Historic, but not famous

Isaac Leopold Rice, founder Forum Publishing and Battery Company

Isaac Leopold Rice (1850 – 1915) was a  businessman, investor, musicologist, author, and noted chess patron. He was born in Bavaria and emigrated to the United States with his mother in 1856. They initially lived in Philadelphia where he attended school, but upon graduation he went to Paris to study music for 3 years. He returned and worked at a newspaper then moved to England  in 1868 to be a music and language teacher. A year later he moved to New York City and practiced music before going back to school to become a lawyer. After graduating from Columbia College of Law in 1880 he practiced law for the rest of the decade.

He became a specialist in railroad law in the United States, and held large investments in several lines, including the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. While a lawyer he was invited to join a music publishing company and decided to do that as well as diversify his railroad holdings. He eventually bailed out the bankrupt Electro-Dynamic Company in 1892 with a partner and became the first president of The Forum magazine, and later the Electric Storage Battery Co. (later Exide) in 1897.

He bought out a company that made the first successful electric submarine and named the company  the Electric Boat Company in 1899. He contracted with the US Navy and delivered a fleet of submarines to them. Electric Boat was a founding company of General Dynamics Corporation. During World War I, Rice’s new company (Electric Boat) and its subsidiaries (notably Elco) built 85 Navy submarines and 722 submarine chasers, along with 580 motor launches for the British Royal Navy.

He also wrote and published books on music and music theory as well as becoming an accomplished chess master and president of the Manhattan Chess Club.

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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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Historic, but not famous

Johanna Bethune, philanthropist, educator

Johanna (Graham) Bethune co-founded the New York Orphan Asylum at Barrow and Fourth Streets with Mrs. Alexander Hamilton  and started the city’s first school for “young ladies.” She gave the city the land for Bethune Street, in the West Village, which is named for her. Ms. Bethune is often described as an “early 19th-century philanthropist and educator who ceded the land for the street to the city.” This and the school allowed African students and at times over 50% of the students were black. One of the first opportunities for black children in the early 1800s to attend free school.

Bethune Street in the West Village of Manhattan is named for Ms. Bethune and her charitable work.

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Historic, but not famous

Marion Tanner (1891-1985), self-described as ”the ultimate Greenwich Village eccentric” and the apparent model for the madcap fictional character Auntie Mame. Known as one of Greenwich Village’s most colorful inhabitants, Miss Tanner, in 1927, bought a red brick house at 72 Bank Street, and for many years it was a haven and salon for struggling artists, writers, freethinkers, radicals and a wide spectrum of what Miss Tanner sometimes called ”Bohemian types.”

Miss Tanner devoted much of her life to caring for children from broken homes, and, although she had none of her own, she always had homeless children living with her. Miss Tanner taught in private schools, did social work and was a volunteer at Greenwich House, a children’s center. In the 1930’s she worked as an arbitrator and mediator with the National Labor Relations Board.

Miss Tanner, who credited vegetarianism and teetotaling for her longevity, never lost the animated, almost girlishly enthusiastic manner in which she spoke, nor did she lose her faith in human nature. But by the early 1960’s, after she had been immortalized in ”Auntie Mame” – the novel written by her nephew, Edward Everett Tanner 3d, using the pen name Patrick Dennis – Miss Tanner had turned her home into a boarding house and sanctuary for often nonpaying ”visitors.” These included drunken derelicts, shopping-bag ladies and others she considered less fortunate than herself. Although Miss Tanner was regarded as a Lady Bountiful by those who sought and were given the warmth of her hearth and her heart, in the view of some of her neighbors she and her house were nuisances.

In 1964 she could no longer make her mortgage payments, and the house was sold. Ms. Tanner spent much of the remainder of her life in a Greenwich Village nursing home.

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