Frederick Douglass quote: “I have often been…

Frederick Douglass quote: "I have often been...

“I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. At least, such is my experience. I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness. Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery. The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion.”

– Frederick Douglass

“Frederick Douglass quote: “I have often been…” source: Douglass, Frederick, 1818-1895. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Boston :Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003 / Frederick Douglass Wikiquote / National Archives and Records Administration / Wikimedia Commons

A snapshot biography of Claude Monet

Claude Monet

Claude Monet loved art from a young age. While classmates were doing classwork, he was filling his workbooks with drawings. His father, however, wanted Claude to go into the family business and help with running their grocery store. But while his father pushed back against his creative love, Claude’s mother gave him the support he needed to pursue his dream.

Claude would dedicate his working life to art, becoming a founder of impressionist painting.

“A snapshot biography of Claude Monet” sources: Portrait taken by Nadar in 1899 / Wikimedia Commons

Anne Sullivan: a teacher and dear friend

Anne Sullivan

Anne Sullivan experienced much suffering in childhood. She became partially blind after contracting trachoma at five years old. Her mother passed away when Anne was eight, and two years later, her father abandoned his children. At that point, she was separated from her sister and sent to an almshouse with her brother, where he passed away just a few months later. 

The almshouse was known for being overcrowded, unsanitary, and cruel. Anne desired to get out. But besides a brief period of living in a hospital, Anne spent about five years there before finally finding a way out. During an almshouse inspection in 1880, she persuaded the State Inspector of Charities to move her to the Perkins School for the Blind. 

Anne was resilient, unmannered, had learned survival skills most students and teachers at the Perkins School for the Blind never experienced. She struggled to adjust at first. But as she found her way and her vision improved after successful surgeries, Anne graduated valedictorian of her class. 

After completing school, Anne was recommended for a position teaching Helen Keller. Helen’s father was seeking a teacher for his daughter, who was blind and deaf. Anne became a teacher to Helen and a governess, and for their almost fifty years of knowing one another, a dear friend. 

As Helen would say, “The most important day I remember in all my life is the one on which my teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to me. I am filled with wonder when I consider the immeasurable contrasts between the two lives which it connects. It was the third of March, 1887, three months before I was seven years old.”

“Anne Sullivan: a teacher and dear friend” sources: The photograph is of Anne Sullivan with Helen Keller in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in 1888. Helen is eight years old, Anne twenty-two / Stanton Avery Special Collections, at the New England Historic Genealogical Society / Wikimedia Commons / Keller, H. (1954). The story of my life. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

A snapshot biography of scientist Lise Meitner

Lise Meitner

It was the summer of 1938. For Lise Meitner, a Jewish scientist in Germany, the time had come to escape. Emigrating was no longer an option. A group of scientist friends who had become increasingly worried for her safety assembled a plan to smuggle Lise out of the country. 

On July 12th, with two small suitcases of summer clothes in hand and accompanied by a male Dutch scientist, she made it to the Netherlands by train. Then a few weeks later, to Sweden. Where she settled and, while struggling with adjusting to her new life, continued to work.

Approaching sixty years old at this time, she had dedicated her life to science and friendship. Shy as a child, she grew up enthused by math and science, a researcher in mind almost from the beginning. By eight, she kept records of observations in a notebook. And after years of private schooling, as her hometown of Vienna did not permit women to receive a higher education during most of her teenage years, Lise graduated college and then earned a doctorate in physics. 

After earning her doctorate, Lise became a physics professor. In the work she found purpose. And while she would deal with discrimination throughout her career, she became an essential contributor to the research in her field.

“A snapshot biography of scientist Lise Meitner” sources: Portrait of Lise taken in 1906 / Image reprinted in Lise Meitner and the Dawn of the Nuclear Age with the caption “Shy Lise the doctoral candidate, 1906, Vienna. (Courtesy Master and Fellows of Churchill College, Cambridge, England) / Wikimedia Commons /

American Pianist “Blind Tom” Wiggins

"Blind Tom" Wiggins

The world knew him as “Blind Tom” Wiggins, a musical prodigy, one of the best-known American performing pianists of the 19th century.

Born in Harris County, Georgia, in 1849, to enslaved parents, because Tom was blind, he could not do the same work as others enslaved. Finding an interest and much talent in playing the piano at a young age, he composed his first tune by the age of five. And he was known to play all day. As one observer said about Tom – “I don’t exaggerate when I say that he made the piano go from twelve hours out of twenty-four.”

Tom performed worldwide, including at the U.S. White House, where it is believed he was the first African-American to perform, doing so when he was just eleven years old.

“American Pianist ‘Blind Tom’ Wiggins” sources: Blind Tom. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <> / Wikimedia Commons / Deirdre O’Connell, “The Ballad of Blind Tom”, (Overlook Press, 2009) Archived July 10th, 2015, at the Wayback Machine /

The Love Story of Jimmy and Maria

People say tattoos tell stories. For Jimmy, some were of his love story, some of his family, while others covered scars from bullet holes and stab wounds, and the one on his neck from the time a group tried to lynch him. He got lucky that day. The clouds went gray, and the winds blew hard, and the hail came large and fast. “We’ll be back,” they yelled.

He didn’t stay to let them. Hail was rare, and this was Mississippi; luck meant the time had come to leave. He kissed his mother and father goodbye that night. “I’ll write from Boston,” he told them. Then he walked to the bus station and left. The year was 1926. He had just turned seventeen.

Jimmy had a knack for fighting. Part may have been genetic, one could say, as his father was a local boxing champion in youth. Part certainly had to be practice. Pops and Jimmy spent most nights training on the dirt patch in front of their home. They had been doing so from before Jimmy could even remember. “You have to know how to defend yourself,” Pops would say. But as Jimmy grew into a teenager of nearly six foot five and a muscular two twenty, it was others whom he defended. People always called on him when trouble brewed. That’s what led to the bullet holes and stab wounds and the attempted lynching.

In Mississippi, boxing earned him a reputation and some awards. In Boston, his fighting ability paid the bills. He boxed in underground matches, earning enough to pay rent for a small apartment in Dorchester and free time during the day to do what he loved most, reading and writing. But when he broke his left hand in a fight, the money dried up, and his home became a small tent on a side alley of town.

It was his girlfriend Maria who drew his tattoos. She had many herself. However, hers told a different story. Maria was born in London, where she became an orphan at eight years old after a bomb from a Zeppelin hit the family home during the Great War. She moved in with some relatives, who didn’t have patience for her. Though in fairness, she didn’t have an interest in following rules with them. After many arguments, at ten years old, she walked out of the house late one evening and began learning how to survive living in the streets.

Ten years later, after being homeless, then moving in with a friend’s family, then a brief marriage, wearing her only dress and coat, with a small suitcase of books, she moved to the U.S. for a fresh start in life. She arrived at Ellis Island, made her way to Boston, because her favorite writer had lived nearby, and began working at a small restaurant.

Art brought Jimmy and Maria together. It was on a splendid Boston summer day, the first Boston summer for them both, and a perfect day for a love story to begin. Laying out in the commons a few feet apart, on a grassy knoll under a tree, and as fate would have, reading the same Ralph Waldo Emerson book.

“How are you liking it?” Jimmy started the conversation.

They talked all day and walked to her home at night. She lived in a ground-level unit in Allston. Small and during winter, cold, rat-infested, and lonely, but entirely her own. There were nature paintings all over the walls and books scattered on the floor, with a small bookshelf for the special ones. After making them hot soup and buttered bread, they settled on the floor and talked. At eight in the morning, they went to sleep. She on the bed, he on the floor.

That was the beginning of their love story, and it was only a matter of time before her home became his as well.

“Will you marry me?”

“Of course, Jimmy.”

They both had that sheepish I’m in love with you smile, the soft sparkle in their eyes. “But how, you know we can’t marry in the states?”

“I hear Paris is nice. Maybe we can move there?”

“Paris is majestic. But are you serious?”

“I am. I want us to be husband and wife, even if it’s just legal documents and titles to the world.”

“I never imagined moving back to Europe. But to be husband and wife with you, I would go anywhere.”

Note: “The Love Story of Jimmy and Maria” is a work of historical fiction. The story, characters, and incidents are fictitious.

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Pioneering pilot James Herman Banning

Pioneering pilot James Herman Banning and Thomas Cox Allen

James HermJames Herman Banning was twenty years old when he took his first airplane ride at an air circus in 1920. With that experience, he fell in love with flying and committed himself to become a pilot. And in 1926, James became the first African-American aviator to earn a license from the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Six years later, James, and a mechanic, Thomas Cox Allen, became the first African-Americans to fly coast to coast. Affectionately referring to themselves as the “Flying Hobos,” the pair flew for almost forty-two hours over twenty-one days, as they needed to raise money at stops along the way. When they landed in New York, the mayor honored them with a key to the city.

Only a few months later, as James worked to earn money to bring his coast to coast plane home, he joined an airshow in San Diego. But there he was not permitted to pilot a plane because of his race. Flying as a passenger in a plane piloted by someone less experienced, the plane stalled and crashed. Both men passed away. 

Note: photograph is of James Herman Banning and Thomas Cox Allen, James is wearing the dark glasses.

“Pioneering pilot James Herman Banning” sources: Bill Moore, “Banning, James Herman,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, / Oklahoma Historical Society 21412.BH734, Z. P. Meyers/Barney Hillerman Photographic Collection, OHS