Celebrating Rosa Parks, Toni Morrison and other Brave Foremothers

Celebrating Rosa Parks, Toni Morrison and other Brave Foremothers

Brave Sis #SistoryLesson pays tribute to five foremothers: civil rights icon Rosa Parks, ballerina Mary de Haven Hinkson, entertainer Pearl Bailey, opera singer Marian Anderson, and the peerless Toni Morrison!

Other Black women before her had refused to give up their seats for white passengers, but Rosa Parks’ act of defiance galvanized the nation and earned her global renown as the “mother of the freedom movement,” for her arrest and ensuing litigation kickstarted the year-long Montgomery bus boycott. A lifelong social justice activist, Parks was born February 4, 1913. Her impact on the American story was so significant that she was the first woman to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda when she passed away in 2005. Rosa Parks is known mostly for agreeing to be the public face of the legal struggle that unleashed the Montgomery bus boycott. Yet she remained politically active for the remainder of her life. Who else comes to mind that had one "shining moment" and yet also a full lifetime of significant impact? 


Mary De Haven Hinkson

An ability to embody both the fluidity of a prima ballerina and the ferocity of a spurned goddess allowed Mary De Haven Hinkson to electrify the dance world in the 1950s and 1960s. As one of the first African American dancers in Martha Graham’s famed modern dance company, Hinkson (born March 16, 1925) was a physical avatar of the changing times. Although as rigorous and exacting as classic ballet, modern dance was first received as a jolt to traditional audiences. Add to that the visual impact of a beautiful woman of color portraying Greek goddesses, for example, with such alacrity and grace, and one begins to appreciate how at times the spotlight of being a “first” and “an only” would have required emotional fortitude to match the physical demands of dance. As she said in a 1966 interview with Dance magazine, “We will have to speak of the ‘Negro dancer’ until people are finally considered only on the grounds of their talent and merit.” Over the course of her illustrious career, she also collaborated with other dance giants including George Ballanchine and Alvin Ailey. Do performing arts idioms today make more “space” for performers to be artists first, women/people of color second? How or why does that matter?


Pearl Bailey

From vaudeville to a Tony Award, actress and singer Pearl Bailey (March 29, 1918) cleared the path for many African-American performers in the 20th century. Her professional career also began with winning a talent show at New York’s Apollo Theater. She would go on to play Black nightclubs in the 30s and tour with the USO during World War II. With legendary Cab Calloway starred in an all-Black version of beloved musical Hello, Dolly! for which she would earn a Tony Award in 1968, Interestingly she was the only actor (other than Carol Channing, another Brave Sis, born January 31, 1921) to take on the title role in multiple Broadway productions of Dolly! But she really became a household fixture in 1971, as one of the first African-Americans to headline a television variety hour, The Pearl Bailey Show, A passionate baseball fan, Bailey was thrilled to sing the national anthem before Game 5 of the 1969 World Series, when her beloved Amazin’ Mets clinched victory over the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles. Do you have a hidden pleasure that would surprise people? Here’s to you, Dolly, and the variety and spice in all our lives!  


Marian Anderson

As an interpreter of classical vocal music, Marian Anderson (February 27, 1897) enjoyed a major career, specializing in styles from Negro Spirituals to German lieder. In addition to wowing audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, she was an avid supporter for equal opportunity for Black artists. Her open-air, Easter Sunday 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial reached an integrated crowd of 75,000 attendees and millions of radio listeners. She’d go on to be the first Black person of any nationality to sing at the Met Opera, in 1955. She’d also serve as a UN Human Rights Committee delegate and a “goodwill ambassadress” to the State Department. A Civil Rights supporter, she famously sang at the 1963 March on Washington. Among Anderson’s many accolades was a 1991 Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement. Can you find some of her recordings to savor?


Toni Morrison

Last but not least: The great Toni Morrison is universally regarded as one of the canonic authors of American letters. This Pulitzer- and Nobel Literature-Prize-winning novelist, essayist, book editor, and college professor also received a Presidential Medal of Freedom and many other accolades of high distinction over her five-decade career. She started out as an editor in the fiction department at New York’s Random House as their first Black woman senior editor. Morrison was able to shepherd in a new generation of African-American writers including poet/novelist Toni Cade Bambara, activists Angela Davis and Huey Newton, and autobiographer (and “The Greatest”) of Muhammad Ali. But with her 1970 debut novel, The Bluest Eye, she launched her own literary career—which would include 12 novels, multiple collections of essays, articles, and even an opera. Her intricate, melodious, and demanding writing style has introduced many new readers into the rigors and pleasures of literary prose. In addition to cinematographic renditions of her work, many have found a book or study club is a great way to get acquainted with and navigate through Toni Morrison’s work. The great Toni Morrison was born three years to the date before the great poet, Audre Lorde!