Stephanie St. Clair: Harlem Renaissance by the Numbers

From the Slums of Martinique to the Top of Harlem’s Numbers Rackets

The vibrant streets of Harlem in the 1920s
Queen of the numbers rackets during Harlem’s Renaissance, Stephanie St. Clair was an outlaw as well as an entrepreneur and Civil Rights Advocate.

The Harlem Renaissance of the ‘20s and ‘30s was a hotbed of African American music, dance, art, fashion, literature, politics, and scholarship. It gave us luminaries like Langston Hughes, Josephine Baker, W.E.B. DuBois and Jessie Redmon Fauset. But for many, when it came to Black identity, community and the everyday experience of Black people, a woman named Stephanie St. Clair loomed large.

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Vanilla Beane: The Beloved “Hat Lady” of Washington, D.C.

She was Still Making Internationally Acclaimed Hats When She was 100

Vanilla Beane in her shop with a display of her hats
Vanilla Beane, who ran Bené Millinery & Bridal Supplies, was a beloved figure in Washington, D.C., and her hat creations were internationally famous.

She was a fashion icon, successful entrepreneur, mother, grandmother, and great grandmother — and a centenarian businesswoman with a name so charming you can’t help but smile.

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Elizabeth Peratrovich – America’s Least Known Civil Rights Activist

Led the Alaskan Battle for the First U.S. Anti-Discrimination Law

A mural of Elizabeth Peratrovich
In 1945, Elizabeth Peratrovich of the Alaskan Tlingit Nation led the fight that established the country’s first Anti-Discrimination law and championed the civil rights of the Alaska territory’s indigenous tribespeople. [2021 mural by Crystal Kaakeeyáa Worl]

Pauli Murray. Fannie Lou Hamer. Dorothy Height. Rosa Parks. Mary Church Terrell. Ida B. Wells-Barnett. When you think of female civil rights activists, these are just some of the names that come to mind. But Elizabeth Peratrovich? Chances are her name probably wouldn’t be on that list. But she was the Alaska Native civil rights champion who was instrumental in the 1945 passage of what was the United States’ very first anti-discrimination law.

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The Leesburg Stockade Girls – A Civil Rights Horror of 1963

How Racist Georgia Authorities Held Teenagers in a Secret, Squalid Prison

Two of the 30 girls who were locked away in a secret prison in Americus, Georgia in 1963
Two of more than 30 African American teenage girls who were locked away in secret for 45 days in a dilapidated former Civil War jail for participating in a 1963 Civil Rights protest in Americus, Georgia. (Photo: Danny Lyon, 1963)

It was 13-year-old Shirley Green’s first civil rights demonstration. She went to the protest without her parents’ knowledge, figuring she could make it back home before they did. She was wrong.

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Zitkála-Sá: A 20th-Century Champion of Native American Activism

Her Opera “The Sun Dance” Made Stage History

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School became infamous as a place designed to
Born on a South Dakota Sioux Reservation, the young Gertrude Simmons was pulled between the Indian culture into which she was born and the Euro-American culture that educated her. At 19, she seized on her tribal roots and went on to become one of the most influential Native American activists of the 20th century.

Zitkála-Sá (pronounced Zitkála Shá), also known as Gertrude Evaline Simmons, was born in 1876, year of the Battle of Little Bighorn, on South Dakota’s Yankton Sioux Reservation. Her mother was a full-blooded Dakota Sioux named Ellen Tatiyahewin (“She Reaches for the Wind”) Simmons, her father a white man about whom little is known. We do know he abandoned the family, leaving her mother to raise their children in traditional Sioux ways.

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Author of First Cookbook Written by an African American: Malinda Russell

She Helped Pave the Way for Black Cooks and Writers

A 19th-century health kitchen of the kind Malinda Russell learned to cook in.
There are no known photos or drawings of Malinda Russell who, in 1866, became the first African American to write a cookbook. And it wasn’t about what would later be called “soul food,” but rather her mastery of the sophisticated recipes of European cuisine.

Being a historic foodways researcher, I think of Amelia Simmons, Hannah Glasse, Eliza Leslie and Mary Randolph as old friends. It took chef and culinary historian Michael Twitty’s book, The Cooking Gene, to introduce me to Malinda Russell. Far more than just a collection of recipes, Russell’s slim volume sheds light on the history, culture and power structure of her time.

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