In 1950 Gwendolyn Brooks became the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize. From that time to the present, she has seen the recipient of a number of awards, fellowships, and honorary degrees usually designated as Doctor of Humane Letters.
President John Kennedy invited her to read at a Library of Congress poetry festival in 1962. In 1985 she was appointed poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. Just as receiving a Pulitzer Prize for poetry marked a milestone in her career, so also did her selection by the National Endowment for the Humanities as the 1994 Jefferson Lecturer, the highest award in the humanities given by the federal government.
Her first teaching job was a poetry workshop at Columbia College (Chicago) in 1963. She went on to teach creative writing at a number of institutions including Northeastern Illinois University, Elmhurst College, Columbia University, Clay College of New York, and the University of Wisconsin.
A turning point in her career came in 1967 when she attended the Fisk University Second Black Writers' Conference and decided to become more involved in the Black Arts movement. She became one of the most visible articulators of "the black aesthetic." Her "awakening" led to a shift away from a major publishing house to smaller black ones. While some critics found an angrier tone in her work, elements of protest had always been present in her writing and her awareness of social issues did not result in diatribes at the expense of her clear commitment to aesthetic principles. Consequently, becoming the leader of one phase of the Black Arts movement in Chicago did not drastically alter her poetry, but there were some subtle changes that become more noticeable when one examines her total canon to date.
The ambiguity of her role as a black poet can be illustrated by her participation in two events in Chicago. In 1967 Brooks, who wrote the commemorative ode for the "Chicago Picasso," attended the unveiling ceremony along with social and business dignitaries. The poem was well received even though such lines as "Art hurts. Art urges voyages . . ." made some uncomfortable. Less than two weeks later there was the dedication of the mural known as "The Wall of Respect" at 43rd and Langley streets, in the heart of the black neighborhood. The social and business elites of Chicago were not present, but for this event Gwendolyn Brooks wrote "The Wall." In a measure these two poems illustrate the dichotomy of a divided city, but they also exemplify Brooks's ability both to bridge those divisions and to utilize nonstrident protest.
Gwendolyn Brooks has been a prolific writer. In addition to individual poems, essays, and reviews that have appeared in numerous publications, she has issued a number of books in rapid succession, including Maud Martha (1953), Bronzeville Boys and Girls (1956), and In the Mecca (1968). Her poetry moves from traditional forms including ballads, sonnets, variations of the Chaucerian and Spenserian stanzas as well as the rhythm of the blues to the most unrestricted free verse. In short, the popular forms of English poetry appear in her work; yet there is a strong sense of experimentation as she juxtaposes lyric, narrative, and dramatic poetic forms. In her lyrics there is an affirmation of life that rises above the stench of urban kitchenette buildings. In her narrative poetry the stories are simple but usually transcend the restrictions of place; in her dramatic poetry, the characters are often memorable not because of any heroism on their part but merely because they are trying to survive from day to day.
Brooks's poetry is marked by some unforgettable characters who are drawn from the underclass of the nation's black neighborhoods. Like many urban writers, Brooks has recorded the impact of city life. But unlike the most committed naturalists, she does not hold the city completely responsible for what happens to people. The city is simply an existing force with which people must cope.
While they are generally insignificant in the great urban universe, her characters gain importance--at least to themselves--in their tiny worlds, whether it be Annie Allen trying on a hat in a milliner’s shop or DeWitt Williams "on his way to Lincoln Cemetery" or Satin-Legs Smith trying to decide what outlandish outfit to wear on Sundays. Just as there is not a strong naturalistic sense of victimization, neither are there great plans for an unpromised future nor is there some great divine spirit that will rescue them. Brooks is content to describe a moment in the lives of very ordinary people whose only goal is to exist from day to day and perhaps have a nice funeral when they die. Sometimes these ordinary people seem to have a control that is out of keeping with their own insignificance.
Although her poetic voice is objective, there is a strong sense that she--as an observer--is never far from her action. On one level, of course, Brooks is a protest poet; yet her protest evolves through suggestion rather than through a bludgeon. She sets forth the facts without embellishment or interpretation, but the simplicity of the facts makes it impossible for readers to come away unconvinced--despite whatever discomfort they may feel--whether she is writing about suburban ladies who go into the ghetto to give occasional aid or a black mother who has had an abortion.
Trying to determine clear lines of influence from the work of earlier writers to later ones is always a risky business; however, knowing some identifiable poetic traditions can aid in understanding the work of Gwendolyn Brooks. On one level there is the English metaphysical tradition perhaps best exemplified by John Donne. From nineteenth-century American poetry one can detect elements of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. From twentieth-century American poetry there are many strains, most notably the compact style of T S. Eliot, the frequent use of the lower-case for titles in the manner of e. e. cummings, and the racial consciousness of the Harlem Renaissance, especially as found in the work of Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes; but, of perhaps greater importance, she seems to be a direct descendant of the urban commitment and attitude of the "Chicago School' of writing. For Brooks, setting goes beyond the Midwest with a focus on Chicago and concentrates on a small neglected comer of the city. Consequently, in the final analysis, she is not a carbon copy of any of the Chicago writers.
She was appointed poet laureate of Illinois in 1968 and has been perhaps more active than many laureates. She has done much to bring poetry to the people through accessibility and public readings. In fact, she is one of our most visible American poets. Not only is she extremely active in the poetry workshop movement, but her classes and contests for young people are attempts to help inner-city children see "the poetry" in their lives. She has taught audiences that poetry is not some formal activity closed to all but the most perceptive. Rather, it is an art form within the reach and understanding of everbody--including the lowliest among us.
1961 Carmichael became a member of the Freedom
After training in non-violent techniques, black and white volunteers
sat next to each other as they travelled through the Deep South.
Local police were unwilling to protect these passengers and in
several places they were beaten up by white mobs. In Jackson,
Mississippi, Carmichael was arrested and jailed for 49 days in
Parchman Penitentiary. Carmichael also worked on the Freedom
project and in 1966 became chairman of SNCC.
5th June, 1966, James
started a solitary March
from Memphis to Jackson, to protest against racism. Soon after
starting his march he was shot by sniper. When they heard the news,
other civil rights campaigners, including Carmichael, Martin
decided to continue the march in Meredith's name.
the marchers got to Greenwood, Mississippi, Carmichael and some of
the other marchers were arrested by the police. It was the 27th time
that Carmichael had been arrested and on his release on 16th June, he
made his famous Black
speech. Carmichael called for "black people in this country to
unite, to recognize their heritage, and to build a sense of
community". He also advocated that African Americans should form
and lead their own organizations and urged a complete rejection of
the values of American society.
also adopted the slogan of "Black is Beautiful" and
advocated a mood of black pride and a rejection of white values of
style and appearance. This included adopting Afro hairstyles and
African forms of dress. Carmichael began to criticize Martin
and his ideology of nonviolence. He eventually joined the Black
where he became "honorary prime minister".
Power Between Heaven and Hell by
During the middle girth of this century, Adam
Clayton Powell Jr. was the equivalent of the rap group Public Enemy,
the protest politician Jesse Jackson, and the Congressional Black
Caucus all in one.
Enemy, Powell "dissed" white America for its racism and
hypocrisy, with one of his clearest refrains being akin to "You
Can't Trust 'Em." When he demanded changes in society, Powell,
as Jackson would years later, commanded so much attention in
Washington and with the media that he became known as "Mr. Civil
Rights." And as the first African-American congressman from the
northeast, and for decades the only militant African American on the
Hill, Powell had the guts to push through laws that forced America to
stop locking African Americans out of industries and institutions.
He didn't behave
like most African-American politicians. "I'm the first bad Negro
they've had in Congress," he bragged. He made more enemies on
Capitol Hill than perhaps any legislator before or since.
He didn't behave
like a typical African-American minister. "I believe only in the
teaching of Jesus," he said, "I am not a full-Bible
Christian." And he felt this distinction gave him wide moral
latitude. He openly drank alcohol, smoked, and had adulterous
affairs. When he strode up the aisle of his packed church to preach,
women parishioners later admitted to being distracted from thoughts
of God by enrapture with the tall playboy- minister.
Powell was born
in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1908. His father, who missed by one
month being born into slavery, pastored the most prestigious
African-American church in New York City, Abyssinian Baptist.
He stopped and
started through a checkered college career, first attending City
College of New York. Eventually, he flunked out. After that, Adam
went into a serious party mode. These were the Roaring '20s. Harlem,
with hundreds of speakeasies, rent parties, and dance halls, was a
wild bachelor's paradise. The little money he made as a kitchen
helper, he spent on gambling, women, and liquor.
father pushed him back into college, this time to almost all-white
Colgate University in up-state New York. Young Powell began studies
to become a surgeon but, later, with some prodding, realized that one
day his father's well-off church could be his for the asking, so he
changed his mind about medicine to become a healer of souls.
his parents gave him a present of a trip to Europe, the Holy Land,
and Egypt. When he returned, he enrolled in Union Theological
Seminary, then later in Columbia University Teachers' College, where
he eventually took a master's degree in religious education.
While he worked
on postgraduate studies, Powell helped thousands in his community to
eat and find clothes and jobs. The Great Depression had America on
the dole and in despair. As assistant pastor under his father at
Abyssinian, Powell helped operate a free food pantry, job referral
service, and literacy classes. His compassion became legendary when
it was rumored that Adam once took the shoes from his own feet and
gave them to a poor man for whom the church clothing bin had no
As he matured
into adulthood, Powell began speaking out against the institutional
racism ingrained in New York. In a short time, he racked up successes
in getting jobs back for doctors, forcing bus companies to hire
African-American drivers and mechanics, as well as squeezing white
store owners with the "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work"
your hand," he admonished his people. "Just like little
David had those smooth stones and killed big Goliath with them. Use
what you have right in your hand. That dollar...that ten cents. Use
your vote. The Negro race has enough power right in our hands to
accomplish anything we want to."
In 1941, he
became New York City's first African-American councilman. By 1944, he
had won a seat in Congress. It was heady, but lonely as one of the
only two African Americans in the U.S. House; particularly since the
other, William Dawson of Chicago, was more seen than heard, careful
to not upset the status quo.
ripped into Congress for allowing lynching of African-American men to
continue. He railed against the unconstitutional Southern practice of
charging would-be, African-American voters "poll taxes."
Even Democratic presidents Roosevelt and Truman, who owed African
Americans for having voted for them, had to be dragged into issuing
executive orders ending discrimination in military bases and war
factories. If his colleagues ignored him and voted down his
proposals; if Truman, or Eisenhower, Kennedy, or Johnson wouldn't
grant him a personal session to discuss civil rights or helping the
poor, Powell made vicious public statements or sent embarrassing
"open" telegrams to the press describing their
a role as agitator. "Whenever a person keeps prodding, keeps
them squirming...it serves a purpose. It may not in contemporary
history look so good, but...future historians will say, 'They served
African-American pride personified. He swaggered into the
congressional dining room and barber shop Knowing full well that
African Americans were not served there, and demanded service. He won
it. He badgered racist congressmen and stopped their habit of saying
the word "nigger" in sessions of Congress.
One of his most
dangerous legislative weapons was the "Powell Amendment," a
rider he tried to attach to any proposals for federal funds. The
beauty of the Amendment was that, if successfully attached to a bill,
it would nullify federal grants to state or local governments if the
agencies receiving the money discriminated. This meant, for example,
that even school districts in the deepest South had to open their
doors to African-American teachers and students or I risk losing
funds set aside for them.
Harlem elected Powell as their representative nearly two dozen times.
With long service in Congress comes seniority and ultimately the
chance to head one of the powerful committees that draft bills that
the full House and Senate eventually vote on. After the election of
1960, Powell took over as chairman of the House Education and Labor
Committee. In that role, he had more concrete power than any African-
American man on the planet. His little club, as it were, could
initiate proposals worth billions of dollars and decisions affecting
millions of Americans, and hundreds of schools, labor unions, and
Here was where
Powell made his greatest contributions. He oversaw passage of the
backbone of President Kennedy's "New Frontier" and
President Johnson's "Great Society" social programs: A
sweeping anti- poverty bill, an increased minimum wage, a National
Defense Education Act that benefitted generations of high school and
Yet in the new
book, Adam Clayton Powell Jr.: The Political Biography of an American
Dilemma, Columbia University professor Charles V. Hamilton, an
African American, courageously addresses old allegations that Powell
misused his clout to clean up consequences of his personal excesses.
New Yorker suffered more than a decade of court cases over tax fraud,
and for taking kickbacks from employees who no longer worked for him.
Hamilton presents evidence that Powell supported Republican president
Dwight Eisenhower for re-election in 1956 in exchange for a promise
that Ike would kill the investigation.
There is no
denying, however, that despite his commitment to civil rights for his
people, Adam Powell Jr. was no paragon of virtue. He was egocentric,
self-indulgent, and often treacherous. To keep Martin Luther King Jr.
From picketing at the Republican convention where Eisenhower was to
be nominated, Powell threatened to publicly (and surely, falsely)
announce that King was having a homosexual relationship with another
civil rights activist, Bayard Rustin.
He had no
permanent friends, only permanent interests. At some points, he
aligned with traditional civil rights groups, then when it suited his
purposes he'd accuse them of being made up of Uncle Toms not worthy
of African Americans' support.
Powell used up his political currency. Members of the House, happy to
find a reason to silence him, expelled him for pocketing
congressional employment paychecks to his wife, and for taking
junkets abroad with female staffers. The fighter in him took the case
all the way to the Supreme Court. He won back his seat. Even then, he
was docked $25,000 to repay the illegal kickback. But the people of
Harlem grew tired of Powell's unbelievable record of roll call
absences and endless litigations. In 1970, they finally voted him
out. Two years later, he died of prostate cancer at the age of 63.
Today, he isn't
as ubiquitous a symbol of African-American determination as Malcolm
X; you seldom find his likeness on t-shirts, or see film clips of his
speeches within music videos. Nor is his picture reverently displayed
in magazine ads during Black History Month like Martin Luther King,
Jr.'s. But African Americans with a knowledge of their history
remember Powell as the risk taker who made it possible for later
generations of African-American politicians such as Jesse Jackson,
Rep. Ron Dellums, and Willie Brown of the California Assembly to
stand unbowed in the arena of political horse trading.
And in Harlem,
where a state office building and a broad boulevard are named for
him, you can occasionally still visit an apartment home where his
picture adorns a place of honor.
is a freelance writer in New York City.