Ida B. Wells, Marsha P. Johnson & More Hidden Figures Receive Obituaries In ‘Overlooked’ Series

The New York Times is looking to rewrite history with their Overlooked series highlighting women like Ida B. Wells, Henrietta Lacks and Nella Larson, who’s legacies were forgotten.

Dropping on International Women’s Day (Mar. 8), the idea came to be by the Times’ Obituary Editor Amisha Padnani and their first Gender Editor, Jessica Bennett. The first collection of women have had their legacies illuminated years after their passing in the form of documentariesfoundations and critically acclaimed films. But Padnami shares how at the moments of their passing, their names essentially went overlooked by legendary publication.

“It is difficult for me as a journalist to see important stories go untold. But perhaps more important, as a woman of color, I am pained when the powerful stories of incredible women and minorities are not brought to light,” Padami said. The pieces don’t follow the traditional layout of an obit, but they vary in voice and style since their written by writers and editors who’ve admired the women. The series also looks to highlight other people of color in the later weeks.

Here’s a few snippets of the Overlooked series below:

Ida B. Wells

Journalist And Suffragist Ida Wells Barnett
CREDIT: Getty Images

Legendary African-American journalist and early leader of the Civil Rights Movement. 

Wells is considered by historians to have been the most famous black woman in the United States during her lifetime, even as she was dogged by prejudice, a disease infecting Americans from coast to coast.

She pioneered reporting techniques that remain central tenets of modern journalism. And as a former slave who stood less than five feet tall, she took on structural racism more than half a century before her strategies were repurposed, often without crediting her, during the 1960s civil rights movement.

Marsha P. Johnson

Marsha P. Johnson

Johnson was a prominent figure in the Stonewall uprising of 1969. 

Her goal, she declared in an interview for a 1972 book, was “to see gay people liberated and free and to have equal rights that other people have in America,” with her “gay brothers and sisters out of jail and on the streets again.” She added, in a reference to the radical politics of the time, “We believe in picking up the gun, starting a revolution if necessary.”

The 1970s were a time of greater visibility for Johnson. Tall and slender, she had a knack for commanding attention. Her outfits — red plastic high heels; slippers and stockings; shimmering robes and dresses; costume jewelry; bright wigs; plastic flowers and even artificial fruit in her hair — were often assembled from scavenged or discarded materials.“I was no one, nobody, from Nowheresville, until I became a drag queen,” she said in a 1992 interview.

Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks
CREDIT: Wikipedia

Lacks’ immortal cells are considered to be the biggest medical miracle of the last century.

Though she was forgotten at the time, part of her remained alive, at the forefront of science. While a cure for cancer remains elusive, the cell line named for her, HeLa (pronounced hee-lah), has been at the core of treatments for hemophilia, herpes, influenza, leukemia, and Parkinson’s disease as well as the polio vaccine, the cancer drug tamoxifen, chemotherapy, gene mapping, and in vitro fertilization.

In 2001, 50 years after Lacks died, her daughter Deborah visited Johns Hopkins Hospital and closed her eyes as a cancer researcher opened the door of his floor-to-ceiling freezer. Deborah then opened her eyes slowly, and stared at vials of red liquid. “Oh, God,” she gasped, “I can’t believe all this is my mother.” When he handed her one, she said, “She’s cold,” and blew on the tube to warm it. “You’re famous,” she whispered to the cells.

Nella Larsen

First African-American woman to be admitted to the library school of the New York Public Library.

By all appearances, the family was white. But Nella Larsen was different, something that would come to inspire her fiction — celebrated during the Harlem Renaissance, forgotten by midcentury and rediscovered to be read today in American literature and black studies courses.

Larsen first expressed a professional interest in literature and art as a volunteer helping to prepare the New York Public Library’s first exhibition of African-American artists. She later enrolled in the library’s teaching program, eventually becoming its first black female graduate.

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