African American Men

Countee Cullen

Countee CullenCountee Cullen was one of the best known poets to emerge during the Harlem Renaissance.

He was born Countee Leroy Porter on March 30, 1903 in Louisville, Kentucky. He was raised by his maternal grandmother until her death in 1918. Countee was then adopted by Reverend Frederick Cullen, pastor of Salem Methodist Episcopal Church in Harlem, and his wife Carolyn.

The Cullen’s made sure Countee received a good education. He attended New York University, and while enrolled there wrote most of the material for his first two volumes of poetry. Cullen graduated from the NYU in 1925. That same year, Color, his book of poetry that addressed issues of racism, was published.

After NYU Countee Cullen attended Harvard University and graduated in 1927 with a master’s degree in English and French.

Upon his return to New York he became assistant editor at Opportunity, a publication of the National Urban League.

Countee Cullen was educated in classical literary forms and was influenced by the English poet John Keats. He was sometimes criticized because that influence was reflected in his work. Cullen believed that poetry transcended race and wrote using “classical verse’ rather than the “rhythms and idioms” of black American heritage.

Cullen was soon applauded by black and white audiences alike, and by the end of the 1920s was the most popular black poet in the United States.

Arna Bontemps

Arna Bontemps

Arna Bontemps, Harlem Renaissance poet and novelist was born on October 13, 1902 in Alexandria, Louisiana. He graduated from Pacific Union College in Angwin, California in 1923, and moved to New York the following year to teach at the Harlem Academy in New York City.

Bontemps was motivated and inspired by what was happening in the literary world in New York at the time. He began writing and became part of the group of writers, artist and scholars who were beginning to be recognized for their talent and the work that they produced.

In 1926 his poetry began appearing in Crisis, the magazine published by the NAACP, and in Opportunity, a publication of the National Urban League. He was awarded poetry prizes by both publications.

Bontemps left New York in 1931 to take a teaching position in Alabama. That same year his first novel, God Sends Sunday, about a St. Louis jockey, was published.

Recognizing the need to provide African American kids with positive role models, Bontemps began writing children’s books. His first, Popo and Fifina, Children of Haiti, a collaboration with Langston Hughes was published in 1932.

His other work for children and young adults included:  Frederick Douglass: Slave, Fighter, Freeman; and Young Booker: Booker T. Washington’s Early Days.

Much of Bontemps’ work painted a realistic description of the struggle for freedom. Black Thunder, his acclaimed historical novel about Gabriel Prosser’s slave revolt was no exception.

Bontemps would later become the librarian for historically black Fisk University. He used that position to preserve the papers of other Harlem Renaissance writers.

Ralph Bunche

Ralph BuncheRalph Bunche (1903-1971) was a diplomat, peace negotiator, advisor to presidents and the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Bunche was raised by his maternal grandmother, a strong women who was proud of her race and heritage. She raised him to be strong as well and to also be proud of his race. Education was very important to her and she insisted that he continue his education after high school.

Bunche attended the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and graduated summa cum laude in 1927. After graduating from UCLA he headed to Cambridge, Massachusetts with a scholarship from Harvard University and one thousand dollars that the black community in Los Angeles raised for him. He graduated from Harvard in 1928 with a master’s degree in political science.

Over the next few years he taught at historically black Howard University and alternated between teaching at Howard and working on a doctorate degree at Harvard which he received in 1934.

Bunche was an advisor to presidents and was offered the position of Assistant Secretary of State under President Harry S. Truman. He refused the position because it required that he live in Washington, DC which had segregated housing. He did however work as an advisor to the Department of State and the military.

In 1945 when representatives from 50 countries met in San Francisco to officially form the United Nations and draft the UN charter, Bunche was there representing the United States. In 1946 he was put in charge of the UN’s Trusteeship Department which led efforts to ensure that territories taken during World War II were governed peacefully and in the best interest of its people until it gained independence.

From 1947 to 1949 he was involved in the conflict between Arabs and Jews in Palestine. In 1948 the United Nations appointed Count Folke Bernadotte, a Swedish diplomat, to be mediator of the conflict and appointed Bunche as his chief aide.

When Count Bernadotte was assassinated, Bunche was named acting United Nations mediator on Palestine. In 1949, and after eleven months of negotiating, he was able to get Israel and Arab states to sign an armistice agreement.

Ralph Bunche was applauded and hailed a hero for his work. His efforts were recognized by the Nobel committee and in 1950 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Get Activity for Grades 4-8: Ralph Bunche Word Scramble

More about the man Ralph Bunche

  • Civil Rights Activist
  • Marched with Dr. King
  • Worked with A. Phillip Randolph to establish the National Negro Congress
  • Protested the production of the play Porgy and Bess at a segregated theater in Washington, DC
  • Studied Swahili in London with Jomo Kenyatta, who would later become president of Kenya
  • Professor at Harvard University (1950-1952)

John S Rock

John S Rock

John S. Rock was the first black attorney admitted to the United States Supreme Court Bar.

Rock was born to free parents in Salem, New Jersey on October 13, 1825. Education was very important to the family, and though not wealthy, his parents were able to provide enough so he wouldn’t have to start working at a young age. With his parents’ support Rock was able to continue his education until he was nineteen.

Rock loved reading and educating himself. Throughout his life he had several professions. His first was teaching. From 1844 to 1848 he taught in a one-room school in New Jersey. He was good at his job but was not content. While working as a teacher, he began looking into the study of medicine. Two local white physicians, whom he admired, let him use their library and study their medical books.

In 1848 Rock tried to enroll in a nearby medical school. His application was rejected because of his race. Disappointed, he turned to the study of dentistry and in 1850 opened a dentistry office in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Rock was an innovative dentist and became known for his ability to make false teeth. In 1851 he actually won a medal for a set of silver false teeth that he made.

Rock seemingly enjoyed his dentistry work, but never gave up on his dream of becoming a doctor. He was eventually able to attend medical lectures at American Medical College and received his medical degree in 1852. Shortly thereafter he moved to Boston and opened a medical and dentistry practice in 1853. Most of his patients were runaway slaves passing through Boston on their way to Canada.

Rock was an abolitionist and regularly spoke out against slavery and the treatment of black men and women. He was critical of President Lincoln for the slow pace to end slavery. He also petitioned city officials to remove the word “colored” from voting and tax lists.

When Rock’s health began to fail he choose to go to France for the surgery that he needed. His departure was delayed because, at the time, blacks were not allowed to have passports. However, by this time Rock had become such a beloved and respected figure in Boston that prominent white citizens intervened on his behalf and he was granted a passport to travel to France.

Rock remained in France several months recuperating from surgery and learning the French language. When he return to American his health improved but soon began to fail again. Doctors told him that he needed to slow down so he gave up his medical practices and began studying law which was less stress on the body. In 1861 he became a licensed lawyer in the state of Massachusetts.

Even with failing health Rock continued speaking out against slavery and like other abolitionists, believed that slavery would be extended if the south won the Civil War. When Congress authorized the recruitment of black troops, he became a recruiter for Massachusetts black regiments. He also attacked the government for not giving equal pay to black soldiers.

As a lawyer John S Rock advocated for the rights of blacks and represented many runaway slaves.  The highlight of his career came on February 1, 1865, when he was licensed to practice before the United States Supreme Court.

John S. Rock was one of the most educated men of his time, black or white. He died on December 3, 1866 before he was able to try a case before the US Supreme Court. Get Activity for Students Grades 4-8: John S Rock Crossword Puzzle

James Beckwourth

Who was James Beckwourth?

He was an explorer, scout, fur trapper and mountain man.

James Beckwourth (1798-1866) was born into slavery in Virginia. He gained his freedom when he was manumitted by his slave owner who was also his father.

According to legend Beckwourth was well liked and respected by Native Americans and was made an honorary chief. He spent several years living with the Crow Indian nation and married a Crow woman.

He left the Crow nation in the 1830s and joined the Missouri volunteer military as a scout. During the Seminole War in Florida he scouted for General Zachary Taylor, who later became the 12th president of the United States.

Beckwourth left the military in 1840 and spent his next years exploring the west and working as a scout for military parties.

In 1850 he discovered a pass through the Sierra Nevada Mountains that was a safer and faster route for pioneers trying to reach California during the Gold Rush. That pass became the Beckwourth Pass and is now part of the United States Interstate Highway system.

James Beckwourth

Beckwourth Pass (current day)