Significant Figures in Black History

 Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005)

Shirley Chisholm

Congress is more diverse now than it's ever been. However, when Chisholm was attempting to shatter the glass ceiling, the same couldn't be said. During the racially contentious period in the late '60s, she became the first Black woman elected to Congress. She represented New York's 12th District from 1969 to 1983, and in 1972, she became the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Her campaign slogan "Unbought and unbossed" rings even louder today. Senator Kamala Harris paid tribute to Chisholm in her 2020 presidential campaign announcement by using a similar logo to Chisholm's.

Bayard Rustin (1912-1987)

Bayard Rustin

Dr. King is usually credited for the March on Washington in August 1963. But it was Rustin who organized and strategized in the shadows. As a gay man who had controversial ties to Communism, he was considered too much of a liability to be on the front lines of the movement. Nonetheless, he was considered to be one of the most brilliant minds, and served his community tirelessly while pushing for more jobs and better wages.

Dorothy Height (1912-2010)

Dorothy Height

Hailed the “godmother of the women’s movement,” Height used her background in education and social work to advance women’s rights. She was a leader in the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) and the president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) for more than 40 years. She was also among the few women present at the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Bessie Coleman (1892-1926)

Bessie Colemen

Despite being the first licensed Black pilot in the world, Coleman wasn’t recognized as a pioneer in aviation until after her death. Though history has favored Amelia Earhart or the Wright brothers, Coleman—who went to flight school in France in 1920—paved the way for a new generation of diverse fliers like the Tuskegee Airmen, Blackbirds, and Flying Hobos.

Robert Sengstacke Abbott (1868-1940)

Robert Sengstacke Abbot

Without Abbott's creative vision, many of the Black publications of today—such as EbonyEssenceBlack Enterprise, and Upscale—wouldn't exist. In 1905, Abbott founded the Chicago Defender weekly newspaper. The paper originally started out as a four-page pamphlet, increasing its circulation with every edition. Abbott and his newspaper played an integral part in encouraging African Americans to migrate from the South for better economic opportunities.

Ethel Waters (1896-1977)

Ethel Waters

Waters first entered the entertainment business in the 1920s as a blues singer and then became a Broadway star. Later in life, she made history for her work in television—she was the first African American to star in her own TV show, The Ethel Waters Show, and she was nominated for an Emmy in 1962.

Jane Bolin (1908-2007)

Jane Bolin

A pioneer in law, Jane Bolin was the first Black woman to attend Yale Law School in 1931. In 1939, she became the first Black female judge in the United States. One of her significant contributions throughout her career was working with private employers to hire people based on their skills, as opposed to discriminating against them because of their race. She served on the boards of the NAACP, Child Welfare League of America, and the Neighborhood Children’s Center.

Maria P. Williams (1866-1932)

Maria P. Williams

Thanks to the early accomplishments of Williams, who has been called the first woman of color producer, we have female directors and producers like Oprah, Ava DuVernay, and Shonda Rhimes. Williams's 1923 film The Flames of Wrath had a team of all people of color, and beyond that, the former Kansas City teacher was an activist and writer (she detailed her leadership skills in My Work and Public Sentiment in 1916).

Minnie Riperton (1947-1979)

Minnie Riperton

Mariah Carey is heralded for her whistle register, which is the highest the human voice is capable of reaching. But Riperton perfected the singing technique years before and was best known for her five-octave vocal range. The whistling can be heard on her biggest hit to date, “Lovin’ You.” The infectious ballad was originally created as an ode to her daughter, Maya Rudolph (of Bridesmaids and Saturday Night Live fame). However, before she could become a household name, Riperton died from breast cancer at the age of 31.

Ruby Bridges (1954- )

Ruby Bridges

Bridges probably had no idea that the bold act she committed in 1960 would set off a chain reaction leading to the integration of schools in the South. She was just 6 years old when she became the first African American student to attend William Frantz Elementary in Louisiana at the height of desegregation. Now the Ruby Bridges Foundation exists to "inspire the next generation of leaders to end racism together one step at a time."

Mae Jemison (1956- )

Mae Jemison

Mae Jemison isn’t just the first African American woman who orbited into space aboard the shuttle Endeavour. She's also a physician, teacher, and Peace Corps volunteer; after her work with NASA, she founded the Jemison Group, which develops scientific and technological advancements. Jemison continues to work toward helping young women of color get more involved in technology, engineering, and math careers.

Marian Anderson (1897-1993)

Marian Anderson

Though she’s considered one of the greatest contralto singers in the world, Anderson was often denied the opportunity to show off her unique vocal range because of her race. However, in 1955, she became the first African American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera, and in 1957, she went on a 12-nation tour sponsored by the Department of State and the American National Theatre and Academy. She documented the experience in her autobiography, My Lord What a Morning. In 1963, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her last major accomplishment before her death was receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys in 1991.

Alvin Ailey (1931-1989)

Alvin Ailey

Ailey was an acclaimed dancer and choreographer who earned global recognition for his impact on modern dance. After honing his technique at the Lester Horton Dance Theater—and acting as its director after Horton passed away—Ailey wished to choreograph his own ballets and works, which differed from the traditional pieces of the time. This inspired him to start the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958, a multiracial troupe that provided a platform for talented Black dancers and traveled around the world. His most popular piece, "Revelations," is an ode to the Southern Black Church. Ailey died of AIDS at 58, but his company lives on in New York City.

Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. (1877-1970)

Benjamin O. Davis Sr.

Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., was the first Black general in the U.S. Army. He served for 50 years, beginning as a temporary first lieutenant during the Spanish American War. Throughout his service, Davis was a professor of military science at Tuskegee and Wilberforce University, commander of the 369th Infantry of the New York National Guard, and Special Assistant to the Commanding General, among other positions. He received the Bronze Star Medal and the Distinguished Service Medal and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951)

Henrietta Lacks

After being diagnosed with cervical cancer at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951, a sample of Lacks's cancer cells were taken without her consent by a researcher. And though she succumbed to the disease at the age of 31 that same year, her cells would go on to advance medical research for years to come, as they had the unique ability to double every 20 to 24 hours. "They have been used to test the effects of radiation and poisons, to study the human genome, to learn more about how viruses work, and played a crucial role in the development of the polio vaccine," Johns Hopkins said. In 2017, Oprah starred in and executive produced HBO's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, adapted from the book by Rebecca Skloot.

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895)

Rebecca Lee Crumpler

Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first Black woman to earn a medical degree in the United States. After attending the prestigious Massachusetts private school West-Newton English and Classical School, she worked as a nurse for eight years and applied to medical school in 1860 at the New England Female Medical College (which later merged with Boston University). She was accepted and graduated four years later. Though little is known of her career, PBS reported that she worked as a physician for the Freedman’s Bureau for the State of Virginia. She later practiced in Boston's predominantly Black neighborhood at the time, Beacon Hill, and published A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts


Elijah McCoy

Elijah McCoy


Elijah McCoy was the real McCoy. Maybe.

The inventor held 57 United States patents, mostly related to the railway. His inventions, which were not headline-making outside the field of steam engines, were so associated with quality and good function that people began using “the real McCoy” to refer to quality products.