Historic, but not famous

Annie Elizabeth “Bessie” Delany, dentist, civil rights pioneer

Annie Elizabeth “Bessie” Delany (1891 – 1995) was a dentist and civil rights pioneer. She earned her dental degree (DDS) from Columbia University in 1923, only the second African American woman licensed to practice dentistry in New York State.  She was one of 10 children raised by a former slave who became a bishop in his church and a teacher in North Carolina.

She attended St. Augustine’s in North Carolina and after graduation, came to NYC and enrolled in Columbia University, where she was the only African American woman in a class of 170.  She shared a dental office with her brother, Dr. H. B. Delany Jr. after her graduation. They eventually moved the office to Harlem.

Throughout her life, Bessie, participated in many protests and marches, and encouraged civil rights organizers to meet at her and her brother’s office. She passed away at 104 at her home in Mt. Vernon, New York.

Ms. Delany and her elder sister Sarah “Sadie” Delany,  were the subjects of The New York Times bestselling oral history, Having Our Say, written by journalist Amy Hill Hearth in 1991. The book was on The New York Times bestseller lists for 105 weeks. It spawned a Broadway play in 1995 and a television film in 1999.

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Historic, but not famous

James Butler, AFSCME union president

James Butler was elected AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) Union president of Local 420 in 1972, and immediately took on the battle for better pay, benefits and educational opportunities, and against privatization and hospital closings. Butler studied at City College and worked at Fordham Hospital starting in 1954. He led the Union through the financial crisis in New York City in the 1970s.

Butler raised the public profile of the Local through rallies, marches, involvement in community affairs and a firm commitment to national, and even international, campaigns for civil rights and human rights. The Union, under his leadership, developed the newspaper City Hospital Worker and participated in the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, the New York State Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH, the NAACP, the National Urban League, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Labor Committee and other labor and civil rights organizations. The Local became a leading force in ASCME DC37’s Hospitals Division and in AFSCME’s Health Advisory Committee.

The Union, under Butler’s leadership, went up against the Giuliani administration, preventing them from selling off the city hospitals to private interests and undermining the city hospital system. They saved Coney Island, Elmhurst and Queens hospitals going to court against the city. The city did slash the budgets of the hospitals, but they remained city hospitals.

Butler lost re-election as Union president in 2001 after questions were raised about lavish expenditures by the leadership, a burdensome dues increase, and plans for an expensive new local headquarters that never materialized.

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Historic, but not famous

Bob Spike, Civil Rights Activist

Robert Warren Spike (1923 – 1966) was a clergyman, theologian, and civil rights leader. Born in Buffalo, NY, he came to NYC while studying for the ministry. He began his career as pastor at the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village in 1949, reviving the social activism of this famous urban church. During his time at the church, neighborhood kids played basketball in the church’s ramshackle gym and an interracial, international residence for students was established. Spike also helped to create an art gallery where artists could exhibit their unconventional works.

In 1958 Spike left his parish ministry to take on a national role as General Secretary of the United Church Board For Homeland Ministries. In 1963 he was appointed the Executive Director of the National Council of Churches’ Commission on Religion and Race, which became an important arm of the Civil Rights Movement. He worked with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.  and others in the movement.

In January 1966 Spike took a position as Professor of Ministry and Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. Less than a year after assuming his post in Chicago, Spike was bludgeoned to death at Ohio State University in Columbus on October 17, 1966. No one was ever tried for his murder; after a systematic review some church sources believe that he was assassinated.

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Historic, but not famous

James Weldon Johnson, author, educator, diplomat, civil rights activist

James Weldon Johnson (June 17, 1871 – June 26, 1938) was an American author, educator, lawyer, diplomat, songwriter, and civil rights activist. Johnson may be best remembered for his leadership of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), where he started working in 1917.

Johnson established his reputation as a writer, and was known during the Harlem Renaissance for his poems, novels, and anthologies collecting both poems and spirituals of black culture. He was a prominent and influential voice of the Renaissance. In 1934 he was the first African-American professor to be hired at New York University.

Johnson and his brother Rosamond moved to New York City as young men, joining the Great Migration out of the South in the first half of the 20th century. They collaborated on songwriting and achieved some success on Broadway in the early 1900s. Johnson composed the lyrics of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” originally written for a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday at Stanton School. This song became widely popular and has become known as the “Negro National Anthem,” a title that the NAACP adopted and promoted.

He became involved in civil rights activism after he returned from Venezuela and Nicaragua where he served as the US Consul for President Roosevelt. He was especially involved in  the campaign to pass federal legislation against lynching, as southern states did not prosecute perpetrators. Johnson died in 1938 while vacationing in Maine, when the car his wife was driving was hit by a train. His funeral in Harlem was attended by more than 2000 people. Johnson’s ashes are interred at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

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