15 Notable Black History Month Figures Your Kids Aren't Hearing About In Class
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 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 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
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
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
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
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. Bayard Rustin
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.”
6. 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.
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 best, 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
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), where she would retire from 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 per Howard University, "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
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.