Groundbreaker #6: Jeannette Rankin, First Woman Elected to Congress

“I may be the First woman member of Congress, but I won’t be the last.”

When you think of “women’s firsts,” who do you think of? Names like Sandra Day O’Connor (first to become a Supreme Court justice), Amelia Earhart (first to fly solo across the Atlantic), or Indira Gandhi (first and so far only to serve as Prime Minister of India), are some popular examples. [And maybe someday the first to be president will be on this list, but I digress…]

But you may not think of Jeannette Rankin, the first elected to Congress. As I hope to show on the eve of these crucial midterm elections (Vote November 6th!), Rankin should be just as well-known as these other famous firsts.

I first remember hearing of Jeannette Rankin in the charming picture book Lives of Extraordinary Women by Kathleen Krull, and occasionally saw her name pop up in history books or articles. She has been on my list of Groundbreakers to profile since I started this project, but she moved up the list this week after I listened to the WNYC podcast that questioned her sexuality.

Where does one start with Jeannette Rankin? Besides being the first woman elected to Congress, she is still the only woman elected to Congress from the state of Montana (more on that later). She was also the only member of Congress to vote against US participation in both World Wars, and one of the only suffragists elected to Congress (see US House History site). But she also had some views that seem less than stellar today. Regardless, she was a true rebel who was never afraid to speak her mind on important issues, even as late as the Vietnam War when she was in her late 80s.

Jeannette Pickering Rankin was born near Missoula, Montana in 1880, while Montana was still a territory. She was the first of six children, including a brother, Wellington Rankin, who was the attorney general of Montana and on the Montana Supreme Court. Growing up in Montana was complicated; while it was on the frontier, which meant that men and women were often equal in labor, women still did not have the right to vote or do much of anything else politically. Her worldview was much more aligned with that of big cities, where she would later end up.

After graduating from the University of Montana in 1902 with a degree in biology, Rankin moved to San Francisco and became a social worker. She then moved to New York and enrolled in what is now the Columbia University School of Social Work. Later she moved to the state of Washington where she continued in social work, attended the University of Washington, and became involved in the women’s suffrage movement. After working as an organizer for the New York Women’s Suffrage Party and as a lobbyist for the National American Woman Suffrage Association, she enjoyed the victory of seeing Washington State giving women the vote in 1910. Rankin soon helped win women’s right to vote in her home state in 1914.

Rankin’s victories in the women’s suffrage movement helped propel her to victory when she ran for Congress in 1916 as a Republican, realizing in her own small way her belief that the government needed women in order to function properly. She served on the Woman Suffrage Committee, among others, introducing the Nineteenth Amendment, which was finally ratified in 1920. She proudly proclaimed, “If I am remembered for no other act, I want to be remembered as the only woman who ever voted to give women the right to vote.”

But it was early in 1917, just after she started her term, when she entered the national stage by voting against US involvement in World War I, the first vote cast by any woman in Congress. She was part of a group of 56 members of Congress who voted against entering the war (see Collins, America’s Women). She later stated, “I felt that the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war, she should say it.” She became just as devoted to pacifism and peace for the rest of her life as she was to the suffrage movement. This stance did not help her politically, as she was not reelected in 1918, but she never shied away from what she believed (see Krull, Lives of Extraordinary Women).

Her persistence eventually paid off, as she ran for Congress again and won in 1940, when she was 60. And almost poetically, yet another war started around the time she took her seat, this time World War II. After the attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan. Rankin was the lone no vote. She explained her vote: “As a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send someone else.” Her decision was massively unpopular, even more so than her vote against entering the first World War more than 20 years earlier. As a result, she again served only one term, leaving Congress in 1943. The backlash to both of her no votes was somewhat ironic, as Rankin had been elected on a pacifist platform; but once Pearl Harbor was attacked, most people’s views changed.

But Rankin was hardly finished making her mark. She lectured on world peace and often traveled to India, studying the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi, perhaps the world’s most famous pacifist. In 1967, at the age of 87, she led a march against the Vietnam War in Washington, consisting of five thousand women dressed in black. She thought, incredibly, of running for a third term in Congress, but died at 92 before she could entertain the possibility (see Krull, Lives of Extraordinary Women).

Rankin’s personal life was also unusual for her time. She never married, as she always wanted to remain independent (see Krull, Lives of Extraordinary Women). More recently, some have wondered if she may have been a lesbian. There is not much to back this up other than close friendships she had with women in her lifetime. But what we can say for sure is that her life of protest and speaking out against authority set her apart from most women of her time (hear more in Nancy podcast).

Like any figure, Rankin harbored some views that would be less than popular today. Despite her devotion to women’s equality, particularly in voting, she did not extend that same level of dedication to black women. This flaw was not unique to her, as many of the early suffragist leaders were mainly looking out for white, relatively privileged women (see Constitution Center article). Additionally, a more controversial view she had, which contributed to her vote against World War II, was that Roosevelt was trying to get the US into the war, and that the attack on Pearl Harbor was provoked (see Cullen-DuPont, American Women Activists’ Writings). There are some who believe this to be true, but on the whole it is an unpopular view.

While Rankin’s name is not a household one like some of the others I named above, her legacy is still making a mark today. She is still the only woman elected to Congress from Montana, but another woman from Montana is trying to change that this election. Kathleen Williams, a Democrat, is running for Montana’s one congressional seat against incumbent Republican Greg Gianforte, best known for bodyslamming a reporter who dared ask him a question. Williams is well aware of her potentially historic campaign, stating recently that she hopes to be Rankin’s “long overdue successor” (see Missoulian article). Ironically, Rankin was elected by a more “liberal”, pacifist (frontier) Montana than exists today, but perhaps women (and men) in Montana will recognize the opportunity presented to them and make her the second woman sent to Congress from their state in more than 70 years.

Despite some flawed and controversial views, Rankin’s dedication to her efforts even in old age is admirable. She easily could have gone along with her male Republican colleagues while in the House, but she chose, as she did throughout her life, to strike out on her own. Her fierce independence is an important example to young women who may be shy to fight for causes that are meaningful to them. The lack of women in Congress is still a problem today. We will see on November 6th whether the road she started on almost a century ago will be continued.

Learn more about this Groundbreaker!

If you have found what I’ve written about Jeannette Rankin interesting and are curious about learning more, I would encourage you to look into some of the books, articles, websites and podcasts I’ve included below and in the course of my post. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but will definitely lead you to other sources.

WNYC podcast Nancy, “The First Queer Woman in Congress”:

Wikipedia entry:

Lives of Extraordinary Women: Rulers, Rebels (And What the Neighbors Thought), by Kathleen Krull

Entry on House History, Art & Archives website:,-Jeannette-(R000055)/

America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates and Heroines, by Gail Collins

“Jeannette Rankin’s war”, National Constitution Center:

American Women Activists’ Writings, edited by Kathryn Cullen-DuPont

Rankin Foundation, Women’s Scholarship Fund:

Article on Kathleen Williams’ campaign for Congress in Montana:

Jeannette Rankin: Political Pioneer, Gretchen Woelfle

A Woman in the House (and Senate), Ilene Cooper

Jeannette Rankin, America’s Conscience, Norma Smith

Groundbreaker #5: Donald White & the Lack of Black/Latino Musicians in American Orchestras

Even if you were not steeped in classical music for most of your life as I was, you have probably heard of cellist Yo-Yo Ma at some point, either from Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 or on Sesame Street, among many others.  

But you almost certainly haven’t heard of cellist Donald White, the first black musician to join a major American orchestra. I had not heard of him myself when I set out to learn more about minority musicians who never really got the credit they deserved, both for their talents and their resolve in the face of great intolerance; and, like some of my other Groundbreakers, there is not all that much information out there about him, or not as much as there should be, anyway. But despite that, I hope to give him at least some of the credit he deserves in my own small way in my little corner of the Internet. I also hope to use White’s story as an opportunity to explore an issue that has intrigued me for some time: the lack of black and Latino musicians in American orchestras, even today.

Those who have been involved in the classical music world (and even those who haven’t) know just how cutthroat the competition can be. The competition for coveted spots in America’s greatest orchestras has always been fierce. But multiply this by ten or a hundred for those who have been historically marginalized from the classical music world. In years past this would have included essentially anyone who wasn’t white, but that has changed in the last few decades as more Asian musicians have joined the ranks, making the minority almost exclusively black and Latino (see more in League of American Orchestras studies provided below). My next Groundbreaker is just one example of the many talented musicians who never got a fair shot due to his not being born white.

Donald White was born in Richmond, Indiana in 1925. He began playing the cello at the age of sixteen. He served in the Navy during World War II while continuing his music studies. He moved to Chicago, a major classical music city, where he earned a music degree at Roosevelt University, and played in the Chicago Civic Orchestra as well as an all-black orchestra. He also studied in New York and became assistant principal cellist of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra after winning a fellowship from the University of Hartford, where he eventually earned a master’s degree. He also taught in Cleveland and encouraged minority children to get involved in music (see article).

White really made waves after auditioning for George Szell, the famously strict conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra in 1957. Szell took a risk by accepting White into the orchestra at a time when none of the orchestras known as the Big Five (New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, and Cleveland Orchestra) were integrating their ensembles. White would play with the Cleveland Orchestra for almost 40 years, retiring in 1996. His wife was also a musician, as are both of their children. He died in 2005 at the age of 80.

As I mentioned earlier, there is not much information on White, which is not surprising in the context of the lack of interest in minority musicians. But the tensions surrounding White’s appointment to the Cleveland Orchestra boiled over when the orchestra traveled to Birmingham, Alabama to perform in 1961. Since audiences and performers were still segregated at the time, the manager of the concert hall told Szell that White would not be allowed to play with the orchestra. Adding insult to injury, White could not stay in the same hotel as the rest of the musicians. Szell refused to have the orchestra perform without White, and organized with the orchestra manager a petition signed by all of the musicians and presented it to the mayor of Birmingham. Szell got his way, and the performance went on–following the concert, many members of the audience asked White for his autograph (see video). This was particularly groundbreaking as it took place 3 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted, which prohibited discrimination in public places and integrated public facilities. White’s daughter Dianna White-Gould remembered Szell as supportive of her father’s unique ordeal (see Cleveland Magazine article).

The lack of information out there about Donald White makes his story all the the more significant in considering the lack of black/Latino musicians particularly in major orchestras. This is still an issue today, compounded by the lack of opportunity given to these groups as early as childhood–music lessons and instruments are expensive, and public schools are cutting music programs all the time, and these issues are worse in economically disadvantaged areas. Another contributing factor is the lack of representation of these groups on orchestra boards and executive positions, which are still majority white.

Fortunately, there are organizations doing important work to try to improve these admittedly complex issues. The League of American Orchestras recently commissioned two studies on racial, ethnic, and gender diversity in orchestras (here and here) that shed light on how these issues came to be, and offer possible solutions to improve them in the future. Additionally, the Sphinx Organization, based in Detroit, has been working for 20 years to diversity the arts, particularly the traditionally closed world of classical music.

Additionally, major orchestras like the Baltimore Symphony are dedicating time and resources like never before to programs for black and Latino children in their surrounding communities. Programs based on Venezuela’s wildly successful El Sistema program teaching children music have grown in cities throughout the country, including New York and Philadelphia. These are just some examples of the legacy of musicians like Donald White. He didn’t get the credit he deserved during his lifetime, but we can hope that his example will inspire others who will, thanks to the work of organizations like Sphinx and the League.

[Important Note: the lack of women in orchestras is perhaps just as big an issue as the lack of black/Latino musicians. I will not be exploring this issue in this post, but it’s worth exploring on its own and I plan to do so in a future post.]

As for White himself, it’s truly a shame he doesn’t have any name recognition or barely any Internet presence today. One never knows how he would have fared going up against other cellists, but the fact remains he didn’t have a fair chance. Yes, he was fortunate enough to be accepted into a major orchestra, but what else could he have accomplished? What other opportunities did he miss out on because of discrimination? At the very least, his name was certainly never very well known.

But what gives me hope is all the organizations doing work to make sure future musicians with just as much talent and drive have more of a chance to succeed. I encourage you to learn more about the great work these organizations are doing, particularly if you’re interested in classical music, and even if you’re not–this is an example of how many of the cultural institutions in American life have traditionally been exclusionary (this has been true in the world of ballet as well, to name one additional example). There is not enough space in this post to provide a full explanation as to why black and Latino children don’t tend to get involved in classical music, but I encourage you to read the studies to learn more about these very issues. These issues transcend the particular art involved and are reflective of our society as a whole. Keeping out a whole segment of society from the cultural institutions around them does no good for anyone.

Learn more about this Groundbreaker!

If you have found what I’ve written about Donald White and the lack of black and Latino musicians in American orchestras interesting and/or infuriating and are curious about learning more, I would encourage you to look into some of the articles, websites and videos I’ve included below and in the course of my post. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but will definitely lead you to other sources.

Short profiles:


History of African Americans in classical music:

Links to League of American Orchestras studies:

Groundbreaker #4: Dorothy Kenyon

“One of the most important precepts of the movement for women’s rights is that the aspirations of women are bounded only, by their talents, abilities and potentialities as individual human beings.”

You likely know at least a little bit about feminist activist and icon Gloria Steinem, co-founder of Ms. magazine. She has fought for decades for women’s equality, particularly equal pay. But it’s also just as likely that you haven’t heard of my next Groundbreaker, Dorothy Kenyon. While she doesn’t get the credit she deserves, she was an important forerunner to (and early participant in) the women’s equality movement that would gain traction in the late 1960s and early 1970s. She was a crusader for civil liberties, particularly for the poor, in the 20th century as late as the 1970s.

Dorothy Kenyon was born in 1888 in New York City. She enjoyed a relatively privileged upbringing, growing up on the Upper West Side with a family summer home in Connecticut. She attended the private Horace Mann School and Smith College in Northampton, MA (as did Gloria Steinem! And as did I!), where she studied economics and history. A few years after college, Kenyon spent a year in Mexico, which opened her eyes to the “poverty and injustice” that existed in the world. It was after this trip that she decided to give up her life as a “social butterfly” and become a social activist. She began law school at New York University, receiving her degree and admission to the bar in 1917 (see Dorothy Kenyon papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College).

Instead of taking the rather easy road of joining her family’s law firm after receiving her degree, Kenyon worked various other legal jobs, including working for the US government in Washington, where she researched wartime labor patterns and collected economic data for the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. She eventually started her own law firm with another Dorothy, Dorothy Straus, which stayed open through the 1930s.

It was beginning in the 1930s when Kenyon started to devote her energies to many progressive social causes. She received many public appointments in New York City throughout the decade, and also served on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), where she pushed for more work to be done against sexism. She gave speeches throughout the United States on civil liberties, the law, and women’s equality. She was also appointed by Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia to a position on the Municipal Court from 1939-40, after which she was still affectionately called “Judge Kenyon” (Dorothy Kenyon papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College). She also became the first delegate to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in 1947.

Kenyon’s name really became known during the Red Scare led by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, when she was one of many questioned for having Communist sympathies. She denied involvement of any kind with the Communist Party, though she had been involved with liberal and anti-Fascist organizations. Her appearance and denouncement of McCarthy as “a liar” who “can go to Hell” gained her a great deal of media attention, including a supportive editorial in The New York Times, as well as that of former First Lady and activist Eleanor Roosevelt. But unfortunately, despite the fact that the Senate declared Kenyon of any wrongdoing, enough people in power found her suspicious enough that she was never offered another political appointment afterwards. But none of this stopped her from continuing to push for what she believed in for the rest of her life.

In the 1960s and 70s, as civil rights and equality work ramped up, Dorothy Kenyon was right in the middle of it. She continued her legal work with the ACLU, where she worked with friend and fellow Groundbreaker Pauli Murray on sex discrimination cases, including a case that ruled that women have an equal right to serve on juries. This was a precursor to the work Murray and Ruth Bader Ginsburg would do on the case Reed v. Reed, which ruled against discrimination in administering estates. Ginsburg included Kenyon’s name on the cover of the brief along with Murray’s (see further details in my Pauli Murray post). Kenyon also prepared briefs for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and worked to end segregation in the New York City public schools. Towards the end of her life she was involved in President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and helped establish legal services for the poor on Manhattan’s Lower West Side. She also supported birth control and a woman’s right to choose.

Kenyon died of stomach cancer in 1972 five days before she would have turned 84. She didn’t tell most people that she was sick, and continued her work until her death. She never married, despite having various romantic relationships with men, but believed most in retaining her independence.

What I find particularly interesting about Dorothy Kenyon was while she believed in fighting sexism and racism, she had very specific views on sexism and how best to fight it. Though she lived right around the time that women were given the right to vote in the United States, she was not a major participant in the suffrage movement. She was also initially against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), the proposed amendment that would guarantee equal legal rights for all Americans regardless of sex that has been discussed and debated since 1921. As good as this would sound to crusaders for women’s equality, Kenyon was initially opposed to the ERA because she feared it would negatively affect working-class women. By the end of her life, however, she had changed her views on this and became a supporter of the ERA.

Dorothy Kenyon laid the groundwork for Gloria Steinem and other leaders in the women’s equality movement with her trailblazing work for the women’s and civil rights movements through almost the entire 20th century. She was fully dedicated to this work, as Steinem has been and continues to be today. The two are also similar in their views on marriage; Steinem only married once, late in life.

Kenyon was a fascinating figure and, like many Groundbreakers, very ahead of her time. But I can’t help but wonder what kind of difference she could have made if her reputation hadn’t been damaged by the awful Joseph McCarthy. Though she wasn’t blacklisted like others were, which truly destroyed their livelihoods, just being questioned was enough for some people to not want anything to do with her. What immediately came to my mind was what if she had had the opportunity to run for office? She could have been one of the first female representatives in the House, or even a Senator. Just imagine what she could have fought for if she was in such a position of power. At the same time, however, perhaps she did her best work out of the political spotlight, where she could do things as she wanted, not as the rigid rules of politics and Congress dictated.

I learned a great deal about Dorothy Kenyon while working on this post. As a fellow Smithie, I should know at least something about her! Her beliefs in equality, taking into account people of all economic classes, combined with her fearlessness in the face of obstacles, make her an inspiring figure, even 130 years after her birth and almost 50 years after her death. Much of what she spent her entire life fighting for has still not been solved, so we would do good by her example to consider the plight of those who are given less attention. This is why she is the ultimate example of an Underground Groundbreaker. It is just a shame that she is not more well known and that there is not as much information out there on her as there should be. But I hope this piece on her can improve awareness of her and her life fighting for what is right.

Learn more about this Groundbreaker!

If you have found what I’ve written about Dorothy Kenyon interesting or inspiring and are curious about learning more, I would encourage you to look into some of the  articles and websites I’ve included below. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but will definitely lead you to other sources. Unfortunately there is not as much out there on her as there probably should be, but this is what I have been able to find:

Wikipedia bio:

More detailed bio from Dorothy Kenyon Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA:

More on Kenyon Papers:

Short piece on Kenyon Papers from Sophia Smith Collection:

NY Times Obituary:

ACLU biography along with other important figures:

Wikipedia entry on Equal Rights Amendment:

Groundbreaker #3: Eugene V. Debs

“The issue is Socialism versus Capitalism. I am for Socialism because I am for humanity.” 

If you are a fan of Senator and 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders like I am, then I hope you will enjoy and learn from my next Groundbreaker, Eugene V. Debs. In fact, if you are a fan of Bernie, you should know about Debs, as he is the man who inspired Bernie. Though he isn’t exactly like Debs, there still might not be the Bernie we know without him.

So who was Eugene Debs? Maybe you’ve heard about him in a history class or textbook, as the five-time presidential candidate of the Socialist Party of America. I remember him occupying maybe a paragraph in my high school history books, but that was about it. But he should be taught more extensively than he is, and as we will see, his beliefs are probably the reason he isn’t. In short, Debs was a bad-ass, ahead of his time in many ways.

And yes, as you’ve noticed by looking at his picture, he is white, and my usual practice is to profile Groundbreakers who are non-white, non-male, and other marginalized groups. But Debs is a rare exception to that rule, as he fought for most of his adult life for the rights of poor, working people.

Eugene Victor Debs was born in 1855 in Terre Haute, Indiana. After dropping out of high school when he was 14, he started working for a railroad company. He eventually realized that the railroad brotherhoods did not have the real interests of the workers, especially less skilled workers, at heart.

He helped found the American Railway Union in 1893, which was open to all railway workers, not just skilled workers. The ARU gained as many as 150,000 members nationally, making it one of the largest unions in the country. Perhaps most importantly, Debs wanted to include black members in the union, but was overruled by a vote. The railway workers went on strike, known as the Pullman Strike, for 18 days, which won them a significant wage increase. But the rich and powerful bosses were spooked, and did all they could to gut the power of unions so that such a strike would never happen again. Debs believed excluding black railway workers negatively affected the effort, since they were understandably unwilling to work with their white counterparts (see Zinn, A People’s History of The United States).

Debs was sent to prison for 6 months for defying an injunction, and the union was busted. It was in prison where he began reading socialist literature, including Marx’s Das Kapital. He went from a Democrat and full believer in the capitalist system to a full-blown Socialist by the time he left prison.

In 1905, Debs was part of a group that helped found the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in Chicago. The IWW was for workers who wanted more radical change than was being offered by large unions like the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and to include workers of any sex, race, or skill level. They believed in direct action instead of making contracts with employers, since this would prevent labor leaders from striking corrupt deals with employers or, worse, politicians. The workers would be in charge, a true democracy (see Zinn, A People’s History of The United States). The membership was never high, but their message and legacy had an important effect on labor in the early 20th century, and the union still exists today.

The part of Debs’ life that is perhaps most impressive is what could be called his career of running for president. He ran for president 5 times on the Socialist Party of America ticket, which was formed from the remnants of the ARU: 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. He did better each time he ran: starting with 87,945 votes in 1900, 420,810 votes in 1904, 420,852 in 1908, and 901,551 in 1912.

And in a move of extra bad-assery, in 1920 he ran while serving a ten-year term in prison for speaking out against World War I. His speech railed against the ruling class who always declares war, while the working class must sacrifice everything. He was convicted of violating Espionage Act and sentenced to 10 years in prison in a case decided by the Supreme Court. It was outlandishly argued that his speech, which should supposedly be protected by the First Amendment, obstructed enlistment in the military for the war, and promoted disobedience by those already there.

He accomplished his last presidential campaign by releasing one press release per week, and in an era before the internet, received 913,693 votes, which is the most ever earned by a Socialist candidate. Not bad for running a campaign from prison! He never won any electoral votes and received a small percentage of the popular vote, but did pretty well while always up against the bankrolled Democrats and Republicans (sound familiar?).

In 1921, at age 66, Debs was pardoned for his “crime” of protesting the war by President Warren G. Harding, and returned home to Terre Haute. He was celebrated upon his return home because of his ultimate commitment to fighting for the people and the workers. He died in 1926 at the age of 70.

Debs’ legacy is important in so many ways, both to the early 20th century and even today. Due to his work, the Socialists had 100,000 members in America and controlled the governments of 33 cities in 1912. There was even a Socialist serving in Congress. Unfortunately this was the high watermark, as this changed once WWI broke out, since Socialists were against the war. Since it was illegal to be against the war due to the Espionage Act, many Socialists lost their jobs and were imprisoned, like Debs. The only war Debs supported was the one for the Socialist cause.

The issues Debs was talking about and fighting for are still a long way from being solved today: fairness for workers, inclusion of all workers in efforts, union busting, and the gap between rich and poor, just to name a few. Bernie Sanders has taken up many of these causes in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, following in the footsteps of his hero, Debs. And Bernie came even closer to being president than Debs did (rant for another day), but just imagine what Debs could have done if he was even a congressman or Senator, much less President! Bernie would be the first to say that he stands on the shoulders of Debs, as he lay the groundwork for so much of what has made Bernie popular over the past 40 years. And they probably would have their differences in policy, but much of the overall message is the same. What is particularly fascinating is that despite the message we often hear that we are a capitalist, center-right country, Debs still had a fair amount of support for his policies that simply wanted to improve the lot of the American worker. Despite all the noise, those policies have always been popular.

I find Debs such a fascinating and significant figure in American history, and someone to look to in these troubling times. I will admit that I’ve been having an especially rough time dealing with what has been happening over the past few weeks. But working on this blog helps me cope in some small way, since it helps remind me that there have always been people who fought against the bad stuff. And though days like today make me feel like we’ve made little progress over the years, the Groundbreakers remind me of the progress that has been made due to ordinary people fighting and not giving up. That, to me, is the most important thing Eugene V. Debs and Bernie Sanders have in common: no matter how much BS they’ve had to face, they just keep on fighting.

“…while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

Learn more about this Groundbreaker!

If you have found what I’ve written about Eugene Debs interesting or inspiring and are curious about learning more, I would encourage you to look into some of the books, articles, and websites I’ve included below. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but will definitely lead you to other sources.




Groundbreaker #2: Josh Gibson

On this last day of the regular baseball season (time flies), please enjoy this profile on a lesser-known player who never had his chance to shine in the Major Leagues.

Even if you’re not the least bit into baseball, it’s almost impossible that you don’t know about Jackie Robinson, the first black Major League Baseball player. Robinson’s courage in the face of the cruelest racism was symbolic both for desegregating baseball and for African Americans in general.

One of the reasons Robinson was chosen first from the Negro Leagues was not that he was necessarily the best player, but that he promised he would not react to the racist taunts, as bad as they could be. While Robinson was known to fight back against the racism he experienced particularly while he was in the Army, he showed the Dodgers’ owner, Branch Rickey, that he would not fight back, no matter how bad the taunting got. Robinson carried a huge burden on his shoulders, since he was the first. It is likely that if things hadn’t gone well with him, if he hadn’t been on his “best behavior” even in the face of awful treatment, it would have further delayed other black players from being signed into the majors, as horrible as that sounds. And for that we all continue to owe him a huge debt of gratitude, whether we are baseball fans or not.

But unless you’re more than a casual fan or historian of baseball, it’s likely that you haven’t heard of arguably the best player ever to play in the Negro Leagues. His name was Josh Gibson, and legend has it that he was so good, he was called the “black Babe Ruth.” But sadly, due to the exclusionary practices of baseball during his time and his untimely death, he never had his own Jackie Robinson moment–a chance to prove himself in the major leagues.

I could have chosen many other players from the Negro League days for this profile. But Josh Gibson is both lesser known than he should be and had the potential to be one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Of course it’s hard to say what would have happened once he was in the major leagues, but if given the chance, he could have been on the level of Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and other legendary black players who did get a chance. And no knock on Robinson, who was a solid player, but it appears to be generally agreed that Gibson was the greatest of them all. So it is for all those reasons that I’ve chosen him as my next Groundbreaker.

Wading through the history of the Negro Leagues, which existed from approximately the 1920s to the early 1960s, is both fascinating and saddening–so much unrecognized talent. It is likely that many of the players in the league “could have rewritten the record books if they had been given the chance to play in the majors” (see Nelson, We Are The Ship), which is perhaps exactly why they were kept out of the all-white majors for so long. Gibson is not as well known as he should be, but he’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many players who were just as skilled and talented as he was (maybe even more so), but we may never know their names. Profiling Gibson is just a beginning to the incredible world that was the Negro Leagues.

While there are many gaps in the life and career of Josh Gibson, there is at least some information available to us. Gibson was born in Buena Vista, Georgia, in 1911, and grew up in Pittsburgh. He got his start as a professional player with the Homestead Grays, a Negro League team based in Pittsburgh, in 1930 when he was asked to fill in from the stands for an injured catcher. He played his entire career as a catcher, but was particularly known for his powerful hitting. He had strong, muscular arms and could hit baseballs out of stadiums–at least that was the rumor. Legend has it that not only was he called the “black Babe Ruth,” but the actual Babe Ruth was called “the white Josh Gibson” by black fans of the Negro Leagues. As with the details of his life, no one is quite certain of his stats either, since there was unreliable record-keeping of Negro League players. But his Hall of Fame plaque reports that he hit “almost 800 home runs” and had a .359 batting average in combined league and independent play, over 17 years. 

Ironically, or perhaps in a cruel twist of fate, Gibson died in January 1947, just before Robinson was called up to the Dodgers. He was only 35 years old. Gibson had been diagnosed with a brain tumor after falling into a coma in 1943. He chose not to have the tumor removed, suffering from headaches from the next four years. He eventually died of a stroke four years later, possibly due to a drug problem. It’s hard not to wonder: did he live his life with a heavy heart, knowing he would never make it to the major leagues and get the recognition that everyone agreed he deserved?

My intention in writing about Gibson, as it is with any of the others I choose to profile, like Pauli Murray last week, is in no way to minimize the accomplishments or the courage of the people who did become mainstream. I couldn’t feel any stronger about that than with the comparison of Gibson and Robinson; in fact, I don’t even mean it to be a comparison, but rather a tale of two men who both deserved better: while Robinson is rightfully lauded as the man who broke the color barrier and dealt with all the nastiness that went along with that, he should have just been able to play like any white player. On a bigger scale, while the Negro Leagues were a unique and remarkable group of American players, they shouldn’t have had to exist in the first place. But if it weren’t for players with the level of talent like Gibson, major league teams would not have been forced to reckon with their discriminatory practices and eventually sign some of the greatest players known in America.

What is also ironic (and unfortunate) about Robinson’s feat of bravery is that once he crossed the color line, the Negro Leagues were never the same. Once one black player was in the majors, the interest level in the Negro Leagues just about disappeared (Nelson, We Are The Ship). It would be a long road before every team had at least one black player signed–the last team to do it was the Boston Red Sox in 1959, twelve years after Robinson was first signed. A total of 58 out of more than 200 players from the Negro Leagues ended up on a major league team–less than a dismal 30%. And while some deserving players from the Negro Leagues eventually got their chance, Gibson never did due to his tragically early death.

Though he died so early, it’s still hard not to wonder: what could have happened if Gibson had made it? Would he have been the home run champion, like Hank Aaron was for many years? Sadly, we will never know. He did get some recognition long after his death, like being inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972 by the Negro Leagues Committee. He’s even had an opera written about him that recently premiered in Pittsburgh.

At the same time, however, one must wonder if he would have had a chance even if he did live. He was once quoted as saying, after hearing about the abuse Robinson had to suffer at the hands of the white fans, “‘Man, if they did that to me, I would’ve punched them in the mouth!’ And everybody said, ‘See! That’s why you didn’t go!’” (Nelson, We Are The Ship) Sadly, as talented as everyone agreed he was, it’s quite possible that no team would have been willing to take a chance on him due to his self-admitted and rightful anger at people who saw him as less than human. This is why I believe it is so important to make sure players like him are recognized–because not only was it unfair that they were already forced to form their own league, they then could only join the majors if they exhibited the “proper behavior,” meaning taking abuse from white fans. This is very relatable to what is going on with NFL players and kneeling today. So while Robinson took a huge first step, there was then, and still is now, a long way to go.


Learn more about this Groundbreaker!

If you have found what I’ve written about Josh Gibson and the Negro Leagues interesting or inspiring (or infuriating) and are curious about learning more, I would encourage you to look into some of the books, articles, and websites I’ve included below. This is not an exhaustive list, but will definitely lead you to other sources.




Groundbreaker #1: Pauli Murray

NOTE: I neglected to mention in my introductory post that for each Groundbreaker I profile, I will start by providing a comparable famous person who is more well known in the mainstream. This gives a sense of who the Groundbreaker could have been if factors like race and gender discrimination (among others) did not stand so much in their way, and, sometimes, on whose shoulders the more famous person stands.

Additionally, these posts are not intended to provide the full life story of the Groundbreaker; that would both be impractical for blog length purposes and not helpful to my aim to inspire readers to go out and research these inspiring folks on their own. These posts are meant to be just a starting point!

You likely know about Supreme Court justice and all-around bad-ass Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or as she’s become known lately, the Notorious RBG. She’s now the senior left-leaning justice on the Court and has written both some of the most pivotal majority opinions and the most scathing dissents.

But do you know about the woman who first thought to use the Constitution to challenge discrimination against women?

Her name was Pauli Murray, and it is fair to say that without her, RBG might not have gone in the same direction in her legal career. While Murray could conceivably be compared to a whole range of people, much of her many important accomplishments were achieved in the field of law, and because they actually worked together, I’ve chosen to compare her to Ginsburg.

The first challenge in writing about Anna Pauline Murray (1910-1985) is defining who exactly she was, as she had more than one lifetime’s worth of careers. On Wikipedia she is listed as a “civil rights activist, women’s rights activist, lawyer, Episcopal priest, and author.” She was incredibly ahead of her time. Politically active starting in the 1930s, she would likely be on the same page as Bernie Sanders today. She was often critical even of the mostly liberal Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s policies in the late 30s and early 40s, particularly as a black, queer woman (who also questioned her gender identity throughout her life) who lived in poverty for much of her life. Her critiques of FDR eventually put her in touch with Eleanor Roosevelt, with whom she began a decades-long friendship, documented in Patricia Bell-Scott’s recent book, The Firebrand and the First Lady. It is fortunate that this book, as well as a couple of others, now exist, as Murray’s life has not been documented as much as it should have been until relatively recently.

Murray really made her mark, and was arguably the most natural, in law. Though she studied at the law school of the historically black Howard University in Washington, there was as much sexism there as Ginsburg would experience at Harvard and Columbia law schools. As she would experience again and again throughout her life, she was not taken seriously by her male professors and classmates, despite likely being the most intelligent and certainly most forward-thinking student in her class. The treatment she was given throughout her life led her to coin the term “Jane Crow,” illustrating that being a black woman in America was even harder than being a black man.

Her legal acumen was so on point that she predicted the overturning of the landmark case Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), declaring separate facilities for white and black Americans “equal,” ten years before it eventually happened with the 1954 decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which mandated desegregating the public schools. Of course this change in policy seems inevitable to us now, as much of history eventually does in hindsight, but at the time it was, well, groundbreaking and sadly seemed ridiculous. Perhaps more importantly, the essay she wrote on this very topic in law school was eventually used in the legal argument against “separate but equal” in the Brown case, argued by future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall. The essay successfully argued that segregation treated black children as inferior, and negatively affected both white and black children (described in Bell-Scott’s book). This was but one instance where Murray did not get the credit she rightfully deserved for her incredibly significant work.

Fast-forward to the 1970s, where Murray had received her doctorate in the science of law from Yale University in 1965, continuing her studies on race in America in her dissertation. But despite her credentials and clear ability, she wasn’t able to get a university job since she was both black and a woman. Among her activities she patched together to earn a living, she joined the board of the American Civil Liberties Union, later helping found, with women’s rights activist Dorothy Kenyon, the civil liberties organization’s Women’s Rights Project, eventually led by Ginsburg.

Ginsburg would make her name known by arguing the case Reed v. Reed before the Supreme Court in 1971, a landmark case for women’s equality under the law. Though Murray and Kenyon were not directly involved in this case, Ginsburg stated at the time that she was “standing on their shoulders” due to their work on the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. To RBG’s credit, she did recognize Murray and Kenyon for their work by putting their names on the cover of the legal brief, for which she was harshly criticized. But she insisted they deserved recognition for their important work (see more in The Notorious RBG, referenced at the end). Perhaps Ginsburg, who herself had trouble finding a job after law school despite graduating at the top of her class, empathized with Murray’s double struggle as both black and female. Despite this honor, Murray still did not get the mainstream recognition she so thoroughly deserved for her groundbreaking work in this field.

Knowing just some of her incredible life story, now imagine if Murray had been given the same chance as RBG or even Thurgood Marshall to be a Supreme Court justice (though knowing her background it would not have been politically likely). As much as RBG deserves to be on the Court, she might agree that Murray did just as much. What kind of impact would her sharp legal mind and unique American experience have had not only on the Court but on the American judicial system and people from marginalized groups in this country? How do we reckon with the fact that so many deserving individuals not only in law, but in all fields, never were able to reach their full potential due to the discriminatory practices that still exist in this country? It’s both saddening and infuriating.  

Fortunately both for Murray and for those of us who are better off because of her legacy, she is finally starting to receive some of the recognition she deserves, even 40 years after Ginsburg tried her best. Besides her increased appearance in books and articles (some of which I’m including here), her alma mater Yale recently named a new dorm building after her, Pauli Murray College. Later, after initial resistance, Yale eventually renamed Calhoun College, named after the racist secessionist John C. Calhoun, after another pioneer, computer scientist Grace Hopper, a move in the right direction that Murray certainly would have approved of.

I chose Pauli Murray as my first Groundbreaker because she has become one of my personal heroes. I greatly admire how ahead of her time she was, and how she would still be considered ahead of her time on certain issues today, particularly around sexual orientation gender identity. She was asking many of the questions we have just begun to grapple with now, in the 21st century, as early as the 1930s, almost a century ago. I also find her work ethic and persistence in the face of all obstacles quite inspiring. I imagine if she were around today she would be right in the thick of it with those seeking real progressive change in our political system. I only hope that as time goes on she continues to receive the credit that she was robbed of throughout her life. I know that in these troubling times I will continue to look to her example when I feel like giving up hope.


Learn more about this Groundbreaker!

If you have found what I’ve written about Pauli Murray even the least bit interesting and are curious about learning more, I would encourage you to look into some of the books, articles, and websites I’ve included below. This is not an exhaustive list, but will definitely lead you to other sources.










Welcome to Underground Groundbreakers!

Welcome to the world of Underground Groundbreakers!

Think of all the pioneers, trailblazers, groundbreakers, that you know of, read about, learned in history classes. They’re too many to list here, but they and their accomplishments make up the story of America.

Now think about how many you may not know about for one reason or another. The supporting cast to the leading actors. People whose shoulders the celebrated heroes had to stand on. The goal of this project is to give those unsung heroes their due, so that they are given the recognition and place in history that they deserve.

This is a project to illuminate and recognize groundbreakers particularly from my favorite fields: music, baseball, and of course, politics and law. They won’t necessarily be people that no one has ever heard of, since that would be nearly impossible. But my hope is to introduce some of these fascinating and sometimes underrated figures to people who otherwise may not have heard of them, since they generally would not be included in standard history textbooks or anything we would read in school (unless we had a super cool history teacher!).

There could be many reasons why these trailblazers are not as widely known today as they should be. On one hand, they could have been quite well known during their lifetime, and have just been lost to history. But on the other, perhaps more tragically, their work helped launch a movement or idea or invention, but the work was taken over by others and they haven’t received the credit they are rightfully owed. In many cases this is due to discrimination or lack of opportunities for those who didn’t fit the “American” mold. So my goal here is to be as diverse as possible in the stories I tell.

I hope with this project to give some of these Groundbreakers just some of the recognition they deserve. We are indebted to many of them for many of the rights and realities we enjoy today. If I introduce even one person to someone here that inspires them, then I’ll feel like I accomplished something with this project. I also expect to learn a lot too!

While I have some ideas for Groundbreakers to profile, I welcome suggestions! If you’d like to make a suggestion for someone to profile, please use the Contact form to submit your idea, or leave a comment below!

Thanks for taking this journey with me!