by M. G. Indiana
When the word "pioneer" is mentioned, most of us instantly picture a wagon train setting off across the
lonely plains, looking for a new home in the West. Most certainly that is one type of pioneer that has helped to
shape America but that is not the only kind. Other pioneers have faced challenges of a different kind and,
because of their courage, have opened doors to new worlds for the rest of us.
One wouldn't think of singers as pioneers, and yet Marian Anderson most certainly broke new ground. By
1939, she was a well-known opera and concert singer who had performed at Carnegie Hall and in concert
venues across the United States and Europe. Nevertheless, in that year she was refused the right to sing in
Washington's Constitution Hall because of her race. Undeterred, on Easter Sunday of that year, she sang on the
steps of the Lincoln Memorial before a crowd of 75,000. Her famous concert was in many ways the tactical
beginning of the modern civil rights movement. It was a peacefully staged protest concert, and the first major
attempt to bring balance to the themes of social justice and national unity. Almost twenty years later, she
became the first African-American at the New York Metropolitan Opera, and in 1958, President Eisenhower
made her a delegate to the United Nations. In 1963, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In 1981, another American woman made history. Sandra Day O'Connor became the first female member
of the Supreme Court. Until her retirement in 2005, Justice O'Connor was a notable force on the bench. As a
political moderate, she was often the swing vote in crucial decisions. When she began her career, things were a
little different, however. She was an exceptional law student, graduating third in her class from Stanford
University, but finding a position with a law firm in the 1950s was often difficult for a woman. Eventually she
turned her attention to public service. She served six years in the Arizona State Senate, part of that time as state
senate majority leader. She was the first woman in any state to hold that position. Next, she served as judge on
the Maricopa County Superior Court. She was then appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals. Her
appointment to the Supreme Court by President Reagan in 1981 was a noteworthy step forward for women.
Robert Goddard, now known as the father of modern rocketry, was a man of vision and a man who
worked tirelessly to make that vision a reality. Rockets and space fascinated him from the time of his
childhood days in the late 1800s. He maintained that interest in his adult life by becoming a physics professor.
In 1920, he concluded a scientific article by speculating that if his technology were applied to a rocket large
enough, using a powerful fuel, that the rocket might well reach the moon. The New York Times picked up the
story and ridiculed Goddard's notion, dismissing him publicly as an ill-informed crank. Goddard continued to
experiment, but he did so as privately as possible. In 1926, one of his liquid-fueled rockets left the ground at 60
m.p.h. and managed a 2 1/2-second, 41-foot journey into the air. Years later, they would rise to 9,000 feet and
travel faster than the speed of sound, but he had no desire to make his successes public. He died in 1945, and it
was not until 1957 that the United States began to discuss seriously the matter of space exploration. This led to the establishment of NASA. Although this occurred twelve years after Goddard's death, his research did much
to make the space age a reality. In 1959, Congress honored him with a medal. In the same year, NASA's
Goddard Space Flight Center was established in Maryland. Ten years later, when Apollo 11 lifted off for the
moon in 1969, The New York Times published a statement acknowledging the mistaken view of their editorial
about Goddard's work in 1920 and apologizing for their "error."
Yet another pioneer was artist Georgia O'Keeffe. By the time of her death in 1986, she was a
world-renowned figure. At the beginning of the twentieth century, few women attempted a career in art, but
O'Keeffe, a firm believer in originality and hard work, managed to establish herself. She commented that she
was always frightened but that she never allowed that to deter her. Independent and unperturbed by either
flattery or criticism, she proceeded to paint her perceptions of the world around her. Her love of nature and
light drew her to the American Southwest, which offered the artist her greatest inspiration and joy. Through
color, shape, and perspective, her creations won both attention and acclaim. She received the Presidential
Medal of Freedom from President Ford in 1977 and the National Medal of the Arts from President Reagan in
1985, at the age of 97.
These four individuals demonstrate that pioneers come in many forms and that their destinations are
varied. Clear-eyed, they hold to a vision of their own that guides them on their journeys. Exceptionally gifted,
each with a unique offering, these people are American originals.