DCS Racial Justice Workgroup

Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson is the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a human rights organization in Montgomery, Alabama. Under his leadership, EJI has won major legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent death row prisoners, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill, and aiding children prosecuted as adults.

Mr. Stevenson has argued and won multiple cases at the United States Supreme Court, including a 2019 ruling protecting condemned prisoners who suffer from dementia and a landmark 2012 ruling that banned mandatory life-imprisonment-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger. Mr. Stevenson and his staff have won reversals, relief, or release from prison for over 135 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row and won relief for hundreds of others wrongly convicted or unfairly sentenced.

Mr. Stevenson has initiated major new anti-poverty and anti-discrimination efforts that challenge inequality in America. He led the creation of two highly acclaimed cultural sites which opened in 2018: the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. These new national landmark institutions chronicle the legacy of slavery, lynching, and racial segregation, and the connection to mass incarceration and contemporary issues of racial bias.

Mr. Stevenson’s work has won him numerous awards, including the prestigious MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Prize; the ABA Medal, the American Bar Association’s highest honor; the National Medal of Liberty from the American Civil Liberties Union after he was nominated by United States Supreme Court Justice John Stevens; the Public Interest Lawyer of the Year by the National Association of Public Interest Lawyers; and the Olaf Palme Prize in Stockholm, Sweden, for international human rights. In 2002, he received the Alabama State Bar Commissioners Award. In 2003, the SALT Human Rights Award was presented to Mr. Stevenson by the Society of American Law Teachers. In 2004, he received the Award for Courageous Advocacy from the American College of Trial Lawyers and also the Lawyer for the People Award from the National Lawyers Guild. In 2006, New York University presented Mr. Stevenson with its Distinguished Teaching Award. Mr. Stevenson won the Gruber Foundation International Justice Prize and was awarded the NAACP William Robert Ming Advocacy Award, the National Legal Aid & Defender Association Lifetime Achievement Award, the Ford Foundation Visionaries Award, and the Roosevelt Institute Franklin D. Roosevelt Freedom from Fear Award. In 2012, Mr. Stevenson received the American Psychiatric Association Human Rights Award, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute Fred L. Shuttlesworth Award, and the Smithsonian Magazine American Ingenuity Award in Social Progress. Mr. Stevenson was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Science in 2014 and won the Lannan Cultural Freedom Prize. In 2015, he was named to the Time 100 list recognizing the world’s most influential people. In 2016, he received the American Bar Association’s Thurgood Marshall Award. He was named in Fortune’s 2016 and 2017 World’s Greatest Leaders list. He received the Martin Luther King Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize from the King Center in Atlanta in 2018.

Mr. Stevenson has received over 40 honorary doctoral degrees, including degrees from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and Oxford University. He is the author of the critically acclaimed New York Times bestseller, Just Mercy, which was named by Time Magazine as one of the 10 Best Books of Nonfiction for 2014 and has been awarded several honors, including the American Library Association’s Carnegie Medal for best nonfiction book of 2015 and a 2015 NAACP Image Award. Just Mercy was recently adapted as a major motion picture. He is a graduate of the Harvard Law School and the Harvard School of Government.

The Equal Justice Initiative website: https://eji.org/

More Information

If you would like more information or are interested in joining the DCS Racial Justice Workgroup, please email ei_dcs.inservice@tn.gov.

National Native American Heritage Month

On August 3, 1990, President of the United States George H. W. Bush declared the month of November as National American Indian Heritage Month, thereafter commonly referred to as Native American Heritage Month. The bill read in part that "the President has authorized and requested to call upon Federal, State and local Governments, groups and organizations and the people of the United States to observe such month with appropriate programs, ceremonies and activities". This commemorative month aims to provide a platform for Native people in the United States of America to share their culture, traditions, music, crafts, dance, and ways and concepts of life. This gives Native people the opportunity to express to their community, both city, county and state officials their concerns and solutions for building bridges of understanding and friendship in their local area. Federal Agencies are encouraged to provide educational programs for their employees regarding Native American history, rights, culture and contemporary issues, to better assist them in their jobs and for overall awareness.

Jerry Chris Elliott High Eagle

Jerry Chris Elliott High Eagle

This landmark bill honoring America's tribal people represented a major step in the establishment of this celebration which began in 1976 when a Cherokee/Osage Indian named Jerry C. Elliott High Eagle authored Native American Awareness Week legislation, the first historical week of recognition in the nation for native peoples. This led to 1986 with then President Ronald Reagan proclaiming November 23–30, 1986, as "American Indian Week". 

Jerry Chris Elliott High Eagle was born in 1943 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. From an early age he had a vision of assisting astronauts to get to the moon.  After graduating from Northwest Classen High School, he was accepted into the University of Oklahoma at the age of 18. While in university, he faced a degree of culture shock, facing disrespect and misunderstandings towards him as a Native American.  He received a degree in physics with a minor in mathematics, April, 1966, being the first indigenous native to obtain one from the University of Oklahoma, Department of Physics.

Elliott joined NASA in April 1966 as a flight mission operations engineer, serving at the Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas. He was Program Staff Engineer at the NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC during the Apollo-Soyuz Program. He served as a Senior Technical Manager in the Management Integration Office of the Space Station's Program Office. Elliott and his team provided ground support equipment and space hardware for Skylab, the United States' first space station.

While at NASA, Elliott pushed for furthering telecommunications infrastructure between reservations. Implemented the American Indian Telecommunications Satellite Demonstration Project linked the All-Indian Pueblo Council and the Crow Indian Reservation with the federal government at Washington, D.C. His testimony before Congress culminated in the establishment in the First Americans Commission for Telecommunications (FACT).

During the Apollo program he held several important management and leadership positions.  He is most known for his contributions as the lead retrofire officer during Apollo 13, where his actions saved the lives of the three astronauts on board. Elliott's work awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor awarded by the President of the United States.

Arthur Caswell Parker

Arthur Caswell Parker

Prior to Elliott, one of the very first proponents of an American Indian Day was Dr. Arthur C. Parker.  Parker was born in 1881 on the Cattaraugus Reservation of the Seneca Nation of New York in western New York. He was the son of Frederick Ely Parker and his wife Geneva Hortenese Griswold, of Scots-English-American descent, who taught school on the reservation.  Parker started his formal education on the reservation, but in 1892, his family moved to White Plains, New York. He entered public school at around age 11 and graduated from high school in 1897. Before going on to college, he spent considerable time at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where he was special assistant archaeologist 1901–1902.

He was field archaeologist at the Peabody Museum in 1903; beginning 1906, he was archaeologist of the New York State Museum. In 1904, Parker was given a two-year position as ethnologist at the New York State Library, part of the New York State Education Department, and collected cultural data on the New York Iroquois. Then in 1906, he took a position as the first archaeologist at the New York State Museum.

In 1911, together with the Native American physician Charles A. Eastman and others, he founded the Society of American Indians to help educate the public about Native Americans. During the 1911 New York State Capitol fire Parker entered the building while it was ablaze, and made his way up to the 4th floor in an effort to save priceless historical artifacts. He brought a tomahawk, which had been passed down through the generations in his family, and began smashing display cases, saving as many items as he could. Of the approximately five hundred Iroquois artifacts in the museum he was able to rescue about fifty of them before the spreading fire made any further salvage efforts impossible.

He persuaded the Boy Scouts of America to set aside a day for the “First Americans” and for three years they adopted such a day. In 1915, the annual Congress of the American Indian Association meeting in Lawrence, Kans., formally approved a plan concerning American Indian Day. It directed its president, Rev. Sherman Coolidge, an Arapahoe, to call upon the country to observe such a day. Coolidge issued a proclamation on Sept. 28, 1915, which declared the second Saturday of each May as an American Indian Day and contained the first formal appeal for recognition of Indians as citizens.  The year before this proclamation was issued, Red Fox James, a Blackfoot Indian, rode horseback from state to state seeking approval for a day to honor Indians. On December 14, 1915, he presented the endorsements of 24 state governments at the White House.

From 1915 to 1920, he was the editor of the society's American Indian Magazine. In 1916, he was awarded the Cornplanter Medal.

In 1925 Parker became director of the Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences, where he developed the museum holdings and its research in the emerging fields of anthropology, natural history, geology, biology, history and industry of the Genesee Region. During the 1930s and the Great Depression, he also directed the WPA-funded Indian Arts Project, which was sponsored by the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration.

In 1935, Parker was elected the first President of the Society for American Archaeology. In 1944, Parker helped found the National Congress of American Indians.  After retiring from directing the Rochester museum in 1946, Parker became very active in Indian affairs. He moved to Nunda-wah-oh, near present-day Naples, New York, where he felt his ancestors had lived. There he overlooked Canandaigua Lake. He died there on New Year's Day, 1955, aged 73.

General Benjamin Oliver Davis, Sr.

General Benjamin Oliver Davis Sr.

Davis was born in Washington, D.C., the third child of Louis P. H. Davis and Henrietta Davis. It is believed he was born May 28, 1880.  However, the birth date that appears on Davis's gravestone at Arlington National Cemetery is July 1, 1877, the date he provided to the Army to enlist without the permission of his parents. Davis attended M Street High School in Washington, where he participated in the cadet program.

He entered military service on July 13, 1898, during the War with Spain as a temporary first lieutenant of the 8th United States Volunteer Infantry. He was mustered out on March 6, 1899, and on June 18, 1899, he enlisted as a private in Troop I, 9th Cavalry, of the Regular Army. He then served as corporal and squadron sergeant major, and on February 2, 1901, he was commissioned a second lieutenant of Cavalry in the Regular Army and was posted overseas to serve in the Philippine–American War. Troop F returned to the US in August 1902. Davis was then stationed at Fort Washakie, Wyoming, where he also served for several months with Troop M. In September 1905, he was assigned to the traditionally Black Wilberforce College in Ohio as Professor of Military Science and Tactics, a post that he filled for four years.

In November 1909, shortly after being ordered to Regimental Headquarters, 9th Cavalry, Davis was reassigned for duty to Liberia. He left the United States for Liberia in April 1910, and served as a military attaché reporting on Liberia's military forces until October 1911. He returned to the United States in November 1911. In January 1912, Davis was assigned to Troop I, 9th Cavalry, stationed at Fort D. A. Russell, Wyoming. In 1913, the 9th Cavalry was assigned to patrol the Mexican-United States border.

In February 1915, Davis was again assigned to Wilberforce College as Professor of Military Science and Tactics. From 1917 to 1920, Davis was assigned to the 9th Cavalry at Fort Stotsenburg, Philippine Islands, as supply officer, commander of the 3rd Squadron, and then of the 1st Squadron. He reached the temporary rank of lieutenant colonel but returned to the United States in March 1920 with the rank of captain.

Davis was assigned to the traditionally Black Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Tuskegee, Alabama, as the professor of military science and tactics from 1920 to 1924. He then served for five years as an instructor with 2nd Battalion, 372nd Regiment, Ohio National Guard, in Cleveland, Ohio. In September 1929, Davis returned to Wilberforce as a professor of military science and tactics. He was assigned to the Tuskegee Institute in the early part of 1931 and remained there for six years as a professor of military science and tactics. During the summer months of 1930 to 1933, Davis escorted pilgrimages of World War I Gold Star mothers and widows to the burial places of their loved ones in Europe.

In August 1937, Davis returned to Wilberforce University as a professor of military science and tactics. Davis was assigned to the 369th Regiment, New York National Guard, during the summer of 1938, and took command of the regiment a short time later. Davis was promoted to brigadier general on October 25, 1940, becoming the first African-American general officer in the United States Army.

Davis became commanding general of the 4th Cavalry Brigade, 2nd Cavalry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas, in January 1941. About six months later, he was assigned to Washington, D.C. as an assistant in the Office of the Inspector General. While serving in the Office of the Inspector General, Davis also served on the Advisory Committee on Negro Troop Policies. From 1941 to 1944, Davis conducted inspection tours of African-American soldiers in the United States Army. From September to November 1942 and again from July to November 1944, Davis made inspection tours of African-American soldiers stationed in Europe.

On November 10, 1944, Davis was reassigned to work under Lieutenant General John C. H. Lee as special assistant to the commanding general, Communications Zone, European Theater of Operations. He served with the General Inspectorate Section, European Theater of Operation (later the Office of the Inspector General in Europe) from January through May 1945. While serving in the European Theater of Operations, Davis was influential in the proposed policy of integration using replacement units.

After serving in the European Theater of Operations for more than a year, Davis returned to Washington, D.C. as an assistant to the Inspector General. In 1947 he was assigned special assistant to the Secretary of the Army. In this capacity, he was again sent to Liberia in July 1947 as a representative of the United States for the African country's centennial celebration.

On July 20, 1948, after fifty years of military service, Davis retired in a public ceremony with President Harry S. Truman presiding. Six days later on July 26, 1948, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981 which abolished racial discrimination in the United States armed forces.

Davis was the first African-American to rise to the rank of brigadier general. He was the father of the first black officer of the US Air Force, General Benjamin O. Davis Jr. According to historian Russell Weigley, his career is significant not for his personal accomplishments, because he was only allowed a limited range of responsibilities, but as an indicator of a small forward movement for African Americans in the United States Army in the World War II era.

From July 1953 through June 1961, Davis served as a member of the American Battle Monuments Commission.

Davis died on November 26, 1970, at Great Lakes Naval Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, and was buried with his wife Sade Overton at Arlington National Cemetery.

In January 1997 the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in their Black Heritage Stamp series to honor the service and contributions of Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis.

Sylvia Mendez

Sylvia Mendez

Sylvia Mendez was born in 1936 in Santa Ana, California. Her parents were Gonzalo Mendez, an immigrant from Mexico who had a successful agricultural business, and Felicitas Mendez, a native of Juncos, Puerto Rico.  The family moved to Westminster, CA to tend a farm. 

In the 1940s, there were only two schools in Westminster: Hoover Elementary and 17th Street Elementary.  The district mandated separate campuses for Hispanics and Whites. In 1944, when she was eight, her family tried to register Sylvia and her brothers at a nearby Westminster elementary school. However, the public school did not admit Hispanic students, and the family was told to enroll the Mendez children at Hoover Elementary School, which was specifically for Mexican Americans.   Hoover Elementary was a two-room wooden shack in the middle of the city's Mexican neighborhood.  After appeals to Westminster’s principal and the county school board were unsuccessful, Gonzalo Mendez decided to take legal action.  On March 2, 1945, he hired civil rights attorney David Marcus, who filed a federal lawsuit with four other Mexican-American fathers from the Gomez, Palomino, Estrada, and Ramirez families in federal court in Los Angeles against four Orange County school districts. 

On February 18, 1946, Judge Paul J. McCormick ruled in favor of Mendez and his co-plaintiffs. However, the school district appealed. Several organizations joined the appellate case as amicus curiae, including the ACLU, American Jewish Congress, Japanese American Citizens League, and the NAACP which was represented by Thurgood Marshall. More than a year later, on April 14, 1947, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court's ruling in Mendez v. Westminster in favor of the Mexican families. After the ruling was upheld on appeal, then-Governor Earl Warren moved to desegregate all public schools and other public spaces in California.  This paved the way for the end of school segregation in the entire country in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education.

After retiring from a career as a pediatric nurse, Ms. Mendez devoted her life to telling the story of her family and the legacy of the case, and in 2011 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama for her advocacy for educational opportunity for “children of all backgrounds and all walks of life.”

To learn more about the Sylvia Mendez School click here http://sylviamendezschool.org/who-is-sylvia-mendez

Dr. Ionia Rollin Whipper

Dr. Ionia Rollin Whipper

Dr. Ionia Rollin Whipper was born September 8, 1872 in Beaufort, South Carolina. She was one of three surviving children born to author and diarist Frances Anne Rollin and Judge William James Whipper.

By 1878, as the Reconstruction period was ending in South Carolina, Frances Rollin Whipper moved Winifred, Ionia, and Leigh to Washington, D.C.  The family established a home on 6th Street NW, and Whipper saw the children through early education and graduation from Howard University.   Ionia, after teaching for ten years in the Washington, D.C. public school system, entered Howard Medical School, one of the few schools in the country to accept women.

In 1903, Ionia graduated from Howard University Medical School with a major in Obstetrics, one of four women in her class.  That year, she became a resident physician at Tuskegee Institute, Alabama, and on her return to Washington, D.C, set up private practice at 511 Florida Avenue NW, where she accepted only women patients.

In 1921, Dr. Whipper began a tour through the South as an assistant medical officer for the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor. Her mission was to instruct midwives in childbirth procedures.  She described in her diary the less than ideal circumstances she encountered there, including prejudice from whites, and suspicion from blacks.

After her tour Dr. Whipper returned to private practice in Washington where she joined the Maternity Ward staff of Freedman’s Hospital. Moved by the plights of numerous unwed teenagers she assisted there, she began to mentor girls in need. There were no facilities in the area serving black women and girls, and Dr. Whipper began to take individual girls under her wing in her own home and office on Florida Avenue.

Dr. Whipper assisted the girls through their pregnancies and afterwards with infant health care.  She soon enlisted seven women friends among her AME St. Luke’s Church members and together they began to raise money for a home that would shelter unwed pregnant girls.

By 1931, the group purchased 3 ½ acres in Northeast Washington, D.C. which became the first Ionia R. Whipper Home for Unwed Mothers. Notably for that time, the home was open to all regardless of race or religion.  Dr. Whipper continued to run the home until the early 1950s. Until the 1960s, when similar facilities for whites were desegregated, it was the city's only maternity home that admitted young African-American women.  It relocated in 1955 to a different location, and it is still operating today.

Ionia Rollin Whipper spent the last years of her life residing with her family in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. and at the home of her niece, Lelia Frances Whipper in New York City. She died at Harlem Hospital on April 13, 1953,  and is interred in the columbarium at Fresh Pond Crematory.

To learn more click the link: http://ioniawhipperhome.org/

Mary White Ovington

Mary White Ovington

Mary White Ovington was born April 11, 1865 in Brooklyn to parents who supported women's rights and the abolition of slavery. As a young woman, Ovington decided to join the civil rights movement after hearing Frederick Douglass speak at a Brooklyn church.

Ovington helped to establish the Greenpoint Settlement in Brooklyn and a few years later Greenwich House Committee on Social Investigations in 1904. There, she spent the next five years studying the employment and housing problems of Manhattan's Black community.

Ovington threw herself fully into the cause of civil rights for Black Americans after reading an article in 1908 that described a race riot that led to seven deaths, the destruction of 40 homes and 24 businesses, and 107 indictments against rioters in Abraham Lincoln's hometown of Springfield, Illinois. The author, William English Walling, ended the article with a rallying cry to come to the aid of the embattled Black community.

Heeding the call for action, Ovington arranged to meet with Walling, after which they decided to set up a national conference to discuss justice and civil rights for Black Americans. In response, dozens of white activists and seven Black Americans, including W.E.B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells signed a statement that was released on the centennial of Lincoln's birthday on February 12, 1909. A few months later, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) held its first meeting.

NAACP established a board of directors in 1910, appointing Ovington as NAACP's executive secretary. After World War I, Ovington served the NAACP as a board member, executive secretary, and chairman. She inspired other women to join the NAACP, and in so doing, made a significant contribution to the multi-cultural composition of the organization. NAACP fought a long legal battle against segregation and racial discrimination in housing, education, employment, voting, and transportation. They appealed to the Supreme Court to rule that several laws passed by Southern states were unconstitutional and won three important judgments between 1915-1923 concerning voting rights and housing.

Ovington wrote several books about Black society and culture, including Half a Man (1911), Status of the Negro in the United States (1913), a study of Manhattan's Black community, and Portraits in Color (1927), biographical sketches of prominent African Americans. She also documented her work in her autobiography, Reminiscences (1932), NAACP in The Wall Come Tumbling Down (1947).

In 1947 after nearly four decades of service she died in 1951 at the age of 86.

Mary Church Terrell

Mary Church Terrell

Mary "Mollie" Eliza Church was born in 1863 in Memphis, Tennessee, to Robert Reed Church and Louisa Ayres, both freed slaves. Her father, Robert Reed Church, was a successful businessman who became one of the South’s first African American millionaires. Her mother, Louisa Ayres Church, owned a hair salon. She had one brother. Terrell’s parents divorced during her childhood.

In 1875, Mary’s parents moved her to Oberlin, Ohio to attend Oberlin public school from eight grade to the end of her high school education in 1879.  Terrell remained in Oberlin throughout her college career.  Oberlin College was the first college in the United States to accept African American and female students. She was one of the first African American women to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree, rather than a 2-year ladies’ degree. Terrell earned her bachelor's degree in 1884 and her M.A. in 1988. 

Terrell spent two years teaching at Wilburforce College before moving to Washington DC, in 1887 to teach at the M Street Colored High School. There she met, and in 1891, married Heberton Terrell, also a teacher. The Terrells had one daughter and later adopted a second daughter.

Her activism was sparked in 1892, when an old friend, Thomas Moss, was lynched in Memphis by whites because his business competed with theirs. Terrell joined Ida B. Wells-Barnett in anti-lynching campaigns.  Terrell’s life work focused on the notion of racial uplift, the belief that blacks would help end racial discrimination by advancing themselves and other members of the race through education, work, and community activism. It was a strategy based on the power of equal opportunities to advance the race and her belief that as one succeeds, the whole race would be elevated. Her words—“Lifting as we climb”—became the motto of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), the group she helped found in 1892.

1895 she was appointed superintendent of the M Street High School, becoming the first woman to hold this post.  Combined with her achievements as a principal, the success of the League's educational initiatives led to Terrell's appointment to the District of Columbia Board of Education which she held from 1895 to 1906. She was the first Black woman in the United States to hold such a position.

She was NACW president from 1896 to 1901. As NACW president, Terrell campaigned tirelessly among black organizations and mainstream white organizations, writing and speaking extensively. Terrell fought for woman suffrage and civil rights because she realized that she belonged “to the only group in this country that has two such huge obstacles to surmount…both sex and race.”

In 1909, Terrell was among the founders and charter members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Then in 1910, she co-founded the College Alumnae Club, later renamed the National Association of University Women.

Following the passage of the 19th amendment, Terrell focused on broader civil rights. In 1940, she published her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World, outlining her experiences with discrimination. In 1948, Terrell became the first black member of the American Association of University Women, after winning an anti-discrimination lawsuit. In 1950, at age 86, she challenged segregation in public places by protesting the John R. Thompson Restaurant in Washington, DC. She was victorious when, in 1953, the Supreme Court ruled that segregated eating facilities were unconstitutional, a major breakthrough in the civil rights movement. Terrell died four years later in Highland Beach, Maryland.

Ruby Bridges

Ruby Bridges

Born on September 8, 1954, Bridges was the oldest of five children for Lucille and Abon Bridges, farmers in Tylertown, Mississippi. Ruby’s birth year coincided with the US Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, which ended racial segregation in public schools. At age four, her parents moved their family to New Orleans, Louisiana in search of better work opportunities.

Southern states continued to resist integration, and in 1959, Ruby attended a segregated New Orleans kindergarten. A year later, however, a federal court ordered Louisiana to desegregate. The school district created entrance exams for African American students to see whether they could compete academically at the all-white school. Ruby and five other students passed the exam. Her parents were torn about whether to let her attend the all-white William Frantz Elementary School, a few blocks from their home. Her father resisted, fearing for his daughter’s safety; her mother, however, wanted Ruby to have the educational opportunities that her parents had been denied.

 Ruby was escorted by federal marshals to the school every day that year. She walked past crowds screaming vicious slurs at her. Undeterred, she later said she only became frightened when she saw a woman holding a black baby doll in a coffin. She spent her first day in the principal’s office due to the chaos created as angry white parents pulled their children from school. Ardent segregationists withdrew their children permanently. Barbara Henry, a white Boston native, was the only teacher willing to accept Ruby, and all year, she was a class of one. Ruby ate lunch alone and sometimes played with her teacher at recess, but she never missed a day of school that year. The Bridges family suffered for their decision to send her to William Frantz Elementary: her father lost his job as a gas station attendant; the grocery store the family shopped at would no longer let them shop there; her grandparents, who were sharecroppers in Mississippi, were turned off their land; and Abon and Lucille Bridges separated.

 Ruby graduated from a desegregated high school, became a travel agent, married and had four sons. She was reunited with her first teacher, Henry, in the mid-1990s, and for a time the pair did speaking engagements together. Ruby later wrote about her early experiences in two books and received the Carter G. Woodson Book Award.

 A lifelong activist for racial equality, in 1999, Ruby established The Ruby Bridges Foundation to promote tolerance and create change through education. To find out more click here.

Don't follow the path. Go where there is no path and begin the trail. When you start a new trail equipped with courage, strength and conviction, the only thing that can stop you is you!
Marian Wright Edelman

Marian Wright Edelman

Marian Wright Edelman was born June 6, 1939, in Bennettsville, South Carolina.  Mrs. Edelman graduated from Yale Law School and was the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar. She directed the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund office in Jackson, Mississippi, and in 1968 she moved to Washington, D.C., to serve as counsel for the Poor People’s Campaign that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began organizing before his death.

She is the founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), has devoted her life to advocating for those disadvantaged in America. Under her leadership, CDF has become one of the nation’s strongest voices for children and families. CDF’s Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a healthy start, a head start, a fair start, a safe start and a moral start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.

As leader and principal spokesperson for the CDF, Edelman worked to persuade United States Congress to overhaul foster care, support adoption, improve child care and protect children who are disabled, homeless, abused or neglected. As she expresses it, "If you don't like the way the world is, you have an obligation to change it. Just do it one step at a time."

Mrs. Edelman has received more than 100 honorary degrees and many awards, including in 2000 the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, and the Robert F. Kennedy Lifetime Achievement Award for her many writings on children and social change.

To learn more about the Children’s Defense Fund click here.

Diane Nash

Diane Nash

Diane Nash was born in 1938 and raised in Chicago.  After graduating from Hyde Park High School in Chicago, Nash went to Washington, D.C., to attend Howard University. After a year, she transferred to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where she majored in English.

In Nashville, she was first exposed to the full force of Jim Crow laws and customs and their effect on the lives of people of color. Nash recounted her experience at the Tennessee State Fair when she had to use the "Colored Women" restroom, signifying the first time she had ever seen and been impacted by segregation signage. Outraged by the realities of segregation, Nash began to show signs of leadership and soon became a full-time activist.  In 1960 at age 22, she became the leader of the Nashville sit-ins, which lasted from February to May.  Though protests would continue in Nashville and across the South, Diane Nash and three other students were first successfully served at the Post House Restaurant on March 17, 1960.

Nash was on the front lines in the Freedom Rides to fight for the desegregation of public transportation in the South. In 1961, Nash coordinated the Nashville Student Movement Ride from Birmingham, Alabama, to Jackson, Mississippi after learning of the bus burning in the Alabama city of Anniston and the riot in Birmingham. "It was clear to me that if we allowed the Freedom Ride to stop at that point, just after so much violence had been inflicted, the message would have been sent that all you have to do to stop a nonviolent campaign is inflict massive violence," said Nash in the 2010 documentary Freedom Riders. Throughout the Ride, Nash recruited new Riders, alerted the press of their efforts, and forged relationships with the federal government and national Movement leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She eventually left college to become a full-time activist for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1961.

After moving to Jackson, Mississippi, in 1961, Nash headed SCLC campaigns to register people to vote and desegregate schools. Although her work was applauded by fellow civil rights activists, she endured numerous arrests for the cause. In fact, she spent time in jail while she was pregnant with her first child; her crime was teaching nonviolent tactics to children. Nash played a major role in the Selma Voting Rights Campaign that eventually led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. She was also appointed to a national committee by President John F. Kennedy that promoted passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Although she was a key architect in many of the Movement's most successful efforts, she remains humble upon reflection. "It took many thousands of people to make the changes that we made, people whose names we'll never know. They'll never get credit for the sacrifices they've made, but I remember them."

Dr. Carter G. Woodson

History of Black History Month

We owe the celebration of Black History Month to Dr. Carter G. Woodson. Born in Virginia to parents who were former slaves, he spent his childhood working on the family farm and as a teen in the West Virginia coal mines.  He worked as a teacher and school principal then graduated from Berea College in Kentucky in 1903. After graduating from college, he became a school supervisor in the Philippines and later traveled throughout Europe and Asia. After returning to the U.S., he began teaching at Dunbar High School in Washington, DC. He earned a Master’s Degree from the University of Chicago.  In 1912 he earned a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University. He was the second African American to earn a Harvard doctorate. He joined the faculty of Howard University, eventually serving as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Woodson decided to take on the challenge of writing black Americans into the nation's history. He established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now called the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History) in 1915, and a year later founded the widely respected Journal of Negro History, which is published to this day under the name Journal of African American History. In 1926, he launched Negro History Week, the precursor to Black History Month, as an initiative to bring national attention to the contributions of black people throughout American history.  Woodson chose the second week of February for Negro History Week because it coincided with the birthday of Abraham Lincoln on February 12 and that of Frederick Douglass on February 14.  Negro History Week grew in popularity throughout the following decades.  US President Gerald Ford recognized Black History Month in 1976.

W. Haywood Burns

W. Haywood Burns graduated with honors from Harvard College and received a law degree from Yale University.  After graduating with honors from Harvard College and receiving a law degree from Yale University, Burns served as the first law clerk for District Court Judge Constance Baker Motley. In 1968, he served as general counsel to Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign. He was one of the founders of the National Conference of Black Lawyers. He worked on the defense of the Attica prisoners and many other people struggling for self-determination. Burns was also the founding dean of the City College Urban Legal Studies Program, serving from 1977-1987.

Burns went on to serve as dean of the Law School at the City University of New York (CUNY). He was a visiting scholar at Yale Law School and returned to New York to establish a Harlem-based law firm. Talent, passion and zest for life were his signatures. He was tragically killed in an automobile accident while attending the International Association of Democratic Lawyers conference in Cape Town, South Africa.

Burns’ family endorses the use of his name for the work of the BI, which was created in 2001 by James Bell. There is no more fitting a person in whose memory the BI works on behalf of youth of color, their families and communities.

James Bell

James Bell is the founder and president of the Burns Institute and was a mentee of W. Haywood Burns.

“I founded the W. Haywood Burns Institute to represent the values and embody the spirit of our namesake. When I conceived the BI’s mission, values and place regarding activism and advocacy regarding race, ethnicity, ancestry and justice, Haywood’s legacy was our beacon. He personified the clarity of vision and commitment to challenging the jurisprudential structures of oppression and provided a North Star for our organization. His personal and political qualities combined to create the cultural and organizational basis for our team. We work hard and enjoy ourselves as well during this journey. We are unapologetic in our beliefs that oppression while pervasive, is on the wrong side of history. It is our obligation to name “othering” and provide solutions to eliminate it. That was who he was and this is who we are.”