Black History Month

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Notable Black History Month Figures Your Kids Aren't Hearing About In Class

There's more to talk about this month than you think.

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February is Black History Month, but too often, there are too many notable Black history month figures your kids aren't hearing about in class. That's why it's so important to highlight some of these amazing people, because their words and deeds should not become casualties of the silences of history.

Growing up in white suburban America, I learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harriet Tubman in history class, and LeVar Burton thanks to Reading Rainbow. That was basically it. We learned about why Black people were crucial in American history, but not about the people themselves. It was nothing less than an erasure of their lives and individuality. For instance, I didn't learn about Nat Turner and his brave rebellion, nor did we read the autobiography of Malcolm X. (Yet, there was an entire unit on Robert E. Lee, and another on President Johnson.) We never read a poem by Langston Hughes, or an essay by Audre Lorde. I didn't know who Henrietta Lacks was until I read the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, even though we talked about her cells in biology. These amazing people are all deserving of their own immortality. They should be lauded and praised, taught in classrooms and spoken about at home.

1

Dr. Carter G. Woodson

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Dr. Carter G. Woodson and other historians are the reason that Black History Month even exists. It is thanks to them that I'm even writing this post. They tirelessly campaigned for the recognition, as History reported, citing grave oversights by white historians.

2

Anne Pauline "Pauli" Murray

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Pauli Murray was a civil rights activist who believed that "separate but equal" was by no means good enough. As a law student at Howard University, she challenged the other students to look beyond the constraints of Plessy v. Ferguson, saying that it would be overturned, and that full rights for Black people lay on the other side, according to The New Yorker.

And she was so much more than that. She was the first Black woman to become an episcopal priest. She was a poet and a staunch supporter of women's rights, joining with Betty Friedan to form the National Organization of Women (NOW).

Her intellect was astounding. It was her words that were used by Thurgood Marshall and Spottswood Robinson to challenge Jim Crow. And it was her words that Ruth Bader Ginsburg would use to argue that women and men should have equal justice under the law.

3

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams

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Recognizing the suffering of the Black community, surgeon Dr. Daniel Hale Williams founded the very first Black-owned hospital in the United States, per Columbia University. It was there that in 1893, at the age of 35, he performed the first ever successful heart surgery. He would later help organize the National Medical Association for Black Professionals (who were not permitted entry to the American Medical Association), and eventually became the first African American to be inducted into the American College of Surgeons.

4

Captain Gail Harris

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In 1973, Captain Gail Harris became the first woman to work as an operational combat job as an intelligence officer, noted The Daily Beast. Facing myriad microaggressions and acts of discrimination against her, she pressed on to serve in the Navy for over 28 years, traveling the globe and helping intelligence agencies collect untold amounts of data.

5

Harriet Jacobs

Author of Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs moved thousands (perhaps millions) of Americans with her biography of life as an enslaved person. In the book she wrote candidly about the sexual and physical abuse suffered by the enslaved, and how it is that she became a free woman.

6

Bayard Rustin

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Openly gay civil rights engineer Bayard Rustin was Martin Luther King, Jr.'s right hand man. He organized protests against the racist establishment in the United States beginning in the 1940s, according to Stanford University. Of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and subsequent Civil Rights Movement, he said, “As I watched the people walk away, I had a feeling that no force on earth can stop this movement. It has all the elements to touch the hearts of men.”

7

Constantin Henriquez de Zubiera

He was the first Black person to play in the modern-day Olympics, reported Black Enterprise, playing rugby and tug of war for Haiti in 1900 and paving the way for athletes like Jesse Owens.

8

Charlotte E. Ray

Charlotte E. Ray was the first Black female attorney in the United States. Studying at Howard University, she became one of only a handful of female attorneys at the time, wowing courts with her prosaic petitions, according to The History Channel.

9

The People of The Great Migration

Between 1915 and 1970, six million Black people would leave the Jim Crow South and flee north to places like New York, Detroit, and Chicago, hoping for a better life. Recounted in The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, the journey was often fraught with danger, little respite, and done with a great deal of faith.

10

Alice Dunnigan

Alice Dunnigan was the first Black woman to receive press credentials to cover the White House. As a journalist, a Black woman, and daughter of a sharecropper, she had to fight every area of the system to prevail. She eventually took over as head of the Associated Negro Press Washington Bureau on January 1, 1947, according to the New York Times, and would pen hundreds of stories for the outlet.

11

Robert Smalls

The full story of Robert Smalls reads like the most harrowing adventure novel you've ever read. In the effort of brevity, I will tell you that he was born into slavery, and at age 23 would commandeer a confederate ship called Planter, and delivered it to the incoming Union soldiers, so that he could buy the freedom of his family. Smithsonian Magazine reported that when Smalls told his wife Hannah of his plan and its dangers, she said to him, “It is a risk, dear, but you and I, and our little ones must be free. I will go, for where you die, I will die.”

12

Miss Major

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Miss Major Griffin-Gracy is a visionary of the trans movement. A veteran of the Stonewall Riots, Miss Major has been on the front lines of the battle for equality, fighting in step against racism, bigotry, and sexism. In 2005, Major began working with the San Francisco group Trans Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP), eventually retiring in 2015.

13

Lucy Parsons

Lucy Parsons was a radical anarchist, an activist, and a labor organizer. In 1905, she helped to found the International Workers of the World, where she fought tirelessly to increase wages, install labor unions, and work toward better conditions for everyone. She and her husband were also hugely influential in the area of prison reform and justice.

14

William Henry Hastie

Hastie became the first African-American federal judge when he was appointed by Theodore Roosevelt in 1937 to the Federal District Court in the Virgin Islands. As Howard University noted, "from 1941 to 1943, William H. Hastie was a civilian aide to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson." However, he eventually resigned this position in protest of the racial segregation and discrimination rampant in the armed forces.

15

Emperor Mansa Musa

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In 1312, Emperor Mansa Musa became ruler of the Mali Empire, according to History. During this time, Europe, for all of its future in "manifest destiny," was broke. Thanks to gold and salt, the Mali Empire was doing just fine. In fact, Mansa Musa is thought to be one of the richest leaders to have ever lived. On his journey to Mecca, with his literal thousands of followers, he changed the economy of Egypt so much just from his visit, that he devalued the worth of gold for 12 years because he gave them so much of it.

16

Walter E. Massey

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President Emeritus at Morehouse College, Massey was the first Black man to lead the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1991. He is a physicist who focuses on theoretical questions in condensed matter physics, which deals with the properties of matter. He was a director for the Argonne National Library, and was lauded for his unique methods for teaching the rigorous academics of physics.

17

Carol Moseley Braun

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Braun was the first Black woman elected to the United States Senate, where she served the state of Illinois from 1993 to 1999. She is an environmental activist, who once marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. Her career did not end in the senate, instead, Moseley served as an ambassador to Samoa and New Zealand, and is still a progressive activist to this day.

18

George Walker

Great music tells a story, whether it has lyrics or not. George Walker, the first Black person to win the Pulitzer for music, is a phenomenal composer whose music like “Lyrics for Strings” sails through your whole body, invoking deep, emotional responses from the listener. NPR noted that "In the year 1945 alone, he was the first African-American pianist to play a recital at New York's Town Hall, the first Black instrumentalist to play solo with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the first Black graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia."

19

Gwendolyn Brooks

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“What shall I give my children? Who are poor,

Who are adjudged the leastwise of the land,

Who are my sweetest lepers, who demand

No velvet and no velvety velour;

But who have begged me for a brisk contour,

Crying that they are quasi, contraband

Because unfinished, graven by a hand

Less than angelic, admirable or sure.

My hand is stuffed with mode, design, device.

But I lack access to my proper stone.

And plenitude of plan shall not suffice

Nor grief nor love shall be enough alone

To ratify my little halves who bear

Across an autumn freezing everywhere.”

— from “The Children of The Poor” by Gwendolyn Brooks

Brooks is one of the most-widely read poets of the 20th century. Her catalogue of poems is incredibly complex, ranging from short and cheerful to those like “The Children of The Poor,” which confronts a divide in our society. She is widely recognized as a poet who bridged the gap between World War era poets and mid-century, moving the genre towards being more political and reflecting the world more plainly.

20

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

An ardent abolitionist woman born free in Baltimore Maryland, Harper was a poet and writer who used her education and talent to become an activist and teacher, advocating for Civil Rights and the freedom of enslaved people. She gave lectures throughout the north, at the same time authoring several books and collections of short stories.

21

Wyomia Tyus

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Tyus was the first person to win back-to-back gold medals in the 100m run. Before standing on the podium in Mexico City, she donned a pair of black shorts to protest racial inequities, dedicating her medal to Tommy Smith and John Carlos, who had given the Black power salute when they won their medals for track and field.

22

Ernestine Eckstein

Eckstein was at the forefront of not only Civil Rights, but was one of the leading Black women in the fight for LGBTQ rights. She was a powerhouse and a prominent leader of the New York Daughters of Bilitis, which was the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the United States.

23

Oscar Micheaux

A gifted author and filmmaker, Micheaux started his own film company in 1919 and became the first Black man to make a movie. His film Within Our Gates was made in direct opposition to WC Field’s wildly racist film, The Birth of A Nation. He wrote 44 feature-length films in 30 years, many shown in traditionally white spaces.

24

Maynard H. Jackson, Jr.

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Jackson was the first Black man to be elected as mayor in a southern city when he became the mayor of Atlanta in 1973. He was critical in making Atlanta one of the busiest airports in the world, and hosting the 1996 Olympics.

25

Patricia Roberts Harris

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Harris was the first Black woman to serve the United States as Ambassador, the first Black woman to serve in a Presidential cabinet, and the first Black woman to become dean of a law school. A graduate of Howard University, Harris was appointed co-chair of the National Women’s Committee for Civil Rights by President John F. Kennedy.

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