While her early life is shrouded in mystery, Mary Ellen Pleasant left an indelible legacy in California. Born poor, as either a free Philadelphian or an enslaved Georgian, Mary Ellen worked as an indentured servant in a general store as a young woman. Through her time there, she learned a great deal about business and property ownership and eventually became a wealthy woman. She financially supported John Brown and other abolitionist causes and became known as the Mother of Human Rights in California.
Robert Edwin Peary is widely renowned as the first man to reach the North Pole. What is far less known is that Matthew Henson, a Black man who played a vital role in Peary’s expeditions, actually reached the North Pole first. Henson was instrumental in Peary’s successful expedition, going so far as to learn the language of the local Inuits to gain their trust and aid for the journey. While Peary walked the last couple miles to plant the flag, Henson had arrived first by boat.
After learning about Black pilots as a child, Jessie LeRoy Brown was determined to become a pilot. Upon hearing that no Black pilots were serving in the US military, the young man wrote to President Roosevelt in protest. Despite pushback against his race, Brown was eventually admitted to the naval pilot training program due to excellent test scores. Brown became the first Black aviator in the US Navy and received a Distinguished Flying Cross for his service. Sadly, he also became the first Black naval officer killed in the Korean War when his plane was shot down by Chinese infantry fire.
Born the son of a freed slave, Edward Bouchet rose to academic heights unimaginable for his era. Only three US colleges accepted Black students when he finished high school. Edward gained admission to Yale and became the first Black man to receive a Ph.D. in United States history. He was only the sixth American of any race to earn a Ph.D. in physics. Despite his incredible achievements, his job options were severely restricted by his race. He ended up teaching at the Institute for Colored Youth for 26 years, inspiring countless young minds.
William Hastie was an immensely successful lawyer and politician in the first half of the 20th century. He became the first black governor of a U.S. state or territory to serve a full term. He later became the highest-ranking black judge in US history, surpassed only by Thurgood Marshall in 1976 with his nomination to the supreme court. While serving in the War Department during WWII, Hastie argued for integrated military units. He also fought for integrated schools as a judge.
While Thomas Edison is rightfully famed for the invention of the light bulb, its real potential was realized by a black inventory named Lewis Latimer. The son of runaway slaves, Latimer found work as an office boy in a US patent office. Due to his cleverness and skill at drawing, he ended up being hired by Edison as the only black inventor on his team. Edison’s original light bulbs lasted only a few days, making them incredibly expensive. Latimer developed the filament system that made them last far longer and cost less to produce.
Born Timothy Drew in North Carolina, Ali grew inspired by the black identity work of black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey. Wanting to create a Black identity and sense of pride, Ali founded the Moorish Science Temple of America in New Jersey. Additional branches soon followed in Pittsburgh and Detroit. The temple sought to create a sense of pride, identity, civic engagement, and self-sufficiency in black communities. His work inspired Elijah Muhammad and Fard Muhammad, which aided in the creation of the Nation of Islam.
Benjamin Singleton was born into slavery and escaped as a young man. He fled the south and became a vocal abolitionist. He returned to the south but soon decided black Americans would never be able to achieve equality in the white-dominated South. After the end of Reconstruction, Singleton led thousands of black colonists to Kansas to establish black run towns. He then worked as an advocate for promoting black-owned business. An early supporter of black Nationalism, Singleton also was supportive of the Back-to-Africa movement.
32. Martin Delany, Black Nationalist, Physician, Military Officer
Born free in the slave state of Virginia, Martin Delany was a vocal black Nationalist and considered one of the earliest voices in the movement. He became one of three black men admitted to the Harvard Medical School. The black physician heroically stayed in Pittsburgh to treat cholera victims at a time when many doctors fled the epidemic. He later became the first black field officer in the United States Army during the US Civil War. While serving, he was active in recruiting black troops.
31. Henry McNeal Turner, Bishop, and Black Nationalist
Henry McNeal Turner was the first Southern-born Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Born free in South Carolina, he spent most of his life in Georgia. He was a successful community organizer, creating new congregations for the African Methodist Episcopal Church throughout the south. Angered by the creation of Jim Crow laws under Democratic Party leadership in the South during the late 19th century, Turner became increasingly involved in black Nationalism and supported the emigration of black Americans to Africa.
The Soledad Brothers were not, in fact, brothers, but rather three black prison inmates wrongfully charged with the murder of a white prison guard in California’s Soledad Prison. George Jackson, the co-founder of the black Guerilla Family, was shot to death by a guard at San Quentin prison. Fleeta Drumgo and John Clutchette were acquitted by a San Francisco jury and were vocal about their belief that Jackson was murdered. A white prison guard who killed three Black inmates engaged in a fistfight during the same period was exonerated in a secret trial.
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first black female physician in the United States. After working as a nurse, she was admitted to the New England Female Medical College in 1864. After her M.D., Crumpler worked in poor communities in Richmond, Virginia and Boston, Massachusetts aiding those who had little access to medical care. She published the widely renowned medical text Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts in 1883, which is believed to be the first textbook authored by a black academic.
Before Rosa Parks or Claudette Colvin, a brave woman named Irene Kirkaldy was fighting for her rights. Kirkaldy was arrested for refusing to give up a bus seat to a white passenger in Virginia in 1944. NAACP lawyers, including future Supreme Court judge Thurgood Marshall, helped Kirkaldy fight her case. While the Supreme Court ruled in her favor in 1946, southern states basically ignored the ruling. Kirkaldy received a Presidential Citizens Medal for her role in civil rights from President Clinton in 2001.
27. Ella Baker, The Woman Behind the Civil Rights Curtain
Few women were more deeply involved in the American civil rights movement than Ella Baker. While she never sought the limelight, she was instrumental to the inner workings of numerous organizations and public figures. Her first work was helped to create a Young Negroes Cooperative League in New York. She then worked for the NAACP while also helping start the In Friendship organization to fight Jim Crow laws. She helped to organize Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and helped form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. What an incredible legacy.
Daisy Bates was a prominent civil rights activist and publisher in Arkansas. She and her husband founded the Arkansas State Press, a weekly black newspaper that served as vocal support for civil rights. Bates became the Arkansas chapter president for the NAACP. She came to national prominence in 1957, when she escorted the Little Rock Nine to school during the contentious integration of Arkansas schools. The journalist continued to fight for the children after their inclusion, and she is honored with a holiday in Arkansas for her civil rights work.
Anna Arnold Hedgeman achieved many remarkable firsts throughout her life. In 1922, she became the first black graduate of Hamline University. She worked for a number of religious organizations before working as a staffer on the re-election campaign of Harry Truman. She also served in the cabinet of New York Mayor Robert F. Wagner, the first black woman to do so. She was also instrumental in organizing the 1963 March on Washington.
Diane Nash was born in Chicago but ended up in the south at the height of the civil rights movement due to attending university in Tennessee. In 1960, she helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Diane Nash also coordinated the Nashville Student Movement Ride which participated in the Freedom Rides that were ongoing throughout the south in 1961. She spent time in jail for participating in sit-ins and having solidarity with the Rock Hill Nine. She was instrumental in organizing Birmingham’s desegregation campaign in 1963.
23. Amelia Boynton Robinson, Civil Rights Activist
Amelia Boynton Robinson was an incredibly influential figure in the civil rights movement in Selma, Alabama. She began her career in activism in the 1930s after becoming one of the few black women registered to vote in Selma. She helped Martin Luther King, Jr. organize the march from Selma to Montgomery that resulted in Bloody Sunday when Alabama state troopers attacked the marchers. Photos of her injuries helped draw national attention to the work of civil rights activists in the south. Lyndon Johnson invited her to the white house for the signing of the of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
After receiving two college degrees in New York in the 1930s, a feat for a black woman at the time in and of itself, Dorothy Height went on to work for the New York City Welfare Department and a New York branch of the Y.W.C.A. She was active in anti-lynching and desegregation movements. Dorothy Height served on the National Council of Negro Women for over 40 years and even escorted First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to a meeting. She was standing on the platform while Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. After a life as a civil rights worker, she was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom for her activism in 1994.
Bayard Rustin was an invaluable part of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s. A talented organizer, he helped gain a great deal of attention for the change and literally gave Martin Luther King, Jr. a platform to stand on. Sadly, Rustin was never given the limelight himself due to being openly gay. As an openly gay black man in such a tumultuous era, Rustin never received the public respect and admiration he deserved.
Susie King Taylor is the only black woman confirmed to have published a biography of the US Civil War. Taylor was born into slavery in the south. She taught herself to read in slavery and opened a school when she escaped to St. Simon’s Island, Georgia. She later married a man who served in the Union army in the civil war, while she served as a laundress and nurse to Union forces. In many ways, her story mirrors that of Frederick Douglass, who is more widely known for his escape from slavery and self-taught reading and writing skills.
19. John Huggins and Bunchy Carter, Black Panthers
John Huggins and Bunchy Carter founded the Southern California chapter of the Black Panthers. They worked to fight against the white supremacy endemic in the Los Angeles Police Department to protect black neighborhoods. They worked with other Black Panther leaders to fight injustice and serve black communities. The two men were assassinated by the FBI in 1969 while attending the University of California, Los Angeles. UCLA continues to hold annual vigils in memory of the two activists.
Born into slavery, William Wells Brown is widely regarded as the first black man to publish a novel in the United States. Brown escaped slavery in North Carolina in 1834 and became a noted abolitionist. His most famous work was his controversial novel Clotel: or The President’s Daughter which traces the lineage of the children Thomas Jefferson had with his slave, Sally Hemings. His brutal, tragic book depicted the harsh realities faced by slaves, even those who were mixed-race children of a US President.
Charles Hamilton Houston is often referred to as “the man who killed Jim Crow.” After experiencing rampant discrimination during military service in World War I, Houston decided that he would go on a crusade to end Jim Crow. He enrolled in Harvard Law School, attaining his Juris Doctorate. The lawyer later went on to be the head of the school and used his connections to recruit many great minds to the civil rights cause. He also worked as special counsel for the NAACP.
Maxine Waters is still serving as an obvious and influential member of Congress, representing the 43rd District of California. What is less well known is the role she played in ending the Apartheid regime in South Africa. While serving in the California state assembly, she pushed for legislation that would divest all state pension funds from any businesses operating in Apartheid South Africa. The tactic of boycott, divest, and sanction exerted a great deal of pressure on the Apartheid regime and helped hasten its end.
Annie Turnbo Malone is often best known for being the mentor and eventual rival of haircare and bath product mogul Madame C. J. Walker, but Malone was an incredibly successful entrepreneur in her own right. She became a millionaire in the 1920s by developing and selling door-to-door her own line of haircare products targeted to black women. Annie had a factory built to create her products and established Poro College for training new saleswomen. She was also a generous philanthropist, donating a great deal of money to black organizations and families in need.
Gladys Bentley was an immensely talented gender-bending icon of the 1920s and 1930s Harlem. An open lesbian, Bentley belted out feminist anthems and flirted with women in the crowds at her shows, prompting them to sing raunchy lyrics at her in return. She was one of many queer and gender-bending black performers in the Harlem art scene. Sadly, with the rise of McCarthyism, she underwent hormone “gay conversion” type treatment to attempt to be heterosexual out of fear of blacklisting or worse.
13. Margaret Garner, Inspiration for Toni Morrison’s Beloved
Many people are at least familiar with the horrifying plot of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, in which a slave kills her own child rather than let them be returned to a life of slavery. The gut-wrenching maternal decision depicted in the novel was based upon a real woman who had to make the same choice: Margaret Garner. Garner was a Kentucky slave called “Peggy” by her masters who escaped slavery with her husband and children. When slave catchers surrounded their safe house en route to the Underground Railroad, Garner decided to kill her children and herself rather than subject them to the abject horror of slavery. She was only able to kill one child before the slave catchers broke in, arresting her and returning her family to slavery.
In an era that still abounds with hashtags like #OscarsSoWhite to protest the lack of diversity in Hollywood, it may come as a surprise that Zelda Wynn Valdes found great success as a celebrity fashion designer in the middle of the 20th century. Designing for black and white actresses alike, Valdes was, at one point, charging as much as $1,000 per creation. Her famous clients included Marlene Dietrich, Ella Fitzgerald, Mae West, and Josephine Baker. She famously created Marie Cole’s wedding dress for her marriage to Nat King Cole.
Before Spike Lee or Tyler Perry, there was Oscar Micheaux. A prolific independent filmmaker, he wrote and directed over 40 films between 1919 and 1948. While many of his films have been lost and were not widely discussed at the time of their release due to white fears of racial unrest, Micheaux is now regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers of the silent era. His films were incredibly provocative, often featured mixed-race romances, white villains, and intelligent black heroes. In an age where the horrifying Birth of a Nation was a prominent film, Micheaux must have been a breath of fresh air for black audiences.
Bessie Coleman was born to a low-income family of 13 children in a one-room house in Texas. As a child, she studied and learned whenever she wasn’t forced to be out picking cotton to help her family survive. As a young woman, Bessie was determined to become a pilot. However, she had to travel to Europe, as Americans wouldn’t train her. The aviator sadly died at only 26 of mechanical failure, but her aerial stunts as “Queen Bess” in airshows helped inspire young girls of color.
Jackie Robinson is famous for breaking Major League Baseball’s color line in 1947. Lesser known is the fact that the “color line” wasn’t clearly established in baseball’s earliest days in the late 19th century. This loophole allowed several black men, including Moses Fleetwood Walker, to play at the major league level. One man, William Edward White, technically played before Moses Fleetwood Walker, but White was, ironically, white passing and often denied his black heritage. Walker, on the other hand, was open about his culture and often faced discrimination because of it. He played for one season as a catcher with the Toledo Blue Socks in 1884.
Harlem, New York is world renowned for being an epicenter of black culture and art. The concentration of black residents in Harlem is primarily due to one man: Philip A. Payton, Jr. The real estate mogul directed black residents in Manhattan to move to the newly built Harlem area, away from the overcrowding and discrimination rampant in the older black neighborhoods. Payton used white flight to his advantage, getting landlords to turn over buildings to his use to get revenge on neighboring landlords, as they knew white residents would be unhappy with black neighbors. His vision and ingenuity led Harlem to become a cultural Mecca for Black America.
Granville T. Woods was such a prolific inventor that he was often referred to by his contemporaries as the “Black Edison.” He worked extensively with electricity and is credited with either inventing or at least improving the third rail in subway lines. He also developed safety and networking mechanisms for rail systems. Sadly, he had to spend all of the money he earned fighting for legal recognition of his own inventions, as his business partners routinely stole his ideas to pass of their own, knowing that judges and juries would be unlikely to believe a black man capable of such inventions.
Shirley Chisholm was an incredibly influential American politician. She first ran for the New York State Assembly in 1964. In 1968, Shirley became the first black Congresswoman, representing a district in Brooklyn in the House of Representatives. She was one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus. A lifelong advocate for black women holding high government positions, Chisholm herself became the first black woman to run for president in a major US political party when she ran for the nomination as a Democrat in 1972.
Robert Smalls was indeed an action hero. Born into slavery, he became a ship’s pilot on a Confederate army ship during the Civil War. After freeing himself and his crew members’ family from slavery, the crew held an uprising and took control of the boat. Using disguises and the military pass codebook, Smalls successfully navigated the ship into Union-controlled waters and handed it over to Union military command. His fantastic feat led Lincoln to allow black service members in the Union army. He later became a legislator and wrote legislation creating the first free public school system in the country in South Carolina.
4. Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, Founder of Chicago
Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a Haitian Black man, was the first non-Indigenous settler of the area that became Chicago, Illinois. The son of a French Haitian and an American slave, Point du Sable navigated from New Orleans to what is now Peoria, Illinois. While others traveled the area first, he was the first to create a permanent settlement, where he stayed for at least twenty years. He became a wealthy man of sound reputation. Jean Baptiste Point du Sable is regarded as the true father of Chicago.
The 1920s icon Betty Boop was purportedly based on white jazz singer Helen Kane. Kane went so far as to sue to the creators of Betty Boop for stealing her likeness and singing style. What Kane did not admit was that she herself appropriated the style of famed Harlem jazz singer Esther Jones, who performed as “Baby Esther.” While a witness testified in court that Kane watched Jones’ performance and intentionally adopted her style, Kane continued to deny it. Jones appears to be a very early case of a white performer achieving success after appropriating a black artist’s style.
Western films typically depict the wild west as entirely white. This concept couldn’t be further from reality, given that around 25% of cowboys were actually black. Many freed slaves fled west seeking wealth and safety. Bass Reeves was a legendary U.S. Marshall who was an expert marksman, an excellent rider and traveled with a Native American companion. It is entirely possible that he was the source of the Lone Ranger mythology, given his exploits. Despite his success, prejudice was widespread in the west with cowboy liking originating as a slur used towards black cowhands.
When one thinks of the famed Montgomery Bus Boycott, Rosa Parks doubtless comes to mind. However, it was actually a teenaged girl named Claudette Colvin who was first arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white person. At only 15, she maintained her place and was handcuffed. She and three other girls went on to challenge Alabama’s segregation laws in court. The Alabama NAACP felt that an adult woman, their secretary Rosa Parks, would be a more sympathetic public figure for the national attention the movement soon garnered, but Claudette Colvin paved the way.
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