Monte Irvin: “the only thing a black youth could aspire to be was a bellboy”

Monte Irvin

I was all-state in four sports in New Jersey, but sometimes I couldn’t get served at a restaurant two blocks from my high school. There were no job opportunities then… the only thing a black youth could aspire to be was a bellboy or a pullman or an elevator operator, or, maybe, a teacher. There was a time when all we had was black baseball.

– Monte Irvin, baseball star in the Negro League and then in the MLB

The short story of Madam CJ Walker

Madam CJ Walker

“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations….I have built my own factory on my own ground.”
Madam CJ Walker was in her mid 30s and going bald. Which made her self conscious even though her look wasn’t unique for the time. It was the early 1900s, when bathing was still a luxury, a once a month event for most. And the lack of bathing kept hair, which was vulnerable to environmental hazards, from proper care.
Madam Walker found a solution. She created a mixture that she used on her own hair. And her hair began to grow back. She tried the product on her friends and it worked for them as well.
People in her community noticed. They wanted to use what she was using. And what she was using was now called Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower. Built from an initial investment of $1.25.
Madam Walker worked hard to grow her business. She sold everywhere. Dressed in a white blouse and long dark skirt, she went door-to-door, to churches and club gatherings, she sold through a mail-order catalog. To her customers she offered a dream, a way of life, a look to be proud of.
In 1910, she used $10,000 of her own savings to incorporate. She was the only shareholder. Her company made millions, and Madam CJ Walker became a millionaire.

Chief Joseph: “I am tired of fighting.”

Chief Joseph

“I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Too-hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead.

It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are—perhaps freezing to death.

I want to have time to look for my children, to see how many I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead.

Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

– Chief Joseph, Nez Perce Native American

Note: In 1877, the Nez Perce tribe was ordered to move to a reservation. The tribe refused to. Chief Joseph led them to Canada, fighting with the U.S. army over the entire 1,100 miles. Forty miles from the border, the tribe was trapped. After 5 days of fighting, the remaining 431 members of the tribe surrendered. This quote is from Chief Joseph’s surrender speech.



B.B. King: “I think I’ve done the best I could have done.”

B.B. King, 1948

“I think I’ve done the best I could have done. But I keep wanting to play better, go further. There are so many sounds I still want to make, so many things I haven’t yet done. When I was younger I thought maybe I’d reached that peak. But I’m 86 now, and if I make it through to next month, I’ll be 87. And now I know it can never be perfect, it can never be exactly what it should be, so you got to keep going further, getting better.”

– B.B King, who was known as “The King of the Blues.” B.B. was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and is one of the most important blues musicians ever.

Note: photo of B.B. King is from 1948

Sources:, The Life of Riley, B.B. King on Wikipedia

“He never failed us.” A story about David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace

“I do things like get in a taxi and say, ‘The library, and step on it.'”
– David Foster Wallace, writer of many novels including Infinite Jest and The Pale King.
Note: David was also a professor. After he passed away, a former student wrote the following about what he was like as a teacher.
“On the first day of class, Dave wore a cut-off Star Wars sweatshirt and a bandana to tie back his greasy hair. His spectacles gleamed. If I had been expecting the wunderkind ofInfinite Jest, my idealized visions crumbled as I watched him spit a stream of black tobacco spittle into a Slurpee cup. He looked less like a militant grammarian than a transient who had accidentally wandered into the English Department. Previous students of Dave Wallace had warned me of his tongue-lashings, his obsessive precision with language, his voluminous footnotes. I had arrived with my armor on, ready for a writerly battle with a giant of literature. But this guy, frankly, looked like a goofball.
True, there was something intimidating about Dave. But it was not his obvious genius, his reputation or his awful clothes. He was easy, approachable, often hilarious. It was the work that daunted. His workshops required intensive critical thinking. He demanded allegiance— not to himself, nor to the class, but to the language itself. We served the words. To fail the language, through a half-hearted peer critique or an overlooked comma, was to fail the writers we wished to become.
He never failed us. Every week he returned our stories with tomes of comments, meticulously organized and footnoted, each page a bramble of red pen. A five-page story could receive five pages of notes back, single space, 10 pt. font. At first I thought these letters spoke to an obsession with perfection. Later, I began to see that they only reflected the depth of Dave’s heart. To each story he gave the energy that he gave his own writing. His attention stemmed from the profound respect he held for his students.
Dave gave this same care to students during office hours, after hours, between hours, when he generously talked us through our paragraphs, our anxiety, and our self-doubt, blinking rapidly from behind a pile of usage dictionaries. The line often ran down the hall.
One day I told him, frustrated, that I would stop writing fiction. My stories were not postmodern or hip. I expected a lecture on style. Instead, he told me to relax. Strong writers are not merely good with words, he said; they are deeply aware of themselves. The greats have stopped pretending to write like someone else. ‘You’re best when you trust yourself,’ he said.”
Sources:, Pomona College Magazine

Prudence Crandall opens a school for black girls

Prudence Crandall

“She was a slender young woman, with bright blue eyes, soft blond hair, and a special way of speaking, quiet, controlled –, ‘lady-like,’ as people said in the early part of the 1800’s, — but firm as granite.”

It was 1831 when Prudence Crandall opened a private school for young white girls in Canterbury, Connecticut. She called it the Canterbury Female Boarding School. She opened the school at the request of the town’s wealthy residents to teach their daughters.

The school became prominent for having a rigorous curriculum that was comparable to the education at elite schools for boys. But about a year after opening, Prudence admitted Sarah Harris, a 17 year old black girl who was a friend of Prudence’s housekeeper. Sarah wanted to learn so that she could become a teacher.

The white families were outraged. They urged Prudence to expel Sarah.

Prudence refused to. “The school may fail, but I will not give up Sarah Harris,” she said.

So the families of the white students removed their children from the school. Undeterred, Prudence continued to operate, turning her school into one for black girls.

A local abolitionist helped Prudence advertise her school and on April 1, 1833, twenty black girls from Boston, Providence, New York Philadelphia and Connecticut started their first day at Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color.

There was backlash from Canterbury residents. They protested the school. They taunted the students, threatened them, some even threw eggs and manure at the young girls. A committee of four prominent white men tried to convince Prudence her school was detrimental to the safety of the white people in town.

Less than two months after her school opened, the Connecticut legislature passed the “Black Law”, which said that a town had to permit the teaching of black students from outside of the state. Since the town did not give Prudence a permit to teach, she was arrested and jailed for one night and released under bond to await trial.

And still Prudence continued to teach the young women.

Not all were against Prudence and her school however. A number of abolitionists got involved. One donated $10,000 to hire the best lawyers for Prudence.

Her first trial ended in a hung jury. The second in her conviction, which was then overturned by the Supreme Court of Errors (the Connecticut Supreme Court today).

The townspeople, furious at the dismissal, broke ninety windows and some furniture in the school. And so for the safety of the students and her family and herself, Prudence closed the school on September 10th, 1834, the day after the windows were smashed. Then she and her husband moved out of the town.

Decades later, Connecticut honored Prudence with an act of legislature to provide her an annual pension.

“I said in my heart, here are my convictions. What shall I do? Shall I be inactive and permit prejudice, the mother of abominations, to remain undisturbed? Or shall I venture to enlist in the ranks of those who with the Sword of Truth dare hold combat with prevailing iniquity? I contemplated for a while the manner in which I might best serve the people of color. As wealth was not mine, I saw no other means of benefiting them than by imparting to those of my own sex that were anxious to learn all the instruction I might be able to give, however small the amount.” — Prudence Crandall


The short story of Supreme Court Justice Byron White

Byron White

Byron White was humble and he was studious and he had the work ethic of one who grew up in a small Colorado town. Which was Wellington in his case. And it was here in Wellington that he went to school and where he played sports and even as a young boy of seven or eight, where he worked. Because everybody worked in his town.

But his parents, who didn’t even go through high school, made sure that Byron focused on his schoolwork. This was the top priority for both Byron and his older brother. For as long as he could remember his path in life was going to have a stop at college.

Byron graduated first in his high school class of six people. Which in Colorado meant that he was offered a full scholarship to the University of Colorado.

At Colorado, he became a star athelete. He led the football team to an undefeated record in his final year, and to the Cotton Bowl. Where he ran in touchdowns, passed for touchdowns, kicked extra points and intercepted passes. And it was also at Colorado that he found academic success. Byron started in chemistry, but changed to the humanities and economics. “I quit chemistry just at the point where you’ve done all the boring memory work and it begins to get interesting. I have a feeling that if I’d kept on with it I’d have ended up as a doctor. My parents wanted me to be what I wanted to be. They had a pretty simple prescription for living. You worked hard, did as well as you could and were considerate of other people’s feelings.”

His football accomplishments were noticed by Art Rooney, owner of the NFL team the Pittsburgh Pirates (now the Steelers). They made Byron their first choice in the draft and offered him the highest salary every earned by a pro. $15,000, the equivalent of $260,000 in 2016. He accepted and that year he led the league in rushing yards, the first time a rookie ever led the league in any category.

But Byron wanted to continue his studies. He had earned a Rhodes Scholarship and wanted to go to Oxford. So after his first NFL season, he went to England to study.

People there questioned his ability to keep up with the rigors of study. But Byron did as Byron knew best. He worked hard. He studied fourteen hours a day. Even while on vacation with his classmates in the French Riviera.

After Oxford, he came back to the U.S. and enrolled in law school. As the story goes, he was on his way to enroll in Harvard but got sick on the train ride there. He took the stop in New Haven, Connecticut and enrolled at Yale instead. Which worked out well for him. “Yale Law School was the most stimulating intellectual experience I had had up to that time. There was a fairly small enrollment and a relatively large staff, so you had a great opportunity to be exposed to some of the finest legal minds in the country.”

But wanting to earn money for law school, Byron went back to football, though this time now with the Detroit Lions who had bought out his contract. His first year back in 1940, he once again led the league in rushing yards.

But war had broken out and the military draft was taking place. “My draft number was coming up during my second season at Detroit, so I tried to get into the Marines, but they flunked me on the color-blind test when they discovered I was slightly green-blind. I couldn’t fly because of my eyes, so I had decided to enlist or get drafted when I discovered that I could get a waiver on my eye test from naval intelligence. So I signed up with them.”

After the war, Byron finished law school. He became a lawyer in Denver and he got involved in local politics. “Everyone in this country has an obligation to take part in politics. That’s the foundation, the most important principle, on which our system is built,” was his belief.

His political life led him to the role of Deputy Attorney General, and then in 1962, he became an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. A position he held until 1993, when he retired and was replaced by Ruth Bader Ginsburg.