In February, we pause to celebrate the lives of extraordinary African Americans, reflecting on centuries of oppression, and sharing stories of courage and triumph. Each year, a small number of historical figures are given prominent attention. And while the iconic names — Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman — are undeniably important, there are many more who are too often overlooked.
In honor of African American History Month, we’ve compiled a list of extraordinary black figures from history who, despite excelling in their chosen fields, have had their contributions downplayed in the historical canon.
Matthew Henson was an African American Arctic explorer from Charles County, Maryland. Orphaned at the age of 11, he made his way to Baltimore where he was hired as a cabin boy, spending six years travelling across the Pacific, the Atlantic, the South China Sea, and the Baltic. Henson’s resourcefulness, coupled with his practical skills and ability to learn the ways and language of the Inuit, won him a key role in Robert Peary’s explorations of the Arctic and his attempts to reach the geographical North Pole.
At age 20, Wilma Rudolph became the first American woman to win three gold athletics medals in one Olympics: in the 100m, 200m, and 4x100m relay. She achieved this extraordinary feat despite suffering from a string of childhood illnesses and recovering from a deformed leg caused by polio.
Thurgood Marshall was a champion of desegregation in public schools, and served as a lawyer on the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education. He served as judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and as the 32nd United States Solicitor General. Marshall then became the first African American to be a Supreme Court Justice, a position he held from 1967 to 1991.
Brought to Boston as an eight-year-old slave in 1761, Phillis was bought by the Wheatley family to serve in their house. The Wheatleys saw how bright she was and gave her an education. Phillis became a writer; when she was 20, a book of poetry made her famous. The Wheatleys gave her both her freedom and their name, and her achievement as the first slave to publish a book inspired free African Americans for many years.
Born in Massachusetts in 1848, Lewis Latimer was the son of escaped slaves who, at the age of 16, joined the Union Navy to help fight slavery during the American Civil War. Following the war, he worked as an office boy at a patent law firm in Boston, becoming fascinated by the draughtsmen’s precise diagrams of new inventions, and he took up the practice himself. Latimer would later draw the diagrams for Alexander Graham Bell’s 1876 patent application for the telephone. His own inventions included brighter and more durable light bulb filaments, the safety elevator, and an early air conditioner.
During the 1930s, Marian Anderson sang at Europe’s most famous concert halls, but when she returned to the United States, she was forced to contend with racism. In January 1939, she was prohibited from performing at the Daughters of the American Revolution’s Constitution Hall because she was African American. The first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, withdrew from the organization in protest.
In the end, Anderson never did sing at Constitution Hall. Instead, she gave an outdoor concert on Easter Sunday 1939, at the base of the Lincoln Memorial. The concert was attended by 75,000 people and broadcast across the country. Later, in a historic moment in 1955, Anderson was the first African American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.
On December 7, 1941, Japanese aircraft attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. American servicemen struggled to organize anti-aircraft fire. One hero on the day was African American ship’s cook Doris Miller, who was decorated for rescuing wounded soldiers, and for operating a machine gun to shoot down Japanese planes.
Born in 1875 to two former slaves, Mary McLeod Bethune was an educator and women’s rights activist. In 1904, she founded a college for impoverished black women in Florida, and in the 1930s, President Roosevelt asked her to be his special advisor on racial affairs. As part of Roosevelt’s cabinet, Bethune was the first black woman to obtain a high position in the United States government.