With Black History Month being celebrated around the world, it is important to take this time to reflect on the Black individuals who worked diligently as heroes, artists and pioneers for a brighter future. The following are 10 figures who have influenced the continued journey toward racial equality in our society.
Ruby Bridges was the first African American to attend the all-white William Frantz Elementary School. At only 6 years old, Bridges was subjected to harassment, an empty classroom with just herself and the teacher and countless death threats daily. Yet, she prevailed through it all. She continues to advocate for civil rights and was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal by former President Bill Clinton.
Gwendolyn Brooks was a highly regarded poet. In 1950, she became the first Black author to win a Pulitzer Prize, for her poetry book Annie Allen. She had a prolific writing career that led to her receiving many other awards, although she was mainly known for her writing. She also spent her time teaching. Her first teaching job was at the University of Chicago, where she taught a course on American Literature. Brooks went on to teach at many other colleges across America.
Shirley Chisholm was the first African American woman elected to the United States Congress. Chisholm was first elected in 1968, and she then went on to serve seven consecutive terms until her retirement in 1983. In 1972, Chisholm became the first African American to run for a major party’s presidential nomination and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.
Bessie Coleman was the first Black woman and the first Native American woman to receive a pilot’s license. Coleman received her license in France on June 15, 1921, and she was educated at Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Her tragic death at age 34 left many people in mourning. However, she continues to be a big inspiration to several in the aviation field.
Claudette Colvin was a pioneer of the 1950s Civil Rights movement. She is most widely known for refusing to relinquish her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. This event happened on March 2, 1955, nine months before her mentor, Rosa Parks, was arrested for the same actions. According to History.com, due to Colvin being pregnant at the time of her arrest, Black city leaders decided not to protest because they deemed her an inappropriate symbol for her cause.
Benjamin O. Davis Jr. was the first African American general in the U.S. Air Force. Davis followed after his father, Benjamin O. Davis Sr., who was the first African American general in the U.S. Army. Davis Jr. commanded the 99th Fighter Squadron and the 332nd Fighter Group during WWII, flying a total of 60 missions. On December 9, 1998, Davis was promoted to a four-star general by former President Bill Clinton.
Marsha P. Johnson, also known as Malcolm Michaels Jr., was an activist as well as a self-made and self-proclaimed drag queen. She was a prominent figure in the NYC art and gay scenes. She was one of the founding members of the Gay Liberation Front, which formed after the Stonewall Uprising. Her hard work during the Stonewall Uprising and beyond has been celebrated by many in the LGBTQ+ community.
Henrietta Lacks’ cancer cells lead to the discovery of the HeLa cell line, an immortalized human cell line. An immortalized cell line reproduces under certain conditions, so Lacks’ cancer cells continue to reproduce even today. The cell line continues to be a source of invaluable information in cancer research. She underwent radium treatments for cervical cancer, and although she soon passed from her cancer, her cells have continued to help with cancer research. However, Lacks’ cells were obtained without her consent and neither she nor her family were compensated for the extraction or the research conducted.
Jesse Owens competed in the 1936 Summer Olympic Games. He won four gold medals during the event, competing in the 100 meter dash, the long jump, the 200 meter sprint and the 4 x 100 meter sprint.
Gordon Parks wore many hats, including photographer, musician, writer and film director. He was one of the first African Americans to produce a film for a major motion picture company, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He was also popular because his photos highlighted the poverty in New York’s Southside Black neighborhoods.
Americans have opportunities to continue learning about Black history beyond the month of February. With continued education, Black history can be celebrated, not erased.
Written by Maggie Barnhill, Contributing Writer, and Hannah Brittain-Du Bois, Contributing Writer