When it comes to pioneers in African American history, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, and Muhammad Ali are often mentioned—and rightfully so. But what do you know about other Black history heroes like Claudette Colvin, Alice Coachman, or Shirley Chisholm? If their names don’t immediately ring a bell, you’re not alone. Educators, activists, and historians have long been attempting to shine a light and pinpoint why so much African American history is missing from our nation’s curriculum.
“Those that populated the colonies were free people from communities in Africa with large scale civilizations that had tax systems, that had irrigation systems, that had universities—they came from civilized nations that were advanced,” University of Texas at Austin history professor, Dr. Daina Ramey Berry, told NBC. “That’s where the curriculum should begin, that’s the biggest omission from my perspective. It’s an erasure of culture and heritage so that identities of African Americans for some are that of slaves and those fighting for their freedom.”
We’re shining a long-overdue spotlight on the hidden figures of untaught history who deserve to be celebrated for their contributions to civil rights, politics, the arts, and beyond. And remember to acknowledge their impact outside of Black History Month, as they’ve made way for many of the 21st century’s most famous faces to shine today.
Bayard Rustin (1912 – 1987)
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.
Annie Lee Cooper (1910 – 2010)
The Selma, Alabama, native played a crucial part in the 1965 Selma Voting Rights Movement. But it wasn’t until Oprah played her in the 2014 Oscar-nominated film, Selma, that people really took notice of Cooper’s activism. She is lauded for punching Alabama Sheriff Jim Clark in the face, but she really deserves to be celebrated for fighting to restore and protect voting rights.
Claudette Colvin (1939)
Before Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, there was a brave 15-year-old who chose not to sit at the back of the bus. That young girl was Colvin. Touting her constitutional rights to remain seated near the middle of the vehicle, Colvin challenged the driver and was subsequently arrested. She was the first woman to be detained for her resistance. However, her story isn’t nearly as well-known as Parks’.
Shirley Chisholm (1924 – 2005)
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 recently paid tribute to Chisholm in her presidential campaign announcement by using a similar logo to Chisholm’s.
Jesse Owens (1913 – 1980)
Owens was a track-and-field athlete who set a world record in the long jump at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin—and went unrivaled for 25 years. He won four gold medals at the Olympics that year in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, along with the 100-meter relay and other events off the track. In 1976, Owens received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1990.
Robert Sengstacke Abbott (1870 – 1940)
Without Abbott’s creative vision, many of the Black publications of today—such as Ebony, Essence, Black 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.
Bessie Coleman (1892 -1926)
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 1919—paved the way for a new generation of diverse fliers like the Tuskegee airmen, Blackbirds, and Flying Hobos.
Dorothy Height (1912 – 2010)
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.
Ethel Waters (1896 – 1977)
Waters first entered the entertainment business in the 1920s as a blues singer, but she made history for her work in television. In addition to becoming the first African American to star in her own TV show in 1939, The Ethel Waters Show, she was nominated for her first Emmy in 1962.
Alice Coachman (1923 – 2014)
Growing up in Albany, Georgia, the soon-to-be track star got an early start running on dirt roads and jumping over makeshift hurdles. She became the first African American woman from any country to win an Olympic Gold Medal at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London. She set the record for the high jump at the Games, leaping to 5 feet and 6 1/8 inches. Throughout her athletic career, she won 34 national titles—10 of which were in the high jump. She was officially inducted into the National Track-and-Field Hall of Fame in 1975 and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 2004.
Gwendolyn Brooks (1917 – 2000)
Today, Brooks is considered to be one of the most revered poets of the 20th century. She was the first Black author to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for Annie Allen, and she served as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, becoming the first Black woman to hold that position. She was also the poet laureate of the State of Illinois, and many of her works reflected the political and social landscape of the 1960s, including the civil rights movement and the economic climate.
Jane Bolin (1908 – 2007)
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, where she served for 10 years. 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 also served on the boards of the NAACP, Child Welfare League of America, and the Neighborhood Children’s Center.
Minnie Riperton (1947 – 1979)
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, she died in 1979 at the age of 31 from breast cancer.
Gordon Parks (1912-2006)
Parks was the first African American on the staff of LIFE magazine, and later he would be responsible for some of the most beautiful imagery in the pages of Vogue. He also was the first Black director of a major film, Shaft, helping to shape the blaxploitation era in the ’70s. Parks famously told LIFE in 1999: “I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs. I knew at that point I had to have a camera.”
Maria P. Williams (1866 – 1932)
Thanks to the early accomplishments of Williams, as the first Black woman to produce, write, and act in her own movie in 1923, The Flames of Wrath, we have female directors and producers like Oprah, Ava DuVernay, and Shonda Rhimes. Beyond film, the former Kansas City teacher was also an activist, and detailed her leadership skills in the book she authored, My Work and Public Sentiment in 1916.
Marsha P. Johnson (1945 – 1992)
Before the Netflix documentary brought Johnson’s story to life with the documentary, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson by David France, many people were unfamiliar with the influential role she had on drag and queer culture. Johnson, a Black transwoman and activist, was at the forefront of the LGBTQ movement. In addition to being the co-founder of STAR, an organization that housed homeless queer youth, Johnson also fought for equality through the Gay Liberation Front.
Ruby Bridges (1954)
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 six years old when she became the first African American student to attend William Frantz Elementary in Louisiana at the height of desegregation. She is now the chair of the Ruby Bridges Foundation, which was formed in 1999 to promote “the values of tolerance, respect, and appreciation of all differences.”
Marian Anderson (1897 – 1993)
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, things started to change in 1957, when 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 Grammy’s in 1991.
Alvin Ailey (1931-1989)
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 until its 1954 disbandment—Ailey wished to choreograph his own ballets and works that 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 an AIDS-related illness at 58, but the company still exists today in New York City.
Rose Marie McCoy (1922 – 2015)
McCoy’s name may not be instantly recognizable, but she wrote and produced some of the biggest pop songs in the 1950s. In an industry dominated by white males, McCoy was able to make her mark through her pen, even if she couldn’t through her own voice. Her songs, “After All” and “Gabbin’ Blues” never quite took off on the charts, but she was courted by music labels to write for other artists, including hit singles for Big Maybelle, Elvis Presley, and Big Joe Turner. So now when you hear Presley’s “Trying to Get You,” you’ll remember the name of the African American woman who wrote it.
Mae Jemison (1956)
Mae Jemison wasn’t just the first African American woman who orbited into space aboard the shuttle Endeavour. She’s also a physician, teacher, a Peace Corps volunteer, and president of tech company, the Jemison Group. She continues to work towards the advancement of young women of color getting more involved in technology, engineering, and math careers.
Phillis Wheatley (1754 -1784)
The West African-born poet spent most of her life enslaved, working for John Wheatley and his wife as a servant in the mid-1700s. Despite never having received a formal education, Wheatley became the first African American and third woman to publish a book of poems, entitled, Poems on Various Subjects. However, she died before securing a publisher for her second volume of poetry and letters. You can see the monument erected for her at the Boston Women’s Memorial.
Ella Baker (1903-1986)
Baker was an essential activist during the civil rights movement. She was a field secretary and branch director for the NAACP and also co-founded an organization that raised money to fight Jim Crow Laws. Additionally, Baker was a key organizer for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). But what was perhaps her biggest contribution to the movement was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which prioritized nonviolent protest, assisted in organizing the 1961 Freedom Rides, and aided in registering Black voters. The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights exists today to carry on her legacy
Benjamin O. Davis Sr. (1880-1970)
Benjamin O. Davis Sr. was the first Black general in the American military. He served for 50 years as a temporary first lieutenant at an all-Black unit during the Spanish American War. Throughout his service, Davis Sr. was as a professor of military science at Tuskegee and Wilberforce University, a commander of the 369th Regiment, New York National Guard, and special assistant to the Secretary of the Army. When he retired in 1948, President Harry Truman oversaw the public ceremony. Davis Sr. is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951)
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 20-24 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 was the first Black female doctor 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 until applying to medical school in 1860 at the New England Female Medical College. She was accepted and would go on to graduate 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.