Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Babe Didrikson Zaharias – Outstanding Athlete

If there was ever an overachiever in sports, that person would be Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias. She excelled in almost everything she tried, including track and field, golf, basketball, diving, bowling, roller skating and pool. When asked once if there was anything she didn’t play, she replied, “Yeah, dolls.” But she was also an excellent seamstress, making many of her own golf outfits and winning the 1931 Sewing Championship at the Texas State Fair.
Born in Texas to Norwegian immigrants, she was encouraged early to participate in sports. She always claimed she was given the nickname “Babe” because she hit five home runs in one baseball game when she was a teen.
She competed in the 1932 Olympics, winning two gold and one silver medal in track and field events. She also participated on a vaudeville-type basketball team. At age 31, she turned seriously to golf. She became the first woman to make the cut in a regular PGA tournament and was the first female golf “celebrity,” becoming a leading player in the 1940s and early ‘50s.  She won 17 straight amateur and pro victories. In 1949, She became one of the founders of the LPGA.
She married pro wrestler George Zaharias, who later became her manager.
Although described by her competitors as flamboyant, cocky and often overbearing, she was overwhelmingly popular with her fans. In 1953, she was diagnosed with colon cancer, and doctors told her it was unlikely that she would ever play golf again. They had not reckoned with her competitive spirit, and within a few weeks of surgery, she was back on the golf course continuing her winning ways. The cancer, however, returned, and Babe Didrikson Zaharias died at age 45 in 1956.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Penelope Pagget Barker – Tea Party Planner

At age 27 Penelope Pagget Craven became the richest woman in North Carolina with the death of her second husband, James Craven. She later married Thomas Barker, who often traveled to England, leaving her in charge of her inherited property as well as his own. So it was only natural that she would take an avid interest in the public affairs of the colony, a position that led to her being called "one of the most courageous women in U.S. history.

Her interest in colonial affairs led her to express her displeasure at the Crown's tax on many goods without giving colonists a say in that taxation. In October 1774, she composed a public statement to this effect and hosted a "tea party," now known as the Edenton Tea Party, at the home of Elizabeth King. In addition to herself, 50 women attended and affixed their names to her statement. She was quoted as saying, "We are signing our names to a document, not hiding ourselves behind costumes like the men of Boston did at their tea party."

She made sure the proclamation was sent to a London newspaper, where journalists and cartoonists depicted the women as "bad mothers and loose women." However, in the colonies, other women took note and began a major boycott of British goods, quickly getting the attention of British authorities. An enlarged version of one of the cartoons hangs today in the entry hall of the Barker home, now headquarters of the Edenton Historical Commission.

When the American Revolution began in earnest, Penelope continued to take a courageous stand. When informed that British officers were raiding her stable of its carriage horses, she snatched up her husband's sword and dashed to the stable. With a mighty slash of the sword, she severed the horses' reins and drove them back into the stable, informing the British officers that they could not molest her property without peril. The commanding officer apologized, assuring her that neither she nor her property would again be molested.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Madame C.J. Walker – Millionaire

Sarah Breedlove, child of former slaves, was born in 1867 in rural Louisiana. Orphaned at age seven, she was married by 14, a mother at 17 and widowed at 20. After her husband’s death, she moved to St. Louis to be near her brothers who were barbers. She established herself as a washerwoman, little dreaming that the barber and beauty industry would one day make her American’s first woman millionaire.
In the late 1890s, Sarah was going bald. Like most women of the day, she only washed her hair once a month and had developed severe dandruff and scalp disease. She experimented with various compounds and developed a shampoo and salve containing sulphur which healed the condition.
An enterprising woman, she took the name of her late second husband, and, calling herself Madame C.J. Walker began to market these products under the name Madame C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair-Grower. In 1906, she started a company with headquarters in Indianapolis, using African-American women to help her sell her products. At one point she employed 3,000 workers.
Madame Walker soon found that she had become the first self-made woman millionaire in the United States. She built a large home on the Hudson River in New York, which is still standing. She was also one of the first Americans to own an automobile.
When she died in 1919, she was hailed not only as a millionaire but also as a philanthropist. She once said, “I had to make my own living and my own opportunity. But I made it. Don’t sit down and wait for opportunities to come. Get up and make them.”
Her great-great granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles has written a biography of Madame Walker, On Her Own Ground.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Tempe Wick – Revolutionary Horsewoman

During the American Revolution, ordinary citizens were often forced to give up or share their homes with British or Colonial soldiers. Such was the case of the Wick family who lived in Jockey Hollow, near present-day Morristown, New Jersey.
The Wick home was comandeered by General Arthur St. Clair of the Continental Army. Although the Wick family continued to live in the house, their daily routines were greatly interrupted.
One thing that didn’t change was that young Tempe Wick continued to ride her horse, Colonel, through the countryside. It was not particularly safe as British, Tories and mutinous Continental soldiers roamed at large.
On one of her rides, Tempe met a group of soldiers from Pennsylvania. Not realizing they had mutinied because of conditions, she suspected nothing when they stopped her. However, she soon realized they had their eyes on Colonel, who was quite a fine horse.
Thinking quickly, Tempe waited until the soldier holding the horse’s bridle removed his hand for a moment. Instantly, she gave the horse a slap and galloped away with the would-be horse thieves in hot pursuit, firing shots at her as they got the chance. 
She could outrun them, but she was aware that some of them knew where she lived, and if she returned Colonel to his barn, the angry men would simply wait until nightfall and steal him. So upon her arrival at the farm, she boldly led the horse into the house and into a bedroom. Some stories say the guest room was on the first floor and rarely used; other that she led him upstairs to her own room. Most of the stories state that she kept the horse hidden in the house for three weeks until she felt the danger had passed.
The Wick home is now part of the Morristown National Historic Park. 

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Ruth Haynes Wyllys – Daring Colonial

Ruth Haynes was the daughter of the Connecticut colony’s first governor, John Haynes. She married Samuel Wyllys, whose father and grandfather before him had been Treasurer of Connecticut. Because of their position, it was in the Wyllys home that the cherished charter, given to the colony by King Charles II, was kept under lock and key. 
However, in 1687, King James II named Edmond Andros the governor-general of all New England. And to consolidate his power, Andros laid claim to all prior charters. In October of that year he arrived in Hartford to remove the Charter.
Some residents of Connecticut were resigned to this state of affairs, but others were determined to do all in their power to retain their Charter. Among those was Ruth Haynes Wyllys. 
On the day appointed, Andros arrived in Hartford. He was escorted to the council chambers where the charter, removed from the Wyllys home, lay on the table. Much debate had already gone on when Andrew Leete, whose father had also been governor of Connecticut rose. Leete looked ill and trembled as he began to speak. Midway through his speech, he fell forward onto the table, upsetting the candelabrum and leaving the room in darkness.
By pre-arrangement, Lt. Joseph Wadsworth, a lineal descendant of the poet William Wadsworth, was stationed outside a window. The charter, quickly scooped up when the lights went out, was handed to him, and he made haste to return it to the Wyllys home.
Ruth Wyllys, home alone, authoritatively told him that it would not be safe in the house as Andros’ men would be sure to search there. She quickly led him to a huge tree standing near the Wyllys house, known to all as “the oak.” Ruth Wyllys held the charter while Wadsworth climbed up into the tree and then handed him the document which he secreted in a hollow limb. 
No one could explain the charter’s disappearance, and Andros was soon on his way back to Boston, highly miffed, while the Wyllys’ oak tree was known forever after as “The Charter Oak.”

Friday, June 11, 2010

Dorothea Lange – Documentary Photographer

Dorothea Lange left a successful portrait studio in San Francisco to become a documentary photographer, and from that time on, she documented the effects of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and Japanese internment camps, as well as other events and movements. “Migrant Mother, Nipoma, California, 1935,” a stark photograph  of Florence Thompson Owens, taken in California during the Depression, has become one of the most recognized photographs in the world.
Lange understood the suffering of the people she was photographing. As a small childhood, she contracted polio which left her with a twisted foot and permanent limp. She and her mother were abandoned by her father when she was 12, and she spent her teenage years wondering the streets of New York because her mother became so preoccupied that she rarely noticed her daughter. 
As an adult her work was often curtailed by her debilitating illnesses. (She was the first woman awarded a Guggenheim fellowship but was unable to complete it because of illness). Her marriage failed, and she was forced to put her children in foster care because she was gone so often in her work with the Farm Security Administration as a photographer.
Lange was more than a photographer in that she wrote captions for all the photos she took for the Farms Security Administration, and she was furious all her life that the FSA never published the captions with the photos. They were, in fact, distributed free to newspapers by the government. Linda Gordon, Lange’s biographer, has said that “she hated the iconization of her art.”
Lange herself said late in life, “I’ve been weary all my life, and I’ve always had to make a great effort to do the things that I really wanted to do, combating not having quite enough to do it with...You do, really, what you must do.”

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Prudence Crandall – Educator

Prudence Crandall, a Rhode Island-born Quaker, opened a school for young ladies in Canterbury, CT, in 1831. The school quickly became a success, attracting young women from other states. The young ladies studied reading arithmetic, English grammar, geography, history, natural and moral philosophy, rhetoric, chemistry, drawing and painting, French and the delineation of maps.
In 1832, Prudence’s housekeeper asked if she would consider accepting a young black woman into the school. Sarah Harris, daughter of a prosperous, local farmer, wanted to become a teacher. Prudence accepted Sarah, arousing the anger of the townspeople.
Many parents removed their daughters from the school. Prudence retaliated by opening a school solely for young black women, which only intensified the anger against her. Storeowners refused to sell her food. Residents of Canterbury threw rocks and eggs at the building. In May 1833, Connecticut enacted laws making it illegal to educate black children. Prudence refused to close the school and was arrested June 27, 1833.
After a jury failed to reach a verdict, she was given a second trial, at which she was found guilty. That verdict was overturned on a technicality, which so angered the townspeople that they stormed the school with clubs and iron bars. Prudence closed the school the next day, fearing for the safety of her students.
She married and moved to the mid-west, but throughout her long life, she continued to teach and was always a champion of equality in education and women’s rights.
Fifty years after she was forced to close the school, Samuel Colt and Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) pushed Connecticut to grant her a yearly pension. Garrison Keillor of “A Prairie Home Companion” traces his ancestry through Prudence Crandall, according to one of his books.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Bessie Coleman – Queen Bess

Growing up one of 13 children in a Texas family in the early 1900s, Bessie Coleman learned early about both race and gender discrimination. Not able to attend school regularly, Bessie educated herself through books she borrowed from a traveling library.
In 1915, she moved to Chicago with two of her brothers, earning money as a manicurist. When her brother, John, returned from World War I, boasting that French women were superior to the women of Chicago, with some even flying airplanes, Bessie immediately set out to prove she could fly. But because she was both black and female, no American flight school would take her.
Robert Abbott, publisher of an African-American newspaper in Chicago, learned of her frustration and suggested she save her money and move to France. Bessie was soon on her way to France. On June 15, 1921, after only seven months’ instruction, she obtained a pilot’s license in France, becoming the first black woman in the world to do so. According to newspaper accounts, she also received the first pilot’s license granted to an American woman in Germany and turned down an offer to teach women to fly in Moscow.
She returned to the United States, determined to open a flight school for African-Americans, but again doors would not open for her.  She returned to France in 1922 for lessons in stunt work.
When she again returned to the United States, Robert Abbott encouraged her to tour the country, giving exhibitions, flight lessons and lectures, particularly aimed at blacks and women.
Her career was to be short-lived. On April 30, 1926, she was a passenger in a plane flown by William Willis. They were scouting areas for possible parachute landings, and Bessie was not strapped in as she was leaning over the side of the plane to survey the terrain below. At some point, the plane dropped into a steep dive, flipping over and throwing her to her death. 
Airplane clubs named for her began springing up all over the country, and in 1931 a group of African-American pilots started the tradition of participating in an annual flyover of her grave in Chicago.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Ada H. Kepley – Lawyer, Suffragette

Ada Miser moved to Effingham, Illinois, with her parents while she was in high school and remained there the rest of her eventful life.
After graduation, she married Henry Kepley, a local attorney. He trained her to be his legal assistant, but after a short time, Ada had other ideas, enrolling in Union School of Law in Chicago. She earned a law degree in 1870, becoming the first woman in the United States to do so. 
However, she hit a brick wall when she applied for her license to practice and was informed by state authorities that “Illinois law does not allow women to enter the learned professions.”
Henry Kepley aided her in challenging the law by preparing a bill for the state legislature forbidding sexual discrimination in the professions. Although the bill was adopted into law in 1872, Ada did not receive her license until 1881 because she had become embroiled in the suffragette and temperance movements. After she was licensed to practice law, she handled occasional court cases but devoted most of her time to her passion.
“I like to be at the front of great movements as far as possible,” she was quoted as saying. Her temperance work put her at the front of the movement in Illinois and also put her in some personal danger as she was once clubbed over the head by an angry shopkeeper and arrested for removing a poster of a half-nude woman advertising a female minstral show from the post office.
Ada’s name also appeared in the newspapers as she pursued her goals. In 1886, she ran for the position of school trustee–against her husband–defeating him soundly. And a 1905 newspaper article announced that she wished to be chief of police of Effingham. It added that she wanted a ju jitsu assistant.
After Henry’s death, Ada tried many means of making a living but was not very successful at any of them, and, therefore, found herself viewed as an eccentric by the residents of Effingham.