[Editor’s Note: In honor of Black History Month, The New York Times has been publishing long overlooked obituaries of prominent African Americans. A couple years ago, former NBA star Charles Barkley embarked on a similar project here at The Citizen, highlighting local African Americans throughout history whose contributions we would do well to remember. Here, we take another look.]
I speak at a lot of schools across the country, and I’ve encountered a trend that drives me freakin’ nuts. I always ask students the following question: “How many of you want to be a professional athlete or a rapper?”
At inner-city, mostly African American schools, nearly every hand shoots up. When I ask the same question in a white suburban school, maybe 10 percent of hands are raised. I speak to a lot of schools, and this happens without fail.
I tell black kids all the time, “You ain’t gonna be me.” Even if you’re any good on the court, the odds are stacked against you. But I can tell from the blank way they look back at me: They’re putting all their eggs in this totally unlikely basket. But I get why. Young black kids get from the media an unrealistic picture of African American success. Athletes and rappers, with Denzel and Oprah thrown in.
Many of these All-Stars didn’t make it into the history books or even the newspapers of their time. But their stories are inspiring and worth knowing.
(February 25, 1928 – December 14, 1998)
A Federal Judge appointed by President Jimmy Carter in 1977—the first African American to hold the position—Leon Higginbotham was a jurist, a scholar and an orator. He was a voice for the downtrodden who never shied away from a fight.
Two weeks before his death, he testified before Congress against the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. When Congressman Bob Barr made reference to “the real America,” Higginbotham said: “My father was a laborer. My mother was a domestic. And I climbed the ladder and I didn’t come to where I am today through some magical vein. So I am willing to match you, any hour, any day, in terms of the perception of the real America.”
- Antioch College, B.A. 1949
- Yale University Law School, LL.B, 1952
- Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney, Philadelphia, 1953-54 under D.A. Richardson Dilworth (the first black lawyer to argue in the Court of Common Pleas)
- President, Philadelphia Chapter of the NAACP, 1960-1962
- Appointed by President Johnson to Judge of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, 1964
- Elevated by President Carter to the United States Court of Appeals in 1977, where he served until 1993
- Founder of SAFE, the South Africa Free Election Fund, and ultimately helped draft a new constitution for post-apartheid South Africa
“Judge Higginbotham’s work and the example he set made a critical contribution to the course of the rule of law in the United States and a difference in the lives of African Americans, and indeed the lives of all Americans,” said Nelson Mandela. “But his influence also crossed borders and inspired many who fought for freedom and equality in other countries.”
(January 2, 1898 – November 1, 1989)
The first black female lawyer in Pennsylvania, Sadie Alexander was Philly’s assistant city solicitor at a time—the 1930s—when few women of any race held city titles. Later, she helped author President Harry Truman’s report on civil rights. Even as a young woman, Alexander knew that education was the key to her success. She was the first black woman to graduate from Penn Law, and the first in the nation to get a Ph.D. in economics (and only the second black female Ph.D. recipient in the country)—two of her five eventual degrees. “I never looked for anybody to hold the door open for me,” Alexander said. “I knew well that the only way I could get that door open was to knock it down: because I knocked all of them down.”
- University of Pennsylvania, B.S. 1918
- University of Pennsylvania, A.M. 1919
- University of Pennsylvania, Ph.D 1921
- University of Pennsylvania, LL.B 1927
- University of Pennsylvania, Hon. LL.D 1974
- Assistant City Solicitor, Philadelphia 1928-1930, 1934-1938
- Appointed to Truman’s Committee of Human Rights in 1947, coauthoring “To Secure these Rights”
- National Urban League’s “Woman of the Year”
- Philadelphia Human Relations Commissioner 1952-1968
- School District and Penn open elementary school named for Alexander, 2001
While earning an honorary degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1974, Alexander was described as: “…an active worker for civil rights, she has been a steady and forceful advocate on the national, state, and municipal scene, reminding people everywhere that freedoms are won not only by idealism but by persistence and will over a long time…”
(July 31, 1932 – October 10, 2013)
Walter Lomax opened his first South Philly medical practice in 1958, where 10 years later he treated Martin Luther King, Jr. for a respiratory infection. He expanded to six health clinics, with over 20 doctors, and Correctional Healthcare Solutions, which sent doctors to 70 prisons in 10 states. He also founded Lomax Companies, an umbrella for several businesses, including radio station WURD. And he contributed to various African and African-American causes, both personally and through his Lomax Family Foundation. In 1994, he bought the plantation in Virginia where his great-grandmother, and hundreds of others, had been enslaved—what Michael Coard in Philly Mag rightly described as an “expression of real black power.”
- La Salle University and Hahnemann University Hospital
- Lincoln University, Hon. ScD
- Formed Lomax Companies, an umbrella group that includes Lomax Real Estate Partners, Prime Image and MyArtistDNA, and 900AM-WURD
- Founded the Lomax Family Foundation
- Bought the Virginia plantation where his great-grandmother was a slave
Lomax “was a trailblazer who showed many in the African American business community what was possible with a bit of ingenuity and a lot of hard work,” City Council President Darrell Clarke said after Lomax died. “Dr. Lomax did not just show us how to succeed; he demonstrated the importance of giving back to the community.”
September 24, 1825 – February 22, 1911
Harper, a writer, abolitionist and suffragette, was born free in Baltimore in 1825, and spent most of her adult life in Philadelphia, where she was active with the Underground Railroad. She published over 11 books of poetry and fiction, including Iola Leroy, one of the first novels published by an African American. Her writings primarily focused on social issues: Education for women, miscegenation as a crime, temperance and social responsibility. “The true aim of female education should be, not a development of one or two,” Harper said, “but all the faculties of the human soul, because no perfect womanhood is developed by imperfect culture.”
Academy of Negro Youth
- Published her first book of poetry at age 20
- Helped escaped slaves make their way to Canada on the Underground Railroad
- Refused to give up her trolley seat 100 years before Rosa Parks
- Led the “colored” section of the Philadelphia Women’s Christian Temperance Union
From “Bury Me In A Free Land,” Harper’s most famous poem:
“Make me a grave where’er you will,
In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill;
Make it among earth’s humblest graves,
But not in a land where men are slaves.”
Civil Rights Activist
(February 22, 1839 – October 10, 1871)
Octavius Catto was the greatest civil rights leader in post-Civil War Philly. Mayor Jim Kenney has pushed for a statue honoring Catto for the last decade; now he says one will be unveiled by spring 2017 on the southwest apron of City Hall. It will be Philadelphia’s first public statue honoring a solo African American. Catto was an educator, athlete, and major in the Pennsylvania National Guard who recruited African Americans to serve in the military and who led the successful protest to integrate Philadelphia’s horse-drawn streetcars. He was assassinated on election day in 1871, as blacks fought for the right to vote. “All that [the colored man] asks is that there shall be no unmanly quibbles about entrusting to him any position of honor or profit for which his attainments may fit him,” Catto said.
- Attended segregated Vaux Primary School, Lombard Grammar School. Then attended all-white Allentown Academy
- Institute for Colored Youth (now Cheyney University)
- Inducted into the Franklin Institute, despite pushback of whites
- “The Jackie Robinson of his time”: Helped establish Negro League Baseball and ran the undefeated Pythian Baseball Club of Philadelphia that played the first black versus white game
- Life story told in Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America by Inquirer alums Murray Dubin and Dan Biddle.
- Sam Katz’s History Making Productions produced short film, “Tasting Freedom: The Life of Octavius V. Catto”
- Subject of the first (and only) monument to a single African American in Philadelphia, erected outside City Hall in 2017.
“We shall never rest at ease, but will agitate and work, by our means and by our influence, in court and out of court, asking aid of the press, calling upon Christians to vindicate their Christianity, and the members of the law to assert the principles of the profession by granting us justice and right, until these invidious and unjust usages shall have ceased,” Catto said.