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Black History: 15 Figures You Should Know

Black History Month is today an annual event marked in countries around the world to commemorate and share the often-overlooked contributions and historic achievements of Black and African-American individuals on our nation and the world.

But did you know we’re coming up on the 100th Anniversary of the beginnings of Black History Month? Indeed! In 1915, Carter Woodson (Harvard-trained historian) and Minister Jesse Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), an organization dedicated to researching and promoting achievements by Black Americans and other peoples of African descent. The group sponsored its first national Negro History Week in 1926, in February, to coincide with the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist/writer/statesman Frederick Douglass.

After that first celebration in 1926, cities throughout the nation began recognizing Negro History Week annually. In the late 1960’s, thanks to the civil rights movement and growing awareness of Black identity, the event blossomed into Black History Month. In 1976, President Ford officially recognized Black History Month nationwide. Every President since has recognized Black History Month in February as, in Ford’s words, “the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

Each February, the outstanding contributions of figures such as Harriet Tubman, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks are recognized and rightfully so. However, our nation’s history is rife with Black figures who blazed trails and broke down barriers for those who came after them. Here are just 15 more who may not be as well known but have had immeasurable impact on our nation’s history.

  1. George Washington Carver was an American agricultural scientist and inventor who promoted alternative crops to cotton and methods to prevent soil depletion. His techniques are still praised today.
  2. In 1968, Shirley Chisholm became the first African-American woman elected to the U.S. Congress. Just two years later, she co-founded the National Organization for Women (NOW) and only two years after that became the first Black person to seek the presidential nomination from either of the two major political parties.
  3. Born in 1848, Lewis Howard Latimer was an American inventor and patent draftsman for the patents of the incandescent light bulb, among other inventions.
  4. Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first Black female doctor in the United States. She graduated from medical school in 1864. She would go on to work as a physician for the State of Virginia, and died 25 years before women were afforded the right to vote.
  5. Ida Bell Wells-Barnett was an American investigative journalist, educator, and early leader in the civil rights movement. She was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
  6. Born in 1956, Granville Tailer Woods was an inventor who held more than 60 patents in the U.S. He was the first African American mechanical and electrical engineer after the Civil War. Self-taught, he concentrated most of his work on trains and streetcars.
  7. Marsha P. Johnson was a Black trans woman and activist at the forefront of the LGBTQ movement. She was a prominent figure in the Stonewall uprising in 1969, and in 1972 established a shelter for gay and trans youth living on the streets of New York.
  8. Born in 1844, Elijah J. McCoy was an engineer of African American descent who was notable for his 57 US patents, most having to do with the lubrication of steam engines.    
  9. Ruby Bridges was just six years old when she became the first African America student to attend William Frantz Elementary in Louisiana in 1960. She was the subject of Norman Rockwell’s famous “The Problem We All Live With” painting that saw renewed interest when Kamala Harris was named as Vice Presidential candidate.
  10. Born is 1949, Lonnie George Johnson is an American inventor, aerospace engineer, and entrepreneur, whose work history includes a U.S. Air Force term of service and a twelve-year stint at NASA, including the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
  11. Jean Baptiste Point du Sable was a Black man from Haiti, credited with founding Chicago. While he was not the first Black person to pass through the area, he was the first to establish a permanent settlement where he lived for at least 20 years. He set up a trading post on the Chicago River where it meets Lake Michigan and became a wealthy man from the growing trade and settlement in the area.
  12. Born in 1942, Patricia Era Bath was an American ophthalmologist, inventor, humanitarian, and academic. She was an early pioneer of laser cataract surgery.
  13. Irene Morgan Kirkaldy was arrested in 1944 in Virginia after she refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, 11 years before Rosa Parks and while she was working on the production line of the B-2 Marauders during World War 2.
  14. Born is 1892, Bessie Coleman was the first licensed Black pilot in the world. She paved the way for a new generation of diversity in flight.
  15. Ella Fitzgerald became the first African-American to win a Grammy award in 1958, as well as the first woman to be nominated for Album of the Year (which she won). 

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