29 People You May Not Have Heard About on Black History Month

It all started with, what I thought at the time, was a simple quest: researching my family tree. I wanted to find out about my family’s history so my kids could share it with their kids one day. It’s a way to keep the memory of those who have passed away alive, remembering the things they did. While researching the family tree, I learned I had been taught an inaccurate picture of what happened in the past. For the most part, people of color are missing in the history books and Black History Month usually focuses on famous figures in black history like Martin Luther King, Jr. and now, Barack Obama. My kids and I were shocked to find out some of the incredible things people of color did in the past.


We decided, as a family project, to share what we learned for Black History Month. We picked 29 people we learned something new about to share in hopes that others will learn something new as well.

 

Salem Poor

  • Was born into slavery in 1747. Poor bought his freedom in 1769 for 27 pounds (the equivalent of a year’s salary).
  • Enlisted to fight in the American Revolution in 1775. He fought with the Patriot soldiers until 1780.
  • Poor is best known for fighting in the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775, killing British Lieutenant Colonel James Abercrombie.

Prince Estabrook

  • Estabrook was the first black soldier in the American Revolution.
  • Estabrook was injured in the Battle of Lexington. He soon recovered and served with the Continental on and off for several years.
  • There was no mention of Estabrook’s service after he died, but he was officially honored as the first black soldier in the American Revolution in 2008.

James Armistead

  • Armistead was a slave working as a spy for the American Revolution. He reported the activities of Benedict Arnold and General Cornwallis.
  • By giving them false information, Armistead helped the Americans win against the British during the Battle of Yorktown.
  • His spy activities disqualified Armistead from being emancipated in 1783 but was finally freed in 1787.
  • He added Lafayette to his last name in honor of Marquis de Lafayette, the general he fought under.

Prince Whipple

  • Whipple was born in Africa to a wealthy family. He was sent to America by his parents at age ten to receive an education. The captain that brought Whipple to America sent him Baltimore and sold him into slavery.
  • His owner was William Whipple, who would later join the American Revolution as a captain.
  • It is rumored that Prince and his owner William Whipple were present with George Washington during the famous crossing of the Delaware river. Prince is supposedly the black man portrayed fending off ice with an oar at Washington’s knee in the famous painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware. However, it’s never been officially confirmed if Prince or William were present at the Battle of Trenton.

Fredrick Douglass

  • Douglass taught himself how to read and write while he was a slave. After sharing his story with abolitionists, they urged him to write about his experiences. He eventually wrote his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.
  • Douglass was a well-known supporter for women’s rights. He was the first black man to attend the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York.
  • Fought for the emancipation of black slaves and suffrage (the right to vote).
  • Douglass was the first black American to be nominated for Vice President of the United States, as Victoria Woodhull’s running mate for the Equal Rights Party ticket in 1872.

Wentworth Cheswell

  • Cheswell was elected town constable of Newmarket, Massachusetts, becoming the first black American elected into office.
  • Was named the first archaeologist in the state of New Hampshire after the Revolutionary War.
  • Fought in the Revolutionary War, he helped build rafts to defend Portsmouth Harbor from the British invasion.

Lemuel Haynes

  • Was the first black person to be ordained as a minister by a white mainstream Protestant Church in the United States.
  • After serving in the military, Haynes started writing, criticizing slavery and the slave trade.
  • Became the first black American to receive an advanced degree. In 1804, Middlebury College granted Haynes an honorary master of the arts degree.

Benjamin Banneker

  • Worked with Major Andrew Ellicott surveying the borders of the District of Columbia.
  • Self-educated in astronomy and mathematics, Banneker wrote a series of successful almanacs.
  • Wrote letters to Thomas Jefferson, urging him to promote racial equality.

Richard Allen

  • Founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1816, the first national black church in the United States.
  • Before founding the AME Church, Allen and 10 other black Methodists founded the Bethel Church in 1794.
  • The basement of the Bethel Church was used as a stop on the Underground Railroad; it was used to hide fleeing slaves.

Joseph Hayne Rainey

  • Was the first black person to serve in the US House of Representatives.
  • Was forced by the Confederate Army to fortify the outskirts of Charleston, South Carolina during the Civil War. He escaped with his family to Bermuda in 1862.
  • Rainey supported legislation that would later become known as the Enforcement Acts, to suppress the acts of the Ku Klux Klan.
  • He also worked for two years to gain passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1875.

Robert Brown Elliott

  • Was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1868.
  • He was the first black person to serve as commanding general in the South Carolina National Guard.
  • Successfully ran for South Carolina Attorney General in 1876. However, due to white Democrats rise in power and federal troops were withdrawn from South Carolina, Elliott was forced out of office in 1877.

Benjamin Turner

  • Joined the Republican Party after Civil War. Turner served as tax collector of Dallas County, Alabama in 1867 and councilman of Selma in 1869.
  • Served in the US House of Representatives representing Alabama’s 1st congressional district.
  • Turner became a teacher in 1865 and helped established the first school for black children.

Eunice Roberta Hunton Carter

  • Became the first black woman to pass the New York State bar exam.
  • Was nominated by the Republican Party to represent New York’s 19th District in the State Assembly. Carter was the first black person to gain the Republican nomination for that office.
  • Carter was essential in putting together the massive prostitution case that led to the arrest of Lucky Luciano the most important Mafia boss in New York City.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler

  • Was the first black woman to become a physician in the United States.
  • Crumpler was the first black woman to earn an M.D. degree and the only black woman to graduate from New England Female Medical College.
  • Her book, A Book of Medical Discourses was one of the first publications written by a black doctor.
  • A Book of Medical Discourses was dedicated to mothers and children and focused on the medical care of women and children.  

W. Arthur Lewis

  • Lewis won the Nobel Prize for economics in 1979; he was the first black person to win the Nobel Prize in a category other than peace.
  • During and after World War II, Lewis advised the British Colonial Office about the ways Britain could alter its economic relations with colonial territories.
  • After Ghana gained independence in 1957, Lewis was appointed as their first economic advisor.

Garrett Morgan

  • Morgan invented multiple hair products including a hair straightening cream, a curved tooth pressing comb and a black oil hair dye.
  • Invented the safety hood, which was used to rescue workers from a tunnel explosion under Lake Erie in 1916.
  • Invented the first three position traffic signal in the US.

Lewis Latimer

  • In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell employed Latimer to draft the necessary papers required for Bell’s telephone to receive a patent.
  • Latimer is credited for inventing an improved method for creating carbon filaments in light bulbs.  This made light bulbs more effective and cheaper.

Robert Smalls

  • On May 13, 1862, Smalls freed himself, his family and his crew by commandeering Confederate transport ship, CSS Planter.
  • Smalls sailed from Confederate controlled waters to where the Union had formed a blockade.
  • This feat convinced President Abraham Lincoln to allow black soldiers into the Union army.
  • Smalls served as a member of the US House of Representatives for South Carolina’s 5th congressional district.
  • Founded the South Carolina Republican Party and authored state legislation allowing South Carolina to have the first free and compulsory public school system in the US.

Gerald A. Lawson

  • Created the first home video game console with interchangeable cartridges.
  • Lawson founded Videosoft, which created video games, as well as made software for the Atari 2600.
  • Lawson invented the arcade racing game Demolition Derby.

Ella Baker

  • Baker worked as a field secretary and director of branches for the NAACP for 1943 to 1946.
  • In 1957, Baker joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as its executive director at the request of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Conference to help support young student activists.
  • Baker helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964, as an alternative to the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party.

James West

Claudette Colvin

  • Was the first person to be arrested for resisting bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama.  
  • Colvin was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat on March 2, 1955, nine month before the Rosa Parks incident.
  • Black leaders didn’t publicize Colvin’s incident due to her being a teenager pregnant by a married man and was described as “feisty” and “emotional”.

Benjamin “Pap” Singleton

  • Singleton tried to help blacks buy farmland in the late 1860s.
  • Singleton began encouraging blacks to leave the South and move to Kansas, where he found a location for a black community.
  • Helped over 50,00 freedmen known as “Exodusters” leave the South to escape poverty and racial violence.

Mae Jemison

  • Jemison is the first black female astronaut.
  • Jemison served in the Peace Corps from 1985 to 1987 when NASA selected her to join the astronaut corps.
  • After resigning from NASA in 1993, Jemison established the Jemison Group, a company that researches advanced technology.  

Matthew Henson

  • Henson was the first black Arctic explorer and was an associate of Robert Peary.
  • Henson co-discovered the North Pole along with Peary in 1909.
  • Henson was invited to be a member of the Explorers Club in 1937. He was the first black person to be accepted.

Miriam Makeba

  • Makeba was a South African singer and civil rights activist.
  • Makeba campaigned against apartheid in South Africa. In response, the South African government revoked her passport, her citizenship and her right to return to the country.
  • Makeba is credited as being the first artist from Africa to popularize African music all across the globe.

Aprille Ericsson-Jackson

  • Was the first black woman to receive a ph.D in Mechanical Engineering from Howard University.
  • Ericsson-Jackson was also the first black to receive a phD in Engineering from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
  • After graduating high school, Ericsson-Jackson was accepted into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T). She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautical/Astronautical Engineering upon graduating.

Bayard Rustin

Susie King Taylor

  • Taylor was the first black teacher to openly teach former slaves in Georgia.
  • She was the first black Army nurse; she treated an all-black army troop during the Civil War.
  • Taylor published a memoir in 1902 titled Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd US Colored Troops. Taylor was the first and only black woman to write a memoir about her wartime experiences.