Believing that the life of a nation is told by the lives of its people, the American National Biography consists of over 19,000 scholarly biographies of significant, influential, or notorious figures from American history.
The latest update to the American National Biography adds six new essays in celebration of black history month.
New additions include Bo Diddley (1928–2008), guitarist, singer, and songwriter who bridged the transition between the blues and rock and roll. Easily identifiable by his trademark sunglasses and black hat, Diddley was most associated with the Twang Machine, his homemade electric guitar. It featured a cigar box-shaped square body that he crafted himself and attached to the neck and electronics from a Gretsch guitar. Diddley’s career spanned generations; he became even more popular in the 1990s when he starred alongside Bo Jackson in a series of Nike advertisements.
Marsha P. Johnson (1945–1992), gay and trans rights activist, participated in the Stonewall Riots of 1969 and was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). In 1970, Johnson and her friend Sylvia Rivera co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) in New York City, the first LGBTQ youth shelter in North America and one of the first organizations in the United States founded by transgender women of color. She was also an AIDS activist associated with ACT UP, a direct-action political group combatting governmental and institutional neglect of the AIDS crisis. Johnson’s fierce passion for justice defines her as a founder and legend of the LGBTQ rights movement in the United States.
Florynce “Flo” Kennedy (1916–2000), lawyer and feminist activist, described herself as “too erratic to lead and too undisciplined to follow.” She was a pivotal and wide-reaching figure, building bridges between the civil rights, Black Power, feminist, anti-war, and reproductive rights movements that helped define the 20th century. She skillfully used the media to spread her message, writing a weekly column and hosting a radio and television show. She was also a lawyer and defended a number of Black Power activists, including H. Rap Brown, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, and Afeni Shakur. Kennedy was an original and instrumental member in the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the National Women’s Political Caucus; was influential in the founding of the National Black Feminist Organization; and organized the Feminist Party.
Gladys Bentley (1907–1960), blues singer and pianist, brazenly defied race, gender, and sexual stereotypes in Renaissance-era Harlem and later Los Angeles. She performed wearing tailored men’s shirts and jackets, skirts, and close-cropped hair. Langston Hughes called her “an amazing exhibition of musical energy—a large, dark, masculine lady, whose feet pounded the floor while her fingers pounded the keyboard.” Bentley was a forerunner of post-Stonewall views toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender lives and experiences.
Lerone Bennett, Jr. (1928–2018), author, journalist, and editor, was the major force behind Ebony magazine’s reporting on the civil rights movement. Many of his early stories became the impetus for his first book, Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America, (1619-1962). The book placed African Americans, whose American history was one year deeper than that of the Puritans who arrived on the Mayflower, at the forefront of American history. He also wrote an influential biography about his old Morehouse classmate, What Manner of Man: A Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr.
James D. Saules (1806?–1850s), sailor and musician, is best known for likely inspiring Oregon’s first black exclusion law. He arrived in the Willamette Valley joining the U.S. Exploring Expedition (1838-1842), also known as the Wilkes Expedition. On May 1, 1844, he was arrested for allegedly inciting several indigenous men to threaten the life and property of Charles E. Pickett, a proslavery Virginian and white supremacist. The all-white jury found Saules guilty and he was forced to leave the Willamette Valley. The newly-created Provisional Government of Oregon passed its first black exclusion law on June 25, 1844. In 1857 Oregon’s state constitution banned all African American immigration.