In 1976, when President Gerald Ford officially recognized February as Black History Month, he called on the public to “honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout out history.” Many of these “too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans” were highlighted in my December 13th and December 20th newsletters, featuring names less well known than those of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Rosa Parks.
In today’s newsletter, I continue to introduce less well-known Black Americans who have been significant in American history.
Carter G Woodson
Harvard-trained historian Carter G Woodson, often considered the “Father of Black History,” joined with the prominent minister Jesse E. Moorland in September 1915 to found the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). The organization was dedicated to researching and promoting achievements by Black Americans and other peoples of African descent. The group sponsored a national Negro History Week in 1926, choosing the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois
W.E.B. Du Bois, or William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, was a Black writer, teacher, sociologist, and activist whose work transformed the way the lives of Black citizens were seen in American society. His groundbreaking book, The Souls of Black Folks, published in 1903, became required reading in African American studies. Du Bois attended Harvard University and in 1895 he became the first Black American to receive a doctorate from Harvard. His doctoral thesis, “The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870” became his first book. In 1899, when his son died from diphtheria after no white doctor would treat the child, Du Bois wrote an essay, “The Passing of the First Born,” which appeared in The Souls of Black Folk.
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In 1903, Jack Johnson won the “Colored Heavyweight Championship of the World” title but White fighters, including Jim Jeffries, the White man who held the world title, refused to fight Johnson. Finally, in 1908, Johnson became the first Black American to hold the World Heavyweight Champion boxing title after knocking out Canadian Tommy Burns in the 14th round. He held that title until 1915. He is still remembered as the greatest defensive boxer in heavyweight history.
John Mercer Langston
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John Mercer Langston was the first Black man to become a lawyer when he passed the Ohio bar in 1854. When he was elected to the post of Town Clerk for Brownhelm, Ohio in 1855, Langston became one of the first Black Americans ever elected to public office in America. In 1888 he was elected to the U.S. Congress as the first representative of color from Virginia. (Joseph Hayne Rainey, the Black Republican from South Carolina, was the first Black man elected to Congress in 1870.) Early in his career he helped runaway slaves to escape to the North along the Ohio part of the Underground Railroad. He later became the first dean of the law school at Howard University after helping to create the department. He was known as an abolitionist, attorney, educator, activist, diplomat and politician.
George Washington Carver
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George Washington Carver, one of the most accomplished people of the 20th century, overcame nearly every obstacle in his path to fulfill his lifelong passion for learning. Born enslaved, he didn’t begin formal education until he was 12 years old, since he was unable to attend the local Whites-only elementary school. In the late 1870’s he moved to Kansas and supported himself through odd jobs before graduating from high school. He received a full scholarship to Kansas’ Highland College, but when he arrived to enroll, school administrators refused to admit him, claiming they were unaware of his race. He later enrolled in Iowa State University where he was accepted as the school’s first Black student and where he received his bachelor’s degree in agricultural sciences when he was around 30 years old. He stayed on as an instructor while getting his master’s degree, becoming the first Black American to earn an advanced degree in the field. Shortly thereafter, he was lured to the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama by Booker T. Washington where he remained for the rest of his career. Carver advocated for increased educational opportunities for Blacks; he focused on vocational skills as a means of advancement; and he organized agricultural schools on wheels that traveled through Alabama. He pioneered emerging agricultural theories like soil conservation and crop rotation and went on to develop 300 derivative products from peanuts, including cheese, milk, coffee, flour, ink, dyes, plastics, wood stains, soap, linoleum, medicinal oils and cosmetics.
Hiram Rhodes Revels
Hiram Rhodes Revels, a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, is the first Black American to ever serve in the U. S. Senate. But when he arrived on Capitol Hill to take his seat, in February 1870, Revels, a Republican, faced Democrats determined to block him, alleging that he had not been a citizen for at least nine years. (Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution requires at least nine years’ citizenship as one of three qualifications for service in the U.S. Senate.) They argued that he had only recently become a citizen with the 1866 Civil Rights Act and the 14th Amendment. Prior to that, the Supreme Court had ruled in the 1857 Dred Scott decision that Black people weren’t U.S. citizens. The reality was that the southern white Democrats didn’t want any Black men in Congress. Revels went on to represent the state of Mississippi in the Senate from February 1870 to March 1871, when he left to become the president of a historically Black college.
Richard Allen, born into slavery on this day in 1760, became a minister, educator, writer, and one of America’s most active and influential Black leaders. He was one of the first African American religious and civil rights leaders in the United States. In the 1770’s, the Reverend Freeborn Garrettson began to preach to slaves in Delaware and encouraged slaveholders to emancipate their slaves. Allen’s master, Stokely Sturgis, was touched by the message and offered his slaves the chance to buy their freedom. Allen discovered religion after hearing Garrettson speak and he eventually earned the money, bought his freedom in 1780, and changed his name from “Negro Richard” to “Richard Allen.” On July 29, 1794, Allen founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), in Philadelphia—the first independent Black denomination in the United States. The African Methodist Episcopal Church is the oldest and largest formal institution in Black America. In 1816, he was elected as a bishop. Allen and his wife, Sarah, operated a station on the Underground Railroad for fugitive slaves from 1979 until his death in 1831.
Mary Jane Patterson
Credit: Oberlin College
In 1862, Mary Jane Patterson became the first Black American woman to receive a B.A. degree. She graduated that year from Oberlin College with highest honors. Patterson went on to teach in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and eventually settled in Washington DC. She was the first Black principal of the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth (now known as Dunbar High School) in Washington, D.C. during the 1870s. During her tenure, the school grew from less than 50 to 172 students, the name "Preparatory High School" was dropped, high school commencements were initiated, and a teacher-training department was added to the school. Patterson helped to establish the school's strong intellectual standards. Although she is a not well-known figure, Mary Jane Patterson was a pioneer in Black education and paved the way for other Black female educators.
Mary Mahoney was born to freed slaves in 1845 in Boston. In 1878, at the age of 33, she was admitted to the New England Hospital for Women and Children’s professional graduate school for nursing. Of the 42 women that entered the program that year, only four completed it in 1879. Mahoney was one of the four women who finished the intense program, becoming the first licensed Black nurse in the United States. She was unable to work in a hospital because of the discrimination faced by people of color in the 19th century so she spent years as a private nurse focusing on the care needs of individual clients. In 1896, she joined the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada which later became the American Nursees Association (ANA). Because of the racism among the white women in the group, she went on to co-found the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) in 1908. After retiring from nursing following 40 years in the profession, she continued to champion women’s rights, and after the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, she became one of the first women registered to vote in Boston.
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Jane Bolin was a trailblazer for women of color who practice law. She was the first Black woman to graduate from Yale Law School, the first to join the New York City Bar Association, and the first to join the New York City Law Department. In 1939, at age 31, she became the nation's first Black woman judge when she was sworn into the bench of the New York City Domestic Relations Court. For twenty years she was the only Black female judge in the United States. Bolin was an activist for children’s rights and education. She worked to encourage racially integrated child services, ruled against the assignment of probation officers based on race, and ensured that publicly funded childcare agencies accepted children without regard to racial or ethnic background. She worked with former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to support a program aimed at rooting out crime among young boys.
Few people know the story of Claudette Colvin, who, when she was 15 years old in 1955, refused to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama – 9 months before Rosa Parks. Most people have heard the name Rosa Parks, but few know that Colvin was the first to challenge the law in the same city, in the same bus system, with very tough consequences. When the bus driver ordered Colvin to get up and she refused, she told the driver she had paid her fare and it was her constitutional right. She is quoted as having later said,” My head was just too full of . . . the oppression we went through. It felt like Sojourner Truth was on one side pushing me down, and Harriet Tubman was on the other side of me pushing me down. I couldn’t get up.” At her school, it was Negro History Week and she had been studying Black leaders like Tubman and Truth, former slaves who became abolitionists. Two police officers put her in handcuffs and arrested her. She is also significant as one of four women plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the court case that successfully overturned bus segregation laws in Montgomery and Alabama. When a New York Times reporter asked her why her name isn’t mentioned as often as that of Rosa Parks, she replied, “My mother told me to be quiet about what I did. She told me: Let Rosa be the one – her skin is lighter than yours and White people like her.”
When Daisy Bates was three years old, her mother was killed by three white men. She was raised in a foster home. Her mother’s death forced her to confront racism at an early age and she dedicated her life to ending racial injustice. She and her husband settled in Little Rock and started their own newspaper, The Arkansas Weekly, one of the only Black newspapers solely dedicated to the civil rights movement. For many years she served as President of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP. In 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled school segregation was unconstitutional. After the ruling, Bates began gathering Black students to enroll in White schools and used her newspaper to publicize the schools who followed the federal mandate. In 1957, she organized the Litte Rock Nine – nine students who integrated Central High School in Little Rock. While the governor called in the National Guard to block the students, President Eisenhower sent in federal troops to escort the children into the school. Bates drove the students to school and worked tirelessly to ensure they were protected from violent crowds. After the success of the Little Rock Nine, she continued to work on school integration. But threats and violence to her home forced her to shut down her newspaper. In 1962, she published her memoir, The Long Shadow of Little Rock, which won an American Book Award.
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Shirley Chisholm was the first Black American woman elected to represent her New York district in the House of Representatives. She was elected in 1968 and broke ground again four years later in 1972 when she was the first Black person to seek the nomination from one of the two major parties for President of the United States. She competed in the primary against George McGovern and George Wallace, who who famously called for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.” While Chisholm was realistic about her chances of winning, she believed her candidacy opened the door for other Black and female candidates to run for president. Shirley Chisholm died in 2005, three years before Barack Obama became the first Black president, nine years before Hillary Clinton became the first female nominee for president from one of the two major parties, and fifteen years before Kamala Harris became the first Black, Asian American, and the first woman to be elected Vice President of the United States.
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In 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first Black American performer to win an Academy Award. She was recognized by the film industry for her portrayal of “Mammy,” a loyal slave governess in Gone with the Wind. Originally from Wichita, Kansas, her family moved to Denver Colorado where she was one of only two Black students in her class at the 24th Street Elementary School. While in high school, she began professionally singing, dancing and performing show skits. In 1909 she dropped out of school to more fully focus on her career. She worked on the vaudeville circuit and established herself as a blues artist, writing her own work. During 1930-31 she landed parts here and there but roles for Black arctors were hard to come by and she was forced to take odd jobs to make ends meet. Then, in 1934, she landed a major on-screen role singing a duet with Will Rogers in Judge Priest. The following year she starred with Shirley Temple and Lionel Barrymore in The Little Colonel, and after that she received a steady stream of offers.
Aesha Ash is an internationally acclaimed, talented dancer who founded a nonprofit to inspire young Black girls to pursue their dance dreams. A student of the legendary School of American Ballet, Ash joined the New York City Ballet at age 18 as the first Black ballerina in its corps. She has performed numerous solos and as a principal. She has performed internationally, working with the Berjat Ballet in Switzerland and across Europe, and with the renowned Alonzo King’s Lions Ballet in United States. Since retiring, Ash created a nonprofit organization called the Swans Dream Project which uses imagery and Ash’s own experience to present an alternative view of Black women to young girls. She is quoted as saying, “One of my goals has been to change the demoralized, objectified and caricatured images of African American women by reminding young ladies from challenged environments that they too can command poise, grace, elegance and beauty – they can be beautiful swans.”
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How many of these people had you heard of?