History’s Heroines

Selma Burke – Harlem Renaissance Sculptor

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Selma Burke 

Dec. 31, 1900 – 1995

While Monet, Degas, and Matisse, among others, created an artistic revolution abroad, at the turn of the Twentieth Century, the United States, too, was having its own, known as the Harlem Renaissance. Citizens fleeing a scarred, post-Reconstruction Era south in search of work and a new start, combined with the factory demands of a world at war, and the lack of immigrant labor to fulfill that demand, caused a flood of predominantly African American emigrants to flock to the New York neighborhood of Harlem. It was a group of talented, educated and skilled people who Harlem attracted. Much like their European artistic counterparts, the members of the Harlem Renaissance inspired each other in the fields of music, literature, and art. The Movement found its roots within the struggles of their ancestors and the beauty of their rich culture.

For sculptor, Selma Burke, it would be a circuitous route to Harlem. Born in Mooresville, North Carolina, December 31, 1900, Selma Burke had followed her mother’s advice to find a suitable and stable career as a nurse, despite her interest in the arts. Having attended Winston-Salem University and then St. Agnes Training School for Nurses in 1924, Selma married and prepared for a life as a wife and nurse. Her husband, however, died within a year of their marriage, and needing to support herself, Selma migrated north to Harlem where she found work as a private nurse.

Upon her arrival in 1935, however, a whole new world awaited her, and she quickly left nursing for a life in the arts. Joining the Harlem Renaissance, she found a home, friends, and peers who supported and encouraged her work as a budding sculptor. Her education was rich, working under famed Harlem Renaissance sculptor, Augusta Savage, and studying abroad in both Vienna and Paris. It was in the latter that she met Henri Matisse, who praised Selma’s work. From her time in Europe, Ms. Burke created one of her most significant pieces, Frau Keller, a German-Jew, in response to the growing Nazi threat she witnessed abroad.

Once home, she attended Columbia University where she attained an MFA in 1941. Just eight years later, she married architect, Herman Kobbe. The two moved to the artist community of New Hope, Pennsylvania. Though Herman passed away in 1955, Selma stayed in New Hope until her own passing in 1995 at the age of 94.

During her life, Selma created both full sculptures and busts in wood, brass, alabaster, and limestone. Her work captured the human emotions of the common person and portrayed family relationships. She also created busts of many famous people including Booker T. Washington, Duke Ellington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King, Jr. It was her bas-relief of Franklin D. Roosevelt which was John R. Sinnock’s inspiration for the image on the reverse of the dime.

Selma Burke is considered one of the leading artist of the Harlem Renaissance. Her work can be found in major cities around the country including Milwaukee, Pittsburg, New York, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. Her contributions earned her a number of honorary doctorate degrees and made her a great inspiration for the generations of artists in her wake.

Naomi Parker Fraley – The Real Rosie the Riveter

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                   Naomi Parker Fraley – March 24, 1942 – Alameda, CA
In 1942, the United States joined forces with its European Allies, leaving the country devoid of millions of young men young. In their absence, women joined the workforce, many for the first times in their lives, becoming, among other things, nurses, firefighters, farmers, and factory workers. As the war drew on, many companies sought to keep up morale and also, keep their employees from striking.
 
At Westinghouse Electric, Pittsburg artist J. Howard Miller created a poster for the company of a young woman wearing a red polka-dotted bandana and a blue jumpsuit. It was accompanied by the simple words: “We Can Do It.” Artist J. Howard Miller took his inspiration for this illustration from a photograph he saw in the Pittsburg Press of a woman in profile wearing a bandana and jumpsuit leaning over a lathe. The original photograph was taken by an Acme news-service photographer in 1942 and held a caption that would solve a mystery almost three-quarters of a century later. The caption, however, was not credited in Miller’s art, since it was only intended for Westinghouse and its employees – never for public view.
 
It remained that way, in fact, until the early 1980’s when it came into the National Archives’ possession. At the urging of its consultants, the National Archives put prints of the poster in its gift shop giving it the name “Rosie the Riveter – a name intended to boost sales of merchandise bearing the image, a tactic which worked.
 
In the years that followed, numerous women claimed to be the inspiration for Rosie. It appears that most of those claims were made in good faith. The primary one came from Ms. Geraldine Doyle, who, in 1942, was a 19-year-old factory worker in Michigan. Her claim stems from having seen a reprint of the original lathe-worker photograph in a magazine in 1984. The reprint, however, did not carry with it the original caption. When Ms. Doyle saw the photograph of the woman by the lathe she thought it to be an image of her younger self. At the time of her death, in 2010, her claim had gone unchallenged; almost.
 
Just after the Pearl Harbor bombing, a young Naomi Parker, and her younger sister, Ada reported for duty at the Naval Air Station in Alameda, CA. The two sisters were assigned to the machine shop, where, among other duties, they had to rivet aircraft parts. On March 24, 1942, an Acme photographer visited the machine shop and snapped the photo of Ms. Parker at her lathe. The photo was printed in the newspaper with the caption: “Pretty Naomi Parker looks like she might catch her nose in the turret’s lathe she is operating.” Naomi clipped the image with its caption, keeping it safe in her bureau drawer for the next seven decades.
 
In 2008, Ms. Naomi Parker Fraley saw the “lathe-worker” photo at the Rosie the Riveter / World War II Home Front National Historic Park, in Richmond, CA – captioned with Geraldine Doyle’s name. In an attempt to clear the misconception, Naomi approached the National Park Service with a copy of the original photo and caption but received little assistance. It wasn’t until she met Dr. James Kimble, professor of communications at Seton Hall University, that her claim gained traction. Dr. Kimble had spent the previous six years searching for the true identity of Rosie the Riveter – not because he disputed Ms. Doyle’s claim but rather out of a suspicion that her claim was never verified. The two met and Naomi was able to provide Kimble with her photograph and caption. After extensive research, Kimble was able to locate a copy from a seller of vintage photos. It bore the original date, caption and location aligning with the details provided by Ms. Parker. According to Kimble, the woman in the photo is undeniably Naomi Parker Fraley. The question that remains, however, is whether it was that photograph that inspired Miller to paint the Rosie / Westinghouse poster. With no heirs to consult on the subject, it is impossible to say with absolute certainty. However, with Dr. Kimble’s verification of the timing of the photo’s printing, the location of its printing and the date and city of Miller’s creation of the work, Kimble feels strongly that Naomi is indeed Rosie.
 
Just before her passing, January 20, 2018, Ms. Parker felt victorious that at last, her identity had been correctly identified and was happy to be an inspiration to women in these most trying of times.23fraley2-blog427-v2

Mamie Johnson – Baseball Legend

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Mamie Johnson

Sept. 27, 1935 – Dec. 18, 2017

     Raised by her grandparents, Mamie Johnson grew up in South Carolina throwing anything that could be thrown. She had a passion for sports and a drive that would take her out of the south all the way to the world stage. Though she was just over five feet tall and weighed less than your average Great Dane, Mamie chose to play the faster, tougher, game of baseball, played by the neighborhood boys, rather than softball, the game played by the girls.

After her grandparents passed, she moved north to New Jersey where she lived with an aunt and uncle. There, she joined both the neighborhood and church baseball teams as the only female and the only African American on either team.
Just before her eighteenth birthday, Maime traveled to Alexandria, Virginia to try out for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Though she was good enough to gain a spot on the team, and given that Major League Baseball was by then racially integrated, Maime wasn’t even allowed to try out, since the girl’s team was still all white.

Disappointed, she returned home, gaining a spot on the all-male St. Cyprian’s Catholic Church team in Washington, D.C. Her extreme talent and passion for the sport earned her the notice of a scout in the early 1950’s. By 1953, a year before Brown vs. The Board of Education and eleven years before the passage of the Civil Right Act, Ms. Johnson became one of, what would be, three African American Women to join the all-male Indianapolis Clowns, the Negro League team that launched the career of Hank Aaron. The team already had the first African American female, infielder Toni Stone, and later would be joined by Connie Morgan, but Mamie was the only female, African American pitcher of the entire Nego Leagues. Her reputation among the other male players was one of respect. It is said that Mamie was “good; no joke,” and that anyone who played against her would be “struck out.”

Though her career was a brief two years, (1953-1955), Mamie’s record was 33 wins with just eight losses. At the end of the 1955 season, Ms. Johnson returned Washington, D.C. to raise her young son, Charles, Jr.
Moving with her first husband, Charles Johnson, Sr., to North Carolina, Mamie attained a nursing degree from North Carolina University before taking a job at Sibley Memorial Hospital, a position she would keep for over three decades.
After her retirement, she moved to Maryland, where she helped her son, Charles run a memorabilia shop dedicated to the Nego Leagues. Through it all, she continued to coach baseball for neighborhood youth.

A trailblazer in her time, and field, Ms. Johnson received many accolades and awards, including, the Mary McLeod Bethune Continuing Award, and honors by President and First Lady Clinton as a female baseball legend.
In 2008, Mamie Johnson was among several still-living Negro League players to be drafted by the Major League franchises and was chosen by the Washington Nationals. In 2013, a baseball field in Rosedale, Washington D.C was named in her honor and later, a book titled, A Strong Right Arm, was written about her groundbreaking career with the Indianapolis Clowns.
Ms. Johnson passed away December 18, 2017, of a heart ailment, outliving her son by one year. She is survived by a half dozen step-children, her siblings, 19 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Katherine Goebel Johnson – NASA Mathematician Extraordinaire

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Katherine Goebel Johnson (neé Coleman)

August 26, 1918 – Present

     The remarkable life of Katherine Coleman began with her birth in August of 1918, just three months before the official end of World War One. It was an interesting time for her arrival, as many new inventions resulted from that conflict that set the stage for the coming space technologies upon which Katherine would make her mark. According to Eric Sass’s article, 12 Technological Advancements of World War I, airplanes, air traffic control, and aircraft carriers made their commercial debuts. Each of these technologies was founded upon the tenets of physics and mathematics, the latter, the specialty of Ms. Coleman.

From an early age, Katherine showed remarkable promise. At the age of thirteen, her parents enrolled her in the high school located on the West Virginia State College campus. By 18, she was attending the college itself, where she graduated in 1937 with honors. Just two years later, while working as a teacher, West Virginia desegregated its schools. As such, Katherine was chosen as the only African American woman to be given a spot in the West Virginia University Graduate Program for Mathematics. Her tenure there, however, was short-lived. After only a semester, Katherine departed the program to start a family with her first husband, Mr. Goebel. The two had three daughters together.

It was in 1952, at a family gathering, that Katherine learned of a job opening in the all-black West Area Computing Section of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’s (NACA), the predecessor for NASA, Langley Laboratory. She got the job, and in the summer of 1953, she and her husband moved their family from West Virginia to Langley, Virginia. Within weeks, Katherine was promoted to the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division. For four years she helped analyze data from flight tests and wake turbulence. Her achievements there were groundbreaking in respects to scientific innovation, gender roles, and race relations.

In 1955, 802 miles away, in Montgomery Alabama, Rosa Parks was smashing her own barriers, just as Katherine was doing in her world. The following year was one of misfortune, however for Katherine and her family, with the premature passing of her husband from cancer. While facing that tragedy at home, another was brewing in her professional world, when the Russian’s launched the Sputnik Space Satellite in 1957, beating the American’s to space and starting what became known as The Space Race. In 1959, she found, and eventually married, the man who would become her husband of over a half century, Corporal Jim Johnson.

In the years that followed Katherine was a valuable member of the mathematical team that provided the data for NASA’s successes including: the launch and trajectory data for Allan Sheppherd’s May 1961 Freedom Mission 7 space flight, John Glenn’s 1962 Friendship 7 Mission, the synching of the Apollo Lunar Lander with the Moon Orbiting Command Module, the Space Shuttle, and the Earth Resources Satellite. Her calculations and report on the landing positions of spacecraft co-authored in 1960 was the first time, that a woman in the flight research division had attained such an accomplishment and was so respected that John Glenn said he would only commence the Friendship 7 space flight if Katherine said the “numbers were good.” Over the course of her career, she would not only go on to author over twenty-five more highly-respected reports but gain a spot at the all-male pre-flight meetings as a peer.

After over three decades of service, Katherine Goebel Johnson retired in 1986. In 2015, at the age of 97, President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our country’s highest civilian honor.

Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick – Elephant Expert, Conservationist, & Author

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Daphne Sheldrick

June 1934- Present

Growing up in Kenya, Daphne Jenkins Sheldrick developed a great passion for protecting and assisting the wild animals native to that region, namely: African Elephants and the Black Rhinoceros.

Due to downward economic pressures, political instability, environmental devastation of natural habitats, and human conflict, incidences of poaching for elephant ivory have increased significantly in recent decades. The African Elephant population, thus, has suffered enormously, bringing it from 1.3 million elephants in 1980 to 25,000 presently. The atrocities against these animals have been compounded by the fact that elephants live in matriarchal herds, with each member being dependent on the others for survival. Since the older members of the herds are frequently larger and thus have bigger ivory tusks, they are poached first. The death, then, of a matriarch and/or mother elephant, greatly threatens the continued existence of the herd’s babies. With this in mind, Daphne and her husband, David Sheldrick, spent over a quarter-century taking in orphaned baby elephants to ensure their survival and then releasing them back into the wild as adults within a new herd of other orphans.
After David’s death in 1997, Daphne and her family created the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi National Park where they have continued the work that she and David began years ago. It is now considered the most successful orphan-elephant rescue and rehabilitation center in the world.

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Daphne has written numerous articles, books, and an autobiography about her life with the elephants. She has appeared on television to promote wildlife conservation and has had a BBC Documentary entitled “The Elephant Diaries,” and an IMAX movie, “Born into the Wild,” made about her.

An expert in her field, she received an M.B.E. decoration from Queen Elizabeth in 1989 and was noted as U.N.E.P.’s “Elite Global 500 Roll of Honor” in 1990. A year later, in 2000, Glasgow University awarded her an honorary doctorate in Veterinary Medicine and Surgery. The Kenyan Government honored her with a Moran of the Burning Spear award in 2000, and a year later, was presented a Lifetime Achievement Award by the BBC. Her perhaps highest recognition came in 2006 when Queen Elizabeth decorated Daphne with the first Knighthood given a British-Kenyan since the country’s independence in 1963, earning her the title of Dame Daphne Sheldrick.

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Peggy Whitson – U.S. Astronaut and “American Space Ninja”

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Peggy Whitson

Feb. 9, 1960 – Present

Born in Iowa in 1960, Ms. Whitson entered the world at a time when lunch counter sit-in’s paved the way for Civil Rights and John F. Kennedy won (and was thus voted in) as President of the United States. It was an era of hope and struggle, a nation trying to redefine itself as one who valued all its citizens, and one in which a future for the underserved held promise.
It’s not common for History’s Heroines to feature a contemporary woman, but then again, Peggy Whitson is no ordinary woman. She is one with a long history of beating the odds; one to attain the unattainable. Although it may have begun as a child, the recorded portion of Ms. Whitson’s record-setting started, in 1985, with her attainment of a doctorate from Rice University. As a woman, holding such an advanced degree may seem commonplace now, but, with the exception of the era during WWII, from 1900 to the 1980’s, less than ten percent of women overall held such prestigious acclaim. Today that number has risen to approximately a third of all females (or 50% of all doctorate degrees awarded).
By the time she graduated in 1985, Bob Geldolf was holding his world-famous Live Aid concert, and Ronald Regan was President. Much had changed for the world and Ms. Whitson. With an advanced degree in biochemistry, Peggy went to work at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. There, she worked in various divisions including the Shuttle-Mir program and the Medicinal Sciences Division and became the co-chairwoman of the U.S.-Russia Mission Science Working Group. Her success in those departments led to her promotion to becoming an astronaut in 1996.
In 2002, she made her first trip to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard the Endeavor Shuttle. It would become a lifelong passion of hers that would lead to a series of firsts for her and the world.
In 2008, she became the first woman to command the ISS and by April 2017, the first female to command it twice. By 2009, she was named the first Chief of NASA’s Astronaut Office, one she held from 2009-2012.
This past March 2017, Ms. Whitson held the record for the most spacewalks attained by a female astronaut with a record-setting ten walks/ or 53 hours. Just one month later, in April 2017, she broke the record for the most cumulative time in space by a U.S. Astronaut with 665 days in space.
During her time in orbit, she has contributed significantly to scientific advancement. Peggy has participated in hundreds of experiments in biochemistry, biotechnology, and physical and earth sciences. Some of her research has focused on successfully improving the effectiveness of chemotherapy medications for the treatment of cancer.
At 57, she is now the world’s oldest female astronaut, and as current ISS Commander, Randy Bresnick states, “An American Space Ninja.”

Helen Churchill Candee – Author, Suffragette, Titanic Survivor

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Helen Churchill Candee

Oct. 5, 1858- Aug. 23, 1949

 

Helen Churchill Candee’s 90 years of life spanned three major wars, saw the start of the Industrial Revolution, and encompassed many of the household inventions that we, today, take for granted, such as the telephone, indoor plumbing, and electricity.
Perhaps, it was having the genetic disposition of perseverance, as did her great-great-grandfather, William Brewster, one of the original pilgrims aboard the Mayflower, landing at Plymouth Rock, which drove Mrs. Candee to such a life of vast adventure or maybe her own drive to persevere amid crisis.
After being left a single mother of two young children by her abusive husband, Helen supported her family by writing. Her articles at first were lighthearted editorials on etiquette, and home decorating but later turned to issues of women’s rights, and education. Late in the nineteenth century, she and her children moved to Oklahoma where she penned the novel, Romance in Oklahoma, a fictitious account of a white couple’s meeting, and ensuring romance during the settlement of the new territory. It was, in reality, a reflection of the land rush taking place in what would become the state of Oklahoma and the crimes against the Native American’s occurring within.
As her writing evolved, her journalism caught the attention of those in Washing, D.C. Moving her family to the district, she took up the niche occupation of Interior Decorator, a job that didn’t exist at the time. Among her clients, she counted President and FIrst Lady Theodore Roosevelt, Secretary of War, Stimson, and President Taft. In 1909, she worked with Nathan Wyeth to redesign the White House’s West Wing. During her time in D.C., she gained great popularity and connections with government officials and foreign dignitaries, as well as becoming an expert in home design, writing a number of books on the subject, including Textiles, which became an industry standard.
Receiving a message while on research in Europe for her tome, Textiles, that her son had been injured, she gained passage on the Titanic to return home. She is one of the few survivors of that catastrophe, escaping aboard lifeboat number six, the same vessel that held, Margaret Brown (the Unsinkable Molly Brown). The two women are said to have rowed the lifeboat together.
She handed two items; a cameo of her mother and a silver flask, to a male passenger in the assumption that his odds of surviving were greater than hers. The two items were found near the man’s body and eventually returned to her.
After the horrific event, she wrote a cover story for Collier’s and sat for a number of interviews about the disaster. Her novels and articles about her time aboard the Titanic were used in James Cameron’s film about the ship. The most famous scene between the characters, Jack and Rose, at the ship’s bow during sunset, came from Ms. Candee’s own manuscripts, describing an event she had experienced there.
She served on the boards of multiple arts organizations and also on the National Women’s Suffrage Association and would march down Pennsylvania Avenue in 1913 during the famous Women’s Suffrage March. A photo exists of her from that day walking front and center with a cane which she used from injuries sustained from the Titanic sinking.
Later, at the outbreak of World War I, she served as a nurse for the Italian Red Cross and was awarded decoration for her service there. Among her patients, in Milan, was Ernest Hemmingway.
From Italy, she traveled, after the war’s end, to Asia, using her experiences in China, Japan, Cambodia, and Indonesia, as the basis for her novel, Angkor the Magnificent. Set in Cambodia, the novel was the first of its kind to open European and American eyes to the Far East and is said to have initiated tourism there. In addition to it being a best seller, the novel made her an instant expert on Far East studies and awarded her further honor from the King of Cambodia and the French government. She even was asked to read it to King George and Queen Mary at Buckingham Palace.
Near the time of her death, in 1949, Helen Churchill Candee was writing for National Geographic Magazine and had helped form The Society of Women Geographers.
After all she had witnessed and survived during her long life, it is rewarding to know that Mrs. Candee’s passing, in Maine 1949, was peaceful.

Mary Katherine Goddard – The Power of the Press

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Mary Katherine Goddard

June 16, 1738 (Connecticut) – August 12, 1816 (Baltimore)

In the lead up to the American Revolutionary War, Mary Katherine Goddard and her brother William moved to Philadelphia to help fuel it along using the “power of the press.” The two, along with their mother, had run a press in Rhode Island, where they published the Providence Gazette. As tensions mounted between the colonists and the Crown, Mary and William brought their press to Philadephia. There, they created the Pennsylvania Chronicle, who counted among its partners, Benjamin Franklin. It was a platform the Goddard’s used to show their fierce support for American independence from England, lambast the laws and levies placed on the colonists by British Parliment, and challenge the power of the Penn Family.

Though the brother and sister founded the paper together, by 1768, William set off to Boston where he started the Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser, leaving Mary Katherine to run the Philadelphia paper alone. Within two years, hers was the most read colonial newspaper. During the years of the war, she regularly published news of the battles from Concord to Bunker Hill. She was so vehemently pro-colonist that she had a printing press made for her from a local watchmaker, Issac Doolittle, since all the presses came from England. Her’s was the first “American-made” press in the colonies.
Her open support of the colonists, however, was considered an act of treason that caused her offices to be raided a number of times and her life threatened more than once. When, in 1776, Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, it initially had been taken to a printer who distributed it with severe mistakes. It was this copy that was then sent to the colonies as well as to the King – a blatant act of treason in the Crown’s eye. At its second, and official printing, however, Mary Katherine was given the opportunity. Her’s was not only free of mistakes but bore the signatures of “the founding fathers,” as well as her own. It was a very daring and dangerous move.
She later moved to Boston to help William, yet again while he was jailed for unpaid debts. She ran the Maryland Journal for years with success to the point that she is listed as the paper’s editor. At the same time, she not only ran the paper and press but became the Baltimore Post Master. She is the first woman to hold that position.

When her brother resurfaced, this time with a wife, he took his paper back over without his sister, or seemingly, gratitude. Mary Katherine held her position as postmaster for thirteen years before a new Post Master General took office and replaced her with one of his friends. Baltimoreans were so upset that they petitioned for her to remain, without success. For her remaining years, Mary Katherine Goddard ran a small bookstore in Baltimore, a city that would stay her home until her death in 1816. For all her courage, however, her legacy might have faded away were it not for that daring choice to print her name on the bottom of our nation’s most important document.

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