Portraits of Leadership: Great African Americans in the Struggle for Freedom

Article excerpt

The history of African Americans is a history of struggle and achievement against the odds in virtually all spheres of human endeavor. We offer the following biographical sketches as poignant testimony to the lessons learned from the past and as scintillating inspiration for the work we must do in the future. Some of the personalities highlighted herein are more well known than others, yet they all undoubtedly qualify for the title of "leader."

Mary McLeod Bethune

When a white playmate snatched a book away and told her that because Blacks could not read, the book was not for her, Mary McLeod Bethune was filled with her life's central mission: education.

She founded what is now Bethune-Cookman College and the National Council of Negro Women, served as an advisor on minority affairs to five Presidents, and was one of the most influential women in America in the last 10 years of her life.

The 15th child of former slaves, she left the cotton field of her childhood to attend college from 1888 to 1897, then taught at four Southern schools for African-American children. In 1904--starting with $1.50 in cash, five pupils, and a rented cottage--she founded the normal and industrial school for young African-American women in Daytona Beach, Florida, which became Bethune-Cookman College in 1928.

Bethune became the first African-American woman to head a federal office, appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt, in 1936, as director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration.

Only her death in 1955, just prior to her 80th birthday, halted Mary McLeod Bethune's intense, unrelenting struggle for progress and opportunity.

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Poet and author Paul Laurence Dunbar was so talented and versatile that he succeeded in two worlds. He was so adept at writing verse in Black dialect that he became known as the "poet of his people," while also cultivating a white audience that appreciated the brilliance of his work.

Majors and Minors (1895), Dunbar's second collection of verse, contained some of his best poems in both Black dialect and standard English. When the literary critic, William Dean Howells reviewed Majors and Minors favorably, Dunbar became famous.

Even though he reached a point when publications competed for anything (poems, short stories, novels, prose, sketches, plays and musical lyrics) that sprang from his fertile mind, Dunbar wrote for a living and had to please popular reading tastes. But he did publish a few pieces that spoke out gently against the typical treatment of his people, including "We Wear the Mask" and "The Haunted Oak," an antilynching poem.

Despite worsening health from the tuberculosis he succumbed to at age 34 in 1906, Dunbar produced four collections of short stories and a quartet of novels in a creative outpouring between 1898 and 1904. His novels included The Fanatics, a tale of political conflict involving two Civil War families, and The Sport of the Gods, about injustice suffered by an innocent African-American family.

James Weldon Johnson

As a precursor, participant, and historian of the Harlem Renaissance, James Weldon Johnson was the epitome of the Renaissance man himself--poet, composer, author, government official, teacher, and influential civil rights activist.

Johnson, as lyricist, and his brother, Rosamond, as composer, wrote and staged musical comedies and light operas from 1901 to 1906, producing such songs as "Since You Went Away" and "Lift Every Voice and Sing," now widely adopted as the African-American national anthem.

He crowned his contributions to society by becoming field secretary for the fledgling NAACP in 1916.

After becoming the first African-American man to admitted to the bar (in 1897) to practice law in Jacksonville, Florida, he moved to New York to pursue a theatrical career. Campaigning for Teddy Roosevelt's successful presidential bid in 1904 earned Johnson an appointment as U. …