Black History Month is an exciting time of year when we are encouraged to think about the lasting impact that Black people have made to American History. It is an opportunity for us to consider how (and why) important historical figures may have been left out of many of our formal educations. The sad truth is, it only seems to be getting harder to ensure that future student learners (and teachers) are able to access this information in schools. According to new research at UCLA and UC San Diego, “more than 17.7 million public school students enrolled in almost 900 districts in the US” have had their learning disrupted by bills designed to limit “divisive content.”
In an effort to expand our own education as adult learners, I’d like to introduce 10 Black History Figures that you may be less than familiar with.
- Stormé DeLarverie (1920-2014). Known as the ‘guardian of the lesbians of the Village,’ Stormé DeLarverie was a lifelong gay rights activist and drag performer. DeLarverie was a male impersonator, or drag king, who pushed the limits of gender expression on and off the stage; in fact, she attracted the attention of legendary photographer Diane Arbus, whose 1961 portrait of her, “Miss Storme de Larverie [sic], the lady who appears to be a gentleman,” has been included in multiple retrospectives, including a 2016 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. However, what Stormé is possibly most well-known for is her participation in the Stonewall Uprising. There are many accounts of what happened on that night of June 28, 1969, however Stormé is among those considered to be one of the ones ‘who threw the first punch.’
- Lewis Latimer (1848-1928). While Thomas Edison is understood to be the first person to create a working lightbulb, his original design was flawed – each bulb only lasted a few days. However, it was Lewis Latimer, an inventor in his own right, who created the filament that extended the life of the bulb. In doing so, he made lightbulbs that could be used in more homes due to their affordability.
- Audley “Queen Mother” Moore (1898-1997). An activist in the civil rights movement, Audley Moore’s name deserves to be uttered alongside more well-known names like Marcus Garvey, Winnie Mandela, Rosa Parks, and Jesse Jackson. In 1963, she formed the Reparations Committee of Descendants of American Slaves to demand government reparations for Black people. Her tireless work in building support around the country led to her presenting over 1 million petition signatures to President Kennedy in December of that year, the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
- Benjamin O. Davis Sr. (1880-1970). Benjamin O. Davis Sr. was the first Black general in the American military. He served for 50 years as a temporary first lieutenant at an all-Black unit during the Spanish American War. Throughout his service, Davis Sr. was a professor of military science at Tuskegee and Wilberforce University, a commander of the 369th Regiment, New York National Guard, and special assistant to the Secretary of the Army.
- Claudette Colvin (1939 -) Nine months before Rosa Parks infamously refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, there was a brave 15-year-old girl who refused to give up her seat for a white woman. In doing so, Claudette Colvin became the first woman to be detained for her resistance. So why isn’t her story as widely known as Rosa Parks? Well, this may have been an intentional effort by Black-led organizations because, according to Colvin herself, Parks “was an adult. They didn’t think teenagers would be reliable.”
- Colonel John McKee (1819-1902) A real estate mogul, Colonel John McKee was hailed as “the wealthiest Negro in the United States” at the time of his death. So much so that The Philidelphia Inquirer announced his passing in an article titled “Richest colored man passes away.” In his life, McKee was a bricklayer, a Civil War veteran, a restaunteur, and a philanthropist. His controversial will left little to his only surviving daughter and her children, but requested his wealth be used to build a Catholic church rectory and maintain a charitable institution for Black (and white) orphan boys.
- Valerie Thomas (1943-) Valerie Thomas is a former NASA scientist and inventor who is most widely known for her patented illusion transmitter, which can be considered early 3D technology. One of her many other accomplishments was her management of the Landsat program, the first program to make multispectral images of Earth widely available to scientists. Launched in 1970, “Landsat satellites capture multispectral images of Earth from orbit, meaning they gather data along various parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.” Even outside of her 30 year career at NASA, Valerie continued to inspire young scientists with her work with organizations like Minority University-Space Interdisciplinary Network and Shades of Blue. For all of her contributions to the field of science, NASA awarded Thomas the Goddard Space Flight Center Merit Award and the Equal Opportunity Medal.
- Arthur Mitchell (1934-2018). The first Black ballet dancer to receive international recognition, Arthur Mitchell was well-known as a gifted performer and choreographer. In 1955, Mitchell became the first Black dancer with the New York City Ballet and was soon promoted to principal dancer. In 1969, along with his teacher Karel Shook, Mitchell founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the nation’s first Black classical ballet company.
- Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000). Gwendolyn Brooks is considered to be one of the most revered poets of the 20th century. She was the first Black author to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for Annie Allen, and she served as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, becoming the first Black woman to hold that position. A lifelong resident of Chicago, Brooks was appointed the poet laureate for the state of Illinoi in 1968, a position she held until her death in 2000. In recognition of her service and achievements, a junior high school in Harvey, Illinois, was named for her, and she was similarly honored by Western Illinois University’s Gwendolyn Brooks Center for African-American Literature.
- Bayard Rustin (1912-1987). Simply put, Bayard Rustin is a civil rights icon who has historically been left out of the narrative because of his sexual orientation. Though Dr. King is the first person to come to mind when we talk about the 1963 March on Washington, it’s Bayard Rustin to whom we should give credit as the primary organizer (alongside A. Philip Randolph.) Rustin is also considered to have been the one that introduced Dr. King to non-violent protests, and mentored him in his early days. However, because Rustin was open about his queer identity, he was quite literally pushed to the side by major leaders in the movement. To be an openly gay man in a wildly homophobic era, Rustin endured not only the pain of blatant racism, but he also suffered unjust legal punishment for his sexuality.