Celebrating the lesser-known figures in Black history
February is Black History Month. To celebrate, we want to share some of the key Black figures in history that you may not have heard of before. They may be lesser known, but their impact is still great. Here are just a few of these truly impressive and inspiring individuals:
Robert Sengstacke Abbott (1870 – 1940)
Without Abbott’s creative vision, many of the Black publications of today wouldn’t exist. In 1905, Abbott founded the Chicago Defender weekly newspaper. The paper originally started as a four-page pamphlet, increasing its circulation with every edition. Abbott and his newspaper played an integral part in encouraging African Americans to migrate from the South for better economic opportunities. The Defender became an economic success and Abbott became one of the first African American millionaires.
Jane Bolin (1908 – 2007)
A pioneer in law, Jane Bolin was the first Black woman to attend Yale Law School in 1931. In 1939, she became the first Black female judge in the United States, where she served for 10 years. One of her significant contributions throughout her career was working with private employers to hire people based on their skills, as opposed to discriminating against them because of their race. She also served on the boards of the NAACP, Child Welfare League of America and the Neighborhood Children’s Center.
Otis Boykin (1920 – 1982)
Otis Boykin’s most notable contribution to science was likely the circuit improvements he made to pacemakers after losing his mother to heart failure — a contribution that has saved countless lives since. But this single improvement was among a long list of achievements. Boykin had 26 patents in his name and is famed for the development of IBM computers, burglar-proof cash register, chemical air filters, and an electronic resistor used in controlled missiles and other devices.
Gwendolyn Brooks (1917 – 2000)
Today, Brooks is considered to be one of the most revered poets of the 20th century. She was the first Black author to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for Annie Allen, and she served as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, becoming the first Black woman to hold that position. She was also the poet laureate of the State of Illinois, and many of her works reflected the political and social landscape of the 1960s, including the civil rights movement and the economic climate.
Alice Coachman (1923 – 2014)
Growing up in Albany, GA, Alice Coachman, got an early start running on dirt roads and jumping over makeshift hurdles. She became the first African American woman from any country to win an Olympic Gold Medal at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London. She set the record for the high jump at the Games, leaping to 5 feet and 6 1/8 inches. Throughout her athletic career, she won 34 national titles—10 of which were in the high jump. She was officially inducted into the National Track-and-Field Hall of Fame in 1975 and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 2004.
Bessie Coleman (1892 -1926)
Despite being the first licensed Black pilot in the world, Coleman wasn’t recognized as a pioneer in aviation until after her death. Though history has favored Amelia Earhart or the Wright brothers, Coleman—who went to flight school in France in 1919—paved the way for a new generation of diverse fliers like the Tuskegee airmen, Blackbirds and Flying Hobos. In 1922, she performed the first public flight by an African American woman. She was famous for doing “loop-the-loops” and making the shape of an “8” in an airplane.
Misty Copeland (1982 – )
Rising star Misty Copeland made history as the first African American Female Principal Dancer with the prestigious American Ballet Theatre. When she discovered ballet, however, Copeland was living in a shabby motel room, struggling with her five siblings for a place to sleep on the floor. A true prodigy, she was dancing en pointe within three months of taking her first dance class and performing professionally in just over a year: a feat unheard of for any classical dancer.
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895)
Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first Black female doctor in the United States. After attending the prestigious Massachusetts private school West-Newton English and Classical School, she worked as a nurse for eight years until applying to medical school in 1860 at the New England Female Medical College. She was accepted and would go on to graduate four years later. Though little is known of her career, it is reported that she worked as a physician for the Freedman’s Bureau for the State of Virginia. She later practiced in Boston’s predominantly Black neighborhood at the time, Beacon Hill, and published A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts.
Philip Emeagwali (1954 – )
Due to cost, Philip Emeagwali was forced to drop out of school at age 14. But this didn’t stop him from becoming one of the greatest computer pioneers of our time. As an adult, Emeagwali began studying nature, specifically bees. The construction of the honeycomb inspired him to rethink computer processing. In 1989, he put this idea to work, using 65,000 processes to invent the world’s first massively parallel processing supercomputer — able to perform 3.1 billion calculations per second. That same year, Emeagwali received the Gordon Bell Prize for his application of the CM-2 massively-parallel computer.
Dr. Dudley E. Flood (1932 – )
After being a principal, Flood went on to work for the North Carolina State Department of Public Instruction from 1970-1973. While working for the Department of Public Instruction, Flood was tasked with helping local communities desegregate their schools (15 years after Brown v. Board of Education). He traveled across the state meeting with elected officials, community activists and parents to ensure desegregation. Flood was inducted into the Educators Hall of Fame at East Carolina University. In 2017, Flood was elected into the Raleigh Hall of Fame. The Friday Institute for Educational Innovation honored Flood in 2020 with the Friday Medal award, which recognizes significant, distinguished and enduring contributions to education.
Dorothy Height (1912 – 2010)
Hailed the “godmother of the women’s movement,” Height used her background in education and social work to advance women’s rights. She was a leader in the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and the president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) for more than 40 years. She was also among the few women present at the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. For all her efforts, she was awarded and recognized by many organizations. In 1989, she received the Citizens Medal Award from President Ronald Reagan and in 2004, Height was honored with the Congressional Gold Medal. The same year, Height was inducted into the Democracy Hall of Fame International.
Mae Jemison (1956 – )
Mae Jemison wasn’t just the first African American woman who orbited into space aboard the shuttle Endeavour. She’s also a physician, teacher, a Peace Corps volunteer, and president of the tech company, the Jemison Group. She continues to work towards the advancement of young women of color getting more involved in technology, engineering and math careers. Jemison has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, National Medical Association Hall of Fame and Texas Science Hall of Fame. She has received multiple awards and honorary degrees including the National Organization for Women’s Intrepid Award and the Kilby Science Award.
Marsha P. Johnson (1945 – 1992)
Before the Netflix documentary brought Johnson’s story to life with the documentary, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson by David France, many people were unfamiliar with the influential role she had on drag and queer culture. Johnson, a Black transwoman and activist, was at the forefront of the LGBTQ movement. In addition to being the co-founder of STAR, an organization that housed homeless queer youth, Johnson also fought for equality through the Gay Liberation Front.
Pauli Murray (1910 – 1985)
Pauli Murray lived one of the most remarkable lives of the twentieth century. S/he was the first Black person to earn a JSD (Doctor of the Science of Law) degree from Yale Law School, a founder of the National Organization for Women and the first Black person perceived as a woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest. Murray’s legal arguments and interpretation of the U.S. Constitution were winning strategies for public school desegregation, women’s rights in the workplace, and an extension of rights to LGBTQ+ people based on Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Gordon Parks (1912-2006)
Parks was the first African American on the staff of LIFE magazine, and later he would be responsible for some of the most beautiful imagery in the pages of Vogue. In 1969, he became the first African American to write and direct a major Hollywood studio feature film, The Learning Tree, based on his bestselling semiautobiographical novel. His next film, Shaft (1971), was a critical and box-office success, inspiring many sequels, helping to shape the blaxploitation era in the ’70s. Parks famously told LIFE in 1999: “I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs. I knew at that point I had to have a camera.”
Bayard Rustin (1912 – 1987)
Dr. King is usually credited for the March on Washington in August 1963. But it was Rustin who organized and strategized in the shadows. As a gay man who had controversial ties to communism, he was considered too much of a liability to be on the front lines of the movement. Despite that, he was considered one of the most brilliant minds and served his community tirelessly while pushing for more jobs and better wages. From his position as president, and later as co-chair, of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, Rustin promoted his view that future progress for African Americans rested on alliances between blacks, liberals, labor and religious groups.
Ethel Waters (1896 – 1977)
Waters first entered the entertainment business in the 1920s as a blues singer, but she made history for her work in television. In addition to becoming the first African American to create and star in her TV show in 1939, The Ethel Waters Show, she was nominated for her first Emmy in 1962. Considered one of the great blues singers, Waters also performed and recorded with such jazz greats as Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman.
Phillis Wheatley (1753 -1784)
The West African-born poet spent most of her life enslaved, working for John Wheatley and his wife as a servant in the mid-1700s. Despite never having received a formal education, Wheatley became the first African American and third woman to publish a book of poems, entitled, Poems on Various Subjects. However, she died before securing a publisher for her second volume of poetry and letters. You can see the monument erected for her at the Boston Women’s Memorial.