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America 1900 | Article

Notable People: Activists, Writers and Educators

Susan B. Anthony 
The daughter of Quaker abolitionists, Susan Brownell Anthony (1820-1906) left her teaching career in 1849 to join her family's work in the abolition and temperance movements. In 1851, Anthony met Elizabeth Cady Stanton, co-organizer of the 1848 Seneca Falls, NY women's rights convention, and joined forces with her to promote the women's movement, temperance, and abolition. The following year, Anthony formed the first temperance group organized by and for women after an existing temperance organization refused women equal rights in the movement. Anthony's work resulted in passage of the 1860 Married Women's Property Act in New York, which became a model for women's property laws in other states. The antislavery movement took all of Anthony's energies during the Civil War, but she returned to the question of women's suffrage after the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments granted equal rights to African Americans and voting rights to all citizens, but not to women. She formed the Women's Suffrage Association in 1869 and was arrested in 1872 along with 12 other women for voting in the presidential election. Although a constitutional amendment granting voting rights to women was presented to Congress each year from 1878, women's suffrage did not become a reality until 14 years after Anthony's death.

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Clara Barton
Clara Barton (1821-1912) began her career as an educator, founding one of New Jersey's first public schools, from which she resigned after a male teacher was given the school's highest position. Barton became one of the first appointed female civil servants when she earned a clerkship in the Patent Office in 1854. During the Civil War, Barton distributed supplies by mule team, nursed wounded soldiers, and organized hospitals. During a visit to Switzerland in 1868 to recuperate from overwork and exhaustion, Barton discovered the International Committee of the Red Cross. Her effort to organize a chapter in her own country took five years, until 1881, and she served as president of the American Association of the Red Cross until 1904. In her 70s, Barton returned to nursing to care for soldiers in the Spanish-American War.

W.E.B Du Bois 
In the opinion of W.E. Burghardt Du Bois, most African Americans in 1900 were "still serfs bound to the soil or house servants." The Harvard-educated professor of economics, history, and sociology was not content with the gradualism of Booker T. Washington's approach toward racial equality. In Du Bois's opinion, such accommodation to the status quo would lead only to further "humiliation and inferiority" for African Americans. His opinions regarding the unjust plight of African Americans were solidified when he witnessed the brutal burning of an African American man named Sam Hose who was accused of killing his boss over money. The sheer brutality of the act-Hose's charred knucklebones were later displayed by a local drugstore-made clear in Du Bois's mind that African Americans would gain equality only through radical measures. He turned down a position at Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute, and went on to help organize the Niagara Movement, out of which grew the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Du Bois, frustrated with the progress of civil rights in the US, emigrated to Ghana in 1962 and renounced his American citizenship.

Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin) 
Among the contingent of Americans performing at the Paris Exposition in 1900 was Gertrude Simmons Bonnin. Bonnin performed as a violin soloist with the Carlisle Indian Band of Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Bonnin, who would later adopt the Sioux tribal name of Zitkala-Sa, was familiar with the objectives of eastern "Indian" schools like the one in Carlisle. She herself had attended White's Indiana Manual Labor Institute in Wabash, Indiana. The daughter of a full-blooded Sioux mother and a white father she never knew, Zitkala-Sa turned what she called a "miserable state of cultural dislocation" into a prize-winning speech, "The School Days of an Indian Girl." 

Initially drawn to the world of literature, Zitkala-Sa decided to instead devote her life to working on behalf of and educating Native Americans. In 1916 she was elected secretary of the Society of the American Indian and went on to edit the American Indian Magazine. Laboring in defense of "Indian citizenship, employment of Indians in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, equitable settlement of tribal land claims, and stabilization of laws relating to Indians," Zitkala-Sa founded the National Council of American Indians in 1926. 

Nannie Helen Burroughs
Nannie Helen Burroughs (1879-1961) attended public schools in Washington, DC, where she was influenced by teachers such as Mary Church Terrell. Her lifelong goals were to empower women within the Baptist Church and to organize a training school for women and girls. Her impassioned oration, "How the Sisters Are Hindered from Helping," delivered at the 1900 National Baptist Convention (NBC), was instrumental in establishing the Women's Convention Auxiliary to the NBC, the largest black women's organization in America at that time. The Women's Convention elected Burroughs its corresponding secretary every year from 1900 to 1948, and she was president of the organization from 1948 until her death. Burroughs was also an outspoken foe of lynching and segregation, and tirelessly promoted women's suffrage. After passage of the 19th Amendment, Burroughs formed the National League of Republican Colored Women and worked to mobilize African American women politically.

Fanny Jackson Coppin 
Fanny Jackson Coppin (1837-1913) was born into slavery in Washington, DC; an aunt purchased her freedom in early childhood. Determined to get an education, she used money earned as a domestic servant to pay a tutor, and later attended public schools. She hoped to become a teacher, and work to make education available to all black Americans. As a student at Oberlin College in the 1860s, Coppin established an evening school for freed slaves, and was the second African American woman to graduate from the college. Coppin took a position as principal of the female department at the Institute for Colored Youth, a Quaker academy in Philadelphia, where she was later promoted to principal of the school--the highest educational appointment held by a black woman at that time. Coppin anticipated Booker T. Washington's call for vocational training for African Americans, establishing an industrial department at the Institute in the 1880s. This first trade school for African Americans in Philadelphia was an immediate success and had a waiting list for admission throughout its existence. In poor health, Coppin retired as principal in 1902. Coppin State College in Baltimore is named in her honor.

Charles Alexander Eastman
Charles Alexander Eastman (1858-1939), or Ohiyesa ("victor"), was born to a Sioux father and a mixed-blood mother on a Santee Sioux reservation in Minnesota. According to the philosophy of the time, Eastman received his education among whites, attending preparatory school and then Dartmouth College, and later graduating from medical school. He became an agency physician for the Indian Health Service and worked on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, where he cared for the wounded after the US Army's 1890 attack on Lakota chief Big Foot's band at Wounded Knee. Eastman moved to Washington, DC, in the late 1890s and lobbied the government on behalf of the Santee Sioux. He then held a succession of government positions; President Roosevelt assigned him in 1903 to revise the allotment of tribal lands and to assign the Sioux family names to protect their land titles. Author of the autobiographical Indian Boyhood (1902), Eastman helped to found the Boy Scouts of America in 1910.


Frances Benjamin Johnson 
Photography was all the rage in 1900. Advances in the process allowed everyday people the chance to create and be part of photographs. Journalism, too, was transformed by the addition of photographic pictures that accompanied text. In 1900, 36-year-old Frances Benjamin Johnson stood at the forefront of the burgeoning field of photojournalism. Trained in France as a painter and illustrator, Benjamin Johnson embraced photography, calling it a "more accurate medium." Her skill as a photographer put her in demand among the well-known and the well-to-do. Presidents, socialites, and captains of commerce gladly sat for her. But Frances Benjamin Johnson was not content to merely capture the poses of the high and mighty. When she turned her camera on the lives of ordinary people-factory workers, farmers, coal miners, African American students-her lens revealed personal stories rich with meaning and hope. All the world observed the power of her still images when her collection of photographs depicting progress in the lives of African Americans since Emancipation, commissioned by Thomas J. Calloway, was displayed at the Paris Exposition of 1900.  

Jacob Riis 
Jacob "Jake" Riis, the Danish-born journalist and photographer, was among the most dedicated advocates for America's oppressed, exploited, and downtrodden. Riis's 1890 book, How the Other Half Lives, documented through word and image the lives of those who lived in New York's slums in a brutal, uncensored fashion. Among those moved by Riis's reportage was Theodore Roosevelt, then New York police commissioner. Alerted to the inhumane conditions endured by many of New York's inhabitants, Theodore Roosevelt accompanied Riis on his rounds of tenement houses and back alleys. Roosevelt grew to consider Riis "the most useful citizen in America." 

By 1900, Riis's mission began to yield results: city water was purified, incidences of yellow fever, smallpox, and cholera were waning, and efforts to establish child labor laws were underway. Still, Riis was realistic about how far the "haves" would go toward helping the "have-nots." Reflecting on the prospect of charging a small tax on tenement owners to fund the hiring of additional sanitation inspectors, Riis concluded, "The delicate task is to propose (a tax) that will do the least violence to the Anglo-Saxon reverence for property." 

Mary Church Terrell 
Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and educated in Ohio and, later, in Europe. She graduated from Oberlin College in 1884 (later completing a master's degree), and taught at a college in Ohio and at a high school in Washington, DC. Leaving the field of education after her marriage in 1891, Terrell re-entered public life after a close friend in Memphis was lynched. Together with Frederick Douglass, Terrell met with President Harrison to urge his condemnation of racial violence; the president made no public statement on the issue. Terrell used her three-term presidency, which began in 1896, of the National Association of Colored Women to fight for equal rights for women, especially African Americans, and to promote women's suffrage. The District of Columbia appointed Terrell to its school board in 1895, and she served for a total of 12 years. As part of a group protesting segregation in Washington, DC, Terrell won a lawsuit against the District in 1953 that set in motion the desegregation of the capitol.

Booker T. Washington 
Booker Taliaferro Washington was born a slave on a Virginia plantation in 1856. Following Emancipation, he labored by day as a coal miner in West Virginia while still a child. At night, he was taught by a local teacher to read and write. His intellectual gifts made themselves apparent at a young age. He was not exposed to a formal education, however, until he attended college at the Hampton, Virginia Normal and Agricultural Institute, working his way through as a janitor. Washington developed a philosophy of personal development rooted in hard work, moral righteousness, and practical knowledge. By 1900, he was among the nation's best known and most highly respected African American orators and educators. His efforts on behalf of the Tuskegee Institute, a vocational training school for African Americans, saw the school grow from a run-down shanty with next to no enrollment to one with 1,500 students and a $2 million endowment. 

Washington's moderate-some would say conciliatory-stance toward race relations was predicated upon the notion that African Americans were better off working within the system presented to them. In 1895, speaking at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, he said, "The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly." By 1900, some within the African American community, especially W.E.B. Du Bois, were expressing the opinion that Washington's former statements had given license to continued patterns of racial segregation and discrimination. Washington, himself, expressed deep disappointment around 1900 at efforts aimed at preventing African Americans from exercising their right to vote.


Paul Laurence Dunbar 
On the morning of his 24th birthday, the poetry of Paul Dunbar was the subject of a review written by literary critic William Dean Howells in Harper's Weekly. The review read, in part, "In more than one piece he has produced a work of art." The review also noted that Dunbar was the African American son of former slaves. To many who had read and admired Dunbar's lyrical and penetrating poems the fact that his skin was black came as something of a revelation. W.E.B. Du Bois, then a young classics professor at Wilberforce University, later recounted how he was "astonished to find that he (Dunbar) was a Negro." Dunbar was graced with the literary skills to be able to write in a voice that defied compartmentalization. His poetry straddled the line between what was considered "white English" and "black dialect." His admirers crossed all barriers of color also. In 1900, he was one of the most sought after speakers in the nation. Having recently returned from the mountains of Colorado to the Washington, DC home he shared with his wife and mother, Dunbar was looking forward to the heavy workload he faced in the spring of 1900. He had journeyed to the mountains seeking relief from the tuberculosis that had plagued him for much of his life. 

Dunbar began writing while he was an elevator operator in the late 1890's. The publication of his first collection of poems cost him $125 of his hard-earned money, but brought him to the attention of admiring readers and editors. His public readings combined elements of high art and bluesy chorus, often resulting in whole audiences reciting his works aloud. While some tried to pigeonhole his work and identity, Dunbar displayed no interest in this preoccupation. Secure in his identity as an African American artist, Dunbar observed, "It is one of the peculiar phases of Anglo-Saxon conceit to refuse to believe that every black man does not want to be white." 

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