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6 Amazing Black Americans We Should All Know About

February is Black History Month, a time to focus on celebrating, learning about and understanding Black History. From pioneers to writers to activists, this list is a great starting point of Black Americans to learn about this Black History Month.

Ruby Bridges

Ruby Bridges was one of the first Black students to attend a previously all-white school in New Orleans at the age of six. Despite the Supreme Court ruling in 1954 that ended racial segregation in public schools, southern states continued to segregate. In 1960, a federal court ordered that Louisiana desegregate its public schools. In order to comply with the law, the state created an entrance exam for Black students to enter all-white schools. Bridges and five others passed. Bridges was set to attend William Frantz Elementary School, but it took until November 14 for the school to finally admit her. Because of racial violence, she and her mother had to be escorted to school by federal marshals during her first year.

Her family also faced personal consequences. Her father lost his job, her mother was refused service at grocery stores and her grandparents were evicted from the farm they had lived on for over 25 years. Despite enduring harassment, Bridges continued to attend William Frantz Elementary and eventually graduated from a desegregated high school.

Bridges has gone on to become an activist for racial equality. She is an award-winning author and activist. As of February 2022, she is 67 years old and still lives in New Orleans.

Information from: https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/ruby-bridges and https://www.rubybridges.com/

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery around 1818 in Talbot County, Maryland. At the age of 6, he was sent to Baltimore, Maryland. During this time, he was taught the alphabet by his enslaver’s brother’s wife. From there, he taught himself to read and write and eventually began teaching other enslaved people how to read and write using the Bible. Once word got out to his enslaver that he was teaching enslaved people how to write, he was sent to a different farm. In 1838, he managed to escape the farm after several failed attempts and landed in New York, finding the abolitionist David Ruggles. He soon married Anna Murray, and the couple moved to Massachusetts and changed their last name to Douglass.

Douglass began attending abolitionist meetings in New Bedford. He met journalist and abolitionist Lloyd Garrison who encouraged him to become a leader in the movement. In 1845, Douglass published his first and most well-known autobiography, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.” To guarantee he did not get recaptured after publication, he traveled to Ireland and England where he gave speeches and sold his book. In 1847, Douglass began publishing his abolitionist newsletter, “The North Star” and became involved in the women’s rights movement.

During the Civil War, Douglass continued to speak and work to end slavery and get Black Americans the right to vote. After the war, during the Reconstruction era, Douglass served in various positions in the government, becoming the first Black man to hold high office in the government. Douglass continued to work as an activist, speaker and writer for civil and women’s rights until he died in 1895.

Information from: https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/frederick-douglass and https://www.nps.gov/frdo/learn/historyculture/frederickdouglass.htm

W.E.B Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois was an activist, writer and teacher. He was the first Black person to earn a PhD from Harvard University in 1895. He was a pioneer in using statistics to support sociological findings. He was also a writer, with his most well-known book being, “The Souls of Black Folk,” published in 1903. In addition to being a novelist, Du Bois created the first weekly magazine for Black Americans, “The Moon Illustrated Weekly” which ended publication in 1906.

In 1910, he took the position as director of the NAACP. Du Bois was the editor for the NAACP’s monthly magazine “The Crisis” which he used to draw attention to lynchings and other racial violence and injustices. His involvement caused the NAACP to be known as the leading protest organization for Black Americans. In 1934, he resigned from “The Crisis” and the NAACP due to political disagreements but later returned from 1944-1948.

Du Bois was very active in the Pan-Africanism movement and dreamt of creating an Encyclopedia about the African diaspora. Thus, toward the end of his life, he moved to Ghana to complete this project with funding from the Ghanaian government. He died at the age of 95 in Ghana without finishing the Encyclopedia.

Information from: https://naacp.org/find-resources/history-explained/civil-rights-leaders/web-du-bois and https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/w-e-b-du-bois

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance, a period considered the “golden age” in Black culture, literature, art and music. It began in Harlem, New York City and, according to History.com, “gave…artists pride in and control over how the Black experience was represented in American culture and set the stage for the civil rights movement.”

Hughes was a poet, novelist, essayist, and playwright. He also wrote short stories. His works were heavily criticized at the time by critics, but he was well known and loved by the average Black American. Hughes’ work was so popular that he lived on capital made from his writings and lectures alone. According to The Poetry Foundation, Hughes success was attributed to the fact that “he sought to honestly portray the joys and hardships of working-class black lives, avoiding both sentimental idealization and negative stereotypes.” 

Hughes led an exciting life. By 12 years old, he had lived in six American cities. When his first book was published, he had already worked as a truck farmer, cook, waiter, sailor and doorman at a nightclub in Paris. Langston Hughes died in New York City in 1967. His residence in Harlem was given landmark status after his death by the New York City Preservation Commission, and the street he lived on (East 127th) was renamed Langston Hughes Place.

Information from: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/langston-hughes and https://www.history.com/topics/roaring-twenties/harlem-renaissance and https://poets.org/poet/langston-hughes

Dr. Mae C. Jemison

Dr. Mae C. Jemison is a physician and engineer and was the first Black American female astronaut. Inspired by actress Nichelle Nichols who played Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek, Dr. Jemison became determined at a young age to travel into space.

Dr. Jemison graduated from high school at the age of 16 and went on to get her chemical engineer and African-American studies degrees from Sandford University. Afterwards, she received a Doctorate in Medicine from Cornell Medical School in 1981. Dr. Jemison is fluent in Russian, Japanese, English and Sawhili.

Before applying to become an astronaut, Dr. Jemison served as a medical officer in the Peace Corps and worked as a doctor in her own private practice. However, seeing Sally Ride become the first female astronaut made her decide to apply for the astronaut program at NASA. Dr. Jemison applied in 1987 and was one of 15 people out of 2,000 selected for the space program. She trained at NASA and worked on a couple projects before receiving her first mission. On September 12, 1992, Dr. Jemison went into space with six other astronauts on the space shuttle “Endeavor.” She left NASA in 1993.

After learning that Dr. Jemison liked Star Trek, actor LeVar Burton asked her to appear on an episode. She agreed and played the character Lieutenant Palmer in the episode “Second Chances” on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” She was the first real astronaut to appear on the show. Dr. Jemison has won many awards, written books and launched various initiatives including her nonprofit organization, the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence. Dr. Jemison is 65 years old as of February 2022.

Dorothy Jemison Foundation: https://jemisonfoundation.org/about/

Information from: https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/mae-jemison

Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth was an advocate for abolition, women’s rights and civil rights in 19th century. Truth was born into slavery as Isabella Bomfree in New York in 1797. At the age of 13, she was sold to a man named John Dumont, with whom she was enslaved until she escaped in 1827. Dumont promised her freedom on July 4, 1826 if she did as she was told, but when the day came, he refused to free her. She completed what she felt was necessary and walked away with her new baby. She was unable to take any of her other children with her.

Truth found her way to New York where she and her daughter were taken in and bought out of slavery by the abolitionist family, the Van Wagenens. With the help of the Van Wagenens, Truth sued Dumont after he illegally sold her son, Peter, and she won. She was the first Black woman to sue a white man and win in the United States.

In 1828, she moved to New York City, worked for a minister and began giving religious speeches. As a devout Christian, she believed that the Spirit called on her to speak the truth, thus renaming herself Sojourner Truth in 1843.

Truth met Frederick Douglass in 1844, beginning her career as an equal rights activist. In 1850, Truth dictated her autobiography, “The Narrative of Sojourner Truth.” A year later, Truth delivered her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech during the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in which she spoke about rights for Black women.

In the 1850s, she moved to Battle Creek, Michigan where she helped enslaved people escape to freedom. During the Civil War, Truth helped recruit Black soldiers and worked for the National Feedman’s Relief Association. After the Civil War, she helped freed enslaved peoples find jobs and build their lives. She also lobbied against segregation. Truth continued speaking about woman’s suffrage and racial equity up until her death in 1883.

Information from: https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/sojourner-truth and https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/sojourner-truth

Thank you for reading our article and learning with us! We hope that you continue learning about Black Americans and people and the Black experience this month and every month.

Learn More: Book Recommendations

Books for Children

  • “Dream Big, Little One” by Vashti Harrison 

  • “Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story From the Underground Railroad” by Ellen Levine 

  • “Bedtime Inspirational Stories: 50 Amazing Black People Who Changed the World” by L. A. Amber 

  • “The Undefeated” by Kwame Alexander 

  • “Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer: The Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement” by Carole Boston 

Find more recommendations here: https://www.familyeducation.com/black-history-month/25-must-read-childrens-books-for-black-history-month and https://happilyeverelephants.com/home/kids-books-for-black-history-month/ and https://www.readingrockets.org/booklists/favorite-books-black-history-month 

Books for Adults (Fiction and Nonfiction)

  • “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story” by Nikole Hannah-Jones 

  • “Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019” by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain 

  • “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison 

  • “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi  

  • “The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett

Find more recommendations here: https://parade.com/1166492/alliyahlogan/black-history-month-books-black-booksellers/ and https://innocenceproject.org/books-black-history-month-baldwin-bell-hooks-jesmyn-ward/ 

Have someone we should all learn about or a book recommendation? Tweet us @portdiscovery.

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