american trailblazers

1869 wedding portrait of Mathilda Taylor Beasley, a free woman of color who risked her own safety by opening her door to local Savannah, Georgia children of color to teach them to read and write. After the death of her husband in 1877, she donated all of her assets to fund an orphanage and became the first African-American nun in the state of Georgia.

Trailblazing Women You May Not Know (But Should): Sheryl WuDunn

Each week, the Lean In tumblr will spotlight women who made a lasting mark on the world — yet didn’t always end up in the history books. This week we celebrate Sheryl WuDunn, the first Asian-American to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Sheryl WuDunn was raised to speak out against injustice. My grandmother’s feet were bound in China,” she said. As she grew up she learned that if people didn’t speak up for others, “My mother’s feet would have been bound, then my feet would have been bound." 

A third generation Chinese-American, Sheryl WuDunn was born in 1959 and grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. She graduated from Cornell University and married journalist Nicolas Kristof, who became her partner at The New York Times. She was the paper’s first Asian-American reporter. 

In 1989 WuDunn and Kristof travelled to China, where they covered the Tiananmen Square crackdown. WuDunn covered the protests from the heart of the conflict, facing gunfire and arriving at the hospitals before officials to count the dead. Those numbers turned out to be one of the most pivotal pieces of data throughout the crisis.

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The First African-American Detectives, The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case, and the Fate of Reconstruction

When police departments in the mid-twentieth-century appointed African-American detectives, the nation took note.  Through countless books, movies, and television shows, detectives had become the most glamorous figures in law enforcement, and the appointment of black detectives–first in the North and then in the South–was seen as a sign of a transforming society. Sidney Poitier’s portrayal of Philadelphia homicide detective Virgil Tibbs in the 1967 film In the Heat of the Night became iconic. But few commentators noted at the time that the trailblazing African- American detectives of the civil rights era were not the first black detectives in American History. That honor goes to the black “special officers,” as detectives were often called, who served in a handful of cities in the South during Reconstruction.  In Reconstruction-era New Orleans, for example, John Baptiste Jourdain, Jordan Noble, and other black detectives investigated high-profile crimes including the Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case of 1870.

Until the mid-1840s, American urban police forces did not employ detectives at all; before then, the role of policemen, night watchmen, and town constables was to prevent crimes, not to solve them. Cities usually depended on common citizens to identify criminals. Even with the rise of professional policing in the 1830s, officers focused their energies on prevention and made most arrests based on evidence that witnesses had voluntarily brought forth. After Boston introduced the first detective squad in 1846, other American cities, including New Orleans, followed suit, and detectives soon became celebrated figures. Stories, both real and fictional, of whip-smart sleuths deciphering clues, using disguise, spotting telltale signs, and outsmarting wily criminals captured the American imagination. True crime tabloids like the National Police Gazette, as well as the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, helped propel the national obsession with detective work.

But until Reconstruction, all police detectives in the United States had been white. Even in 1870, police departments in the North still had not hired black patrolmen, let alone detectives. The Boston force would not add a black officer until 1878; in New York City, the ranks remained all-white until 1911. But in the South, five cities employed black officers. Reconstruction, it seemed, had brought real change; only a few years earlier, the idea of a black man serving on a southern police force in any capacity would have been unthinkable. But in 1870 in New Orleans, black detectives followed leads, interrogated white and black witnesses, and used their deductive skills in efforts to solve sensational crimes like the Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case.  More was at stake, of course, than simply solving crimes.  If they succeeded, black detectives could help convince skeptical whites that biracial government could work.  If they failed, however, they would arm the critics who demanded the restoration of white supremacy.


Recognized as the first African and Native-American sculpture, Edmonia Lewis created history with her marble sculptures. Born in New York in 1844, she befriended abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison who would teach her sculpture. Lewis began by creating busts of Garrison and other abolitionist leaders. She experienced her first major success with a bust of Col. Robert Shaw in 1864. From that sculpture she was able to travel to Rome, Italy where she honed her skills in marble. Her work often centered around themes of her personal heritage, religion, or U.S history. Her pieces can be seen in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

In the movie capital, and in the mythology of Hollywood, no magazine cover was so coveted or considered so great a status symbol as Life’s. Dorothy Dandridge at that very moment achieved true movie star/goddess status. Her face was seen by every film, television, and music executive in the entertainment business. It was a perfect launching for a new-style icon. Her achievement was all the greater because she was the first Black woman to appear on its cover. Yet, in the minds of the executives, the cover lifted her out of the “Black woman” category. The Life cover also brought her to the public’s attention in a broader, more sweeping, and defined way.