As January comes to a close and we enter the first Black History Month of this new decade, it is right to give tribute to some of the greatest leaders in the fight for equal rights. To kick off the memorable and celebratory month of what has been such a long and necessary fight in our nation, listed below is a tribute to some of those brave individuals who advanced the cause of equality. Some are well known, while others have been hidden in the shadows for decades. In 1926, Carter G. Woodson established Negro History Week, which is now Black History Month. Carter was a historian that took on the mission of enlightening the world around him by featuring black leaders in American communities. His dream of countering stereotypes manifested in what is now Black History Month. To continue his legacy, we must not reduce leaders within the African American community to the sum of their achievements, inventions or victories, but choose to celebrate the entirety of their lives and work.
Hughes was an American writer known for his poems, columns, novels and plays. He was a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Hughes first began to write poetry in his childhood when he was facing instability and hardship in his home life. His in-school writing served as an outlet for those emotions associated with a lack of security. He began writing and was published after graduating high school in 1921, then attended university for one year before leaving to travel. “The Weary Blues”, published by Knopf in 1926, was Hughes’ first official book of poetry. Hughes’ commitment to black themes and heritage was a hallmark of his work. After graduating from Lincoln University in 1929, Hughes continued to publish, which convinced him to go all-in on his writing career. Hughes was a significant and courageous face in the civil rights movement as he brought to light the fight for black lives in his works.
Madam C.J. Walker and Annie Turnbo Malone
Both Walker and Malone were American innovators in science and business in the early 1900s. According to National Geographic’s article “Black Inventors: A Broader View,” the women were both born to formerly enslaved parents. Nicknamed the “Mothers of Inventions,” both began their careers in St. Louis, where their target consumers were underserved. Malone began experimenting with hair products in her thirties. Using her skills in chemistry, she invented a hair product that was gentler than others used in the black community. Her sales soared, and her products were highly desired. She opened a school for black cosmetology and sold her products internationally.
Madam C.J. Walker first got a job selling Annie Turnbo’s products. Walker later invented her own product and became a market competitor to Annie Turnbo’s sales. Walker was known to be the wealthiest African American woman in the city in the year 1917 and still maintains her reputation for being the first black woman millionaire in the U.S. Both Annie Turnbo Malone and Madam C.J. Walker hold legacies of supporting racial equality, women’s advocacy and black colleges and universities.
Barbara Jordan was an American educator, politician and lawyer who was influential in the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-to-late 1900s. She was the first African American elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction as well as the first African American woman elected to the United States House of Representatives. Jordan was well known for her speech during the impeachment trials of Richard Nixon in the 1970s and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the 1990s. One powerful statement from Jordan was in defense of her birthright citizenship: “I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake,” she said. “But through the process of amendment, interpretation, and court decision I have finally been included in ‘We, the people.’”
Mae C. Jemison
Mae C. Jemison is an American astronaut and physician. In 1987 she became the first African American woman to be admitted into NASA’s astronaut training program, and in 1992 she flew with a team of six others, making herself the first African American woman in space. After her NASA career, Jemison continued to advocate for advancement and education in science and technology.
Barack Obama was the 44th president of the United States and the first African American to serve in the office. Obama was first elected in 2008 and won a second term in 2012. The son of parents from Kenya and Kansas, he was born and raised in Hawaii and graduated from Columbia University and Harvard Law School. Before he made history as the first African American to ever take the presidential seat, he served as a State Senator for Illinois.
The list goes on and on and is just a small portion of the great success and influence of many African American heroes. As we open the chapter of February, be mindful to spend time honoring these beloved lives who have paved the way through history.