There are a handful of important people kids learn about in school and during Black History Month: Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman and George Washington Carver, just to name a few. But while these Black history figures have certainly made significant cultural contributions, there are many more that have fallen under the radar. In order to give your kids an ever-widening view of the world, we’ve found Black history heroes that have left a legacy for generations to come.
When the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional, Daisy Bates stepped up to help a group of Black students integrate into an all-white high school—that group is known as The Little Rock Nine. In the face of constant fear and intimidation, Bates worked tirelessly to escort those young men and women to school every day and protect them from violent crowds. Daisy Bates was a lifelong civil rights activist, and her work is still recognized and today. In the state of Arkansas, every third Monday in February is observed as Daisy Gatson Bates Day, and in 1999 she was Posthumously awarded the Medal Of Freedom.
Ruby Bridges was the first Black student to integrate into a white elementary school in 1960. At only six years old, Ruby walked by protesters screaming awful slurs and angry words at her every day. And yet, she never missed a day of school. Ruby became a lifelong civil rights activist, and in 1999, she established the Ruby Bridges Foundation to help fight racism and promote tolerance and change through education.
Charles Drew is considered a pioneer in blood plasma research, and the modern blood bank. While in attendance at Columbia University, Charles Drew discovered the “shelf life” of blood could be extended by as much as seven days by separating and storing whole blood and plasma separately. Before that, blood could only be stored for up to two days. Charles Drew also wrote a dissertation Banked Blood: A Study in Blood Preservation, where he described the technique he developed and the logistics involved for the long-term preservation of blood plasma. Today Charles Drew is revered as the Father of Blood Banking.
Frederick Douglass was a freed slave who spent his life outside of bondage as an author, an orator and a leader of the abolitionist movement. Even after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, Douglass continued to champion equality, human rights and even women’s rights. Douglass authored dozens of speeches and five autobiographies, the most notable of which is Douglass’ 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.
Claudette Colvin was an early activist in the civil rights movement in Alabama. Nine months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white woman, Claudette Colvin did the same. At the young age of 15, Colvin was later arrested; violating the city’s segregation laws were among the many charges leveled against her. Colvin later told Newsweek, “I felt like Sojourner Truth was pushing down on one shoulder, and Harriet Tubman was pushing down on the other—saying, 'Sit down girl!' I was glued to my seat.”
As a young child, Wilma Rudolph battled a series of debilitating illnesses including, double pneumonia, scarlet fever and polio. She was forced to wear a leg brace, and doctors even told her she would never walk again. But Rudolph overcame her disabilities, and she was intent on pursuing her dreams. Her determination and natural athleticism eventually brought her to the 1960 Olympics, where she became the first woman to win 3 Gold Medals in Track and Field in a single Olympics.
Henry Ossian Flipper
In 1877 Henry Ossian Flipper became the first African American to graduate from West Point. Upon his completion, Flipper was also the first Black man to be commissioned in the Army (or any branch of the military for that matter).
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white woman. This act of defiance sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott and created an impetus for change. One year after Parks' trial, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, Northern (Montgomery) Division, declared racial segregation laws (commonly known as "Jim Crow laws") unconstitutional. Rosa Parks is considered one the greatest heroines in Black history. The United States Congress has called her "the first lady of civil rights" and "the mother of the freedom movement."
Daniel Hale Williams
In 1891, Daniel Hale Williams opened the first hospital with a racially integrated staff. In 1893, Williams was one of the first people to perform open-heart surgery, and he accomplished this feat outside of modern medicine and without the luxury of blood transfusions.
Alice Allison Dunnigan
Alice Allison Dunnigan was the first Black female White House Correspondent. She was also chief of the Associated Negro Press, and in 1948 she became the first Black woman to follow a Presidential campaign (Hary Truman’s) on the road. Years later, Alice Allison Dunnigan served as an education consultant on JFK’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity.
In 1862 during the Civil War, Robert Smalls commandeered a confederate transport boat freeing himself, his crew and their families. Later, Smalls was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives. Robert Smalls was also instrumental in convincing President Lincoln to let free Blacks serve in the Union Army.
Jane Bolin was the first Black woman to graduate from Yale Law School, and in 1939, she became the first Black female judge. Bolin also worked closely with then First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to establish the Wiltwyck School, a program to help eradicate juvenile crime among boys.
Arturo Schomburg was a writer, historian and activist. As a leader of the Harlem renaissance, Schomberg collected art literature and other artifacts belonging to people of African descent. In 1926 his collection was purchased by the New York public library, and today the Schomburg Center is a research division of the NY public library. With more than 11 million items in the collection, the Schomburg center is devoted to the preservation and exhibition of Black history, and the arts and culture of the African diaspora.
Matthew Henson is best known for his participation in a series of Arctic explorations between 1891 and 1909. But his claim to fame was the expedition that culminated in April 1909, where the team he was with finally reached the North Pole. Through these expeditions, Henson made significant contributions to the field of exploration, and to honor those contributions, Matthew Henson was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.
A true pioneer in both race and gender, Shirley Chisholm was the first Black woman elected to Congress representing NY’s 12th District. In 1972, she was also the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. During her time in Congress, Chisholm fought for improved education, health and human services and women's rights. Chisholm famously said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”
In 1938, Fred Jones designed and patented a portable air-conditioning unit for trucks, which was largely used to transport perishable foods. Jones’ invention became invaluable during WWII when the refrigeration units were used to preserve and transport food, blood and medicine to hospitals and soldiers on the battlefield.
Dr. Rebeccca Lee Crumpler
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first female African-American physician. She also wrote Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts in 1883, which is considered one of the first medical texts written by an African American author. After the Civil War, Dr.Crumpler also worked for the Freedman’s Bureau for the State of Virginia, the federal agency that helped over 4,000,000 slaves make the transition from slavery to freedom.
Gwendolyn Brooks was an American teacher, poet and author. During her life, Brooks authored over 20 books of poetry and one novel. In 1968, Gwendolyn Brooks was named poet laureate for the state of Illinois, and In 1950 she was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize.
In 1962 Katherine Johnson's brilliant math skills were called upon to help put John Glenn into orbit around the earth. John Glenn requested that Katherine herself double-check the orbital trajectory of the Friendship 7 from liftoff to splashdown, only then would he carry on with the mission. Later in her career, Johnson also worked on the Apollo Moon Landing project as well as early plans for a mission to Mars. Katherine Johnson also co-authored 26 scientific papers which can still be found in the NASA archives.
Mae C. Jemison
Mae C. Jemison is an American physician and astronaut. In 1987, Jamison was the first African American woman to be accepted into NASA’s astronaut training program. In 1992, Jemison was also the first African American woman in space, flying there aboard the spaceship Endeavor with six other astronauts.
With more than 30 bestselling titles, Maya Angelou wrote 36 books, not the least of which was her first book I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. Although she died in 2014, Maya Angelou is remembered as a brilliant writer, poet and civil rights activist. Oprah Winfrey said of her friend, “Maya Angelou is not what she has done or written or spoken, it’s how she did it all. She moved through the world with unshakeable calm, confidence, and a fiery, fierce grace and abounding love.”
As a young man growing up in South Central LA, Ron Finley was all too familiar with the lack of fresh produce. Determined to change that, Finley started a garden on a dirt patch in the sidewalk outside of his home. When the city cited Finley for gardening without a permit, he rallied other “green activists” and petitioned for the right to grow food in his neighborhood. Finley won, and today he is affectionately known as “The Gangsta Gardener.” Now a community leader, Finley is determined to help urban communities break out of their "food prisons." Finley has traveled extensively, speaking publicly on the topic, and he has even done a TEDTalk that has been watched by over 3 million people.