Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005)
Congress is more diverse now than it’s ever been. However, when Chisholm was attempting to shatter the glass ceiling, the same couldn’t be said. During the racially contentious period in the late ’60s, she became the first Black woman elected to Congress. She represented New York’s 12th District from 1969 to 1983, and in 1972, she became the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Her campaign slogan “Unbought and unbossed” rings even louder today. Senator Kamala Harris paid tribute to Chisholm in her 2020 presidential campaign announcement by using a similar logo to Chisholm’s.
Bayard Rustin (1912-1987)
Claudette Colvin (1939- )
Annie Lee Cooper (1910-2010)
Dorothy Height (1912-2010)
Jesse Owens (1913-1980)
Owens was a track-and-field athlete who set a world record in the long jump at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin—and went unrivaled for 25 years. He won four gold medals at the Olympics that year in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, along with the 100-meter relay and other events off the track. In 1976, Owens received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1990.
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 1920—paved the way for a new generation of diverse fliers like the Tuskegee Airmen, Blackbirds, and Flying Hobos.
Robert Sengstacke Abbott (1868-1940)
Without Abbott’s creative vision, many of the Black publications of today—such as Ebony, Essence, Black Enterprise, and Upscale—wouldn’t exist. In 1905, Abbott founded the Chicago Defender weekly newspaper. The paper originally started out 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.
Ethel Waters (1896-1977)
Waters first entered the entertainment business in the 1920s as a blues singer and then became a Broadway star. Later in life, she made history for her work in television—she was the first African American to star in her own TV show, The Ethel Waters Show, and she was nominated for an Emmy in 1962.
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, Georgia, the soon-to-be track star 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, leaping to 5 feet and 6 1/8 inches. Throughout her athletic career, she won 25 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.
Gordon Parks (1912-2006)
Parks was the first African American photographer on the staff of Life magazine, and later helped found Essence. He also was the first Black writer and director of a studio film, and his second movie, Shaft, 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.”
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. 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 served on the boards of the NAACP, Child Welfare League of America, and the Neighborhood Children’s Center.
Maria P. Williams (1866-1932)
Thanks to the early accomplishments of Williams, who has been called the first woman of color producer, we have female directors and producers like Oprah, Ava DuVernay, and Shonda Rhimes. Williams’s 1923 film The Flames of Wrath had a team of all people of color, and beyond that, the former Kansas City teacher was an activist and writer (she detailed her leadership skills in My Work and Public Sentiment in 1916).
Marsha P. Johnson (1945-1992)
Before Netflix brought Johnson’s story to life with the documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, many people were unfamiliar with the influential role she had on drag and queer culture. Johnson, a Black trans woman and activist, was at the forefront of fighting for LGBTQ rights in the 1960s and 70s (including partaking in the resistance at Stonewall). In addition to being the cofounder of STAR, an organization that housed homeless queer youth, Johnson also fought for equality through the Gay Liberation Front.
Minnie Riperton (1947-1979)
Mariah Carey is heralded for her whistle register, which is the highest the human voice is capable of reaching. But Riperton perfected the singing technique years before and was best known for her five-octave vocal range. The whistling can be heard on her biggest hit to date, “Lovin’ You
.” The infectious ballad was originally created as an ode to her daughter, Maya Rudolph (of Bridesmaids and Saturday Night Live fame). However, before she could become a household name, Riperton died from breast cancer at the age of 31.
Ruby Bridges (1954- )
Bridges probably had no idea that the bold act she committed in 1960 would set off a chain reaction leading to the integration of schools in the South. She was just 6 years old when she became the first African American student to attend William Frantz Elementary in Louisiana at the height of desegregation. Now the Ruby Bridges Foundation exists to “inspire the next generation of leaders to end racism together one step at a time.”
Mae Jemison (1956- )
Mae Jemison isn’t just the first African American woman who orbited into space aboard the shuttle Endeavour. She’s also a physician, teacher, and Peace Corps volunteer; after her work with NASA, she founded the Jemison Group, which develops scientific and technological advancements. Jemison continues to work toward helping young women of color get more involved in technology, engineering, and math careers.
Marian Anderson (1897-1993)
Though she’s considered one of the greatest contralto singers in the world, Anderson was often denied the opportunity to show off her unique vocal range because of her race. However, in 1955, she became the first African American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera, and in 1957, she went on a 12-nation tour sponsored by the Department of State and the American National Theatre and Academy. She documented the experience in her autobiography, My Lord What a Morning. In 1963, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her last major accomplishment before her death was receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys in 1991.
Rose Marie McCoy (1922-2015)
McCoy’s name may not be instantly recognizable, but she wrote and produced some of the biggest pop songs in the 1950s. In an industry dominated by white males, McCoy was able to make her mark through her pen, even if she couldn’t through her own voice. Her songs “After All” and “Gabbin’ Blues” never quite took off on the charts, but she was courted by music labels to write for other artists, including hit singles for Big Maybelle, Elvis Presley, and Big Joe Turner. So now when you hear Presley’s “Trying to Get You,” you’ll remember the name of the African American woman who wrote it.
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 to publish a book of poems, 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. In early 2023, a University at Albany professor discovered a new Wheatley poem, “On the Death of Love Rotch,” that’s now considered her first full-length elegy.
Alvin Ailey (1931-1989)
Ailey was an acclaimed dancer and choreographer who earned global recognition for his impact on modern dance. After honing his technique at the Lester Horton Dance Theater—and acting as its director after Horton passed away—Ailey wished to choreograph his own ballets and works, which differed from the traditional pieces of the time. This inspired him to start the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958, a multiracial troupe that provided a platform for talented Black dancers and traveled around the world. His most popular piece, “Revelations,” is an ode to the Southern Black Church. Ailey died of AIDS at 58, but his company lives on in New York City.
Ella Baker (1903-1986)
Baker was an essential activist during the civil rights movement. She was a field secretary and branch director for the NAACP and cofounded an organization that raised money to fight Jim Crow laws. Additionally, Baker was a key organizer for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But what was perhaps her biggest contribution to the movement was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which prioritized nonviolent protest, assisted in organizing the 1961 Freedom Rides, and aided in registering Black voters. The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights exists today to carry on her legacy.
Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. (1877-1970)
Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., was the first Black general in the U.S. Army. He served for 50 years, beginning as a temporary first lieutenant during the Spanish American War. Throughout his service, Davis was a professor of military science at Tuskegee and Wilberforce University, commander of the 369th Infantry of the New York National Guard, and Special Assistant to the Commanding General, among other positions. He received the Bronze Star Medal and the Distinguished Service Medal and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951)
After being diagnosed with cervical cancer at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951, a sample of Lacks’s cancer cells were taken without her consent by a researcher. And though she succumbed to the disease at the age of 31 that same year, her cells would go on to advance medical research for years to come, as they had the unique ability to double every 20 to 24 hours. “They have been used to test the effects of radiation and poisons, to study the human genome, to learn more about how viruses work, and played a crucial role in the development of the polio vaccine,” Johns Hopkins said. In 2017, Oprah starred in and executive produced HBO’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, adapted from the book by Rebecca Skloot.
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895)
Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first Black woman to earn a medical degree 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 and applied to medical school in 1860 at the New England Female Medical College (which later merged with Boston University). She was accepted and graduated four years later. Though little is known of her career, PBS 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.
Ann Lowe (1898-1981)
Born in Clayton, Alabama, Ann Lowe is considered to be one of America’s most influential clothing designers. She was taught to sew at an early age by her mother and grandmother—both skilled dressmakers who created clothing for wealthy white families around the state. Lowe quickly took to collecting fabric scraps, which she used to create flowers fashioned after the ones in her family’s garden—patterns that later became a part of her signature designs. Her career took off after she accepted a position as an in-house gown maker in Florida, then completed design school in NYC. Lowe established a shop in Tampa, Florida, where she hired 18 seamstresses. In addition to designs that showed up in Vogue and at Academy Award shows, one of Lowe’s most historical pieces of work was the wedding dress Jacqueline Bouvier wore when she married then-senator (later president) John F. Kennedy.
Audre Lorde (1934-1992)
Audre Lorde was a lauded writer and poet known for her radical honesty and fight against racism and sexism. Self-described as a “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” Lorde wrote often about the intersections of her identities. After earning both a BA from Hunter College and a masters from Columbia University, Lorde spent the 1960s working as a librarian in New York. In the 1970s she worked as a poet-in-residence at Tougaloo College in Mississippi and began publishing poetry collections. The works were informed by the intersections of race, class, and gender, and became increasingly more political. Some of her most famous works are “The Master’s Tools Won’t Dismantle The Master’s House” and “Martha.” Lorde passed away in 1992; her first full biography, Warrior Poet, was published by Alexis De Veaux in 2006.
Gil Scott-Heron (1949-2011)
Gil Scott-Heron was a New York City–based writer, spoken word performer, poet, and musician whose 1970s songs are known for laying the groundwork for rap music. If you have heard the phrase “The revolution will not be televised,” you have heard the words of Gil Scott-Heron. While both true and timeless, it’s the title of Scott-Heron’s poem that depicted the disconnected relationship between television/media representation and demonstrations in the street. He has been called the “godfather of rap,” and his music and words have been sampled by rappers like Common and Kendrick Lamar. Even if you haven’t heard of him, his work may sound more familiar than you think. One of his most famous pieces is “Whitey on the Moon” where he criticizes America’s interest in space taking precedence over the well-being of African American citizens.
Frederick McKinley Jones (1893-1961)
Frederick McKinley Jones was orphaned at a young age and raised by his Catholic priest until he dropped out of school at age 11. After a range of odd jobs, he became a janitor in the auto industry, eventually starting work as a auto mechanic teaching himself electronics until he was drafted into WWI. After the war, Jones returned to working on and inventing machines, building a transmitter for his town’s new radio system in the process. He also invented a system that overlaid sound and motion pictures. From this, he was hired to develop sound equipment for the movie industry. One day while driving, he thought up the idea of a system that could keep perishable food cool and fresh while in the car. This idea led to a patent (one of an eventual 60-some patents) for a vehicular refrigeration system. Not only did his idea change how we looked at seasonal foods but also the medical industry and transportation of lifesaving supplies such as blood and medicine.
Gerald Wilson (1918-2014)
Born in Shelby, Mississippi, Gerald Wilson was a trumpeter, jazz composer, arranger, and bandleader known for “redefin[ing] Big Band.” He began taking piano lessons from his mother before taking formal lessons in Memphis. His family moved to Detroit around 1932, where he extended his training at the lauded music program at Cass Technical High School. Known for his unique voice, the hallmark of Wilson’s sound involved the use of multiple harmonies. His band was considered to be one of the greatest in the jazz world, with a sound heavily influenced by the blues mixed with other styles. His work has influenced artists ranging from Duke Ellington to Ella Fitzgerald.