A historical blog, highlighting prominent African American women whose lasting contributions have influenced the world in which we live.
Author: Jasmine Y. Williams
Author, poet, writer, freelance model, public speaker, and entrepreneur. The name of her business is Imagemaker Enterprise, which is a conglomerate of her artistry. You can follow her on Instragram as jasminewilliams8295, and on Facebook as Jasmine Williams. Her book "Feet That Leap Office Ledges" is available for sale on Amazon.com. Please check out her website for booking information at imagemakerenterprise.webs.com.
“Forget these women. What you’re seeing is the destruction of a legacy” strong words voiced by the brillantly-talented, outspoken, multi-award winning actress Phylicia Rashad who spoke out amidst allegations involving her former co-star Bill Cosby in 2015. She has won multiple awards for her work in film, television, and on stage, with a career spanding over 4 decades. She is also the first African American Actress to win a Tony Award for “Best Actress” in a play.
Phylicia Rashad was born on June 19, 1948 in Houston, Texas. Her father, Andrew Arthur Allen was an orthodontist. Her mother, Vivian Elizabeth (Ayers), was a poet, art directer, playwright, and publisher who was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
Phylicia’s siblings are jazz-musician brother Tex (Andrew Arthur Allen, Jr., born 1945), sister Debbie Allen (born 1950), an actress, choreographer, and director, and brother Hugh Allen, a real estate banker in North Carolina. Phylicia’s parents divorced when she was the age of six.
Growing up as a young African-American girl in 1950’s Texas was a hostile experience due to segregation. “It wasn’t like people loved the color of your skin,” Phylicia tells “Oprah: Where Are They Now?” ― but Phylicia’s mother made a conscious choice to protect her two daughters as much as possible from the harsh reality. “My mother was determined that her children would not be scarred by this ignorance,” Phylicia says. “So, when there was someplace we wanted to go and we couldn’t go because of segregation, she would say, ‘We won’t be able to go there because it’s a private club and we’re not members of that club.”
In 1961, her mother moved her three children to Mexico City, Mexico. Their mother decided to live in Mexico to give the Allen children a brief experience of not having to endure the chronic racism and segregation which was prevalent in America. Whereas many Americans looked down upon Phylicia and her family for the color of their skin, the locals in Mexico reacted differently. “Mexican people would look at me and they’d say, ‘Aye, negrita,’” Phylicia says. “I didn’t understand that was a compliment. They loved the color of my skin.” As a result of living in Mexico, Phylicia speaks spanish fluently.
In 1966, Phylicia returned to the United States to attend Howard University and earned her B.F.A. degree in 1970. She later taught drama there.
In 1975, Phylicia performed in her first role in a major production. She portrayed a Munchkin in the Broadway production of The Wiz. The production won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The following year she portrayed Ventita Ray in Delvecchio. She later released her album, Josephine Superstar in 1978 with the Casablanca.
In 1983, she was cast in a role on the ABC soap opera, One Life to Live. The following year, she received her big break when she cast as Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show where she played the role of the sophisticated, quick-witted mother and attorney Clair Huxtable. The role landed her great fame. Phylicia remained on The Cosby Show until 1992, when the show came to an end.
She has performed in numerous Broadway and off-Broadway shows throughout her career, including Jelly’s Last Jam and Dreamgirls. In 2003, she won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Lena Younger in A Raisin in the Sun, becoming the first black woman to win the coveted honor for a dramatic lead role. In 2008, she revisited the role in a television adaption for which she earned the 2009 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special.
Phylicia has starred in films as well, in addition to her work on Broadway and television. She has appeared in the films For Colored Girls in 2010, Good Deeds and Steel Magnolias in 2012, and Creed in 2015. She has also proven herself as a stage director, having directed Joe Turner’s Come and Gone in 2013, Fences in 2014, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in 2016.
Phylicia has won multiple awards for her work in television, film, and on stage. In 1985, she won the People’s Choice Award for Favorite female Performer in a New TV Program. Rashad even won two NAACP Awards for Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series in 1988 and 1989. She has also received two Tony Awards for Best Actress in a Play for A Raisin in the Sun in 2004 and for Gem of the Ocean in 2005. She was inducted into the 2016 American Theatre Hall of Fame.
Like her dad, her first husband, William Lancelot Bowles Jr., was a dentist. The couple married in 1971 and divorced in 1975. Phylicia’s second ex-husband, Victor Willis, was the lead singer of The Village People. They divorced in 1982. She was also married to Minnesota Viking and sports announcer Ahmad Rashad from 1985 to 2001.
Phylicia Rashad is the face of the African American Cultural Heritage fund, a $25 million dollar initiative to preserve the legacy of African-American contributions. With younger sister Debbie Allen, she has a production company, D.A.D., which stood for Doctor Allen’s Daughters. She is also a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated.
“Before I was married to Martin and became a King, I was a proud Scott, shaped by my mother’s discernment and my father’s strength,” a declaration made by Coretta Scott King, one of the most influential and prominent female leaders the world has known. Her family, education, and personality molded her for a life committed to social justice and peace. Coretta entered the world stage in 1955, as the wife of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Her remarkable union with Dr. King resulted not only in four children, who became dedicated to carrying forward their parent’s work, but also in a life devoted to the highest values of human dignity in service to social change.
Born on April 27, 1927, in Marion Alabama, Coretta was the third of four children. She was born in her parents’ home with her paternal great-grandmother Delia Scott, a former slave, presiding as midwife. Her father, Obadiah Scott was one of the first black people in their town to own a vehicle. Before starting his own businesses he worked as a policeman. He ran a clothing shop far from their home and later opened a general store. Her mother, Bernice McMurry Scott, worked as a school bus driver, a church pianist, and for her husband in his business ventures. She served as Worthy Matron for her Eastern Star chapter and was a member of the local Literacy Federated Club.
The Scott family had owned a farm since the American Civil War, but were not particularly wealthy. During the Great Depression the Scott children picked cotton to help earn money. Coretta, her two sisters Edythe and Eunice, and their younger brother Obadiah Leonard, all shared a bedroom with their parents. At the age of 10, Coretta, along with her siblings worked to increase the family’s income.
Coretta graduated valedictorian from Lincoln High School. She received a B.A. in music and education from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. After earning a scholarship, she attended the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where she earned a degree in voice and violin. While studying in Boston, she met Martin Luther King, Jr. who was then studying for his doctorate in systematic theology at Boston University.
A mutual friend, Mary Powell, gave Coretta’s phone number to Dr. King after he’d inquired about girls on the campus. Initially, Coretta showed little interest in meeting him, however, with time things eventually changed. She continued to see him regularly.
On June 18, 1953, they were married on the lawn of her mother’s house. The ceremony was performed by Dr. King’s father, Martin Luther King Sr. The following year, they relocated to Montgomery, Alabama where Coretta assumed the many responsibilities of pastor’s wife at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. The couple had four children, Yolanda Denise, Martin Luther III, Dexter Scott, and Bernice Albertine.
Before long, the couple found themselves in the middle of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Dr. King was elected leader of the protest movement. As the boycott continue, Coretta answered numerous phone calls threatening her husband’s life. On December 23, 1955, two days after the integration of Montgomery’s bus service, a gunshot rang through the front door of the King home while Coretta, her husband and Yolanda were asleep. The three were not harmed.
In the early years of the Civil Rights Movement, she balanced motherhood and Movement work, speaking before church organizations, civic groups, colleges, fraternal organizations, and peace groups. She orchestrated and performed a series of favorably-reviewed Freedom Concerts which combined prose and poetry narration with musical selections. These concerts functioned as significant fundraisers for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization of which Dr. King served as the first president.
In 1957, she and Dr. King traveled to Ghana to mark that country’s independence. In 1958, they spent a belated honeymoon in Mexico, where they observed first-hand the immense gulf between extreme wealth and extreme poverty. In 1959, Dr. King and Coretta spent nearly a month in India on a pilgrimage viewing sites associated with Mahatma Gandhi. In 1964, she accompanied him to Oslo, Norway, where he received the Nobel Peace Prize. Even prior to her husband’s public stand against the Vietnam War in 1967, Coretta functioned as liaison to peace and justice organizations, and as mediator to public officials on behalf of the marginalized.
After her husband’s assassination in 1968, Coretta devoted great energy and commitment to building The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center, commonly known as the King Center, based in Atlanta, Georgia. The Center focuses on Nonviolent Social Change, as a living memorial to her husband’s life and dream. Situated in the Freedom Hall complex encircling Dr. King’s tomb, The King Center hosts over one million visitors a year. In 1969, she published My Life with Martin Luther King Jr.
Every year after the assassination of her husband in 1968, Coretta attended a commemorative service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta to mark his birthday on January 15th. She fought for many years to make it a national holiday. In 1972, she said “there should be at least one national holiday a year in tribute to an African-American man, “and, at this point, Martin is the best candidate we have.” On November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation establishing the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
During her lifetime, Coretta led discussions with heads of states, prime ministers, and presidents. She participated in protests alongside working-class people from all races and different walks of life. She met with many great spiritual leaders, including Pope John Paul, the Dalai Lama, Dorothy Day, and Bishop Desmond Tutu. She stood with Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg when he became South Africa’s first democratically-elected president. She was a woman of wisdom, grace, compassion and vision. Coretta Scott King tried to make ours a better world and, in the process, made history.
On February 7, 2006, Coretta died in Rosarito, Mexico from complications due ovarian cancer. Many individuals and organizations paid tribute to Coretta following her death, including U.S. President George W. Bush, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the Human Rights Campaign, the National Black Justice Coalition, and her alma mater Antioch College. She is buried alongside her husband in Atlanta, Georgia.
Awards and Tributes:
Coretta Scott King was the recipient of various honors and tributes both before and after her death. She received honorary degrees from many institutions, including Princeton University, Duke University, and Bates College.
1969- She was the recipient of the Universal Love Award, becoming the first non-Italian to hold the distinction.
1970- The American Library Association began awarding a medal named for Coretta Scott King to outstanding African-American writers and illustrators of children’s literature
1978- She was the recipient of the Lucretia Mott Award for showing dedication to the advancement of women and justice
1983- She was the recipient of the Four Freedom Award for the Freedom of Worship
1987- She was the recipient of the Candace Award for Distinguished Service from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women
1997- She was the recipient of the Academy of Achievement’s Golden Plate Award.
2004- She was the recipient of the Gandhi Peace Prize Award by the Government of India.
2004- She was honored by both of her alma maters, receiving a Horace Mann Award from Antioch College and an Outstanding Alumni Award from the New England Conservatory of Music.
2006- The Jewish National Fund, the organization that works to plant trees in Israel, announced the creation of the Coretta Scott King forest in the Galilee region of Northern Israel, with the purpose of “perpetuating her memory of equality and peace”, as well as the work of her husband.
2006- Super Bowl XL was dedicated to Coretta Scott King and Rosa Parks. Both were memorialized with a moment of silence during the pregame ceremonies.
2007- The Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy (CSKYWLA) was opened in Atlanta, Georgia. It serves young girls grades 6-12.
2007- Antioch College opened The Coretta Scott King Center for Cultural and Intellectual Freedom on its campus.
2009- She was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame.
Afeni Shakur was a philanthropist, businesswoman, social engineer, and political activist for the Black Panther Party. As a dedicated community organizer, writer, teacher, poet, and real-life revolutionary, Afeni Shakur was committed to impacting the lives of others. She was best known for being the mother of the legendary hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur.
Born Alice Faye Williams on January 10, 1947 in Lumberton North Carolina, a small town west of Fayetteville, Afeni Shakur derived from humble beginnings. She was the daughter of Walter Williams, a truck driver and Rosa Belle Williams, a homemaker. As children, Afeni and her older sister, Gloria Jean, had a troubled childhood. Their mother was physically abused by their father.
To escape the abuse, Afeni’s mother became a single parent and moved her children to New York in 1958. Mrs. Williams was frequently ill. Therefore, her daughters spent many of their formative years living with various relatives. Afeni attended the Bronx High School of Science
She joined the emerging Black Panther movement in 1964 after seeing revolunatry co-founder Bobby Seale deliever a powerful speech on 125th Street in Harlem. She became a section leader of the Harlem chapter and a mentor to new members. She also began writing articles for the party’s newsletter, the Panther Post. These articles included some of her original poetry. She also specialized in raising bail money for jailed Panthers and was successful in organizing a misdirection campaign which led the FBI to believe that the Panther Party was fading.
In 1968, she moved in with fellow Panther Lumumba Abdul Shakur and changed her name to Afeni Shakur, Afeni meaning “lover of people” and Shakur being Arabic for “thankful to god”, respectively.
On April 2, 1969, Afeni and 20 fellow Panthers were arrested, and charged with several counts of conspiracy to bomb police stations, department stores, and other public places in New York City, which amounted to 153 felonies. The bail was set at $100K for each Panther. As a pregnant, single mom with no law degree, she acted as her own criminal defense attorney. She made her arguments and interviewed several witnesses while facing a 30-year prison sentence. She and her fellow Panthers were acquitted of all charges. According to an account of the trial in the book The Briar Patch, by former lawyer Murray Kempton, Afeni Shakur was largely responsible for defeating the prosecution’s case. In her cross-examination of undercover detective Ralph White, Afeni performed like a seasoned attorney and won her freedom in May of 1971.
On June 16, 1971, Afeni gave birth to her son Lesane Parish Crooks. She later changed his name to Tupac Amaru Shakur, deriving his name from the Inca words for “Shining Serpent, Blessed One.” She wanted him to have the name of a revolutionary.
After Tupac’s birth, she did not return back to the Black Panther Party movement. She worked as a paralegal in the Bronx and in 1975 married Mutulu Shakur, an activist for New Afrikka Movement. He acted as a father figure for Tupac even after the marriage ended in 1982. She later moved with her son and daughter Sekyiwa to Baltimore, where Tupac attended the Baltimore School for the Performing Arts, studying dance and music.
During the mid-80s, Afeni turned to drugs in her struggle with the post-traumatic stress brought on by systematic oppression of the Black Panther Party. After seeing many leaders and fellow organizers killed, drugs became the way she coped. Her drug addiction eventually lead to homelessness. Although she battled drug addiction while raising her two children alone, she saw one thing clearly: “Arts can save children, no matter what’s going on in their homes,” she told The Associated Press in a 2005 interview. Afeni Shakur believed that the art programs in which Tupac was enrolled in saved his life.
In 1989, due to his mother’s abundant use of drugs, Tupac left home and had no contact with his mother or sister for a few years. He started performing as a dancer and “hype man” with the award winning rap group Digital Underground, and in 1991 released the album 2Pacalypse Now, which became a major success and launched the young musician into stardom. Afeni Shakur returned to New York City and started attending Narcotics Anonymous classes.
In 1991, Afeni became clean after completing a 12-step drug treatment program. Her sobriety ignited reconciliation between her and her son, Tupac which inspired him to write and record a tribute song, “Dear Mama.” The song went platinum. Rolling Stone named it one of the best hip-hop songs of all time. She was a constant inspiration in Tupac’s music. “Ain’t a woman alive that could take my mother’s place,” he said in the tribute, which was later added to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry.
A year after “Dear Mama” was released, Tupac Shakur was shot in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas on September 7th, 1996. A week later, he died of gunshot wounds at a local hospital. Afeni was at his side.
A year after Tupac’s death, Afeni Shakur created the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation, which sponsors programs to help young people succeed in art and musical projects. The foundation features a day camp for children, provides scholarships and grants for young artists, and hosts charitable events.The foundation is located in Stone Mountain Georgia.
She also founded Amaru Entertainment to keep her son’s music alive. She established the Makaveli Branded clothing line in 2003, with a portion of the proceeds used to support expansion of the Tupac Shakur Center, also located in Stone Mountain Georgia. In 2006, she added a six-acre memorial park to the complex, with areas for meditation, pavilions for visitors, and a seven-foot statue of her son. She was named co-executor of Tupac’s estate, estimated between $8 and $10 million in 1997 and included a library of unreleased material estimated at a value of more than $100 million.
Afeni Shakur traveled all over the country, making guest appearances and delivering lectures at various colleges and events. In 1999, her and Voletta Wallace, the mother of the Notorious B.I.G., appeared together at the MTV Music Awards to call for unity in the hip-hop community. In 2007, she gave the Keynote Address for Vanderbilt University’s Commemoration for Black History Month.
On May 2, 2016, Afeni Shakur passed away unexpectedly due to cardiac arrest at her home in Sausalito California. A large part of her fight and legacy was empowering people to use their voice and to know their rights. Afeni Shakur will always be remembered as a revolutionary who gave birth to revolutionary and even today, both voices continue to speak.
At the age of 15, Dorothy Counts was the first black student to integrate Harry Harding High School, an all white institution located in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Dorothy “Dot” Counts was born in 1942. She lived with her parents and three brothers on Beatties Ford Road, across the street from Johnson C. Smith University. Her father, Herman Counts, taught Religion and Philosophy on the campus.
On the morning of September 4, 1957, a young and towering Dorothy set out for her very first day of High School. Wearing a long polyester dress accented with a broad bow and ribbon handmade by her grandmother, she left her parents house. She was accompanied by her father and Edwin Thompkins a family friend and professor at Johnson C. Smith University.
Dorothy’s father drove her to school. Normally parents could drive down to the circle in front of the school and drop their kids off. However, when Dorothy’s father got there, the police had barricaded the street. Thompkins offered to walk Dorothy the rest of the way while her father found a place to park. In that moment, Dorothy’s father turned to her and said, “hold your head high.”
She got out of the car and looked down the hill towards the school. She’d noticed several students waiting there. It wasn’t until she had walked halfway down the street when she realized they were waiting for her.
Upon arrival , she was greeted by a jeering crowd of boys who spat, threw trash, and yelled epithets at her as she entered the building. Remarkably, she remained stoical throughout the fiery encounter. She said nothing, even though some students threw trash and rocks toward her, most landing at her feet. “I do remember something hitting me in the back,” she told a newspaper reporter, “but I don’t think they were throwing at me, just in front and at my feet.” She displayed remarkable dignity and poise. When asked if any students spat upon her, Dorothy answered: “Yes. Many. A good many times, mostly on the back.”
Counts’ family received threatening phone calls and her locker was broken into. A group of boys surrounded Dorothy at lunch and spit in her food. Teachers ignored her. On the second day, two white female students tried to befriend her, but they were also harassed by their classmates
On the third day, she decided to go home for lunch, which students were allowed to do. When her brother came to pick her up, someone threw an object at his car and shattered the back window. When she walked out and observed the damage, it was the first time she had felt afraid. School administrators and the police told the family they could not guarantee her safety.
On Thursday the family announced they were withdrawing Dorothy out of Harding. She had endured such harsh racism. Her father issued the following statement: In enrolling Dorothy in Harding High School, we sought for her the highest in educational experience that this tax-supported school had to offer a young American. Needless to say that we regret the necessity which makes the withdrawal expedient. This step, taken for security and happiness, records in our history a page which no true American can read with pride.
After four days, Dorothy’s family withdrew her. Although her matriculation at Harding was brief, several pictures of her ill-treatment had traveled the world. One particular photograph taken by Douglas Martin, received “Photo of the Year” in 1957. The many images that surfaced, sparked an outpouring of support among leaders, entertainers and organizations. Among them, civil rights activist and prolific writer, James Baldwin, religious leader Billy Graham, and comedian Steve Allen.
Life Magazine published an eight page spread on integration in Southern schools. The package included two photos of Dorothy. A few weeks later, the magazine published a letter to the editor from Michigan: My deepest admiration goes to Dorothy Counts for her quiet dignity and courage in the face of the indecency committed upon her by those tragic boys.
After her withdrawal, her family sent her to live with a relative in Philadelphia, where she attended an integrated school. She completed her high school education there and despite the harsh treatment she received in North Carolina, she returned back to Charlotte to attend Johnson C. Smith University, graduating in 1965.
In 2008, the now Harding University High School awarded Dorothy an honorary diploma. In 2010, the media center at the Harding was named in her honor. That same year, Dorothy received a public apology from one her tormentors.
Dorothy currently resides in Charlotte. Retired from a long career as a preschool teacher, child counselor, and advocate for early childhood education. She travels to local communities to educate them on the importance of school diversity.
Helen Williams was the first Black Fashion Model to break color barriers in the 1950’s and to cross over into mainstream fashion. She was triumphant in her career, in an age and era when mainstream beauty and fashion excluded non-white models. Even more so she pushed through colorism within the African American modelling scene where models were required to be light-skinned (just like the African American chorus girls of the 1920’s).
Helen was born in Riverton, New Jersey in 1937. At an early age she showed a great obsession for fashion and even began sowing her own garments at the age of 7. She studied dance, art and drama before obtaining work as a stylist for a New York photography studio. At the age of 17, celebrities such as Lena Horne and Sammy Davis Jr. began to notice her work and urged her to pursue fashion and modelling.
In the early stages of her career, Helen worked exclusively with Ebony and Jet magazines. However, in 1960 she relocated to France due to the discrimination she faced in the United States. She found success modeling for famous designers Christian Dior and Jean Dessès. “Over there I was ‘La Belle Americaine,’” she recalled. By the end of her tenure she was making a staggering $7,500 a year working part-time, and had received three marriage proposals from her French admirers, one of whom reportedly kissed her feet and murmured, “I worship the ground you walk on, mademoiselle.”
After Paris, Helen returned to America where the stigma of race was worst especially towards darker toned African American females. As she searched for modelling agencies she was told “No” numerous times. While searching for a new agent in New York City, she was once told by an agency that they already have“one black model already, thanks.” However, she was persistent and would not take no for an answer. “I was pushy and positive,” she recalled. Despite being rejected, she decided to take her case to the press. Two white journalists Dorothy Kilgallen and Earl Wilson wrote about her cause, ultimately bringing attention to the exclusion of black models within the modeling and fashion industry.
Suddenly doors began to open and Helen started getting work. She was booked for a variety of jobs for brands such as Budweiser, Loom Togs, Sears, and Modess, which crossed over for the first time into the mainstream press, in titles such as The New York Times, Life and Redbook. By 1961, her hourly rate had shot up to $100 an hour.
Helen was one of the first clients of Ophelia DeVore’s Grace De Marco modeling agency. Ophelia (former model turned agent) was a shrewd businesswoman with keen insight and endless aspirations, who worked to smash stereotypes and empower black women by teaching them poise, confidence, and the courage to get ahead in a world deeply etched by racial discrimination. Through her modeling agency, DeVore helped launch the early careers of many black celebrities, including actresses Diahann Carroll and Cicely Tyson,mand actor Richard Roundtree. Needless to say, Helen benefited under her tutelage. DeVore continued to follow Helen’s career through personal correspondence and the press and kept letters, photographs and press clippings, both positive and negative, in carefully organized binders.
Helen has been credited with breaking down racial barriers. In 2004, Helen was the recipient of the Trailblazer Award by the Fashion & Arts Xchange organization at a ceremony at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Her caramel complexion paved the way for darker skinned African American models as she broke the tradition of only using white and light-skinned models in mainstream. Although it took some time, this new acceptance eventually resulted in more doors of opportunity being opened for women of color in the world of fashion. Helen created a legacy that gave birth to daughters Naomi Sims, Beverly Johnson, Iman, Naomi Campbell, and Jourdan Dunn. She is the classic example of a black diamond, which is beautiful, unique and extremely rare.
Helen retired from modeling in 1970, but continued her career in fashion as a stylist. She married Norm Jackson in 1977, whom she had met during her modeling days. They reside in Riverton, New Jersey.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,” prolific words from the remarkable force, known as Maya Angelou. Indeed the poet, writer, author, civil rights activist, playwright, dancer, and singer has left a blistering affect on humankind with her wisdom, poetry, and prose. This legendary powerhouse has written more than 36 books 17 of which were bestsellers), has traveled the world before the age of 30, spoke 4 different languages, and was the first female and African American to recite a poem at a Presidential Inauguration. Throughout her career, she has gracefully demonstrated a remarkable ability to translate the African American experience, highlighting its struggles, strengths, humanity, and dignity. In 2011, President Barack Obama bestowed upon her the honorary Presidential Medal of Freedom.
On April 4, 1928, Maya Angelou was born as Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri. Her parents moved to Long Beach California shortly after her birth. Her mother, Vivian Baxter Johnson, was a nurse, merchant seaman, and professional card dealer. Her father, Bailey Johnson Sr., served in the United States Navy and worked in the kitchen of a Naval Hospital. He had been in France during World War I and had also worked as a hotel doorman in Santa Monica. Maya’s elder brother, Bailey Jr. give her the nickname Maya.
At the ages of 3 and 4, Maya and Bailey Jr. were sent to live with their paternal Grandmother Annie Henderson in Stamps Arkansas, after their parents divorced. They were shipped by train, with their tickets pinned to the inside of Bailey Jr.’s coat pocket. Their overseers were the train attendants.
Maya’s grandmother owned the only general store in the small town of Stamps. It was called Wm. Johnson General Merchandise Store, which provided food, produce, and everyday consumer goods. Under her grandmother’s guardianship, both Maya and Bailey Jr. were accountable for daily chores at the store, as well as, staying on track of their schoolwork. Maya and Bailey Jr. were avid readers and demonstrated real promise in the world of academia.
In 1935, at the age of 7, Maya’s father arrived in Stamps unexpectedly to take Maya and her brother to St Louis Missouri to live with their mother. Maya enjoyed the thrill of the fast pace city, and being united with kin. However, after a year in St. Louis, Maya was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, “Mr. Freeman.” After the incident had taken place, he threatened to kill anybody that Maya told. Therefore she attempted to keep the incident a secret from family, until she fell noticeably ill, and her soiled underwear was discovered from underneath the bed.
During the court trial, Maya gave her account of what happened. As an eight year old, she felt divided on how to address the interrogating questions from which the defense lawyer darted at her. The rape was evident, however, she had not been fully capable of expressing the fact that “Mr. Freeman” had touched her inappropriately on multiple accounts. As a result of the trial, the court had sentenced Mr. Freeman to one year and one day in jail. However, he never got a chance to serve his time and was released the same afternoon. Four days later, he was found dead (possibly killed by Maya’s protective uncles).
When Maya was informed about her rapist’s death, she decided to stop talking, fearing that her words had killed a man. She became virtually mute for about five years. In 1937, she and Bailey Jr. were sent back to Stamps to live with their grandmother again. Her absence of speech, broadened her love from language.
In 1942, she was introduced to Bertha Flowers , a classy educated black woman, who took a special interest in Maya. Mrs. Flowers sought permission from Maya’s grandmother to have Maya over for tea and cookies one afternoon. Mrs. Flowers knew the mute girl could read voraciously, but as she explained to Maya that afternoon, “words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning.” During their meeting, Mrs. Flowers read ” A Tale of Two Cities” out loud, and for the first time in her life Maya had heard poetry. Mrs Flowers asked Maya did she like it and Maya responded audibly with “Yes Ma’am.” She was then given a book of poems and instructed to memorize one of them, and was asked to recite it at their next meeting.
Maya credits Mrs. Flowers with helping her to speak again. She began to memorize and recite poems by William Shakespeare, Langston Hughes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. These authors had an affect on her life and career.
Maya graduated at the top of her eighth grade class. After graduation, she and her brother rejoined their mother, who had moved to San Francisco. She attended George Washington High School and won a scholarship to study drama and dance at the California Labor School. She found work as a streetcar conductor and was the first African American woman to hold that type of job.
At age 17, Maya graduated from high school and three weeks later, gave birth to her son, Clyde Bailey Johnson, who later changed his name to Guy Johnson. As she explained in her third autobiography, “Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry like Christmas” she held odd jobs and “worked as a shake dancer in night clubs, fry cook in hamburger joints, dinner cook in a Creole restaurant and once had a job in a mechanic’s shop, taking the paint off cars with my hands.”
In 1950, she married a Greek former sailor, and aspiring musician Tosh Angelos. During this time, she took modern dance classes and met dancers and choreographers Alvin Ailey and Ruth Beckford. Maya and Ailey formed a dance team, calling themselves “Al and Rita”, and performed modern dance at fraternal black organizations throughout San Francisco. Maya, her new husband, and her son moved to New York City so she could study African dance with Trinidadian dancer Pearl Primus, but they returned to San Francisco a year later.
After Maya’s marriage ended in 1954, she danced professionally in clubs around San Francisco, including the Purple Onion, where she sang and danced to calypso music. Up to that point she went by the name of “Marguerite Johnson”, or “Rita”, but at the strong persuasion of her managers and supporters, she changed her stage name to “Maya Angelou” (combining her nickname and former married surname). It was a name of distinction, which set her apart and captured the feel of her calypso dance performances.
In 1954, her career as a performer began to take off. She landed a role in a touring production of Porgy and Bess, and performed in 22 countries from 1954 to 1955. She later appeared in the off-Broadway production Calypso Heat Wave and released her first album, Miss Calypso in 1957.
A year later, she joined the Harlem Writer’s Guild where she met James Baldwin and other important writers. In 1961, Maya appeared in an off-Broadway production of Jean Genet’s “The Blacks” with James Earl Jones, Lou Gossett Jr. and Cicely Tyson. She soon joined the civil rights movement, where she had the opportunity to hear Dr. Martin Luther King speak. Inspired by his message, she decided to help the fight for civil rights. She was offered a position as the northern coordinator for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She organized and starred in the musical revue Cabaret for Freedom as a benefit to the organization.
Following her work for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., she met Vusumzi Make, a South African freedom fighter, and moved with him and her son to Cairo Egypt. She worked as an associate editor for the Arab Observer. In 1962, after her relationship with Make ended, she moved to Accra Ghana, where her son had planned to attend college. However, he was seriously injured in an automobile accident. Maya remained in Accra for his recovery and ended up staying there until 1964. She worked as an administrator at the University of Ghana, and was active in the African-American expatriate community called “Revolutionist Returnees” exploring pan-Africanism.
In 1964, she returned back to the United States to work as an organizer for Malcolm X. She was helping him to build a new civil rights organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Unfortunately the organization was disbanded after Malcolm X’s assassination the following year.
Despite having almost no experience, she wrote, produced, and narrated “Blacks, Blues, Black!.” It was a ten-part series of documentaries about the connection between blues music and black Americans’ African heritage, and what Maya called the “Africanisms still current in the U.S.” The production aired in 1968 on The National Educational Television, a precursor of PBS.
The year 1968 was also the timeframe in which she helped in planning the Poor People’s Campaign in Memphis, Tennessee for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He was assassinated on Maya’s 40th birthday. Devastated by the event, she stopped celebrating her birthday for years afterward, and sent flowers to King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, for more than 30 years, until Coretta’s death in 2006.
While still in mourning over Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, a close friend and fellow writer James Baldwin invited Maya to a party at the home of cartoonist Jules Feiffer. Feiffer’s wife, Judy, was inspired by Maya’s life stories and urged, Random House editor Robert Loomis to sign Maya to a contract. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” was published in 1969, which brought her international recognition and acclaim.
Her screenplay, Georgia, Georgia (1972), was the first original script by a black woman to be produced. In 1977, she appeared in the television mini-series Roots. In 1998, she was the first African-American woman to direct a major motion picture, Down in the Delta.
Maya’s long and extensive career also includes educator and public speaker. For a period of time, she lectured at UCLA. In 1982, she earned the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
She was selected by President Bill Clinton (fellow Arkansas native) to write and recite a poem for his Inauguration on January 20, 1993. She wrote “On the Pulse of Morning,” and with her public recitation, Maya became the second poet in history to read a poem at a presidential inauguration. She was also the very first woman and African American to do so.
On May 28, 2014, after experiencing health issues for a number of years, Maya Angelou died at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Timeline of Awards Earned:
1970- Receives the Chubb Fellowship Award, Yale University
1972- Receives the Pulitzer Prize Nomination for Just Give Me A Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die
1976- Receives the Ladies’ Home Journal Award (“Woman of the Year in Communication”)
1977- Receives the Golden Eagle Award, Afro-American in the Arts
1986- Receives Fulbright Program 40th Anniversary Distinguished Lecturer award
1991- Receives Langston Hughes Medal
1993- Grammy for “Best Spoken Word Album,” “On The Pulse of Morning,”
1996- Martin Luther King, Jr. Legacy Association National Award
1998- Receives Audience Choice Award
2005- Receives NAACP Image Awards in the outstanding literary work (nonfiction) category
2006- Receives Mother Teresa Award
2008- Becomes the first recipient of Hope for Peace and Justice Voice of Peace award
2009- Receives NAACP Image Awards in the outstanding literary work (nonfiction) category
2011- Receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom Maya Angelou Quotes:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
“Nothing will work unless you do.”
“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
“When you learn, teach. When you get, give.”
“Never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option.”
“I don’t trust people who don’t love themselves and tell me, ‘I love you.’ … There is an African saying which is: Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt.”
“You alone are enough. You have nothing to prove to anybody.”
“If I am not good to myself, how can I expect anyone else to be good to me?”
“A woman’s heart should be so hidden in God that a man has to seek Him just to find her.”
“You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.”
“Have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.”
“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style”
“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”
“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.”
“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”
“Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud.”
“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”
The “I Put A Spell On You,” songstress, Nina Simone left a lasting impression on world, through her music, artistry, and courageous activism. To this day, her legacy lives on, continuing to inspire and influence generations both young and old. She captivated listeners with her her powerful voice and commanding presence. Let’s learn more about the polarizing perpetual force known as Nina Simone.
Born as Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21, 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina, she was the oldest of 2 children born to Mary Kate Waymon and John Divine Waymon. Her father was a preacher, handyman who once owned a dry cleaning business. Her mother was a Methodist minister and housemaid.
Ms Simone’s prodigal gift was recognized at an early age when she began playing the piano (by ear) at the age of three. She played the piano in her mother’s church, but did not sing. Determined to help develop this raw talent, an Englishwoman named Muriel Mazzanovich give young Eunice piano lessons. Under her tutelage, Ms Simone studied Bach, Johann Sebastian, Chopin, Brahms, Beethoven, and Schubert. Her teacher also organized local concerts for Ms Simone to display her talent. Funds raised from the concerts were used to further Ms Simone’s education.
After graduating from Allen High School in Asheville North Carolina, as Valedictorian of her class, she matriculated to the famed Julliard School in New York City. Eventually she had to leave the school when her means of funding her education were depleted. Hoping to be accepted into the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, she along with her family moved Philadelphia. However, her hopes were dashed when she was denied acceptance into the school in-spite of rendering a well received recital. She believed, racism was the reason for the rejection. Two days prior to her death, the same institution bestowed upon her an honorary doctorate.
As a means of survival, Ms Simone began teaching music to local students. In 1954, seeking to supplement her income, she auditioned to sing at Midtown Bar & Grill in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Word quickly spread about the new singer and pianist who took the stage, showcasing plush vocal tones combined with mastery of the keys. She attracted several club goers up and down the Coast. Her growing popularity prompted her to change her name in order to disguise the fact that she was playing in bars, a notion her parents would gravely disapprove of had they been aware due to her strict upbringing. Therefore Eunice Waymon changed her name to Nina Simone by taking Nina meaning “little one” in Spanish and Simone after the French actress Simone Signoret.
At the age of 24, she got her break into the record industry when she signed with Bethlehem Records. It is with that particular label she recorded “I Loves You, Porgy” which lead to a Grammy Hall of Fame Award and “My Baby Just Cares For Me” which was used in a Chanel No. 5 commercial in Europe and became a massive hit topping the British charts at #5.
Having recorded more than 40 albums during her career, Nina Simone employed a broad range of musical styles which included jazz, blues folk, classical, spiritual, and pop. Clearly she was an extraordinary talent who could not be easily classified.
During the Civil Rights Era, Nina was deeply affected by the killings of Medgar Evers and the Birmingham Church bombing, which claimed the lives of four African American girls. These events ignited the first of many civil rights songs “Mississippi Goddamn.” In 1962, she had befriended noted playwright Lorraine Hansberry and spoke often with her about the Civil Rights Movement. Hansberry had been a personal friend whom Simone credited with cultivating her social and political consciousness. “To Be Young Gifted and Black” was a play Hansberry had been working on prior to her death. Ms. Simone took Hansberry’s play and turned it into a song, in Hansberry’s memory. “To Be Young Gifted and Black” was also credited as a civil rights anthem.
Ms Simone’s circle of friends was infused with prominent men and women, who were well read, well traveled, motivators, and agents of change. Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz were both friends and neighbors of Ms Simone, residents of Mount Vernon New York. Prolific author, writer, and public speaker James Baldwin and Harlem Renaissance leader, and famed poet Langston Hughes were among other affiliates.
Ms. Simone performed and spoke at many civil rights meetings, such as the Selma march. In 1968, after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Simone and her band performed “Why (The King Of Love Is Dead), at the Westbury Music Festival, in honor of the legendary Civil Rights Leader. “Four Women” and “Strange Fruit” continued to keep her in the forefront of the few artists willing to use music as a catalyst for social change. During that time of extreme civil upheaval, such risks were scarcely taken by performers. She stood up for her beliefs and sacrificed her career for her activism.
As the 1960’s drew to a close, Simone tired of the American music scene and the country’s deeply divided racial politics. She spent a good deal of the 1970’s and early 1980’s living in Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland and The Netherlands. Eventually, she settled down in the South of France.
For years, Ms. Simone dealt with personal struggles such as martial, financial, and severe mental health issues. Her marriage to Andrew Shroud (former manager) was abusive physically, mentally, and emotionally. She had frequent outbursts and clashes with managers, record labels, and the Internal Revenue Service regarding her finances. In the late 1980’s, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder..
On April 21, 2003, Ms. Simone died in her sleep at her home in Carry-le-Rout, Bouches-du-Rhone France. Her funeral service was attended by an array of famous artists such as Miriam Makeba, Patti Labelle, poet Sonia Sanchez, actor Ossie Davis, actress Ruby Dee, and hundreds of others. World renowned singer, Elton John sent a floral tribute with the message, “You were the greatest and I love you”. Her legacy continues…
Nina Simon Quotes:
“There’s no excuse for the young people not knowing who the heroes and heroines are or were.”
“Everything that happened to me as a child involved music. Everybody played music. There was never any formal training; we learned to play the same way we learned to walk, it was that natural.”
“You can’t help it. An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.”
“Jazz is a white term to define black people. My music is black classical music.”
“I’m a real rebel with a cause.”
“Once I understood Bach’s music, I wanted to be a concert pianist. Bach made me dedicate my life to music, and it was that teacher who introduced me to his world.”