5 Black Figures From History You Should Know, But Probably Don’t

History is filled with talented, accomplished, incredible African Americans, but all too often their stories get lost. Our textbooks only touch on a few, or share so little information that all we remember later is the name of the person, nothing more.

As Care2 author Emily Zak pointed out, American schools usually only teach one or two lessons on black history, which is probably why many people have a hard time naming black historical figures who aren’t Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks.

With all due respect to civil rights leaders, they aren’t the only ones who deserve a prominent place in history. Here are several other names we should learn, too.

1. Phillis Wheatley

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

At just 13-years-old, Phillis Wheatley became the first black poet published in the United States. Ripped from her home when she was just seven, Wheatley was brought to the US and sold as a slave to John Wheatley. The Wheatley’s taught Phillis English as well as Greek, Latin, and literature among other subjects. When she was 13, she published her first poem and was considered a prodigy. By 18, she published her first book of poems. She was freed a few years later, but died when she was only 31.

2. Josephine Baker

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Best known for dancing in a banana skirt, Josephine Baker was an incredible entertainer but also so much more. In 1923, Baker landed her first major role in Shuffle Along, the first major all-black musical. A few years later, she moved to Paris where her success skyrocketed. She became a world-renowned singer and dancer, and when WWI broke out she was also involved in the French Resistance, smuggling messages in her underwear. This later earned her two of France’s highest military honors. Her entire life she fought for civil rights and was one of the speakers at the 1963 March on Washington.

3. Lewis Howard Latimer

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Lewis Howard Latimer’s parents escaped slavery just six years before he was born. His father was brought to trial as a fugitive and was defended by Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. At just 16, Latimer enlisted in the Navy during the civil war. After the war, Latimer began designing his own inventions, including an early version of an air conditioning unit. He worked directly with Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison and even helped draft the patent for Bell’s telephone. In his spare time, he taught English to recent immigrants.

4. Madam C.J. Walker

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Born Sarah Breedlove, Madam C.J. Walker was one of the first female self-made millionaires in the country. In 1905, Walker developed her own line of African-American hair care products after suffering from hair loss. Walker grew her business to 20 products and 3,000 employees, and used her success to benefit others. She donated money to build an Indianapolis YMCA, gave scholarships to black women, donated large sums to the NAACP and dozens of other charities.

5. Charles Drew

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Charles Drew is known as the father of the modern blood bank and was the first African-American to earn a doctorate from Columbia. Drew discovered that when plasma is separated from the rest of blood, it can be stored much longer and used when needed. This discovery led to the development of modern blood banks. He became the medical director of the Red Cross blood bank just one year later. He taught at Howard University and became the medical director at Freedman’s Hospital. He died unexpectedly in a car crash aged 45.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

321 comments

Marie W
Marie W2 months ago

thanks for sharing

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Chad A
Chad Anderson6 months ago

Thank you!

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KimJ M
KimJ M7 months ago

Tfs

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KimJ M
KimJ M7 months ago

Yfs

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KimJ M
KimJ M7 months ago

Tfs

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KimJ M
KimJ M7 months ago

Interesting

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Susie Scargill
Susie Scargill7 months ago

Thank you - interesting article

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Fran SiteIssues F
Fran F7 months ago

Thank you!

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Patricia D
Patricia D7 months ago

I only heard of Josephine Baker. Thanks for the info on the others.

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Julia S
Julia S7 months ago

Thank you!

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