Category Archives: Biographies

African American Biography Spotlight: Jan Ernst Matzeliger (1852 -1889)

Inventor who revolutionized the shoe industry

Jan Ernst Matzeliger: Inventer who revolutionized the shoe industry

Jan Ernst Matzeliger: Inventer who revolutionized the shoe industry

Jan Ernst Matzeliger was born in Paramaribo, Surinam (Dutch Guiana), South America. His father was a Dutch engineer who married a native Black Surinamese woman. At the age of ten, young Jan worked in the machine shops supervised by his father, where his talents and mechanical aptitude were nurtured. In 1871, at the age of 19, he sailed the world and settled in Philadelphia 2 years later.

Hearing about the rapid growth of the shoe industry in Massachusetts, Matzeliger went to Lynn in 1877 in search of a better job. He taught himself English and he eventually landed a job as an apprentice in a shoe factory operating various shoe making machinery during a time when most white people would look down on him because of his race. He was a devout Christian, teaching Sunday school at The North Congregational Church, one of the few churches in the area that would accept African-Americans.

In the early days of shoe making, shoes were made mainly by hand. For proper fit, the customer’s feet had to be duplicated in size and form by creating a stone or wooden mold called a “last” from which the shoes were sized and shaped. Since the greatest difficulty in shoe making was the actual assembly of the soles to the upper shoe, it required great skill to tack and sew the two components together. It was thought that such intricate work could only be done by skilled human hands. As a result, shoe-lasters held great power over the shoe industry. They would hold work stop-pages without regard for their fellow workers’ desires, resulting in long periods of unemployment for them.

Matzelinger set out to try to solve the problem of this stranglehold by developing an automatic method for lasting shoes. Over the course of ten years, facing much derision and sacrifice, he came up with a prototype for an automated shoe-laster. Matzeliger’s machine was able to turn out from 150 to 700 pairs of shoes a day compared to the 45 maximum limit completed by the expert hand lasters. By 1889 the demand of the shoe lasting machine was overwhelming. A company was formed, The Consolidated Lasting Machine Company, where Matzelinger was given huge blocks of stock for his invention. His machine had revolutionized the entire shoe industry in the U.S. and around the world.

Unfortunately, Jan Matzelinger didn’t live to see the fruits of his labor. Because he had sacrificed his health working exhausting hours on his invention and not eating over long periods of time, he caught a cold, which quickly developed into tuberculosis. He died at age 37 on August 24, 1887.

Jan Ernst Matzeliger’s invention was perhaps “the most important invention for New England because it increased shoemaking speed by 900%.” His invention was “the greatest forward step in the shoe industry,” according to the church bulletin of The First Church of Christ (the same church that took him as a member) as part of a commemoration held in 1967 in his honor. In 1992, the U.S. made a postage stamp in honor of Matzeliger.

Countdown to Black History Month: Happy Birthday Jackie Robinson

This post on Jackie Robinson is part of our blog series, “Countdown to Black History Month.”  Each blog post will cover one significant event or person in black history that we are highlighting as a lead in to Black History Month.

Jackie Robinson was born in Georgia in 1919, the youngest of five children to a family of rural sharecroppers. However, his poor upbringing did not stop him from become the first African-American Major League Baseball (MLB) player of modern times. Robinson is most well known for having “broken the color barrier” in 1947 when he played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Jackie’s talents on the field challenged the basis for segregation head on, contributing to the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement.

Jackie Robinson was considered a great athlete early on in high school, excelling in four sports:

Happy Birthday Jackie Robinson January 31

Black History Month Biography: Jackie Robinson

basketball, track, baseball, and football. At the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Robinson became the first student in the school’s history to achieve four varsity letters in four different sports. However, before he was able to graduate, Robinson left the university due to financial struggles and moved to Honolulu, Hawaii to play football for a semi-professional team before being drafting into the US Army during the Second World War.

While serving in the Army from 1942 to 1944, Jackie Robinson was arrested and court-martialed during basic training for having refused to sit in the back of the bus where the soldiers of color were placed. Later acquitted of these charges, Robinson’s courage and determination shown during these events would later prove useful in his experience as the leader in desegregating baseball’s highest ranks.

At the end of the war, Jackie Robinson began playing baseball professionally in the segregated Negro league. However, his talent on field was evident when the vice president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey, selected him to join his organization. After a brief stint in the minor leagues, Jackie Robinson appeared in a Dodger’s uniform for the first time on April 15, 1947.

Many, including his own teammates, did not welcome his debut. Crowds jeered him, and he and his family received constant death threats. During games, opposing players and managers would shout derogatory terms at him from their dugouts. However, Robinson rose above the prejudice he encountered and showed why he was capable of playing on the team in the first place. In his first year, Jackie Robinson was selected as Rookie of the Year for leading the Dodgers to the National League Pennant with 12 home runs while leading the league in stolen bases. Two years later he was selected as the league’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) with an exceptional .342 batting average.

Jackie Robinson’s success on the field made him the highest-paid player at the time in the history of the Brooklyn Dodgers. His success and courage on the field also opened up new opportunities for other African-American baseball players such as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Ernie Banks.

Keep an eye out for upcoming blog posts that are a part of the “Countdown to Black History Month ” series. Black History Month provides a significant opportunity for organizations to have conversations around the history and contributions of African Americans.  Please visit our Black History Month Page for more information about Black History Month as well as ways to engage your employees or volunteers.

 

Countdown to Black History Month: January 17 – Muhammad Ali’s Birthday

This post is part of our blog series, “Countdown to Black History Month”  Each blog post will cover one significant event or person in black history that we are highlighting as a lead in to Black History Month.

January 17, 1942 – Muhammad Ali’s Birthday

Muhammad Ali: Person in Focus for Black History Month 2013

Muhammad Ali, Source: Public Domain

During the height of his career through the 1960s and 1970s, Muhammad Ali was (and remains) an iconic figure and sports legend.  For the Baby-Boomers coming of age at this time, Muhammad Ali was both a hero and a controversial figure, whose actions and fearless bravado voiced the opinions of many of their generation.

Ali was born to the name Cassius Clay on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, KY.  At the age of 12, he started boxing after thieves stole his bicycle and he wanted to learn the skills to “whoop” them.  At only 18 years old, he won the Light Heavyweight Gold Medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. In his 1975 biography, Ali claims that shortly after receiving the medal, he threw it into the Ohio River after he was refused service at a “whites-only” restaurant.  In 1964, Clay fought Sonny Liston to earn the title of Heavyweight Champion, as the youngest boxer to claim the title.

In the same year, Clay converted to Nation of Islam, a religious and political movement aimed to improve the condition of African Americans, and was renamed Muhammad Ali.  For many in the mainstream community, the change made Ali a controversial figure, as Nation of Islam was associated with Malcolm X and the Black Power movements and was often looked at with suspicion and hostility. Ali was very vocal about his beliefs, at times promoting separatist ideas that were considered to be radical.

In 1966, Ali was informed that he was eligible to be drafted for the Vietnam War. Famously, Ali declared that he would refuse to serve, saying he was a conscientious objector because it was against his religion to fight a war that was not in the name of Allah. Muhammad Ali faced criticism from many for being unpatriotic and was charged with draft eviction. However, he also had support from many as a figure for the peace movement that had been growing in the US since 1964. While on trial for draft eviction, Ali famously explained his reason for opposing the war: “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” It was a reason that resonated with many young activists who felt that the war was an abuse of government authority. He was stripped of his heavyweight title and exiled from the boxing community for 5 years. During this time, he spoke at peace rallies at colleges and schools in favor of ending the Vietnam War.

With his return to boxing in 1970, Muhammad Ali came back with increased swagger and boasting to reclaim his title. In 1974, Ali fought George Foreman in the epic  “Rumble in the Jungle Fight” where Ali, projected as the underdog, reclaimed the heavyweight title. He used his “Rope-a-Dope” technique to tire Foreman out before finishing him with a heavy rain of blows. This fight was followed by the famous 1975 “Thrilla in Manila” fight against Joe Frazier, where Ali, after 14 grueling rounds of fighting, was again victorious. This time the fight was a close call and both fighters were in very poor shape by the end of the fight. The fight has been marked as one of the Top 5 Sporting Events of the 20th Century and was viewed by 700 million people worldwide.

During the height of his career, Muhammad Ali was also prevalent in the mainstream media. He appeared in commercials and did many interviews, offering his opinions loudly and without shame, claiming he was “the greatest.” Although he was a controversial figure, many Baby-Boomers of very different backgrounds could agree that he was a hero and a champion.  He was supported and revered by the peace movement; by African-Americans who aligned with his beliefs or those who were proud of his example; by the white population that shared his beliefs or valued him greatly as a sports hero and public personality. Many of his ideas challenged the ideas of the mainstream, which resonated with people who were seeking to overturn and progress government institutions and laws.

Muhammad Ali officially retired from boxing in 1981. In 1984, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He would go on to open the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center. He has continued to engage in many philanthropic pursuits, such as in 1991 when he met with Saddam Hussein to negotiate the release of American hostages and his 2001 peace talks in Afghanistan. In 1996 Ali famously lit the giant Olympic torch in Atlanta to kick off the start of the Summer Olympic Games.  He currently resides with his family in Arizona.

Click here to watch a full-length interview of Ali: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5m2chT8HKs8

Click here to read famous quotes by Muhammad Ali: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/m/muhammad_ali.html

Keep an eye out for upcoming blog posts that are a part of the “Countdown to Black History Month” series. Black History Month provides a significant opportunity for organizations to have conversations around the history and contributions of African Americans.  Please visit our Black History Month Page for more information about Black History Month as well as ways to engage your employees or volunteers.

August 21: Ninoy Aquino Day – Philippines

August 21: Ninoy Aquino Day – Philippines

Ninoy Aquino Day is a special non-working day in the Philippines to commemorate the assassination of politician Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. on August 21, 1983. The assassination of Benigno Aquino sparked a series of political rallies in the Philippines, which grew into the “People Power Revolution”. This series of rallies and revolution eventually led to the collapse of the Marcos’ backed Philippines government in 1986.

Ninoy Aquino – Young Politician

Benigno Aquino was an ambitious and democratically inclined politician who served as Mayor, Governor, and Senator within the Philippines. Ninoy Aquino opposed the suppressive government led by President Ferdinand Marcos. Through the formation of the Lakas Ng Bayan, otherwise known as the LABAN party, Aquino actively criticized the way President Marcos ruled the country. After President Marcos established Martial Law in 1972, Aquino was imprisoned for seven years and sentenced to death by firing squad.

Ninoy Aquino – Imprisonment and Failing Health

While imprisoned Aquino suffered a heart attack, after which he was allowed to travel to the US for medical treatment. After three years in the US, during which time he continued to speak out against Marcos’ leadership, Aquino returned to the Philippines to challenge President Marcos in the 1984 election. Aquino was shot to death when he arrived at Manila International Airport as he disembarked.

Ninoy Aquino Day

People in the Philippines observe Ninoy Aquino Day on the anniversary of Benigno Aquino’s assassination date every year. Since Ninoy Aquino Day is a special non-working day, many Filipinos use the day to gather with family. Some people commemorate the day solemnly by recalling and honoring what people have done to establish democracy in the Philippines.

Countdown to Black History Month 2013: January 15 – Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday

This post is part of our blog series, “Countdown to Black History Month 2013.”  Each blog post will cover one significant event or person in black history that we are highlighting as a lead in to Black History Month 2013: At the Crossroads of Freedom and Equality.  This year is a particularly significant Black History Month as it is both the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation as well as the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday – January 15, 1929

 On January 15, 1929, Martin Luther King Jr.  was born in Atlanta, GA to the name Michael Luther King, after his father. Michael Luther King Sr., a successful minister by profession, later changed his name to Martin Luther to honor the German Protestant spiritual leader.  Martin Luther King, Jr. would eventually follow in his father’s footsteps both in career and name choice.

Black History Month 2013: Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King

Martin Luther King, Jr. with his wife, Coretta Scott King

Martin Luther King, Jr. attended Booker T. Washington High School, the first all African-American public school in Atlanta, GA, where he was a very successful student. Skipping both 9th and 11th grade, King entered Morehouse College in 1944 at only 15 years old. There, he earned a sociology degree and continued his education in seminary school in Pennsylvania, where he became valedictorian and class president. King continued his Doctoral studies in Theology at Boston University, during which time he met Coretta Scott, an aspiring singer at the New England Conservatory.  They married in 1953, and eventually had four children. King completed his PhD in 1955 at only 25 years old.

That same year, Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to give up her seat on the public city bus. The NAACP and local civil rights leaders elected King to be the spokesperson for the Montgomery Bus Boycott because he was a young, well-educated, family-oriented man, who had no past controversies and a gift for rhetoric. MLK’s inspirational rhetoric succeeded in alighting new passion into the protest, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott was successful in overturning the public transit segregation law.

Black History Month 2013: Martin Luther King at the March on Washington

Martin Luther King, Jr. gave over 350 speeches in his short lifetime

In 1957, Martin Luther King, Jr. co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with 60 ministers and civil rights leaders. The group’s goal was to promote peaceful protests and non-violent sit-ins to make advancements in the civil rights of African-Americans and Blacks in the United States. Their first order of business was to enfranchise the poor black population in the south, and began education programs and registration opportunities for black voters.  In 1959, King visited Gandhi’s birthplace in India, as he was greatly inspired by Gandhi’s successful application of peaceful protest. The trip greatly influenced King’s decision to devote himself to the civil rights movement.  Over the next decade, he became the public face of the non-violent protest civil rights movement, giving speeches and lectures all over the United States, developing relationships with other civil rights leaders, and appearing at protests and sites of social injustice.

Black History Month 2013: 50th Anniversary of the I Have a Dream Speech

March on Washington, August 28, 1963, Over 200,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Mermorial in Washington, D.C. to support the civil rights movement and heard King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

In 1963, King and the SCLC led a large demonstration in Birmingham, Alabama that lasted for 6 days.  Everyday, large numbers of protesters were arrested and Martin Luther King, Jr. was put into solitary confinement. There he penned the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” on the margin of an old newspaper and toilet paper, in which he famously wrote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The protest drew national attention when police turned fire hoses and dogs on a group of young student protesters. After Birmingham, King and his supporters felt the groundwork had been laid for an even bigger demonstration. On August 28, 1963, the March on Washington protest, held in front of the Lincoln memorial, rallied over 200,000 people from all over the country.  It was here that Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I have a Dream” speech, a beautiful and powerful piece of rhetoric declaring: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”

In 1964, the government passed the monumental Civil Rights Act, outlawing segregation of public facilities and accommodations. The same year, at age 35, Martin Luther King, Jr. was the youngest recipient ever awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the proceeds of which he donated to the furtherance of the civil rights movement. Through out the late 1960s, King continued his civil rights efforts, but started to receive criticism for his non-violent tactics from the younger generations of African-Americans inspired by the black power movements.  In response, King started linking the African-American civil rights cause to the anti-Vietnam War cause, and successfully broadened his base of supporters to include those in poverty and those disillusioned with government control of personal freedoms.

After attending a labor strike in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated while standing on his motel room balcony. Cities all over the country broke out in riots and protests and somewhere between 10,00 to 100,000 people lined the streets and mourned as his funeral procession passed through the city of Atlanta.

Today, Martin Luther King would have turned 84 years old.  While he did not live to see the America that was born of his civil rights efforts, his presence is felt in a legacy of equal rights that holds a powerful place in the history and culture of the United States and beyond.  With all that is happening in the world today, we can still benefit from the lesson behind the words Martin Luther King penned in the Birmingham jail: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Read more facts and watch videos about MLK at: http://www.biography.com/people/martin-luther-king-jr-9365086

Listen to the entire “I Have a Dream Speech”: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm

Keep an eye out for upcoming blog posts that are a part of the “Countdown to Black History Month 2013” series. Black History Month provides a significant opportunity for organizations to have conversations around the history and contributions of African Americans.  Please visit our Black History Month Page for more information about Black History Month as well as ways to engage your employees or volunteers.

Diversity in America – Biography of Estee Lauder

Estee Lauder
1906 – 2004
Pioneering American Businesswoman & Cosmetic Company Mogul

From time to time here a Culture Coach, we like to post a biography of an inspirational person from a diversity perspective whose inventions or ideas have made this country a richer place. This week, Estee Lauder is that person. She was one of few women self made millionaires at in the early 20th century, and is also known for not only establishing several cosmetics industry trends, but also marketing trends as well. One such example is the taking home a free gift with purchase of a product. Read more about her fascinating story below.

Photo of Estee Lauder, CC 2.0

Born as Josephine Esther Mentzer in Queens, New York to Hungarian Jewish immigrants in 1906, Estee Lauder is best known for her rise to dominance in the cosmetics industry in the United States. She was listed as one of the 20 most influential business geniuses of the 20th century by Time magazine in 1998, and had also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

While working with her brothers and sisters in the family hardware store, Lauder was introduced to the entrepreneurial aspect of business and what it would take to become a successful leader in the retail business. Later on in her career Lauder would become a sales representative for her uncle’s Laboratories by selling beauty products to friends and family, and later selling her creams to clubs, resorts, and beauty parlors.

The Estee Lauder Company was officially formed in 1935, but her big break did not come until Florence Morris, a salon owner, asked her about her beautiful skin. Lauder would soon return with creams from her uncle’s laboratory to show Morris. Impressed with the results, Morris would go on to sell her products in her salons.

As her name grew across the city, so did her determination to make it big. She persuaded department stores to offer her products on their store shelves, eventually landing shelf space with Saks Fifth Avenue. Within two days her products had sold out of the store, and her success was secured. The breakthrough product, Youth Dew, was introduced in 1953. Originally sold as a bath oil and a perfume, the product went on to sell over 50,000 units in the first year. By 1980, she was selling over one hundred million bottles per year. She made sure everyone she knew had a sample of her products to take with them and show new clients.

Estee Lauder died in 2004, leaving behind a brand that is recognized in over 118 countries with $3.6 billion in annual sales.

Biography of Luis Walter Alvarez – Hispanic-American Scientist

It has been a while since I posted a biography of one of the many face of diversity that have made an impact on American society. One of those people was Hispanic-American Luis Walter Alvarez, who is best known for winning the 1968 Nobel Peace Prize for his research around ‘quarks’. If he were alive today, he would have turned 101 years old on June 13th, which is why I have decided to put up his biography. Even though our country is rich in diversity, he is one of the few Hispanic-Americans to make a name for himself in the sciences field. His amazing number of accomplishments speak for themselves as you will see below.

Photo of Luis Walter Alvarez - Prominent Hispanic-American Scientist of the 20th Century (Creative Commons)

Luis Walter Alvarez, born in San Francisco, California in 1911, was a prominent American physicist and inventor. His lifelong achievements while at the University of California, Berkeley for nearly 40 years included a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1968, and nearly 40 patents to his name, some of which have lead to the development of popular commercial products today.

The son of a physician, Alvarez showed an affinity towards the sciences from a young age. While he was not some much interested in the medical field, he was able to use all of the various instruments in his father’s research and practice spaces by the time he reached ten, even wiring his own circuits.

When it was time to attend college, Alvarez would choose to pursue physics after having spent two summers at the renowned Mayo clinic in Rochester, Minnesota as an instrument technician. He was mentored at University of Chicago under the guiding eye of Albert Michelson and his optics department staff, eventually attaining his bachelor’s degree in 1932, followed by his master’s and doctorate degrees in 1934 and 1936 respectively. While still a graduate student in 1932, Alvarez built a Geiger counter arranged as a telescope to conduct the East-West effect of cosmic rays.

After graduation, Alvarez began working at the University of California, Berkeley in the radiation laboratory. He was famous for having known the location of nearly every book at the university library, often disappearing inside there for days on end, only to emerge with fresh ideas and new experiments to attempt. It was this determination, work ethic, and sheer talent that lead him to make several important discoveries throughout his career.

His expertise did not go unrecognized for long as various academic and governmental agencies sought his talents. During WWII, Alvarez worked at MIT to invent Ground-Controlled Approach (GCA) that allowed pilots to land during times of low visibility. He would later move to Los Alamos, New Mexico to work at the National Laboratories towards the end of the war to develop a detonator for the plutonium bomb.

After completing his War time stints, Alvarez returned to UC Berkeley to continue working with plutonium and building an accelerator for its production in nuclear weapons. In 1968 he won the Nobel Prize in physics for his discovery of quarks, a subatomic particle that has a brief lifespan before joining with other particles.

Recently, it has become widely accepted that the extinction of the dinosaurs stemmed from an asteroid impact and it was Alvarez’s own findings that lead to this theory. While on an excavation with his son in Italy in the 70’s, Alvarez encountered a layer of soil corresponding to the time of the extinction of the dinosaurs. When he analyzed this in his lab, a large amount of iridium was found. While iridium is not abundant on earth, the element is heavily found in asteroids. Alvarez would go on to invent several more technologies throughout his career at UC Berkeley, many of them still in use today.

Central African Republic Celebrates Boganda Day in Remembrance of the Country’s Founding Father – March 29

Picture of Barthelemy Boganda, Founding Father of Central African Republic

March 29 is Boganda day in Central African Republic, a nation of some 4.5 million people located in the middle of Africa that straddles the arid grassy region known as the ‘Sahel’ in the north, and the subtropical and forested south. As a young country that formed only after its independence from the French in 1960, Central African Republic, or CAR as it is more often referred to, is one of the poorest countries in the world according to the Human Development Index. For most of its independent history, leaders who have not been freely elected, or were put in to power by force, have ruled the country. Perhaps because of this, CAR celebrates Boganda day in remembrance of the man who guided their country to its initial independence from its Colonial overseers.

Barthélemy Boganda was born in 1910 to a poor rural family of subsistence farmers. Early on, Boganda was orphaned after the brutal murders of his mother, father, and uncle and would spend the remainder of his formative years under the care and guidance of Catholic missionaries. Under their tutelage, Boganda was taught to read and write and also aspired to become a Catholic priest. His aptitude for learning earned him a chance to study philosophy and theology in neighboring Cameroon, where upon his return in 1938, he became the first native born priest in his territory, then known as Ubangi-Shari. Soon after, Boganda combined his status as a priest to become a prominent figure in the political field in the country; leading the fight against such religious matters as forced marriage and polygamy, while also supporting his countrymen in their fight for equal rights among the French Colonials. His mentor, Marcel Auguste Marie Grandin, who was the Bishop of Bangui, urged him to seek political office when his province held elections for the French National Assembly for the first time. Boganda won this election in 1948 and would be reelected to several different posts during the next several decades including mayor of the capital, Bangui, and as a representative of his territory in the Grand Council of French Equatorial Africa.

Once in a position of power in government, some historians describe Boganda as becoming intolerant of opposition to his line of thinking as he would make remarks that indicated that any political campaign would be seen as a challenge to him and the stability of the country. He strongly favored a common African identity that would rival that of pan-Arabism and the emerging threats of communism. However, his original grassroots efforts to establish equal rights among all citizens became less of a priority as he catered more to business needs and the desire to see CAR as an economically stable nation. Despite this, the country would vote to become an autonomous region within France in 1958, and Boganda would become the country’s first leader. Barely four months after assuming the role, Bonganda would die in a suspicious plane crash on March 29, 1959, forever immortalizing him in CAR history.

Flag of the Central African Republic originally designed by Boganda himself.

To this day Barthélemy Boganda’s name can still be heard in many conversations, particularly those involving politics. His efforts to defend the rights of the people against the French earned him a reputation in the countryside that nearly deified him. To the people, he was much more than just a political figure, and was even considered by some to be the “Black Jesus”, among many of the well propagated myths, that would bring the country to prosperity. Many miracles have been attributed to his name, and succeeding politicians in this notoriously corrupt country have found any way to use his name and legacy in order to bolster their own power and potential. Several schools, stadiums, and roads are named after Boganda, who also designed the current flag of CAR seen in this article. Celebrations by public citizens are limited on this day, although parades and processions by the current ruling party have generally been held to commemorate their own legacies in spite of the true meaning of the day: the remembrance of the passing of the founding father of CAR.

Special thanks to Dan Weston for his knowledge and experience on Central African Republic and its history. For more on the country, please check out his blog Zo Kwe Zo.

Women’s History Month: Biography of Julia Child

As Women’s History Month draws to a close, I wanted to make sure I wrote up something about one of my favourite T.V. personalities: Julia Child. Growing up, I always enjoyed her quirkiness on camera and the way that she made cooking into an artform. It really inspired me to learn how to cook for myself and has now been part of my ‘creative’ side for several years now. She has a very unique history that you will find out below, and is credited for bringing a more refined palate to the average american throughout the years with her many episodes on home cooking.

Photo of Julia Child by http://thefooddiva.blogspot.com/2011/08/happy-birthday-julia.html under CC 2.0 License

Julia Child was born in Pasadena, California in 1912. Well known later on as a popular TV chef and author, Child moved to France in 1948 to study French Cuisine. Upon her return to the US, she produced a two-volume cookbook that adapted sophisticated French cooking for the everyday American. Her work, considered groundbreaking at the time, has since become standard for all things culinary in the US.

Born as the oldest child into a wealthy family, Child lived a privileged life and attended prestigious schools including Smith College in Massachusetts. Growing up, Child was the tallest person in her class at 6 foot 2 inches. She was not shy about her appearance and was known by her friends as athletic and a prankster.

During World War II, Child moved to Washington D.C. where she volunteered her time for a newly formed intelligence agency, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), as a research assistant. Here, Child relayed top-secret documents between government officials in such places as China and Sri Lanka.

In 1948, alongside her new husband Paul, Child moved to France where she developed a keene interest in French cuisine. After six months of training at the prestigious Cordon Bleu school, Child formed a cooking school with two fellow colleagues with the goal of adapting French cuisine for the everyday American. The culmination of their work, a 3-pound, 734-page cookbook, was published in 1961 as Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Its popularity helped it to remain on the bestselling list for five years, eventually becoming a standard guide for any American household.

Further success for Child came when she was lauded for her humor and straightforward manner during a cooking demonstration on Boston public television. The response was overwhelming, and executives asked Child to star in her own show, The French Chef, which premiered on WGBH TV in 1963. The show, the first of its kind, changed the way Americans related to food. Her show would go on to be nationally syndicated throughout America thereafter. Child’s efforts in promoting fine cooking to Americans resulted in several prizes including the George Foster Peabody Award and an Emmy Award.

Before her passing from kidney failure in 2004, Child had been widely considered the go-to expert on anything cooking related. This is no more evident than by France having awarded her the highest honor in the Legion d’Honneur prize, and the first woman to be inducted into the Culinary Institute Hall of Fame.

“I would rather eat one tablespoon of chocolate russe cake than three bowls of Jell-O,”

Women’s History Month: Biography of Billie Jean King

Women’s History Month continues with the legacy of Billie Jean King. Not only did she represent the women’s equal rights movement during the 60′s and 70′s, but she was also at the forefront of the gay civil rights movement in later years. Here is a short biography on some of her accomplishments on and off the tennis court.

Bill Jean King, best known for her domination of the women’s tennis during the 60’s and 70’s, was born in 1943 in Southern California. In the nearly twenty years on the professional women’s tour, King would go on to win nearly 40 combined grand slam titles. She has become one of sports greatest spokespersons against sexism, having defeated former Wimbledon men’s champion Bobby Riggs in the famous “Battle of the Sexes” match at the Houston Astrodome in 1973.

King began playing tennis from an early age on the public hard courts of Long Beach. Recognized for her net play and hard hitting style in her teenage years, the Long Beach Tennis Patrons raised $2000 to send King to Wimbledon in 1961 while she was just 17 years of age, eventually taking home her first title in doubles with Karen Hantze.

Between 1961 and 1979, King won a record 20 Wimbledon titles including the singles in 1966–8, 1972–3, and 1975. She also won 13 US titles (including four singles), four French titles (one singles), and two Australian titles (one singles).

Off the court, King was a vocal proponent for equal prize money for women and men. As a result, her equality campaign netted her a straight sets win in the “Battle of the Sexes” match against 55-year-old former Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs who had previously claimed the women’s game to be inferior. The match drew nearly 50 million TV viewers and garnered much publicity for the women’s game.

In 1981, King’s personal life became public news when it was confirmed that she was gay when her ex-partner, Marilyn Barnett, filed a palimony lawsuit against her. King later publicly acknowledge the fact that she was gay, making her the first prominent professional openly gay athlete. Instead of retiring as she had planned, King was forced to continue playing in order to pay her lawyer fees which mounted to some half million dollars at the time.

King officially retired in 1983 and has gone on to receive a slew of awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. She was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987.

Celebrating Women’s History Month: Biography of Selena

Continuing with the theme of Women’s History Month, here is a short biography on Selena Quintanilla-Perez. As one of the bright Latina music stars of the mid-90′s, this Mexican-American singer was idolized all over the Americas for her talent and charm and was responsible for popularizing Latin music in mainstream US culture. Her songs ‘Bidi bidi bom bom’ and ‘como la flor’ were major hits across Latin America, and the album, ‘Dreaming of You’, reached number one on the US album charts. As one of the few female singers in her genre, Selena paved the way for other artists in recent decades such as Jennifer Lopez and Shakira to leave their mark on US culture.

Selena Quintanilla-Perez, known as “The Queen of Tejano Music” or simply “Selena”, was an American singer-songwriter born in 1971 in Texas. She was a pioneer in popularizing Latino music in mainstream America, scoring seven number one hits on the Billboard Latino charts.

Selena began performing at an early age as the lead singer in her family’s band, Selena y Los Dinos. The group played Tejano music, a Mexican flavored genre popular in rural areas of the Southern US and Northern Mexico. In a male dominated music world, Selena and her family received much criticism for having a female as the leader of the band.

By 1987, when Selena was just 16, the critics had died down and her popularity had spread throughout the Tejano music world. For this, she won Best Female Vocalist of the Year and Performer of the Year at the annual Tejano Music Awards. Soon thereafter, her album Ven Conmigo would become the first Tejano record ever to achieve gold status, selling more than 500.000 copies. With Selena winning the Grammy Award for Best Mexican-American Album in 1993, it was finally time for her record company, EMI, to allow her to produce a pop crossover album in English. Unfortunately, her huge popularity all over Latin America would not afford her time to create the album. Selena was too busy selling out stadiums to the tune of 60,000 people to record the album.

In the midst of her success and fame, Selena managed to find the time to record commercials for Coca-Cola, set up her own boutique, and designed her own clothing and jewelry. However, Selena’s life would come to a tragic end on March 31, 1995 when her fan club president, Yolanda Saldivar, shot her in the chest.

The popularity of Selena continued even after her death with the release of her long awaited English language crossover album. Dreaming of You became an instant hit on the US pop charts, debuting at number one. Her legacy as a Mexican-American artist that exhibited both cultures, opened doors for artists such as Enrique Iglesias, Shakira, and Jennifer Lopez to bring Latin-American culture to mainstream America.

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Women’s History Month: Biography of Oprah Winfrey

While Oprah Winfrey may not come to mind as a historic figure during Women’s History Month as she is still often in the headlines for various reasons, she is to be revered for her lifetime achievements to this date, especially during Women’s History Month 2012 and its theme “Women’s Education – Women’s Empowerment.” Oprah is a significant contributor to education through her own foundation which has provided for hundreds of grants and millions of dollars for women’s education, particularly in Africa where her Academy is a great success for the rural poor. Oprah herself has been quoted as saying: “Education is the way to move mountains, to build bridges, to change the world.” She is truly a leader and visionary for women everywhere. Here is a brief biography of her that details her early life and commercial success.

Born as Orpah Gail Winfrey to a single mother in rural Mississippi in 1954, Oprah is considered by various annual lists and assessments to be the most influential woman in the world thanks in part to her success as the host for her multi-award winning talk show entitled “Oprah”, which was the highest-rated program of its kind in history and was nationally syndicated from 1986 to 2011.

In addition to her success as a TV personality, she is also known as an actress, producer and philanthropist. Along her way to success, Oprah set many firsts for a woman of color in the United States. She has been ranked the richest African American of the 20th century,the greatest black philanthropist in American history,and was for a time the world’s only black billionaire.

Her career began in high school when she landed a small job in the radio business, and later at the age of 19, began anchoring Nashville’s local evening news and thus becoming the youngest and first African American anchor on the network. Her sincere and emotional delivery soon got her discovered by producers in Chicago, resulting in Oprah’s transition to the daytime talk show world. Within only a few months, she took over a slumping show and turned it from number three in the local ratings to number one.

Credited with creating a more intimate confessional form of media communication, she is thought to have popularized and revolutionized the tabloid news genre that broke cultural taboos and set the tone for the presentation of news for years to come. By the mid 1990s she had reinvented her own show with a focus on literature, self-improvement, and spirituality. She is often praised for her ability to overcome adversity and to inspire success in others.

In addition to her talk show, Oprah has created a media empire with past and present ventures including her radio talk show, Internet domain, and media publications including “O” magazine.  In 2011 she launched her own television channel called “OWN.” Because of this success, Oprah created the “Oprah’s Angel Network” in 1998 in order to support charitable efforts around the globe, having raised more than 80 million dollars to date. It has been estimated that Oprah has given more than 300 million dollars of her own fortune as of 2007, making her one of the most well recognized philanthropists of the decade.

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Black History Month: The Story of Madam C J Walker

February is Black History Month in the United States, and to celebrate our nation’s diversity, I have been posting short biographies of African-Americans. Today is the last day of the month and I didn’t want it to go by without talking about the life and legacy of Madam CJ Walker. Surprisingly, she is not so well known this day in age, but her accomplishments during the time period in which they occurred should garner her much respect. She is widely considered to be the first African-American female millionaire and was well known for her philanthropy.

Businesswoman and philanthropist, born in Delta, Louisiana and orphaned at the age of six, she was raised by an elder sister and married to ‘Mr. McWilliams’ at age 14 in Vicksburg.

Widowed at age 20 with a daughter, A’Lelia Walker, she moved to St Louis and attended public night schools and worked days as a washerwoman.

In 1905 she invented a method for straightening African-Americans’ ‘kinky’ hair: her method involved her own formula for a pomade, much brushing, and the use of heated combs.

Encouraged by her success, she moved to Denver, CO where she married Charles J Walker. She promoted her method and products by travelling about the country giving lecture-demonstrations. Her business became so successful that she opened an office in Pittsburgh (1908), which she left in the charge of her daughter.

Walker organized agents to sell her hair treatment door-to-door and in 1910 transferred her business—by then the Madame C. J. Walker Manufacturing Co.—to Indianapolis, Indiana. Her company at its peak employed some 3,000 people, many of them “Walker agents”—saleswomen dressed in long black skirts and white blouses who became familiar figures in the black communities of the United States and the Caribbean who promoted Madame Walker’s philosophy of ‘cleanliness and loveliness’ as aids to advancing the status of African-Americans.

An innovator, she organized clubs and conventions for her representatives which recognized not only successful sales, but also philanthropic and educational efforts among African-Americans.

Walker was president and sole proprietor of her company, and she soon became one of the best-known figures in America. Through the example of entertainer Josephine Baker, the Walker System coiffure became popular in Europe as well.

Walker augmented her fortune with shrewd real estate investments. Generous with her money, she included in her extensive philanthropies educational scholarships, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, homes for the aged, and the National Conference on Lynching.

She bequeathed her estate to various charitable and educational institutions and to her daughter, A’Lelia Walker, who was later known for supporting an intellectual salon—known as the Dark Tower—that helped to stimulate the cultural Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

She is generally acknowledged to be the first black female millionaire in the United States.

Black History Month: The Life and Musical Legacy of Aretha Franklin, Queen of Soul

February is Black History Month in the United States, and to celebrate our nation’s diversity, I have been posting short biographies of African-Americans. With only a few days left in the month, I wanted to make sure I posted a biography about a living legend in the African-American community: Aretha Franklin. A gifted singer, she has inspired many women over the past decades to pursue their musical dreams and to give freely of their wonderful talents. 

Aretha Louise Franklin was born in 1942 in Memphis, Tennessee as the third of four children of a religious and musically gifted family. Taking after her mother Barbara, a gospel singer in her own rite, Franklin showed a gift for music from an early age and was considered a child prodigy in her youth.

After her mother passed from a heart attack when Franklin was only six years old, her father Clarence moved the family to Detroit, Michigan where he began preaching at New Bethel Baptist Church. It was here that the largely self-taught Franklin began singing in front of her father’s congregation. Her piano playing skills and powerful voice lead to the recording of some of her earliest tracks at the age of just 14.

Having been recognized for her talents, Franklin began performing with C.L.’s traveling revival show, enabling her to meet some of the greatest gospel singers of the time including Sam Cooke and Mahalia Jackson. On tour, Franklin became exposed to the less glamorous aspects of fame. The following year she became pregnant, and only two years after that, she gave birth once more to her second child. At this time, Franklin took a hiatus from her music career in order to raise her newborn children.

Upon returning the music business in 1960, Franklin signed her first record deal with Colombia Records, releasing Right Now It’s Aretha in the same year. While her first albums under Colombia Records garnered her mild success with a few top 10 singles on the R&B charts, it was not until her move to Atlantic Records in 1967 that Franklin saw her status elevated to stardom.

The success of I never loved a man the way I loved you and its single hits including “Respect,” solidified her status for all time. The song climbed all the way up the pop and R&B charts to number one, garnering her two Grammy awards in the process. Later, Franklin would release a slew of singles from the same album that would become all-time classics such as “Chain of Fools,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman.”

Franklin’s success continued throughout the 70s, taking home eight consecutive Grammy awards for Best R&B Female Vocal Performance. For this accomplishment, Franklin earned the title “Queen of Soul.” 1985′s Who’s Zoomin’ Who  featured R&B, pop, synthpop, and rock elements and became Franklin’s first platinum-certified success. Hits such as “Freeway of Love” and a duet with George Michael “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” hit No. 1 on the pop charts, marking her appearance at number 1 for the first time on the Top 100 since “Respect” did so nearly twenty years prior.

In 1987, Franklin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, becoming the first woman to be awarded such an honor. She has been recognized with several other awards for her soulful musical talents, but most importantly she inspired a generation of women to dream big in all walks of life.

Black History Month: The Legacy and Life of Josephine Baker

February is Black History Month in the United States, and to celebrate our nation’s diversity, I have been posting short biographies of African-Americans. Today I wanted to share this biography on Josephine Baker with you because of not only her unique life story, but also her early triumphs in the European and American performing arts sectors.

Josephine Baker, born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1906, was the first African-American female to star in a major motion picture, eventually becoming a world famous entertainer. A singer, dancer, and actress by trade, she would first rise to fame in her adopted homeland of France where she was known as the “Bronze Goddess”.

Baker’s early years were marred by abuse and poverty. Growing up, she worked as a domestic servant where the housewife would burn her hands for minor mistakes such as putting too much soap into the laundry. Baker would end up living on the streets of St. Louis by the age of 12, foraging for food in garbage cans to get by. However, her street performances were noticed by the St. Louis Chorus Vaudeville Show when she was just 15. The show brought her to New York City during the height of the Harlem Renaissance. Baker soon found herself onstage performing as the last dancer in a chorus line. Her comic portrayals and complex dancing lead her to become the highest paid dancer in the industry.

Baker came to France in 1925 to open at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees. She was an instant success because of her erotic dancing. Her rise to fame followed with three star appearances in European films such as: Siren of the Tropics, Zouzou, and Princess Tam Tam. At this time she also scored her most successful song, “J’ai deux amours”, becoming a muse for such contemporary authors and painters such as Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, and Pablo Picasso.

At the start of World War II, Baker volunteered to spy for France against the Nazi forces. Well respected by the Nazis as well, Baker was able to deliver information received at parties to the French. She would also smuggle secrets written in invisible ink on her sheet music to allied forces. Her determined efforts during the war included helping citizens to escape France by obtaining documents in order to flee the country, and even giving a performance to liberated prisoners at Buchenwald. For her efforts, Baker received the Croix de Guerre and the Rosette de la Resistance.

Although based in France, Baker supported the Civil Rights movement back in the United States. She raised 12 adopted multi-ethnic children and would never perform to a segregated audience. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Baker was approached by his widow and asked to take over the leadership position her husband once held. Baker would decline the offer for the sake of her children, but would continue to travel between France and the US in order to give speeches and her support to the Civil Rights Movement.