Black History Month is an annual celebration of achievements by African Americans and a time for recognizing the central role of blacks in U.S. history. The event grew out of “Negro History Week,” the brainchild of noted historian Carter G. Woodson and other prominent African Americans. With a tribute to African-American men and women who have made significant contributions to America and the rest of the world in the fields of science, politics, law, sports, the arts, entertainment, and many other fields. Since 1976, every U.S. president has officially designated the month of February as Black History Month. Other countries around the world, including Canada and the United Kingdom, also devote a month to celebrating black history. This month we highlight many notable African-Americans and how they have helped shaped the world.
Rosa Parks (Activist, Civil Rights Activist)
Civil rights activist Rosa Parks (February 4, 1913 to October 24, 2005) refused to surrender her seat to a white passenger on a segregated Montgomery, Alabama bus, which spurred on the 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott that helped launch nationwide efforts to end segregation of public facilities. The city of Montgomery had no choice but to lift the law requiring segregation on public buses. Rosa Parks received many accolades during her lifetime, including the NAACP's highest award.
Martin Luther King Jr. (Minister, Civil Rights Activist)
Martin Luther King Jr. was born in 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. King, a Baptist minister and civil-rights activist, had a seismic impact on race relations in the United States, beginning in the mid-1950s. Among his many efforts, King headed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Through his activism and inspirational speeches he played a pivotal role in ending the legal segregation of African-American citizens in the United States, as well as the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, among several other honors. He was assassinated in April 1968, and continues to be remembered as one of the most influential and inspirational African-American leaders in history.
George Washington Carver (Scientist, Inventor, Chemist, Botanist)
George Washington Carver (c. 1864 to January 5, 1943) was born into slavery and went on to become a botanist and one of the most prominent scientists and inventors of his time as well as a teacher at the Tuskegee Institute. Carver devised over 100 products using one major crop — the peanut — including dyes, plastics and gasoline.
Johnnie Carr (Activist, Civil Rights Activist)
Born on January 26, 1911, in Montgomery, Alabama, Johnnie Carr became youth director and secretary of Montgomery's NAACP in the 1940s. Carr played a key role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In 1965, she won a lawsuit against the Montgomery County Board of Education. Carr was president of the Montgomery Improvement Association from 1967 until her death, on February 22, 2008, in Montgomery. Civil rights activist Johnnie Carr played a key role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and was president of the Montgomery Improvement Association from 1967 to 2008.
Shirley Chisholm (U.S. Representative)
Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1924, Shirley Chisholm is best known for becoming the first black congresswoman (1968), representing New York State in the U.S. House of Representatives for seven terms. She went on to run for the 1972 Democratic nomination for the presidency—becoming the first major-party African-American candidate to do so. Throughout her political career, Chisholm fought for education opportunities and social justice. Chisholm left Congress in 1983 to teach. She died in Florida in 2005.
Duke Ellington (Songwriter, Pianist, Conductor)
Duke Ellington was born April 29, 1899, in Washington, D.C. A major figure in the history of jazz music, his career spanned more than half a century, during which time he composed thousands of songs for the stage, screen and contemporary songbook. He created one of the most distinctive ensemble sounds in Western music and continued to play what he called "American Music" until shortly before his death in 1974. An originator of big-band jazz, Duke Ellington was an American composer, pianist and bandleader who composed thousands of scores over his 50-year career.
Barack Obama (Lawyer, U.S. President, U.S. Senator)
Born in Honolulu in 1961, Barack Obama went on to become President of the Harvard Law Review and a U.S. senator representing Illinois. In 2008, he was elected President of the United States, becoming the first African-American commander-in-chief. He served two terms as the 44 president of the United States. Barack Obama was the 44th president of the United States, and the first African American to serve in the office. First elected to the presidency in 2008, he won a second term in 2012.
Coretta Scott King (Writer, Activist, Anti-War Activist, Women's Rights Activist, Civil Rights Activist)
Coretta Scott King was an American civil rights activist and the wife of 1960s civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Born in Alabama in 1927, Coretta Scott King met her husband, Martin Luther King Jr., while the two were both students in Boston, Massachusetts. She worked side by side with MLK as he became a leader of the civil rights movement, establishing her own distinguished career as an activist. Following her husband's assassination in 1968, Coretta founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, and later successfully lobbied for his birthday to recognize as a federal holiday. She died of complications from ovarian cancer in 2006, at age 78.
Oprah Winfrey (Television Producer, Talk Show Host, Film Actress, Actress, Philanthropist, Film Actor/Film Actress, Producer)
Billionaire media giant and philanthropist Oprah Winfrey is best known for hosting her own internationally popular talk show from 1986 to 2011. From there, she launched her own television network, OWN. Oprah Winfrey was born in the rural town of Kosciusko, Mississippi, on January 29, 1954. In 1976, Winfrey moved to Baltimore, where she hosted a hit television chat show, People Are Talking. Afterward, she was recruited by a Chicago TV station to host her own morning show. She later became the host of her own, wildly popular program, The Oprah Winfrey Show, which aired for 25 seasons, from 1986 to 2011. That same year, Winfrey launched her own TV network, the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN).
Hank Aaron (Civil Rights Activist, Famous Baseball Player)
Baseball legend Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's hallowed mark of 714 home runs and finished his career with numerous big league records. Born into humble circumstances in Mobile, Alabama, Hank Aaron ascended the ranks of the Negro Leagues to become a Major League Baseball icon. He spent most of his 23 seasons as an outfielder for the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves, during which time he set many records, including a career total of 755 home runs. Aaron was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982, and in 1999, MLB established the Hank Aaron Award to annually honor the top hitter in each league.
Maxine Waters (Congresswoman)
Congresswoman Maxine Waters is considered by many to be one of the most powerful women in American politics today. She has gained a reputation as a fearless and outspoken advocate for women, children, people of color and the poor. Elected in November 2016 to her fourteenth term in the U.S. House of Representatives with more than 76 percent of the vote in the 43rd Congressional District of California, Congresswoman Waters represents a large part of South Central Los Angeles including the communities of Westchester, Playa Del Rey, and Watts and the unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County comprised of Lennox, West Athens, West Carson, Harbor Gateway and El Camino Village. The 43rd District also includes the diverse cities of Gardena, Hawthorne, Inglewood, Lawndale, Lomita and Torrance. Congresswoman Waters serves as the Ranking Member of the House Committee on Financial Services. An integral member of Congressional Democratic Leadership, Congresswoman Waters serves as a member of the Steering & Policy Committee. She is also a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and member and past chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Hosea Williams (Civil Rights Activist, Philanthropist)
Hosea Williams was Martin Luther King Jr.'s trusted officer of the SCLC during the Civil Rights Movement, and later led Georgia's biggest civil rights march. Hosea Williams was born January 5, 1926, in Attapulgus, Georgia. He joined the NAACP in 1952 and the SCLC in 1964. He played a leadership role in the 1965 March to Montgomery. In 1974, he was elected to the Georgia State Assembly. In 1987, he led Georgia's biggest march, to Forsyth County. In 1996 he led a march to protest Georgia's state flag. He died on November 16, 2000, in Atlanta, Georgia.
Marcus Garvey (Civil Rights Activist)
Marcus Garvey was a proponent of the Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism movements, inspiring the Nation of Islam and the Rastafarian movement. Born in Jamaica, Marcus Garvey was an orator for the Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism movements, to which end he founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League. Garvey advanced a Pan-African philosophy which inspired a global mass movement, known as Garveyism. Garveyism would eventually inspire others, from the Nation of Islam to the Rastafari movement.
Maya Angelou (Poet, Civil Rights Activist, Author, Activist)
Maya Angelou was a poet and award-winning author known for her acclaimed memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and her numerous poetry and essay collections. Marguerite Annie Johnson Angelou (April 4, 1928 to May 28, 2014), known as Maya Angelou, was an American author, actress, screenwriter, dancer, poet and civil rights activist best known for her 1969 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which made literary history as the first nonfiction best-seller by an African-American woman. Angelou received several honors throughout her career, including two NAACP Image Awards in the outstanding literary work (nonfiction) category, in 2005 and 2009.
Angela Davis (Women's Rights Activist, Academic, Civil Rights Activist, Scholar, Activist)
Angela Davis is an activist, scholar and writer who advocates for the oppressed. She has authored several books, including Women, Culture & Politics. Angela Davis, born on January 26, 1944, in Birmingham, Alabama, became a master scholar who studied at the Sorbonne. She joined the U.S. Communist Party and was jailed for charges related to a prison outbreak, though ultimately cleared. Known for books like Women, Race & Class, she has worked as a professor and activist who advocates gender equity, prison reform and alliances across color lines.
Gwendolyn Brooks (Poet)
Gwendolyn Brooks was a postwar poet best known as the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize, for her 1949 book Annie Allen. Poet Gwendolyn Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas, on June 7, 1917. Brooks moved to Chicago at a young age. She began writing and publishing as a teenager, eventually achieving national fame for her 1945 collection A Street in Bronzeville. In 1950 Brooks became the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize, for her book Annie Allen. She died in her Chicago home on December 3, 2000.
Mae C. Jemison (Doctor, Scientist, Astronaut)
Mae C. Jemison is the first African-American female astronaut. In 1992, she flew into space aboard the Endeavour, becoming the first African-American woman in space. Mae C. Jemison (born October 17, 1956) is an American astronaut and physician who, on June 4, 1987, became the first African-American woman to be admitted into NASA’s astronaut training program. On September 12, 1992, Jemison finally flew into space with six other astronauts aboard the Endeavour on mission STS47, becoming the first African-American woman in space. In recognition of her accomplishments, Jemison has received several awards and honorary doctorates.
Wilma Rudolph (Athlete, Track and Field Athlete)
Born on June 23, 1940, in St. Bethlehem, Tennessee, Wilma Rudolph was a sickly child who had to wear a brace on her left leg. She overcame her disabilities to compete in the 1956 Summer Olympic Games, and in 1960, she became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field at a single Olympics. Later in life, she formed the Wilma Rudolph Foundation to promote amateur athletics.
Ava DuVernay (Documentarian, Screenwriter)
Born in 1972 in Long Beach, California, Ava DuVernay worked in film publicity and marketing, and established her own agency, before deciding to become a filmmaker. She helmed hip-hop documentaries and then released two feature films: I Will Follow (2010) and Middle of Nowhere (2012). She directed the Oscar-nominated historical drama Selma, which follows a portion of Dr. Martin Luther King’s life during an urgent call for voting rights. With this critically acclaimed work, DuVernay became the first African-American female director to receive a Golden Globe nomination and have a film nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. In 2016, she directed 13th, a documentary about the criminalization of African Americans and the U.S. prison system, which received an Oscar nomination for feature documentary. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay directed the Oscar-nominated film ‘Selma’ (2014), which chronicles Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership in the struggle for voting rights. She is the first African-American female director to receive a Golden Globe nomination and have a film nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. She received another Oscar nomination for her documentary '13th' (2016).
Amelia Boynton (Educator, Civil Rights Activist, Activist)
Amelia Boynton Robinson was a civil rights pioneer who championed voting rights for African Americans. She was brutally beaten for helping to lead a 1965 civil rights march, which became known as Bloody Sunday and drew national attention to the Civil Rights Movement. She was also the first black woman to run for Congress in Alabama. Amelia Boynton was born on August 18, 1911, in Savannah, Georgia. Her early activism included holding black voter registration drives in Selma, Alabama, from the 1930s through the '50s. In 1964, she became both the first African-American woman and the first female Democratic candidate to run for a seat in Congress from Alabama. The following year, she helped lead a civil rights march during which she and her fellow activists were brutally beaten by state troopers. The event, which became known as Bloody Sunday, drew nationwide attention to the Civil Rights movement. In 1990, Boynton won the Martin Luther King Jr. Medal of Freedom. She died on August 26, 2015 at the age of 104.
Hattie McDaniel (Film Actress)
Actress Hattie McDaniel was born on June 10, 1893, in Wichita, Kansas. By the mid-1920s, she became one of the first African-American women on the radio. In 1934, she landed her on-screen break in the film Judge Priest. She then became the first African American to win an Oscar in 1940, for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind. Then in 1947, after her career took a downturn, she starred on CBS radio's The Beulah Show. She died on October 26, 1952, in Los Angeles, California.
Nelson Mandela (Writer, President (non-U.S.) Civil Rights Activist)
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (July 18, 1918 to December 5, 2013) was a nonviolence anti-apartheid activist, politician and philanthropist who became South Africa’s first black president from 1994 to 1999. Becoming actively involved in the anti-apartheid movement in his 20s, Mandela joined the African National Congress in 1942. For 20 years, he directed a campaign of peaceful, nonviolent defiance against the South African government and its racist policies. Beginning in 1962, Mandela spent 27 years in prison for political offenses. In 1993, Mandela and South African President F.W. de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to dismantle the country's apartheid system. For generations to come, Nelson Mandela will continue to be a source of inspiration for civil rights activists worldwide.
Jesse Owens (Track and Field Athlete, Athlete)
Jesse Owens was an American track-and-field athlete who won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. His long jump world record stood for 25 years. Jesse Owens (September 12, 1913 to March 31, 1980), also known as "The Buckeye Bullet," was an American track and field athlete who won four gold medals and broke two world records at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Owens’ athletic career began in high school, when he won three track and field events at the 1933 National Interscholastic Championships. Two years later, while competing for Ohio State University, he equaled one world record and broke three others before qualifying and competing in the 1936 Olympics.
Sterling K. Brown (Television Actor, Film Actor)
Award-winning actor Sterling K. Brown first earned widespread fame for his performance in 'The People v. O.J. Simpson,' before going to star on the popular NBC drama 'This Is Us.' n September 2016, Sterling K. Brown first became known outside of a relatively small circle of fans when he claimed an Outstanding Supporting Actor Emmy for his work on The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. His win was even more impressive considering he was up against two better known actors from the show, John Travolta and Davis Schwimmer. One year later, Brown's name was called again at the Emmys, this time for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for This Is Us. He thus became the first African-American actor since Andre Braugher in 1998 to win in the category, a moment only slightly dampened when producers cut away from his acceptance speech. In January 2018, Brown made history again as the first African American to win Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series - Drama, for This Is Us.
Medgar Evers (Civil Rights Activist)
Civil rights activist Medgar Evers was born on July 2, 1925, in Decatur, Mississippi. In 1954, he became the first state field secretary of the NAACP in Mississippi. Civil rights activist Medgar Evers served as the first state field secretary of the NAACP in Mississippi until his assassination in 1963. As such, he organized voter-registration efforts and economic boycotts, and investigated crimes perpetrated against blacks. Evers was assassinated outside of his Mississippi home in 1963, and after years of on-again, off-again legal proceedings, his killer was sent to prison in 1994. In 2017, President Barack Obama designated Evers's home a national historic landmark.
Emmett Till was born in 1941 in Chicago and grew up in a middle-class black neighborhood. Till was visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi, in 1955 when the fourteen-year-old was accused of whistling at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman who was a cashier at a grocery store. Four days later, Bryant's husband Roy and his half-brother J.W. Milam kidnapped Till, beat him and shot him in the head. The men were tried for murder, but an all-white, male jury acquitted them. Till's murder and open casket funeral galvanized the emerging civil rights movement. Over six decades after Till's brutal abduction and murder, in January 2017, Timothy Tyson, author of The Blood of Emmett Till and a senior research scholar at Duke University, revealed that in a 2007 interview Carolyn admitted to him that she had lied about Till making advances toward her.
Trayvon Martin (1995–2012)
Trayvon Martin was born in Florida on February 5, 1995. An athletically-inclined teen with an eye towards aviation, Martin had no criminal record when he was shot and killed by neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman on February 26, 2012, in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman's initial release and later arrest sparked a national debate over racial profiling and the role of armed neighborhood watch members in law enforcement. On July 13, 2013, a jury acquitted Zimmerman of murder. The Trayvon Martin Foundation was established in 2012, with thousands having taken to the streets across America to protest the circumstances surrounding the teen's death.
Elijah McCoy (Engineer, Inventor(1844–1929)
Elijah McCoy was a 19th century African-American inventor best known for inventing lubrication devices used to make train travel more efficient. Elijah McCoy was born on May 2, 1844, in Colchester, Ontario, Canada, to parents who had fled slavery. McCoy trained as an engineer in Scotland as a teenager. Unable to find an engineering position in the United States, he took a job working for a railroad and subsequently invented a lubrication device to make railroad operation more efficient. McCoy died in Detroit, Michigan, on October 10, 1929.