Miriam “Zenzi” Makeba was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1932 to parents Caswell and Christina makeba. During the time of her birth the country was facing an economic depression and apartheid. At the age of 18 days Miriam and her mother were imprisoned for illegally brewing beer; her mother was only trying to make sure her children had food to eat. In 1948 South African Prime Minister Daniel Malan made segregation legal, which was oppressive to the South Africans in their own land. Makeba’s father moved their family to Prospect Township which is located just outside of Johannesburg. The Township was rundown without electricity and mostly populated with poor people.
Makeba’s father died and she began working to help her mother support the family; shortly after she was sent to live with her grandmother in Riverside, Pretoria. Music was Makeba’s love from a young age, singing is what she used to escape her harsh living conditions; music was also her ticket out of poverty forever. She was first known for singing at the Methodist Training school in Pretoria. Makeba and other children her age were slated to sing for King George VI of the United Kingdom. It is said that King George VI drove by the children standing in the rain causing them to miss their chance to sing.
In 1950 at the age of seventeen Makeba gave birth to her only child, a little girl name Bongi with her first husband James Kubay. Shortly after becoming a mother Makeba was diagnosed with breast cancer and her husband left her. She survived the cancer diagnosis through treatment from her mother, and later that year her life would change forever. Het musical career began as a singer with the Cuban Brothers, and in 1954 she began singing with the Manhattan Brothers, a popular jazz group in South Africa. She also appeared on a poster for the first time in her career which helped to boost her popularity. She later began singing with an all-female group called the Skylarks and recorded over one hundred songs with the group. 1956 was the year Makeba released her song “Pata Pata” which became a hit and made her a household name.
In 1957 Makeba embarked on an 18 month tour as a solo artist throughout Africa and in 1959 she married South African singer Sonny Pillay. That same year she made a cameo in the South African anti-apartheid documentary film Come Back, Africa, which was directed by independent film maker Lionel Rogosin. The film made its debut at the Venice Film Festival in Italy and won the Critics Award. The film and the award helped Makeba not only become a star in South Africa, but she was becoming an international star. Later that year she would gain the lead role in the musical King Kong, and she made her American debut on The Steve Allen Show.
Makeba traveled to London to work with Harry Belafonte who mentored her early in her solo career. Belafonte helped Makeba enter into the United States and become successful singer. In 1960 Makeba returned to South Africa to attend her mother’s funeral, she also learned that her passport was no longer valid and she was placed in exile. Later in 1960 Makeba released her first studio album Miriam Makeba, two years later she and Harry Belafonte sang for President John Kennedy at his birthday party in Madison Square Garden. In 1963 she released her second studio album The World of Miriam Makeba which reached number eighty-six on the Billboard top 200 chart. Later in 1960 Makeba testified in front of the United Nations against apartheid in South Africa. To show that they disapproved of her actions the South African Government revoked Makeba’s citizenship from her homeland. Guinea, Belgium and Ghana quickly offered Makeba international passports along with seven other countries, where she became a citizen of those countries.
In 1966 Makeba and Harry Belafonte received a Grammy Award for their socially conscious anti-apartheid album An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba. She was known for not wearing makeup and wearing her hair “natural” which would make her one of the celebrity predecessor of the “natural or the afro look.” In 1967 her song “Pata Pata” became a hit in the United States ten years after its release in South Africa. She married former Black Panther and Civil Rights leader Stokley Carmichael in 1968, this caused much controversy with Makeba’s record labels in the U.S. Record deals and tour dates were cancelled; this was her record labels showing her they disapproved of her marriage. They moved to Guinea where Makeba would live for the next fifteen years and was appointed Guinea’s delegate to the nations; she also received the Dag Hammarskjöld Peace Prize in 1986.
In 1990 Nelson Mandela was released from prison for his 70th birthday and South African President Frederik Willem de Klerk reversed the ban on the National African Congress. Mandela would convince Makeba to return to using her French passport. She would later record her album Eyes on Tomorrow with Nina Simone, Dizzy Gillespie and Masakela. Gillespie and Makeba traveled the world promoting the album. Makeba appeared on The Cosby Show, “Olivia Comes Out of the Closet”, as well as the movie Sarafina! In 1999 Makeba was nominated for the Goodwill Ambassador of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In 2000 her album Homeland was nominated for a Grammy Award. She also worked with Graça Machel-Mandela South Africa’s first lady, to combat HIV/AIDS, child soldiers and to advocate for the physically handicapped. In 2008 after a performance in Italy, Makeba suffered a heart attack and never recovered. In 2009 singer and songwriter Angélique Kidjo honored her with a show titled “Hommage à Miriam Makeba. From the time she was a little girl she left her mark on anyone she came into contact with. She used her platform to help fight apartheid and injustice against the people in South Africa. Miriam Makeba aka “Mama Africa,” we proudly stand on your shoulders.
Absalom Boston was born in Nantucket, Massachusetts, in 1785, to parents Seneca Boston and Thankful March. Seneca Boston was the son of an ex-slave. Thankful March was a member of the Wampanoag tribe. Absalom’s uncle, Prince Boston, worked as a crew member of a whaling ship in 1770. Prince declined to turn over the money he earned from the voyage to his master. Prince Boston took his case to court and won the case, he also won his freedom and was able to keep his money. His victory was the first for an African American in a U.S. jury trial.
Absalom Boston followed in his uncle’s footsteps and chose to work in the whaling industry, little did he know his decision would change the course of history. Over the years Boston saved his earnings, and by the time he was twenty years old, he was able to purchase property in the city of Nantucket. Boston continued to save his money over the years, and within ten years able to buy his license to open and operate a public hotel. Boston became the Captain of a whaleship named The Industry and manned an all-black crew. He garnered fame for leading his crew on a six-month mission and returning with 70 barrels and his crew unharmed.
During the mid-1800s black men were able to find work within the sailing industry; it is said that around 700 black sailors were employed. Black men as captains of whaling ships were uncommon, but Boston was one of the few black men who were the captain of the boat he sailed upon. Blacks were a small percentage of the population of Nantucket, according to a 1764 census, 50 black people existed within a population of 3,570. By the year 1820, the black population grew to 274. Within ten years, Absalom Boston and Stephen Pompey were labeled as heads of their households in the census. Boston and Pompey helped lead the charge against racism and segregation in Nantucket. The men established a meeting house for black people, one of the first black institutions in the United States.
Boston retired from sailing in 1822 but continued his work to help uplift his community. He opened a general store and became a trustee at the Baptist Church for African people. He became active in the movement to segregate the schools of Nantucket, he filed a lawsuit and won the case, which allowed his daughter to attend the local high school. In 1855, Absalom Boston died, but not before amassing wealth in the form of real estate and revenue from various businesses. He was seen as the wealthiest black person in Nantucket and helped set a standard of excellence for black people. Ironically, even though Boston fought tirelessly to end segregation within Nantucket, he was buried in a segregated cemetery. Despite the segregation, he understood the importance of black empowerment through economics and education. He not only preach those messages, he actually lived what he preached. To Captain Absalom Boston, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
J. A. Ward
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Claudette Colvin was born on September 5th 1939 in Montgomery, Alabama, where she was adopted by C. P. Colvin and Mary Anne Colvin. At the age of four Colvin experienced her first taste of racial inequality; she learned that black people could not touch white people and live to talk about it. In 1955 at the age of fifteen Colvin was attending Booker T. Washington High School, she relied to the city bus for transportation to and from school. On March 2nd 1955 Colvin was riding the city bus in the colored only section, home from school as normal. The bus became overcrowded and all of the white only seats were taken; during segregation blacks were seen as inferior and were required to give up their bus seats for whites.
A white man boarded the bus he was standing because all of the seats were taken. The bus driver ordered Colvin and three other black women to stand at the back of the bus. As the seats became vacant a pregnant woman Mrs. Hamilton boarded the bus and sat next to Colvin, the bus driver again ordered Colvin and Mrs. Hamilton to stand at the back of the bus. They both refused even further, the bus driver then called the police to remedy the situation. As the officer arrived he ordered two black passengers to move to the back of the bus so Colvin and Mrs. Hamilton could move. Mrs. Hamilton being pregnant complied with the officer’s request, Colvin however did not move. She was forced from the bus by the officers and arrested. During the drive to the police station it is said the officers continuously berated and harassed Colvin a child, about the size of her breast.
Colvin’s bus incident was eight months before Rosa Park’s historic bus encounter; Colvin stated that her mother ordered her to remain silent about her incident. Colvin was later convicted of disturbing the peace, violating the civil rights laws, and assault on an officer. She later became one of the plaintiffs in the Browder v. Gayle case, filed by Attorney Fred Gary to fight and end bus segregation. Colvin’s case was appealed by the United States Supreme Court on November 13, 1956; the case was upheld on December 20th around the same time the Supreme Courts ordered the state of Alabama to end bus segregation. Colvin eventually became a mother and moved to New York in 1958. She was forced to live with her sister because she had difficulty finding a job. She garnered a bit of fame because of her bus encounter and employers labeled her a trouble maker. She eventually found a nursing job which she maintained for 35 years.
Colvin is often a forgotten piece in the civil rights movement; she was the initial trigger that helped to organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Rosa Parks is often viewed as the only black person to experience racism on the bus. We should not belittle Mrs. Parks’ involvement within the movement, but we should also recognize and never forget the contributions of others. Colvin was a brave teen girl who was tired of facing racism and injustice; her friend stated that before the bus incident, Colvin was passionately stating that her constitutional rights are being violated on the city bus. I am telling this story because it is important that we know and understand all of the pieces of our historical puzzle. Mrs. Claudette Colvin, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
Percy Lavon Julian was born on April 11, 1899 in Birmingham, Alabama. His mother was a school teacher and his father was a railroad mailman; education was of the highest importance in their household. Julian attended elementary school in Birmingham, Alabama, and then he attended high school in Montgomery, Alabama. He graduated high school form the State Normal School for Negroes in 1916 after graduation he moved to Greencastle, Indiana where he attended DePauw University. The University placed Julian on a probationary period; he took additional classes at Indiana Asbury Preparatory Academy run by DePauw, the University didn’t feel that Julian was prepared to attend college. Along with his additional course load Julian worked at a fraternity house to help pay his tuition.
Despite having to balance a full schedule of school and work, Julian became an honor student. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa and became a member of the Sigma Xi honorary society; he also graduated at the top of his class. Julian was the class Valedictorian but he was denied entry into graduate school because of his race. Even though Julian was brilliant and successful he was still affected by racism. He would become a Chemistry teacher at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee for two years. His next move was to Cambridge, Massachusetts to attend Harvard through an Austin Fellowship in Chemistry. Julian took full advantage of his opportunity to shine on a graduate level. He showed his brilliance by graduating at the top of his class and receiving his master’s degree from Harvard in 1923.
Racism reared its ugly head once again in Julian’s life, he was denied teaching positions at the predominantly white colleges, and they claimed the students wouldn’t be able to learn from him. Julian accepted a teaching positon at West Virginia State College for Negros, where he would teach Chemistry until he accepted a position at Howard University as head of the chemistry department. In 1929 Julian accepted a fellowship to travel to Vienna, Austria to earn his Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry. He graduated in 1931 then returned to the United States to become the head of the chemistry department at Howard University. He later returned to DePauw University as a chemistry teacher; he would begin working on the synthesis of physostigmine with Dr. Dr. Josef Pikl from Vienna. Physostigmine is a drug that Julian used to treat glaucoma that is made from the Calabar bean. He and Pikl worked together for three years, in that time along with synthesizing the Calabar bean, they published 11 articles in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. As a result of the publications Julian was considered a world-renowned chemist at the age of 36.
Once again racism would confront Julian, after his success in his research with Dr. Pikl he was denied the position as the head of the chemistry department, because he was black. Frustrated with the academic world, Julian took a position with the Glidden Company as the Chief Chemist and director of the Soya Product Division. He was the first black person to be hired as the Chief Chemist and director of the Soya Product Division. The Glidden Company expected Julian to use soybeans to make paint and other products they produced. He developed a flame retardant aero-foam that was widely used by the U.S. Navy in World War II. In 1935 Julian moved to Chicago, Illinois after he married Anna Johnson. He would use his knowledge of plants and chemistry to develop male and female hormones using the soy bean. The hormones were used to help pregnant women from having miscarriages and it was used to fight cancer. He next used the soy bean to create an inexpensive version of cortisone; it was able to help many people around the world find pain relief.
In 1950 the city of Chicago named Julian as the Chicagoan of the year, later that year the new home he brought was set on fire by racist pyromaniac. Within a year Julian’s family survived another terrorist attack, dynamite was thrown outside his young daughter’s window; Julian and his family were not welcome in the new neighborhood they lived in. No matter how many achievements he gained he was still not good enough for the white residents of Chicago. In 1954 he started his own company called Julian Laboratories, to produce synthesized cortisone. He would later discover that yams were more effective for producing cortisone that soy beans. Julian opened a laboratory in Mexico City, Mexico called the Laboratorios Julian de Mexico. They used the Mexican laboratory to cultivate yams and shipped them to his Oak Park laboratory in the U.S. Julian sold his company to Kline and French a pharmaceutical company for $2.3 million dollars. He would later establish the Julian Research Institute where he continued his work until 1975, which is the year Percy Julian died.
Julian received several awards for his amazing achievements; he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1973, he was the first recipient of DePauw’s McNaughton Medal for Public Service. In 1990 he was elected to the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and he received 19 honorary doctorate degrees. In 1993 the U.S. Postal Service honored Julian with a stamp in the Black Heritage Commemorative Stamp series. Lastly, a street was named after Julian in the city of Greencastle; they renamed First Street to Percy Julian Drive. Julian was courageous, persistent, brilliant, and innovative and an example of what true success is. He endured open racism that could have negatively affected his career. He decided to take life into his own hands and managed to change the world. Dr. Percy Julian, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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