28 Unsung African American Heroes for 28 Days of Black History Month

The contributions of people like Martin Luther King, Jr, Harriet Tubman, and Rosa Parks cannot be understated – but doesn’t it feel like we should also be expanding our horizons? There are so, so many people of color who have done brave, incredible, dangerous, and sometimes seemingly impossible things in the face of adversity, and we don’t often (or ever) hear their names, even during Black History Month! So this February, we’d like to celebrate by honoring 28 underrepresented figures in African American history, one for each day of the month. 

1. Claudette Colvin illustration of a black bus

Nine months before Rosa Parks did her historic protest, Claudette Colvin, who was only fifteen at the time, also defied the law and refused to give up her seat on a bus. On March 22, 1955, Colvin was taking the bus home from high school when the driver ordered her to give up her seat. She refused, saying she had paid her fare and it was her constitutional right to sit there. She was then arrested, and later became the main witness in the federal lawsuit Browder v. Gayle, which ended segregation on public transportation in Alabama.

2. Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler

Dr. Crumpler was the first African-American woman physician in the United States, earning an M.D. from New England Female Medical College in 1864. She often worked with the poor, who had limited access to medical care, and published a renowned book, Book of Medical Discourses In Two Parts, which many believe is the first medical text written by an African-American author.

3. Robert Smalls

In 1862, Robert Smalls was a slave on a Confederate transport ship when he led an uprising, freeing everyone on board and sailing north to freedom. Smalls’ seizing of the ship was a factor in Abraham Lincoln’s decision to allow African Americans soldiers in the Civil War, something many were opposed to. Smalls would later go on to serve in the United States Congress.

4. Lewis Latimer

Latimer, the son of escaped slaves, was an inventor who should receive as much credit for the electric light bulbs that changed the world as Thomas Edison. While Edison created one of the first electric light bulbs that actually worked, they only lasted a few days. It was Lewis Latimer who invented the filaments that extended the life of the bulbs, making them cheaper, more efficient, and gave them the ability to be used on the streets and in the average person’s home.

graduating cap with a diploma
Wangari Maathaihe was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree, and spearheaded the Green Belt Movement.

5. Wangari Maathai

In 2004, Maathai became the first Black woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her environmental work in Kenya. She was also the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree. She chaired the National Council of Women in Kenya, and spearheaded the Green Belt Movement, the largest tree-planting campaign in Africa, which has planted over 51 million trees in Kenya since its founding in 1977.

6. George Washington Carver

Carver was an agricultural scientist who some might think invented peanut butter (he didn’t). He actually developed hundreds of products using peanuts, sweet potatoes, and soybeans! But he was also a botany and agriculture teacher to the children of ex-slaves, who wanted to improve the life of “the man farthest down.” He achieved this through an innovative series of free, simply-written brochures that included information on crops, cultivation techniques, and recipes for nutritious meals. 

7. Daisy Bates

Many Americans know the Little Rock Nine, nine school children who integrated a high school in Arkansas, but not many know Daisy Bates, the woman who organized those students, selecting them, driving them to the school, and protecting them. She was the president of the Arkansas NAACP at the time, and she also founded her own newspaper and worked on anti-poverty projects in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration. 

8. Phillis Wheatley

Although Wheatley was an enslaved person, she became one of the most well-known poets in 18th-century America. She was also the first African American woman to publish a book of poetry, and only the second woman of any race to do so in America.

9. Max Robinson

In 1978, Robinson became the first African American to anchor the nightly network news, although his road to the anchor’s chair was a bumpy one. For example, in 1959, he was fired after arguing that his face should appear on the screen when he was reading the news for a local Virginia station, not simply a banner that said “News.” “I thought it would be good for all my folks and friends to see me rather than this dumb news sign up there,” Robinson once told an interviewer. He didn’t give up after being fired and eventually became an outspoken critic of racism in the media.

10. Jane BolinYale University

Bolin made history in the legal field multiple times: she was the first Black woman to graduate from Yale Law School, the first Black woman to join the New York City Bar Association, and the nation’s first Black female judge.

11. Fannie Lou Hamer

Hamer wasn’t a well-educated male preacher like many leaders of the civil rights movement; she was poor and uneducated, but she was a powerful, charismatic speaker. In fact, she was even recruited to speak at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, and President Johnson himself forced networks to cut off her powerful speech by giving a press conference himself. She also bravely fought for voting rights: she was fired from her job for attempting to register people to vote, as well as beaten, arrested, and subjected to constant death threats.

12. Charles Richard Drew

Drew is an incredibly important figure in medical history for his work helping to develop America’s first large-scale blood banking program in the 1940s, which earned him the nickname the “father of the blood bank.” 

13. Dorothy Height

You might not know Dorothy Height’s name, because she preferred to do her work out of the public eye, but she has been called the “matriarch of the civil rights movement” for throwing herself into so many just causes. She was involved in anti-lynching protests, she worked in the public welfare office and was an anti-poverty crusading, bringing public attention to the exploitation of African-American women working in “slave markets,” she served on the National Council of Negro Women for more than 40 years, and she lobbied President Dwight D. Eisenhower to take an aggressive stance on school desegregation issues. Height also worked with Martin Luther King Jr., standing on the platform with him as he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in August 1963.

14. Sister Rosetta Tharpe

You’ve probably heard of the King of Rock and Roll, the King of Pop, the Godfather of Soul, etc, etc – but how about the Godmother of Rock and Roll? That was Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a queer African American woman who was on the scene before the likes of Johnny Cash and Little Richard. She fused gospel, jazz, and blues in her distinctive guitar stylings all the way back in the 1930s and 1940s, and her unique style influenced Elvis, Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry, and many others.

15. Garrett Morgan

Although Morgan was the son of two former slaves, and he barely had an elementary school education, he became a prolific inventor. One of his most important inventions? The traffic lights that still keep us safe on the roads today.

16. Amelia Boynton Robinson

In a horrific photo that should never be forgotten, Robinson lay sprawled on a road, bloody and beaten, with a police officer standing over her. That shocking picture, taken during the “Bloody Sunday” march at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965, helped to spur people to action in the civil rights movement. But we should also not forget that Robinson had already dedicated much of her life to fighting for voting rights for African Americans, which was also a dangerous undertaking in early 20th-century America. Said Robinson, “I wasn’t looking for notoriety. But if that’s what it took, I didn’t care how many licks I got. It just made me even more determined to fight for our cause.”

picture of the Capitol Hill building
Shirley Chisholm was the first African American woman elected to Congress, representing New York’s 12th District.

17. Shirley Chisholm

During the period of racial upheaval in the late ’60s, Chisholm became the first African American woman elected to Congress, representing New York’s 12th District from 1969 to 1983. In 1972, she became the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, with the campaign slogan: “Unbought and Unbossed”

18. Mae Jemison

Jemison is an engineer, a physician (who worked for the Peace Corps as a doctor in Africa for a time), and a former NASA astronaut. She became the first African American woman to travel into space, serving as a mission specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour. 

19. Paul Robeson

Robeson was a true Renaissance man: an athlete, actor, author, lawyer, singer and activist. He was incredibly talented but was eventually blacklisted for being such an outspoken activist, and for using his celebrity to advance human rights causes around the world. Said Robeson, “The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.”

20. Bessie Coleman

Coleman took an interest in flying after hearing the stories of pilots in WWI, but because she was both female and African American, she found it difficult to find anyone to train her to fly in the US. This didn’t stop her: she went to France and trained there, ultimately becoming the first African American woman to get both a national and international pilot’s license.

21. Marsha P. Johnson

Johnson was an LGBTQ activist and trans woman who was one of the first drag queens to walk into the Stonewall Inn. She is also credited with playing a large part in the Stonewall riots. In addition to being a drag performer, Johnson co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries organization with Sylvia Rivera, an organization that housed and fed homeless youth that identified as queer, as well as sex workers in the lower part of New York City, and she worked as an AIDS advocate.

22. Bayard Rustin

Rustin faced danger by being both an African American organizer and an openly gay man in the Jim Crow era. While Martin Luther King, Jr. is usually credited for the March on Washington in 1963, it was actually Rustin who organized it.

23. Gwendolyn Brooks

Brooks was a poet who wrote about the ordinary lives of African Americans, in poems that often reflected her political consciousness and the ongoing struggle for civil rights. She was the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize, and she also served as the U.S. Poet Laureate. Brooks made poetry relevant to many; after all, as she pointed out, “Poetry is life distilled.”

24. Frederick McKinley Jones

Jones dropped out of high school, but that didn’t stop his talent and curiosity. He taught himself to be a mechanic and to work with electronics, and he eventually went on to invent something that makes our modern way of purchasing food possible. In 1940, he patented a refrigeration system for vehicles, and the company he founded, ThermoKing, is still thriving today.

25. Maria P. Williams

Williams was an activist, as well as the editor-in-chief of a newspaper in Kansas, but she also became the first African American woman to co-found a film company, and write, produce, and star in a film, called The Flames of Wrath (1923)

illustration of a bank
Mary Ellen Pleasant helped to establish the Bank of California, and was considered the “Mother” of her state’s early civil rights movement.

26. Mary Ellen Pleasant

Pleasant happened to be an indentured servant in an abolitionist household in the early 19th century, and she later went on to marry a rich Plantation owner and worked with him on the Underground Railroad. They eventually moved to California, where she became a wealthy entrepreneur, starting restaurants and other businesses, as well as helping to establish the Bank of California. She is also considered the “Mother” of her state’s early civil rights movement: she supported John Brown, established a local Underground Railroad, and won multiple civil rights lawsuits.

27. Constance Baker Motley

Motley was another woman who made legal history over and over again. She wrote the legal brief for the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case, which struck down racial segregation in American public schools. She eventually became the first Black woman to argue in front of the Supreme Court, winning 9 of the 10 cases that she argued before the high court. Over the years, she successfully represented Martin Luther King Jr., Freedom Riders, lunch-counter protesters, and the Birmingham Children Marchers. 

28. Matthew Henson

Henson was arguably the first explorer to reach the North Pole, although Robert Peary, who led the expedition, claims he was there first. Either way, Henson was an indispensable part of the mission. In fact, according to some sources, he was the only person working with Peary who learned the indigenous language of the region, something which might have been the deciding factor in getting them to their destination.

So there you go: a tiny glimpse at just a very, very small number of the African Americans who have shaped our country by fighting for what is right, creating art, inventing things necessary to our lives, and making medical breakthroughs. Our country wouldn’t be the same without their contributions, so let’s honor them this month (and every month) by making sure we don’t forget their names. So, did you know all of these astounding historical figures? And who would you add to the list?