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cNotable Black Washingtonians
Public Figures
Frederick Douglass
Mary Church Terrell
Thurgood Marshall
Mary McLeod Bethune
  Senator Ed Brooke
Ralph Bunche
Frederick Gregory
Hugh Price

 

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Frederick Douglass (1817 - 1895)

Tireless abolitionist, eloquent orator, publisher, diplomat and advocate of women's rights, Frederick Douglass was born into slavery, secured his freedom, and lived to see slavery become a thing of the past.

He moved his family to northeast Washington DC in 1872, to be at the center of political activity, where he served the government for the remainder of his years. He was the publisher of the New National Era (to elevate the position of African-Americans in the post-Emancipation period) and campaigned for the re-election of President Grant.

When Douglass took over as President of the Freedmen's Savings and Trust Company in Washington, it was on the verge of collapse. The bank had been founded to encourage blacks to invest and save their money. Douglass tried to restore confidence by investing much of his own money into the bank, but after it failed, he returned to the lecture circuit. By this time he no longer spoke only about black rights but also about other topics of interest to him, such as Scandinavian folklore.

Douglass then took on the largely ceremonial political post of Marshal for Washington DC. This position allowed him to buy a 15-acre estate in Anacostia called Cedar Hill. He returned to the Maryland plantation where he was a slave and spoke to his former master, Thomas Auld. Then, in 1881, President Garfield appointed him Recorder of Deeds for Washington, a position that left him time to continue writing and speaking.

In 1882 Douglass became a widower after Anna, his wife of forty years, succumbed to a long illness. Less than two years later he married Helen Pitts, a white woman. He dismissed the controversy surrounding the marriage saying his first marriage honored his mother's race and his second honored his father's.

For the remainder of his years he served in diplomatic posts to Haiti and Santo Domingo.

Among his friends and adversaries were William Llyod Garrison, President Abraham Lincoln (who he advised to make emancipation the main issue of the Civil War) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. On February 20, 1895 he attended the morning session of the National Council of Women in Washington DC. That evening he died at Cedar Hill.

Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954)

Mary Church Terrell Mary Church Terrell was a civil rights pioneer and lifelong political activist who fought for equal rights for African-American women. In 1896 she began a three-year term as president of the National Association of Colored Women and she was actively involved in the NAACP and the National American Suffrage Organization. Even at the age of 90, she was instrumental in a boycott of Washington, DC restaurants that refused to serve blacks. She carried that fight to the Supreme Court in 1953, which upheld the right of blacks to equal service in DC restaurants. The decision set in motion the desegregation of the capital.

Terrell was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1863. Both her parents were former slaves, but her father went on to become the first African-American millionaire in the South. Terrell led a life of privilege and graduated from Oberlin in 1884 (one of the first black women to graduate from college). She taught in Washington's M Street High School, the predecessor to Dunbar High School, in 1886, but after marrying, she left the field of education to campaign for women's rights.

In 1894, she and her husband, Robert Terrell, Washington's first black judge, were the second black family to move into LeDroit Park. Their second home in the area was at 326 T Street, NW.

Her autobiography is the first full length published autobiography by an American black woman.

Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993)

Thurgood MarshallThurgood Marshall became the first black Supreme Court Justice in 1967. But even before he was appointed a justice, he had a deep familiarity with the Supreme Court, having argued 29 successful Supreme Court cases, most dealing with race issues. He was a tireless advocate for desegregation, best known for winning Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, the landmark 1954 case that abolished school segregation.

Marshall grew up in Baltimore in an interracial family and rejected Malcolm X's violent separatism as racism. He also rejected Martin Luther King Jr.'s ideas of peaceful protest as rhetoric that would accomplish nothing. So he established his own effective means of attacking the racial segregation and injustice. Throughout his career in law, he promoted affirmative action and created new legal protections for women, children, prisoners, and the homeless. He believed integration was the only way equal rights under the law could be realized. Once this was achieved, Marshall believed, blacks and whites would succeed or fail based only on their ability.

This great-grandson of a slave attended Howard University Law School and went on to serve as legal director of the NAACP during the pivotal period from 1940 to 1961. Then President Kennedy appointed him to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 1961. A group of Southern senators tried to block his confirmation, but he began serving under a special appointment made during a Congressional recess. During the next four years he wrote 112 opinions, none of which was overturned on appeal.

He served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court from 1967 to 1991. Most often remembered for his dissenting opinions, Marshall said little during arguments except to quip a sarcastic remark to the lawyers or fellow justices. This no-nonsense approach was evident early on. Named Thuroughgood after his paternal grandfather, he shortened his first name to Thurgood because, by the time he was in the second grade, he "got tired of spelling all that."

In 1993, he died of heart failure in Bethesda, Maryland at the age of 84.

Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955)

Mary McLeod Bethune was a noted educator, presidential advisor, and civil rights advocate, and one of America's most influential African American leaders. As head of the Office of Negro Affairs in the National Youth Administration, she was the first African American woman to lead a Federal government office. Bethune was also special advisor for minority affairs to Franklin Roosevelt and the most influential member of his "Black Cabinet."

Senator Ed Brooke (b.1919)

Ed Brooke was the first African-American Senator. Born in Washington in 1919, he grew up in LeDroit Park and attended Dunbar High School and Howard University. He moved to Massachusetts after earning a bronze star in World War II. Brooke became the first black to win a statewide office in Massachusetts when he was elected attorney general. Then in 1966 he was elected to the U.S. Senate. Brooke was the first Senator to call for President Richard Nixon's resignation during Watergate. He served two terms before he was defeated by Paul Tsongas in 1978.

Ralph Bunche (1904 - 1971)

Ralph BuncheRalph Bunche was an important figure in the early civil rights movement and marched with Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. He founded the National Negro Congress in 1936, the first attempt to have an across-the-board, all-class, Negro representative organization. Bunche also spent a great deal of time trying to arouse the black community against Hitler. He served on the Howard University faculty from 1928 to 1933. He drafted two chapters of the United Nations Charter regarding territories and trusteeships. He then set up the UN Trusteeship Department in 1946 and got involved with the movement for decolonization. Foretelling his later achievements, he was sent to Palestine in 1947 to work out what was going to be done with Palestine once the British colonial power left. Bunche served as right-hand-man to Count Folke Bernadotte negotiating a truce in the Arab/Israeli conflict and setting up the first UN peacekeeping operation to monitor the truce. Bunche took over as the mediator when Bernadotte was assassinated in September 1948.

When he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950, Bunche initially turned it down, claiming he didnšt work in the UN Secretariat to win prizes; he was just doing his job. The Secretary General, Trygve Lie, ordered him to accept the prize "for the good of the United Nations."

Frederick Gregory (b.1941)

Frederick D. Gregory was the first African American astronaut to command a space flight. He was born in Washington, DC, and graduated from Anacostia High School. Gregory went on to finish at the United States Air Force Academy, and received a Masters Degree in Information Systems from George Washington University. After finishing at the Air Force Academy, Gregory went to Vietnam as a combat rescue pilot, flying over 550 combat missions.

In 1979, Frederick Gregory was selected as an astronaut. He has spent over 456 hours in space, and been on 3 space flights. In 1989, he made the historic flight, commanding a mission aboard STS-33, in which his crew deployed a Department of Defense satellite.

Hugh Price (b.1941)

Hugh Price, a leading spokesman for African Americans, is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Urban League. He was born and raised in Washington, D.C., the son of a Howard University trained doctor. During his childhood he witnessed and became a part of the many changes which were happening in Washington, as the schools and neighborhoods became integrated. After graduating from Amherst College and Yale Law School, Price went on to an illustrious legal career in both the public and private sector. He then moved on to public broadcasting as Senior Vice President of WNET in New York, and in 1988, moved into the world of philanthropy, as Vice President of the Rockefeller Foundation.

Price has led the National Urban League since 1994. Founded in 1910, the League is the nation's premier social service and civil rights organization serving African Americans and others who are striving to enter the economic mainstream.

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