During Black History Month (February in the US and Canada and October in UK and Ireland) we aim to learn about, teach about, and remember people from the African diaspora who have made a positive impact on society. We have written a brief biography of 15 important African Americans to learn about during Black History Month. All information in this article is sourced from credible books and websites, which are linked in the text. Please enjoy!
Who is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr?
Michael Luther King, Jr was born in Georgia on January 15, 1929. He later changed his first name to Martin. He attended Moorehouse College for his undergraduate education and Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania for his graduate education.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a social activist and Baptist minister. He was a leader in the American civil rights movement from the mid-1950s until his assassination in 1968. Some of Dr. King’s most important achievements include being the spokesperson for the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955), leading the campaign against racism in Birmingham, Alabama (1963), and receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
Dr. King became an enemy to those who were against his political and social views surrounding racial injustice. This led to his assassination on April 4, 1968. Today Dr. King is remembered for his peaceful approach to bringing about equality in America.
Who is Shirley Chislom?
Shirley Anita Chisholm was an American politician, educator, and author. In 1968, she became the first black woman elected to the United States Congress. She represented New York States’ 12th congressional district.
Born November 30, 1924, in the state of New York, Shirley Chislom was the oldest of 4 children born to Caribbean parents who immigrated to the United States. She received her undergraduate education at Brooklyn College. She worked as a preschool teacher and later earned her master’s degree in Education at Columbia University.
Chislom faced racial and gender discrimination as she became the second African American to serve as a New York State Legislature. A court-ordered redistricting created a new, heavily Democratic, district in her neighborhood. At this time, in 1968 Chisholm sought and won a seat in Congress. During her time in Congress, she introduced more than 50 pieces of legislation and championed racial and gender equality, the plight of the poor, and ending the Vietnam War.
In 1972, Chisholm sought the Democratic Party presidential nomination, however, discrimination prevented her from advancing. She was forced to stay off of television and other public platforms during the presidential run. She was only able to give one speech during the presidential nominations.
Of her legacy, Chisholm said, “I want to be remembered as a woman … who dared to be a catalyst of change.”
Born a slave in the United States in the mid-1950s; Booker T. Washington is one of the most recognizable former slaves in American history. The emancipation proclamation freed Booker T. Washington in 1965.
After being freed, he took several odd jobs to pay for his education at the Normal Farming Institute in Hampton, Virginia. He later went on to open up his own college in 1881, the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama. With the level of discrimination and lower legal rights that African Americans faced in the 1800s becoming an educator and starting your own higher education institute is a tremendous accomplishment. The goal of the institution was to educate African American’s primarily in agriculture skills.
Booker T. Washington believed that African Americans should advocate for equal rights in non-violent ways. He believed that through education and economic advancement African Americans could reach equality. Other African Americans were strong opponents to Booker T. Washington’s passive approach to equality. W.E.B. Du Bois (founder of the NAACP) was one of the strongest opponents as he believed economic independence should not come before equality. Both men did agree that education is an important factor in achieving equality for African Americans.
Booker T. Washington authored 14 books during his lifetime. You can purchase these books on Amazon or read some for free as they are public domain (due to copyright expiration). A quote from his book “My Larger Education” is in the picture to the left (or below).
Maya Angelou is an African American poet, dancer, and author.
Maya Angelou Early Years
Marguerite Ann Johnson was born on April 4, 1928, in Missouri; she is known to the world as Maya Angelou. Her older brother Bailey gave her the name “Maya”. Maya moved to live with her grandmother in Arkansas at an early age. She briefly lived with her mother at the age of 7, where she was abused by her mother’s boyfriend. He was in-prisoned and murdered shortly after his release. Maya believed that her speaking out about the abuse led to his death, which caused her to go mute for several years. During this time Maya moved back to live with her grandmother.
How Maya Angelou developed an interest in poetry and arts
Mays’s interest in writing was sparked at an early age. Although she did not verbally speak throughout her childhood, she wrote essays, poetry, and kept a journal. When she returned to Arkansas, she took an interest in poetry and memorized works by famous poets Shakespeare and Poe.
When Maya began speaking again, she moved back with her mother. At this time her mother lived in California. Maya attended high school and took drama and dance classes as a teen in California. After completing school Maya took several jobs to support herself and her young son. She later married a man with the last name Angelos and kept a variation of his surname even though the marriage ended in the 1950s. In 1969, Maya published “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings“, an autobiography of her early life. Maya went on to publish 6 more autobiographies.
Maya Angelou’s Awards and recognitions
In 1972, she became the first African American woman to have a screen play turned into a film with the production of Georgia, Georgia.
In 2000, President Clinton awarded Angelou the National Medal of Arts.
In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Angelou the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor.
In 2012, she was a member of the inaugural class inducted into the Wake Forest University Writers Hall of Fame.
Maya Angelou passed away in 2014. She was awarded more than 30 honorary degrees in her lifetime.
Mae Jemison is an astronaut and the first African American woman to enter space.
Where did Mae Jemison receive her education?
Mae Carol Jemison was born on October 17, 1956, in Alabama. Jemison graduated in 1977 from Stanford University, with a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemical Engineering and a Bachelor of Arts degree in African and African American studies. Jemison went on to graduate school. She graduated from Cornell University with a Doctorate in Medicine in 1981. Jemison joined the Peace Corps in 1983 and served as a medical officer for two years in Africa. At the time she served in the Peace Corp she was fluent in 4 languages. After returning to the US, she opened a private practice as a doctor.
Mae Jemison’s experience in NASA
Jemison was inspired by Sally Ride, who became the first American woman in space in 1983. Jemison then decided to apply to the astronaut program at NASA in 1985. After the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, NASA took a break from accepting new people. However, Jemison applied again in 1987 and was selected to be a NASA Astronaut. She received her first mission on September 28, 1989, when she was selected to join a crew as a Mission Specialist. On September 12, 1992, Jemison and 6 other astronauts went into space on the space shuttle Endeavor. This voyage made Jemison the first African American woman in space.
Born into slavery in 1818 with the name Fedrick Augustus Washington Bailey. He and his wife adopted the name Douglass from a poem by Sir Walter Scott “The Lady of the Lake”.
Fedrick Douglass escaped slavery at age 20 and went on to fight for the emancipation of enslaved Americans. He published three autobiographies and wrote for several abolitionist newspapers.
Douglass intentionally sought out cameras to portray a positive image of African Americans. He intentionally did not smile because he did not want to be seen as a “happy slave” but wanted to show a fair and accurate depiction of African Americans. He was the most photographed American of the 19th century. Douglass sat for more photos than Abraham Lincoln.
Douglass was feminist fighting for equal rights for African Americans and women alike. Douglass was the only African American to attend the First Women’s Rights Convention in New York in 1848. Douglass is best known for his leadership and advocacy for the abolishment of slavery in the United States.
Why do we celebrate black history month in February?
Historian Carter G. Woodson founded “Negro History Week” to coincide with the time of year when Fedrick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln celebrate their birthdays. Douglass’ actual date of birth is not officially known, as his slave owners did not record his birth. Douglass chose to celebrate his birth on February 14. “Negro History Week” later became Black History Month.
Neil deGrasse Tyson was born and raised in New York City where he was educated in public schools from kindergarten through the completion of high school at the Bronx High School of Science. Tyson went on to earn his BA in Physics from Harvard and his Ph.D. in Astrophysics from Columbia.
Tyson’s career includes working with President Bush, writing several books, hosting television shows, advocating for cosmic exploration, and receiving several honorary degrees and recognition from NASA.
Recently Tyson served as Executive Editor and on-camera Host & Narrator for Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey, the 21st-century continuation of Carl Sagan’s landmark television series.
Angela Davis was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1944. Angela Davis is a prominent political activist, scholar, and author. She emerged as the leader of the Communist Party USA in the 1960s. She has close ties to the Black Panther Party. She was removed from her teaching position at the University of California, San Diego because of her connections with the Panthers and Communist Party. Davis advocated for the abolishment of prisons.
Angela Davis is well known for her arrest in 1970. In 1970 three prisoners were charged with a killing of a prison guard. During their trial, they took over a Marin County courtroom and armed black defendants. The judge, prosecutor, and 3 jurors were held, hostage. This resulted in the arm defendants’ and the judge’s death. Davis was accused of supplying the weapons and charged with “aggravated kidnapping and first-degree murder”.
Davis fled prosecution and was placed on the FBI’s most-wanted list. She was on the run for 2 months before being arrested in New York City. She was incarcerated for 16 months before she was found NOT-GUILTY by an all-white jury.
James Baldwin is an African American writer, known for the societal critics in his writing. Poems, novels, and scripts by Baldwin reflect the culture of the time period in which he lived. Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, in New York City.
Baldwin was the oldest of 9 children. His elementary school teachers encouraged his love for literature and writing. He frequently visited the New York public library in his neighborhood of Harlem.
Baldwin worked in New Jersey for a while but moved back to NYC after leaving his job that was racially degrading. In 1947, Baldwin began to publish essays and book reviews. Baldwin moved to Paris in 1948, due to the high level of racial injustice in the U.S. Although he lived abroad for the remainder of his life Baldwin’s writing focused on the experiences of the Black man in White America.
Cassius Clay Jr. was born on January 17, 1942. He later changed his name to Muhammad Ali after joining the Nation of Islam in 1964. Muhammad Ali was an American Heavy Weight boxer, an Olympic gold medalist, and the first fighter to capture the heavyweight title three times.
Ali’s outspokenness when it came to issues of race and politics made him a controversial public figure. Ali refused to serve in Vietnam and was convicted of draft evasion. As a result of his conviction Ali was stripped of the heavyweight crown he won from Sonny Liston in 1964. This was during the prime of his boxing career.
Ali retired in 1981, with a career record of 56 wins, 5 losses, and 37 knockouts. He no longer boxed but continued to be an outspoken human rights activist. In 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Syndrome. Parkinson’s syndrome severely impaired Ali’s motor skills and speech. Ali passed away in 2016.
Ella Josephine Baker was born on December 13, 1903, in Virginia. Baker’s maternal grandparents bought, lived on, and cultivated plantation land that they were formerly enslaved on. This was a great source of pride in their family.
Baker studied at Shaw University in North Carolina. She graduated in 1927 at the top of her class. After college Baker worked as a writer in New York. She wrote for several black newspapers.
Ella Josephine Baker helped found the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and organize three national Civil Rights organizations. These organizations included the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
Baker continued to be an influential leader in the fight for civil rights until her death on her 83rd birthday, December 13, 1986.
Serena Williams is an American professional tennis player, who as of 2021 has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles and several Olympic gold medals.
Serena Williams was born on September 26, 1981, in Michigan. Serena’s father was determined to see his two youngest daughters grow up to be excellent tennis players. Serena and her sister Venus began to play tennis as early as age 3. With their signature styles, Serena and Venus changed the view of the game of Tennis.
To provide educational opportunities for underprivileged children, Serena formed the Serena Williams Foundation and built several schools in Africa.
Venus Williams has won 7 grand slams and 4 Olympic gold medals in the sport of tennis.
Venus was born on June 17, 1980, in California. By the age of 10, Venus’ serve topped 100 miles per hour. This allowed her to go 63-0 on the United States Tennis Association junior tour. She became a professional tennis player at the age of 14 in 1994.
Venus has changed the game of tennis with her strength and athleticism.
Bessie Coleman navigated through the sky as the first African American and the first Native American woman to hold a pilot’s license.
Bessie Coleman was born in Texas on January 25, 1892. Bessie studied at an Agricultural University in 1910 but dropped out because she could not afford the tuition. After her brother returned from World War I, he told her about the freedom he saw women have abroad. In the United States, women did not have the right to vote, own land, or work certain jobs. In France, women could become pilots.
Bessie began to study the French language and later traveled to France where she studied aviation. When she returned to the U.S. in 1922 as an aerial acrobat, Bessie amazed people with her skills. Known as “Queen Bess” and “Brave Bessie,” she would do loops, barrel rolls, and figure eights in her plane.