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Three Minneapolis women who broke cheerleading color barriers

MINNESOTA SPOKESMAN-RECORDER — Prior to 1923, cheerleading had been an exclusively White male activity. That year, the University of Minnesota (U of M) became the first school in America to allow female cheerleaders. It remained an all-White activity there, however, until Dana Purdue Williams became the first African American cheerleader at the U of M in 1975.




By Ken Foxworth

Two trailblazing cheerleaders were recognized at St. Peter’s Church in Minneapolis: (l-r) Harriet Bowman Solomon, Gwendolyn Morrow Fraction; Rev. Carla Mitchell, pastor of St. Peter’s; and former Minneapolis Public Schools.superintendent Dr. Carolyn Johnson.

Few people realize that not only did women athletes cheerleading at sporting events originate right here in Minnesota, but also several strong African American women made Black history here by breaking the cheerleading color barrier.

Prior to 1923, cheerleading had been an exclusively White male activity. That year, the University of Minnesota (U of M) became the first school in America to allow female cheerleaders. It remained an all-White activity there, however, until Dana Purdue Williams became the first African American cheerleader at the U of M in 1975.

Below are Williams’ story and two other earlier cheerleading firsts that inspired her to pursue her own dream.

Gwendolyn Morrow Fraction

A 1950 Minneapolis North High School graduate, Fraction became in 1949 the first African American cheerleader in the state of Minnesota. Upon graduation, she worked for Northwestern Bell and in banking, insurance, and accounting. At age 85, Fraction still volunteers in the community and is known for her beautiful voice.

Following in her mother’s footsteps, Fraction’s daughter Cindy became a cheerleader for Washburn High School, graduated in 1983, and is now program director of research at the University of St. Thomas.

Harriet Bowman Solomon

A 1951 Central High School graduate, Solomon watched her brothers play football and other extracurricular activities. Her brother Earl Wesley Bowman attended college on a football scholarship, played baseball at a major university, played semi-pro football, and became the first African American president of Minneapolis Community College. Her other brother, Henry Bowman, was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen as well as a Big 10 regional player.

Harriet wanted to establish her own legacy and accomplished this through cheerleading. She was the first African American cheerleader at Minneapolis Central High in 1950 and later worked for Northwestern Bell. After retirement in 1995, she volunteered at McRae Park.

Edward C. Soloman Park near Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis was named after Harriet’s husband for his outstanding contribution to the Minneapolis park system as a board member and a volunteer at McRae Park

Dana Purdue Williams 

This 1975 Washburn High School graduate who went on to become the U of M’s first Black cheerleader says that at an early age she watched her mother, Harriet Bowman Solomon, cheerleading in the kitchen, living room, or anywhere else where she had space and a chance. She also watched her best friend Gwendolyn Morrow Fraction doing the same, all while having fun.

MSR News Online/MSR News Online Dana Purdue Williams as a U of M cheerleader in 1975

Williams recalls her mother enrolling her in ballet classes at the tender age of six. At age 10 she attended the Minnesota Dance Theater children’s workshop, where she became an apprentice and mastered the program by age 15.

She thought all of that experience and her mom’s example put her in position to make Minnesota Gopher history. “When I saw the 1975 tryout poster for the University of Minnesota cheerleading squad,” Williams says, “I truly knew that I was ready to go complete. I saw myself being a Gopher cheerleader at the age of seven. I planned this all my life, and no one was going to stop me from pursuing my dream!”

As Williams took her inspiration from predecessors Fraction and Solomon, so did she take their career advice, becoming a flight attendant for 40 years at Delta/Northwest Orient Airlines. She now works as an ambassador for Delta Airlines, visiting their headquarters in  Atlanta, GA to inspire and motivate future flight attendants to be all that they can be for the customers and the company.

Williams has also has been giving back to her community through the years by helping young inner-city girls and working with football camps at McRae Park in South Minneapolis.

Cheerleading history’s importance

The most important thing in sports is not just the games and their players — it’s the fans and their enthusiasm that makes the games so wonderful. And who is it that gets the fans yelling themselves raw cheering on their teams to victory? That’s what the cheerleaders do, though rarely do they get credited for their athletic contributions to the sports world.

Not so long ago, cheerleading was the only opportunity for girls to be seen and heard as athletes at their schools, colleges and universities. Before the Title IX federal civil rights law came into effect in 1973, girls did not have the same opportunities as boys to develop their skills in sports. The only thing they could do was to go out on that field and cheer on their team.

Fraction, Solomon and Williams all made important strides for Black women athletes between 1949 and 1975. Thanks to them and many others like them, girls around the Twin Cities can now aspire not only to become cheerleaders in high school and their respective universities and colleges. Now they can aspire to compete as athletes in any sport that captures their dreams.

This article originally appeared in the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder


Democrats in Sacramento Take Steps to Make Voting Easier

Recently, in some states, most notoriously Georgia and Florida, lawmakers have taken steps to restrict voting access and rights for many Americans. But in California, policymakers and legislators are doing the opposite, making proposals to simplify the voting process and expand access to the polls. 




The electoral process is foundational to the durability of America’s democratic structure.

And as the battle for fairer voting laws rages on, politicians and activists on the political Right claim they are responding to allegations of widespread voter and election fraud. Those on the Left say they are rallying to fight a coordinated political offensive to restrict access to the polls and increasing reports of voter suppression.

Recently, in some states, most notoriously Georgia and Florida, lawmakers have taken steps to restrict voting access and rights for many Americans. 

But in California, policymakers and legislators are doing the opposite, making proposals to simplify the voting process and expand access to the polls. 

Invoking the violent history of voter suppression in the South that her parents endured, which sometimes involved murders — California Secretary of State Shirley Weber says it is a priority of hers to “ensure the right to vote.” 

“I tell people all the time that no number is good unless it’s 100% in terms of voter participation,” Weber told the Public Policy Institute of California. “Why didn’t 5 million go to the polls? We need to figure out where they are and what stopped them from going.”

In the California Legislature, an amendment to Senate Bill (SB) 29, which passed earlier this year, was one bill in a broader legislative effort to secure the right to vote in vulnerable communities.

Before that amendment passed, California law dictated that a ballot would be mailed to all eligible voters for the November 3 statewide general election in 2020 as well as use a Secretary of State vote-by-mail tracking system to ensure votes are counted. 

SB 29, which the governor signed into law in February, extended those requirements to any election “proclaimed or conducted” prior to Jan. 1, 2022.

A record number of voters participated in California elections in 2020. Some political observers attribute that spike to the vote-by-mail system instituted last year.

“To maintain a healthy democracy in California, it is important to encourage eligible voters to vote and to ensure that residents of the state have the tools needed to participate in every election,” the bill reads.

Senate Bill (SB) 583, introduced by California State Sen. Josh Newman (D-Fullerton), would require the Secretary of State to register or preregister eligible citizens to vote upon retrieving the necessary paperwork from the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

Citizens who do not wish to be registered can opt-out of the process altogether.

Newman stressed the importance of access and simplifying the voter registration process. 

“In our state there are an estimated 4.6 million U.S. citizens who are eligible to vote who have not yet registered,” Newman said. “Our obligation as the people’s elected representatives is to make the process simpler and more accessible for them.”

On April 27, the Senate Transportation Committee passed SB 583 with a 13 to 3 vote. The Appropriations Committee has set a hearing for May 10. 

Senate Bill (SB) 503, introduced by Sen. Josh Becker (D-Menlo Park), proposes that if a signature shares enough characteristics with a previous signature from the same voter, then it would be recognized as official on voting paperwork.

Current law dictates that a signature has to match exactly for it to be considered valid.

Disability Rights California (DRC), a non-profit advocacy organization that advances and protects the rights of Californians living with disabilities, has come out in support of SB 503.

“Studies have shown that signature matches disproportionately impact voters with disabilities,” Eric Harris, director of public policy for the DRC wrote in a letter. 

“Voters with disabilities, including seniors, are more likely to vote by mail and would have to sign their name on their ballots,” Harris argued. “A voter’s signature changes over time and for people with disabilities, a signature can change nearly every other time one is written. Some people with disabilities might have conditions that make it difficult to sign your name the same way multiple times.”

For now, the Senate Appropriations Committee has tabled SB 503, placing the bill in what the Legislature calls a “suspense file,” where it awaits further action by lawmakers. 

At the federal level, lawmakers have introduced two bills in the U.S. Congress to expand voting rights, the For The People Act of 2021 and the John L. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

The For The People Act, or H.R.1, proposes a three-pronged approach to expanding election access: Voting, campaign finance, and ethics.

Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington Bureau and senior vice president for Advocacy and Policy, compared the current voting rights battle to that of the Civil Rights Movement in a press conference about H.R.1 and the John L. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

“If you look at some of those 1960s shots of the C.T. Vivians of the world, of the Joe Lowerys and so many others that helped lead Americans to those registration sites, you’ll see them actually literally being beaten to the ground,” Shelton said, referring to well-known Civil Rights Movement activists. 

The John L. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021, or S.4263, would amend the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to restore the powers it lost after the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby v. Holder.  In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that laws requiring states and local communities to first clear any changes to voting their local laws with the feds, was unlawful.  

“Well, we’ve become more sophisticated in our disenfranchisement,” Shelton continued. “We want to make sure that we stop that disenfranchisement all along the way and that’s why we’re convinced that a bill named for John Lewis and a bill that speaks for the people are bills that need to pass.”

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Black History

Odetta Gordon: Citizen of the World

Bob Dylan once commented that “hearing Odetta on record turned me on to folk singing.”




Odetta Gordon (1930–2008) was born in Birmingham. After her father’s death, she moved to Los Angeles with her mother. What she didn’t leave behind was the soul of Birmingham. The city’s deep Southern music had become a part of young Odetta’s being.
At age 13, Odetta studied piano, had voice training, and taught herself to play the guitar. Later, she earned a degree in classical music from Los Angeles City College and performed in a 1949 production of Finian’s Rainbow in San Francisco. Soon (1950s) she would emerge as an important figure in the New York folk music scene.
Gordon relocated to New York City, where her talent was supported by performers such as Harry Belafonte and Pete Seeger. With their encouragement, she performed and recorded more widely. Her repertoire included a distinctive blend of spirituals, slave songs, prison and work songs, folk ballads, Caribbean songs, and blues. Her career had taken off.
In New York, Gordon released her solo recording, Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues (1956), followed by At the Gate of Horn (1957). Bob Dylan once commented that “hearing Odetta on record turned me on to folk singing.” Her voice beckoned four repeat performances at the Newport Folk Festival (1959–65) and subsequent appearances at Carnegie Hall, on television and in several films including Sanctuary (1961).
Gordon’s career continued to blossom. She performed with symphony orchestras and in operas worldwide. She was a featured performer throughout the states, her audience weaving through various cultures. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. dubbed Gordon “queen of American folk.” She had the “ear” of the people, thus  were next on her agenda.
In 1963, Gordon performed at the historic March on Washington and took part in the March on Selma. She sang for President Kennedy and his cabinet on the nationally televised civil rights special, Dinner with the President. Through addressing political and social issues Gordon had become an important advocate for civil rights; an activist for social change.
Sadly, the movement lost steam and interest in folk music began to wane. As a result, Gordon’s career started to lose its fire. Still, she continued to perform throughout the 1960s and 70s internationally. She recorded Odetta Sings the Blues (1967) and in 1974, appeared in the television film The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. In 1987, the concert marking forty years of her life as a performer (1986) was released as the live recording Movin’ It On.
In 1999 President Clinton awarded Gordon the National Medal of Arts, the highest award given in the arts in the United States. The Library of Congress, in 2003, named her a Living Legend.
Gordon is remembered as an American folk singer who was noted especially for her versions of spirituals and became for many the voice of the civil rights movement of the early 1960s. She passed away on December 2, 2008, at the age of 77.

Image:  By Jac. de Nijs / Anefo – Nationaal Archief, CC0,

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Black History

John McHenry Boatwright: Operatic Bass-Baritone

  As a member of the Hamburg Opera in Germany, he sang the lead in the 1967 premiere of Gunther Schuller’s Visitation. In 1969, he took part in the premiere performance of Dave Brubeck’s “The Gates of Justice.”




John McHenry Boatwright.

 It was in the sanctuary of St. James A.M.E. Church in Tennille, Ga. that John McHenry Boatwright (1928–1994) developed a passion for music. He was seven years old at the time and a natural piano player. 

     Boatwright was the youngest son of Levi and Lillie Boatwright. His father was a switchman in Tennille’s rail yards. He found himself out of work when the Great Depression struck in 1929. Boatwright’s mother helped to support the family by working as a cook in a private home.

   The people around young Boatwright who’d experienced his gift knew that his talent would go unrecognized if he stayed in the South. So, his older sister invited him to live with her. By age 12, he’d abandoned familiar surroundings for opportunities in Boston.

    As time progressed, his talent exploded. Young Boatwright would soon face the conundrum of finishing high school or playing jazz music. His choice was the latter, yet he wouldn’t allow his education to suffer. He completed his high school studies at night.

    He later attended the New England Conservatory of Music. To afford the tuition fees, he worked as a cab driver, elevator operator, and at other odd jobs. Throughout those times, Boatwright focused on developing and training his voice. Near the close of his studies there, the voice became his major. In order to support these lessons, he tutored other students in the art of singing. Boatwright received a bachelor’s of music degree ‘sin 1950 and a bachelor of music in voice in 1954 from the conservatory. 

    After his 1956 debut in Boston, he sang the lead role in Clarence Cameron White’s “Ouanga,” presented by the National Negro Opera Foundation at the Metropolitan Opera House. In 1958, he made his operatic debut with the New England Opera Theater in the role of Arkel in Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande.” His performance led to an invitation to sing with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

    Boatwright later created the central role in the 1966 premiere of Gunther Schuller’s “Visitation.” He repeated the role at the Metropolitan Opera. He also performed the role of Crown in the first complete stereo recording of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” with the Cleveland Orchestra.

    As a member of the Hamburg Opera in Germany, he sang the lead in the 1967 premiere of Gunther Schuller’s Visitation. In 1969, he took part in the premiere performance of Dave Brubeck’s “The Gates of Justice.”
    Making numerous appearances as a recitalist, he sang for several presidents at the White House. This included his performance during President Jimmy Carter’s 1977 inauguration.

    Boatwright was the recipient of several music prizes, among them are two Marian Anderson Awards and first place in the National Federation of Music Clubs competition.
    For many years Boatwright taught voice at Ohio State University. At his death in 1994, he was a professor emeritus at the university’s school of music. He was buried in Bronx, N.Y.


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