Tag Archives: Legacy

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: Celebrating the Legacy of Wilma Rudolph

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 a little bit about Wilma Rudolph and her short, but impressive career in Track & Field that would inspire a generation of young girls to pursue their athletic dreams. 

Wilma Rudolph was born prematurely into a family that already had twenty children by the time of her arrival in 1940. To further complicate things, Rudolph caught infantile paralysis (caused by the polio virus) early on in her youth. While she eventually recovered, she was required to wear a brace on her left leg that had become twisted as a result. Her childhood consisted of monthly trips between her hometown and Nashville, TN in order to treat her leg.

Rudolph’s short-lived career began at the age of twelve when she was finally able to cast off her brace and run like the other children. Following in the footsteps of her older sister, Rudolph joined the basketball team upon entering high school, eventually setting records for scoring and leading her team to the state title.

Her natural athletic abilities were recognized by Edward Temple, the Tennessee State University track and field coach at the time. While Rudolph had some experience on the high school track team, mostly to keep busy between basketball seasons, Temple recognized the ability to sculpt the raw athletic talent within her. While still in high school, Rudolph earned a spot on the 1956 US Olympic team, eventually coming home with a bronze medal in the 4 x 100 meters relay.

However, it was not until her years at Tennessee State where she became a household name. Rudolph would combine to break the world record in the 4 x 100 meters relay with her college teammates, setting the mark at 44.5 seconds. During the 1960 Olympics in Rome the previous summer before, Rudolph went on to win three gold medals, becoming the first African-American woman to accomplish such a feat at the time.

Rudolph became a sports superstar and the fasted woman of her time, celebrated around the world for her achievements. Upon returning home from the Olympics, she made numerous appearances on television and received several honors including being named the Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year.

While Rudolph retired from track just a few years later in her mid-twenties, her talents inspired a generation of children, especially young girls, to pursuit their athletic dreams. Her legacy can be seen in the popularity of track and field in the United States today.

For more information on Wilma Rudolph, please visit this site for more details and a list of further resources.

Black History Month: Celebrating the Legacy of Arthur Ashe

February 6th marks the 19th anniversary of the passing of the American tennis star and civil rights activist Arthur Ashe. As February is also Black History month, I thought it was fitting to write a small biography of him and his accomplishments both on and off the court. If you are interested in learning more about him, please click here for a suggested reading list.

Arthur Ashe, born in Richmond, Virginia in 1943, is best known for his victories in tennis’ Grand Slam Championships during the open era. His groundbreaking combination of finesse and strength brought him major championships at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and Australian Open, becoming the first and only African-American to win the men’s singles titles.

Ashe was raised with strict guidelines under the watchful eye of his father after having lost his mother at the age of four.  However, Ashe found his escape when he picked up at a racket for the first time at the age of seven. His natural gift for the game eventually caught the attention of Dr. Robert Walter Johnson, Jr., a tennis couch who was active in the African-American community. It was during this time that Ashe excelled under Johnson’s direction, reaching the junior national championships in only his first tournament.

Ashe would move to St. Louis to train with another coach because the segregation of Richmond got in the way of his training efforts. Soon thereafter, he would go on to win the boy’s junior national title in 1960 and 1961. His junior ranking of fifth best in the country caught the eye of the coaches at UCLA, who offered him a scholarship to play for them. Ashe would later lead the team to a national title and become the first African-American player to be selected for the US Davis Cup Team, a tournament-style competition held every year between various countries.

Continuing to refine his game after his collegiate career, Ashe would go on to shock the tennis world at the inaugural US Open in 1968 by winning the event as an amateur. He would later go on to with the Australian Open title in 1970, and Wimbledon title in 1975.

While Ashe was a leader on the court with his finesse game, he was also a leader and activist off the court. Ashe promoted the game to many inner city and black youths that helped pave the way for later superstars such as the Williams sisters. He was also active in civil rights campaigns including the anti-apartheid movement against South Africa, and the mal-treatment of Haitian refuges in the United States. Ashe would be arrested for his involvement in protests related to the two events.

Ashe, a grand tennis champion and civil rights activist, passed away in 1993 from HIV related issues received during a bad blood transfusion. His memoir, Days of Grace, was completed just days before his death.

Remembering the Legacy of Zora Neale Hurston

Tomorrow, Saturday January 28, marks the 52th anniversary of the passing of one of the greatest authors of the Harlem Renaissance period: Zora Neale Hurston. We encourage you to explore her legacy and have provided a little starting point for you with this brief biography on her life and accomplishments. 

Remembering Zora Neale Hurston

(January 7, 1891 – January 28, 1960)

Zora Neale Hurston was a prominent writer, folklorist, and anthropologist during the time of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920’s and 30’s. Born in rural Alabama in 1891, Hurston soon moved with her family to Eatonville, Florida; the first all-black town incorporated in the US. She considered this town her home, glorifying it as a place where African Americans could feel free to live as they please in her future novels.

When Hurston’s mother died in 1904, her father and stepmother sent her to boarding school in Jacksonville. However, because the family stopped paying the tuition, she was later expelled from the school. To support herself, Hurston began working as a maid until entering Morgan Academy, the high school division of a historically African American college of the same name. To qualify for a free education, Hurston used 1901 as her date of birth, graduating from high school at the age of 26 in 1918. Hurston would go on to receive her Bachelor of Arts degree in anthropology in 1927 from Barnard College as the sole black student at the school.

Hurston came to New York during the 1920s just as the Harlem Renaissance was reaching a peak in its popularity and influence. She would soon become one of the writers at its forefront, with her short story “Spunk” that would go on to be selected for The New Negro, a publication for short literary works in African American culture. Hurston, alongside literary greats such as Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman, would go on to produce Fire!!, a magazine that featured young talent leading the Harlem Renaissance.

It was not until 1937, however, that Hurston garnered the most attention and controversy for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, which was written during her anthropological fieldwork in Haiti. The novel, considered her greatest work, exposed readers to phonetical spellings that were more inline with the spoken dialects of the south. Hurston was also keen to uncover the inter-racial tensions between light and dark skinned African-Americans, a taboo subject at the time.

Hurston faded into obscurity in her later years after being falsely accused of some unfortunate misdeeds. It was not until 1975 when an article published by Alice Walker in Ms. Magazine did interest in her work come to the public’s attention. It was only after her death that many of her literary works became frequent in African-American literature programs for their symbolism, artistic style, and early efforts to challenge race and gender roles.