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Alessandro de’ Medici (1511-37) was the first Duke of Florence and the first black head of state in the modern Western World. He was believed to be the son of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino or Cardinal Giulio de Medici (later Pope Clement VII) and a Moorish slave.  Installed as Duke of Florence in 1532, his rule would be a contested one. While many of his subjects admired his intelligence, sense of justice and sympathy for all of his subjects, including the poor, those in favor of a more democratic Florence viewed him as a tyrant. Like others in his family he was a patron of the arts and commissioned pieces by many of the prominent artist at the time. Alessandro’s rule would come to an end at the hands of his own cousin, Lorenzino de’ Medici, who claimed to have done so out of love for the republic. The people did not rise in support of his actions which forced Lorenzino to flee; he would eventually be assassinated for his crime by order of Alessandro’s successor, Cosimo I de’ Medici, in 1548.

Source: vam.ac.uk
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Alice Augusta Ball (1892-1916) was an African American scientist that would be responsible for creating an injectable treatment for Leprosy. Born in Seattle, she and her family would move to Hawaii during her early childhood to live with her grandfather J. P. Ball Sr., a famous businessman and abolitionist, until his death.  After his passing, they returned to Washington, where Ball would earn degrees in pharmaceutical chemistry and a bachelor’s in pharmacy from the University of Washington. To further her education she moved back to Hawaii, where she would become the first woman and African American to earn a master’s degree from the University of Hawaii and would also become the first woman to teach chemistry at the university. Ball’s master’s thesis work revolved around chemical extraction from the Kava root, and after witnessing her skills for it, was requested to try and isolate the chemicals from Chaulmoogra oil, which had been used to treat Leprosy but with unreliable success. Ball managed to isolate the chemicals in the oil, a process that had to this point evaded other researchers. Her treatment would be named the Ball Method and was incredibly successful in treating the disease and even stopped the banishment of lepers to colonies in Hawaii and lead to the release of others from their banishment. She was awarded the Regents’ Medals of Distinction posthumously for her important contribution to chemical science.

Source: hawaii.edu
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Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) was the first African American painter to gain international renown. His desire to paint developed in his teen years as he grew up around the Philadelphia art scene. At the age of 21 he enrolled in the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and learned under the guidance of the visionary Thomas Eakins. In 1888 Tanner began teaching at Clark College, but desperately wanted to go abroad due to the racism he felt at home. He would gain enough funds to do so when a bishop and his wife purchased his entire collection. He would settle in Paris and learn under many famous artists and eventually came to reside in the Etaples art colony in Normandy. His paintings would depict African American and Peasant life with respect and care, but he would eventually transition into Biblical pieces. His art was very well received and he even had pieces exhibited in the Paris Salon, one of which was purchased by the French government and now resides in the Louvre’s collections. During WWI he would paint from the front lines of war, which earned him a knighthood in the Legion of Honor. He became a member of many art societies and the first African American full academician at the National Academy of Design. He would continue to paint the rest of his life and would be awarded many medals for his art internationally.

Source: clinton2.nara.gov
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Harriet Powers (1837-1910) was an African American slave and folk artist that would find recognition for her complicated quilt work. Sadly only two of her quilts survive today; they are her Bible Quilt (1886) and her Pictorial Quilt (1898) which can be found at the National Museum of American History and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, respectively.  Her quilts would make their first public debut in 1886 at a cotton fair.  Impressed by the work, a teacher at the Lucy Cobb Institute named Jennie Smith offered to buy Powers’s Bible Quilt; she refused to sell it but would after five years due to financial necessity. At the time of the sell, Powers explained the imagery on the quilt and Smith recorded their meaning. The origin of the second quilt is not as clear, but it is known to have been presented to the chairman of the board of trustees at Atlanta University in 1898. Her quilts are renowned for their rich storytelling and African and African American stylistic influences. Her figures are intricately stitched appliques and celestial bodies figure heavily in her work. Although we do have recordings of the meanings of her works, it is not known how much influence the recorders had on the meanings. It is possible that Powers originally intended to use her quilts as a way to teach Biblical stories despite being illiterate.  In 2009 she would be inducted into Georgia Women of Achievement.

Source: georgiaencyclopedia.org
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Lena Horne (1917-2010) was an African American singer, actress, and civil rights activist. At age 16 she would drop out of school and become a dancer at the Cotton Club to help support her family; she quickly moved from being a backup performer to starring in her own shows. She would move on to sing for different orchestras until she was discovered and given her own solo show in Carnegie Hall. In 1942 she would move to L.A. to act, appearing in many movies including Cabin in the Sky (’43) and Stormy Weather (’43); she would enjoy an active acting career all the way until her death. As an actress, she refused to accept roles that stereotyped black women and was black-listed from Hollywood for her left-leaning political views.  She would have many bestselling albums and an award winning and highly celebrated one woman show on Broadway.  More than just a performer, she vehemently advocated for civil rights by singing at Café Society and refusing to perform for segregated audiences. She was an active member of the NAACP, SNCC, and the NCNW, and would participate in the March on Washington. She would meet and work with many politicians, including Eleanor Roosevelt, to pass anti-lynching laws. Over her lifetime, she received a Drama Critics’ Circle Award, an NAACP Image Award, a special achievement Tony Award, and a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement, among many others.

Source: Wikipedia
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Henry “Box” Brown (ca. 1815- ca.1889) was a slave from Virginia that escaped to freedom by mailing himself to Pennsylvania. Born in Louisa County, at around the age of 15 he would be sent to Richmond in order to work at a tobacco factory. While there he would meet another slave named Nancy, and with the permission of their master’s and a promise that they would never be sold apart, the two married. They would have a happy family life until 1848, when Nancy’s master broke his promise and sold Nancy and their 3 children to a slave trader in North Carolina, despite Brown compensating her master monthly for time she spent away. Brown saw his family marched off in a slave gang and from that day on resolved to escape slavery. He told his story to a sympathetic shop keeper in Richmond, who agreed to help him at the cost of $86. He was to ship himself in a box that would be received by an abolitionist in Philadelphia. Brown burned his hand with sulfuric acid to create an excuse for missing work. After being placed in the shipping crate, he would spend an agonizing 27 hours being transported by “wagon, railroad, steamboat, wagon again, railroad, ferry, railroad, and finally delivery wagon” being turned upside down many times yet still avoiding detection. After making it to Philadelphia he became one of the Anti-Slavery Society’s most important speakers and in 1849 would publish his narrative. After the passing of the Fugitive Slave law he would move to England where he would continue to be an activist and public speaker on the issue of American slavery.

Source: spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk
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                                A Portrait of Joplin

Scott Joplin (ca. 1867-1917) was an American composer and pianist that would become known as the King of Ragtime. Musically talented from a young age, he would be taken under the wings of a German-born music teacher who instilled in him a love for European classical composition, especially opera. He would take his talent on the road and traveled across the country performing with various musical groups. Not just a performer, in 19896 he began composing, albeit with limited success at the start. His list of works includes 44 ragtime pieces, a ragtime ballet, and two operas. Before Joplin, ragtime was seen as vulgar, but Joplin refined the genre and pioneered what would be called Classic Rag, a blend of African-American and European musical styles. His most popular song was the Maple Leaf Rag (heard above); it would become the most influential of all ragtime pieces and became a model for subsequent works in the genre. It has been claimed that over 1 million copies of the sheet music to Maple Leaf Rag sold in Joplin’s lifetime, this would be a first. None his pieces would ever reach this level of popularity again, but in 1976 Joplin would receive a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for music.

Source: scottjoplin.org
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François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture (ca.1743-1803) was the leader of the Haitian Revolution, the only successful slave insurrection. In 1791, upset by the revoking of The Declaration of the Rights of Man, slaves all across Saint-Domingue (modern day Haiti) began to rebel. Although free and prosperous at the time of the revolts, Louverture abandoned this comfort in order to use his military genius to lead a slave army that would defeat the French, Spanish, and English. In 1793, the French voted to end slavery in their colonies, happy with this decision, Louverture agreed to expel the Spanish and British for the French, and managed to do so in a period of 7 days. When Napoleon came to power he reinstated slavery, which caused the blacks of Saint-Domingue to rebel once more. By 1803, having grown sick of these revolts, Napoleon declared he would recognize Saint-Domingue as independent, so long as Louverture promised to retreat from public life afterwards. When it came time for them to meet for negotiations, Napoleon broke his deal and had Louverture arrested; he would die in jail. The damage had already been done though, and the rebellions still raged on under the command of his 1st lieutenant Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and 6 months later Napoleon would grant them their freedom, birthing the first free black Republic.

Source: historywiz.com
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Jackie Ormes (1911-1985) was the first nationally syndicated African-American female cartoonist. She started as an editor for a weekly African American newspaper called the Pittsburgh Courier, and in 1937 the paper began publishing her Torchy Brown comics. In 1942 she moved to Chicago and worked as a columnist for the popular newspaper the Chicago Defender, in which her one panel comic series Candy became published. In 1945 she resumed working at the Courier; this time she would publish her Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger comic, which would run for 11 years. In 1947, Growing tired of offensive stereotypical dolls, she would turn her character Patty-Jo into the first upscale African American doll. In 1950 Ormes would revive her Torchy Brown comics; these were featured in color print and included fashion dolls. All of Ormes’s characters defied the popular stereotype of black women at the time by featuring intelligent, stylish, and independent black women.

Source: jackieormes.com
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George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower (ca. 1780-1860) was an Afro-Polish classical violinist and composer. He was a child prodigy and made his debut in Paris around age 9 and that same year would perform in 3 cities in England, one of which King George III attended and praised Bridgetower’s skills.  At age 11 the Prince of Wales placed him under his patronage and further educated Bridgetower; he would serve as the prince’s orchestra’s first violinist for 14 years and performed in many concert tours all around Europe. During an 1803 concert tour he would meet Beethoven, who was highly impressed by his playing and came to admire him greatly. Bridgetower and Beethoven would soon perform together, and Beethoven originally dedicated his Violin Sonata No. 9 to Bridgetower. In 1811, he graduated from Cambridge with a Bachelor of Music degree and would join several music societies including the Royal Philharmonic Society.

Source: chevalierdesaintgeorges.homestead.com