Charles Barkley marks Black History Month with a daily spotlight on local African-American heroes. Many of them didn’t make it into the history books or even the newspapers of their time, but their stories are inspiring and worth knowing.
Here, we take a look at five figures from Philly who made a significant impact. You can find the full list here.
(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.”
(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.”
(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.
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.”
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.”
Civil Rights Activist
(February 22, 1839 – October 10, 1871)
Octavius Catto was the greatest civil rights leader in post-Civil War Philly.
Catto was an educator, athlete and major in the Pennsylvania National Guard. He was married to noted teacher and civil rights activist Caroline LeCount.
He recruited African Americans to serve in the military and led a 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.