Upton Sinclair

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” – Upton Sinclair


Born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1868, Upton Sinclair began writing as a teenager, selling his first story at sixteen. A few years later, he started his journalism and book writing career after graduating from City College of New York.

While Upton would write throughout his life, publishing over 90 books, including novels, essays, and political works, his book “The Jungle” was arguably his most influential. The novel, published in 1906, follows the life of a Lithuanian immigrant who comes to America with his family in search of a better life. In America, the immigrant family struggles to make ends meet. They are poor, living in squalor. And at work, they experience dangerous working conditions and exploitation by their employers. The constant struggle for survival takes a toll on their physical and mental health.

Upton Sinclair
Upton Sinclair

The story is a work of fiction, but it is also personal for Upton. “I wrote with tears and anguish, pouring into the pages all that pain which life had meant to me. Externally the story had to do with a family of stockyard workers, but internally it was the story of my own family. Did I wish to know how the poor suffered in winter time in Chicago? I only had to recall the previous winter in the cabin, when we had only cotton blankets, and had rags on top of us. It was the same with hunger, with illness, with fear. Our little boy was down with pneumonia that winter, and nearly died, and the grief of that went into the book.”

The book was a sensation. It exposed the meatpacking industry’s terrible working conditions and unsanitary practices in the early 20th century. But more than a public best-seller, “The Jungle” helped lead to policy changes. The outraged public pushed legislators to pass the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act, establishing federal regulations for the food and drug industries. The book also helped to raise awareness about the need for workers’ rights and workplace safety regulations.

About the book, Upton would write, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” He continued campaigning for social and economic justice throughout his life, until passing away at the age of 90 in 1968.


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Bain News Service, Publisher. Upton Sinclair. [No Date Recorded on Caption Card] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2014686178/> / “I, Candidate for Governor And How I Got Licked” by Upton Sinclair. Published in 1935 and reprinted in 1994 by University of California Press – Google Books.

Robert Gould Shaw


In his early years, Robert Gould Shaw lived within the privileges of a wealthy family in Boston, Massachusetts, where he was born in 1837. As he entered his early adult years, life took him to New York, where he went to work after dropping out of Harvard. But then the U.S. Civil War began and Robert joined the Union Army.

In the army, Robert took part in numerous battles, including one in 1862, where Robert’s pocket watch deflected a bullet that could have seriously wounded him. Then in 1863, the Governor of Massachusetts selected Robert to command the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the first all-black Union Army regiment. 

Full-length portrait of Robert Gould Shaw
Robert Gould Shaw

Under his leadership, the 54th Massachusetts would play an important role in the Union Army’s assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina. In this battle, Robert’s leadership and bravery inspired many. As the regiment came under heavy fire, Robert moved to the front, yelling, “Forward 54th!” He led his men until he was shot and killed during the battle. The Confederate Army buried Robert with his men in a mass grave, as was the practice for black soldiers at the time.

Robert Gould Shaw in uniform, 1863
Robert Gould Shaw, 1863

Robert’s legacy has endured beyond his death, however. He is remembered as a hero who believed in the equality of all people, regardless of race or background, with his story immortalized in literature and film, including the 1989 film “Glory,” which tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts and its role in the Civil War. Today, monuments and memorials to Robert and his regiment can be found throughout the United States, serving as a reminder of the sacrifices made by those who fought for freedom and equality.


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Robert Gould Shaw Story Sources

Robt. G. Shaw / Whipple, 96 Washington Street, Boston. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2010647752/>. / Lt. Robert G. Shaw, standing, facing front. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2010647753/>. / “COL Robert Gould Shaw.” On Point, vol. 10, no. 1, 2004, pp. 15–15. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44610474. Accessed 17 Mar. 2023.

Jesse Owens

“We all have dreams. But in order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline, and effort.” – Jesse Owens

Jesse Owens smiling, 1936
Jesse Owens, 1936

Fans adored Jesse Owens. Maybe it was because of his big smile. Or warm demeanor and appreciation for friendship. “Friendships born on the field of athletic strife are the real gold of competition. Awards become corroded, friends gather no dust,” he would say. Or maybe it was because of his enormous talent. Whatever the reasons, he was beloved.

Today, people often remember Jesse for his 1936 Olympic performance. When he went into Nazi Germany, and left with four gold medals and two world records. And even there, amid the hatred, Jesse left as the most popular athlete.

Jesse showed an early talent for running. And a love for the sport. “I always loved running… it was something you could do by yourself, and under your own power. You could go in any direction, fast or slow as you wanted, fighting the wind if you felt like it, seeking out new sights just on the strength of your feet and the courage of your lungs,” he said.

Stardom began in his early years while a student at East Technical High School in Cleveland, Ohio. He set national records and attracted the attention of college coaches. After high school, he enrolled at Ohio State University, where his track and field accomplishments continued, including a special day in 1935 when Jesse set three world records and tied another in a forty-five-minute span. And then, of course, there was the Olympics.

But life after the Olympics came with many challenges. Despite his successes, the U.S. of his time was amidst much racial discrimination, which he, too, experienced. He did whatever was necessary to earn money, including racing a horse. About the experience, he said, “People say that it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals. There was no television, no big advertising, no endorsements then. Not for a black man, anyway.”

Eventually, he found work as a salesman and later became a goodwill ambassador for the United States.

Jesse passed away from lung cancer on March 31, 1980, at the age of 66. He is remembered not only for his athletic achievements but also for his courage and perseverance in the face of racism and adversity.


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Bush, Joseph Bevans. “THE GRANDEST OLYMPIAN: JAMES CLEVELAND ‘JESSE’ OWENS.” Negro History Bulletin, vol. 25, no. 8, 1962, pp. 191–93. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44215768. Accessed 9 Mar. 2023. / “Owens pierced a myth” by Larry Schwartz / Wikimedia Commons

Inez Milholland Boissevain

“I am prepared to sacrifice every so-called privilege I possess in order to have a few rights.”

Inez Milholland Boissevain was a courageous and passionate advocate for justice and equality. Her dedication and sacrifice helped drive change and inspire future generations of activists in the women’s suffrage and civil rights movements.

Inez Milholland Boissevain, 1911
Inez Milholland Boissevain, 1911

Born on August 6, 1886, in Brooklyn, New York, Inez graduated from Vassar College in 1909 with a degree in literature and philosophy. She then studied at the New York University School of Law, where she was one of the few women in her class. After receiving her law degree in 1912, Inez began working as a labor lawyer.

During this time, Inez also became active in the women’s suffrage movement, quickly becoming one of its most visible and dynamic leaders. She was known for her public speaking skills and was a popular speaker at suffrage rallies and events. Along with speaking, she organized suffrage parades, including the historic 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession in Washington, D.C., where she led thousands of women on horseback.

Inez Milholland Boissevain, 1913
Woman Suffrage Procession, 1913

In addition to her work on women’s suffrage, Inez advocated labor rights and social justice. She was a Women’s Trade Union League member and worked to improve working conditions for women and children.

In 1916, Inez collapsed while giving a speech in Los Angeles in support of women’s suffrage. She was diagnosed with pernicious anemia, a condition that was not well understood at the time. Her health rapidly declined, and she died on November 25, 1916, at the age of 30.

Inez’s last words before collapsing were, “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?”

Story Sources

Top photograph – Miss Inez Milholland. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/94506341/> / Second photograph – Inez Milholland Boissevain, wearing white cape, seated on white horse at the National American Woman Suffrage Association parade, March 3, Washington, D.C. [March 3] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/97510669/>.

Adelina Patti: “sweetest singer of the age”

Adelina Patti awed audiences for much of the latter half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th with her beautiful voice, impeccable technique and dramatic stage presence. People said she “was the sweetest singer of the age.”

Born in Madrid, Spain, in 1843 to Italian parents who were both opera singers, Adelina was primarily raised in the U.S., where she was considered a child prodigy. Her first performance came at the age of seven. “She was so tiny that she had to stand on a table in order that the audience might see her.” 

Adelina continued performing in the U.S., Canada, and the West Indies as a child and into her teens. But a performance in New York in 1859, in her debut in grand opera as Lucia in “Lucia di Lammermoor,” made her a star. After this performance, she began performing in Europe as well. 

Adelina Patti portrait, circa 1867
Adelina Patti, circa 1867

Over the years, Adelina became particularly renowned for her performances of Italian opera, including works by composers such as Verdi, Bellini, and Donizetti. And she was also known for her performances of French and German opera. 

Adelina continued to perform well into her 60s. Today, she is remembered as one of the greatest opera singers ever. And musicians and music lovers worldwide continue to admire and study her recordings. 


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Adelina Patti portrait – National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.80.187

HATCH, GLADYS F. “ADELINA (ADELE JUANA MARIA) PATTI.” The Journal of Education, vol. 90, no. 19 (2255), 1919, pp. 512–512. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42767489. Accessed 6 Mar. 2023.

Herman Klein. “Adelina Patti, 1843-1919.” The Musical Times, vol. 60, no. 921, 1919, pp. 603–05. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3701582. Accessed 6 Mar. 2023.

John Mercer Langston: a snapshot biography

John Mercer Langston would become a man of many firsts. But before his accomplishments, he was born in Virginia in 1829.

John was born to a mixed-race couple. His father, a white plantation owner, enslaved people. His mother had been enslaved by John’s father. But keeping with a philosophy of educating and freeing those he enslaved, John’s father freed her in the early 1800s. Thus, John was born a free man.

John Mercer Langston, circa 1870
John Mercer Langston, circa 1870

While John only had a few years with his parents, as they both passed away when he was four years old, he spoke kindly of them and their relationship. They never married, as the laws forbade doing so. But they had four children together.

After their passing, John spent his youth living in different homes. He experienced much kindness and warmth, with many life lessons coming from the experience. In one home, before even his teen years, he learned the habits of hard work and discipline, which John described as an essential experience that prepared him for life challenges. In that home, the” idea of the highest style of boyhood was realized, when it could be said of one that he was a good worker,” John would say.

After attending Oberlin for college and growing into adulthood, John began thinking of a career. He decided to become a lawyer. But law schools wouldn’t accept him.

“Students would not feel at home with him, and he would not feel at home with them,” one told him.

Feedback from another was, “I will let you edge your way into my school.” To which John replied, “What, Mr. Fowler, do you mean by your words’ Edge your way into the school?'” The response: “Come into the recitation-room; take your seat off and apart from the class; ask no questions; behave yourself quietly; and if after a time no one says anything against, but all seem well inclined toward you, you may move up nearer the class; and so continue to do till you are taken and considered in due time as in full and regular membership.” John declined.

Instead, John began coursework in theology at Oberlin after taking advice from previous professors who told him that the studies would be good for his soul and help with legal training. Three years later, John graduated as the first black theological graduate in the U.S.

John Mercer Langston House in Oberlin
John Mercer Langston – his Oberlin home

Described in these years as “a rather slim, handsome and elegant young man,” John settled in Oberlin, where he became an important part of the community. He became an accomplished attorney, never afraid of taking on a challenge. In one case, he chose to defend Edmonia Lewis. Edmonia, a Black and Native American woman, who would become a famous sculptor, was accused of poisoning two friends during her college years at Oberlin. She was found not guilty with John’s defense.

Along with his attorney work, John actively participated in city politics. He became the town clerk and later a board of education member. These were the beginnings of political work that continued throughout his life. In later years, John was appointed minister to Haiti. And after, he was elected a congressman representing Virginia.

John Mercer Langston, circa 1868
John Mercer Langston, circa 1868

When he was not working in politics, John also had a career in education. He was President of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute. And later, he became a law professor at Howard University, Dean of the Law School, and vice president of the university.

John advocated for equal rights in all his work. He challenged norms, creating new opportunities. After a long career, John passed away in 1897.


“John Mercer Langston.” Negro History Bulletin, vol. 5, no. 4, 1942, pp. 93–93. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44246678. Accessed 26 Feb. 2023. / Prof. John Langston, Howard University. [Between 1860 and 1875] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2017894214/>. / Wikimedia Commons / Prof. John Langston, Howard University. [Between 1868 and 1875] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2017894223/> / Historic American Buildings Survey, Creator. John Mercer Langston House, 207 East College Street, Oberlin, Lorain County, OH. Documentation Compiled After. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/oh0372/> / Bloomfield, Maxwell. “John Mercer Langston and the Rise of Howard Law School.” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C., vol. 71/72, 1971, pp. 421–38. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40067784. Accessed 25 Jan. 2023. / Blodgett, Geoffrey. “John Mercer Langston and the Case of Edmonia Lewis: Oberlin, 1862.” The Journal of Negro History, vol. 53, no. 3, 1968, pp. 201–18. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/2716216. Accessed 3 Mar. 2023.


Click here to read a snapshot biography of another advocate for equal rights, Frederick Douglass

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Harlem in the Great Depression: a snapshot.

Cold winds blow as flurries trickle down. A stiff frost bears down on Harlem.

In winter’s early sunset comes rise a nascent darkness, a still gloom offset by beams of bright city lights which glow over people wandering through walkways lined with makeshift wooden shack homes and around trash which litters city streets like leaves of fall in a quaint suburban New England neighborhood. These are the barren but not the few who are impacted by a furious Great Depression.

Life now in Harlem is not the one of a past bright day when there was a skip to a jaunt in a simple stroll through the art district, in a time when even on days fraught with frigid breezes from harsh winter days, smiles gleamed wide. Back then, some would say that Harlem was a modern-day Florence.

That was the 1920s when there was a glory to Harlem. A pride to a people who fled the South in reams as part of the Great Migration. Descendants of enslaved people who, for so many generations, lived at the mercy of masters’ whips and whims in systems of torture and greed. Harlem gave these men and women the freedom to flourish in the spirit of their dreams. And how they did. Ella Fitzgerald, and Langston Hughes, are just some of the names we know, with many more given the opportunity to thrive as artists. For many in the arts, Harlem in the ’20s was the center of America, maybe even the world. 

But that time has passed. Now the city erupts in chaos, ripe with an uprising from a Great Depression in which racism roars. The time is difficult for most communities around America, but black communities suffer more. Already prone to “last hired, first fired” policies, close to 50 percent of people in Harlem live unemployed, double the overall rate in America of 25 percent. And while the government tries with New Deal assistance and even antidiscrimination provisions, agencies responsible for providing opportunities still choose to discriminate.

So tempers rage. Anger boils where smiles once flourished. But still, I love my dear Harlem, even if sweet Harlem is now gone.


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Mama’s Life Lessons

Mama used to talk much about the slavery days. She’d paint us mental pictures of life working in the field and the horrors of cruel masters. The latter was written in scars on her back, the former in her hands. Yet through all the sorrow of those difficult days, mama had a tender nature. She was warm and loving. And it’s no exaggeration to say everyone loved her.

Mama was twenty when the emancipation proclamation happened. She married papa after becoming free, and they began a family. I was the first-born, then came three boys.

She loved all her children, of course. But she doted on me in a different way; I was her first-born and only girl. We’d walk along the country roads and through the forests surrounding our home. Along with a loving nature, mama also had a teacher’s devotion. She always shared life lessons with me on these walks, stressing most often the importance of being caring and independent.

I’d nod, pretending to understand while mama continued the lesson. “Independent means be you. Step into the world as you are, not as you’re told to be. And yet while you do so, be thoughtful of others, be present and care for them. Love deeply and understand the choices care requires. You may not understand now, but that won’t always be easy to balance.”

The words made little sense then. Too many other worries plagued my teenage mind. But the words were now a part of me. Which is what mama had in mind, knowing words of wisdom need their time to simmer and experiences to match before becoming life lessons.

Mama also insisted I work hard. “Life isn’t easy,” she’d say. “And you have to be well read, adept with your words, and a woman of your own means.” From sunrise to dawn, mama made sure I was studying or doing chores, though there was time for fun within that.

I think mama had a vision of me always living nearby. But life changed. I remember mama’s tears the day she sent me away. It was at the end of summer in 1877. President Hayes announced a few months prior that federal troops would be removed from Louisiana, the last southern state where they were still present. Mama’s intuition of what would come next didn’t match the life she wanted for me. “We need the troops here,” I could hear her saying to papa as they talked late into the nights.

But the troops left. And not long after, mama said to me,” You’re going to go live with Uncle Walter in Ohio.” At that moment, her voice was still strong and courageous for me. But I could see her eyes watering. “This isn’t the place for you,” she said. “Life here is going to get worse.”

Uncle Walter lived in a small home in a charming town called Oberlin, where he worked as an attorney. Mama and Uncle Walter shared a similar toughness and courage. And just like mama, he believed in the importance of hard work.

My daily routine continued almost as though no life change had taken place. But for mama and papa and my brothers, life did change without the federal troops. Mama never talked about the changes much, though. I read that reconstruction was over now. All the progress was reverting.

Mama and papa and the boys eventually moved to Oberlin as well. We were a family again, and mama continued to push me. But it was all for good as I write this today, on my first day as a student at Oberlin College, preparing myself for a career teaching. And I say, “thank you, mama. For I couldn’t be here without your guidance and your wisdom and all of your love.”


“Mama’s Life Lessons” is a work of historical fiction. While based on real events, the story, characters, and incidents are fictitious.

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Photograph of Elsie and Lela Scott, 1910

Photograph of twin sisters, Elsie and Lela Scott. They were two of seventeen children of John and Julia Scott. The family migrated from Louisiana to Indiana and eventually settled in Stafford County, Kansas.

Elsie and Lela Scott, 1910
Elsie and Lela Scott, 1910

Sources: Photograph taken in 1910, Kansas / “Wetlands and Wildlife Scenic Byway – Exoduster Children, Elsie and Lela Scott,” Digital Public Library of America, https://dp.la/item/3e4f991e93db4673247a0c4d4bea2115 / Stafford County Historical Society, Stafford, KS / National Archives Catalog, NAID: 7722802

John Steinbeck: “Try to understand each other.”

“In every bit of honest writing in the world…there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.”

– John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck, 1939
John Steinbeck, 1939

John Steinbeck: “Try to understand each other.” sources: Journal entry (1938), quoted in the Introduction to a 1994 edition of Of Mice and Men by Susan Shillinglaw, p. vii – Wikiquote / Portrait taken in 1939, McFadden Publications – Wikimedia Commons.

Note: click here to read another John Steinbeck quote.