Black History Month celebrates some of the great moments and most famous names in African-American lore. Sometimes, though, many individuals who helped contribute to the American story are not always highlighted in school books, television depictions, movies…or even on postage stamps.
The following individuals are excellent examples of profiles in perseverance. Their stories represent the courage, ingenuity and intestinal fortitude which has helped to shape American history.
James Armistead (1748-1830) Under Lafayette, the French general who helped the American colonists fight for their freedom, James Armistead infiltrated the British army as a spy near the end of the Revolutionary War.
Armistead was a slave in Virginia in 1781 when he received permission from his owner—who helped to supply the Continental Army—to join the war effort. He posed as a slave to spy for Lafayette and joined British forces in Virginia to provide valuable knowledge to Gen. George Washington’s command staff about the local terrain.
Amistead once reported to Benedict Arnold, the traitorous colonist who later betrayed his troops to fight for the British. This inside knowledge provided crucial intelligence that helped to defeat Lord Cornwallis and end the war.
Albert Murray (1916-2013) While never a household name, Albert Murray was one of the most important Black thinkers of the 20th Century. The essayist and social critic was more of a “militant integrationist” and changed the way people talked about race by challenging Black separatism and insisting that the Black experience was central to American culture.
Murray once remarked that American society is “incontestably mulatto” because Black and White people are inextricably bound to one another. “The United States is not a nation of Black and White people,” he wrote. “Any fool can see that White people are not really ‘white,’ and that black people are not ‘Black.’”
Althea Gibson (1927-2003) Long before the Williams sisters’ dominance of women’s professional tennis, there was Althea Gibson. As a young Black woman, she shook the staid world of tennis with her powerful and brilliant play.
When Gibson began playing, tennis had long been a segregated sport. She broke the color barrier in the 1950s. Gibson’s path to tennis stardom was unusual. The South Carolina native grew up in Harlem and learned early on to master paddle tennis. She quickly won a citywide tennis tournament at age 12.
Gibson was the first African-American to compete at Wimbledon in 1951. She won the French Open in 1956. She won at Wimbledon in 1957, the trophy presented to her by Queen Elizabeth II. She successfully defended her Wimbledon title in 1958, captured the U.S. Open that year and not long after, retired from professional tennis.
Always a sportswoman, Gibson played briefly with the Harlem Globetrotters and, in 1964, broke the color barrier in women’s professional golf by joining the LPGA.
Bayard Rustin (1912-1987) Bayard Rustin overcame prejudice on multiple levels to become a key ally of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in helping to organize the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott and the 1963 March on Washington.
An openly gay man during the Jim Crow era, Rustin was once arrested for having sex with men at a time when homosexuality was widely considered a form of mental illness. Prior to that, Rustin served two years in federal prison for refusing to fight in World War II because of his pacifist Quaker beliefs.
Rustin and his mentor, A. Philip Randolph, co-founded the A. Philip Randolph Institute, a labor organization for Black trade unions. Rustin would continue his work within the civil rights and peace movements, and was much in demand as a public speaker.
Ella Baker (1903-1986) Ella Baker risked her life to rally activists in the Deep South. She played a major role in three of the biggest groups of the Civil Rights Movement (NAACP, SCLC, SNCC), yet she somehow still remains largely unknown outside activist circles.
Baker grew up in North Carolina, where her grandmother’s stories about life under slavery inspired her passion for social justice. As an adult, Baker became an organizer with the NAACP and helped co-found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the organization that King Jr. led. She also helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
While serving as a frontline leader of social change, Baker was a mentor to some of the biggest names in the struggle for Black-civil and voting rights. For her efforts, Ella Baker has been called the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.”
Gordon Parks (1912-2006) For much of the mid-20th Century, it appeared that most of the world learned about Black America through the lens of Gordon Parks. His creative endeavors were versatile. He performed as a jazz pianist, composed musical scores, wrote 15 books and co-founded “Essence Magazine.”
Parks adapted his novel “The Learning Tree” into a 1969 film, and became the first African-American to direct a movie for a major motion picture studio. He later directed “Shaft” which won an Oscar for best song (Isaac Hayes) and is generally believed to have spawned the “Blaxploitation” genre.
Parks reached his artistic peak, however, as a photographer as his intimate photos of African-American life are his most enduring legacy.
Fritz Pollard (1894-1986) The son of a boxer, Fritz Pollard was the first Black coach in the National Football League. Although considered small by today’s standards for professional football at 5 feet, 9 inches, his size didn’t preclude him from “bulldozing” racial barriers on and off the field.
Pollard majored in chemistry at Brown University and played halfback on the football team. He was the school’s first Black player and led Brown to the 1916 Rose Bowl in Pasadena. On the trip west, porters were instructed not to serve him in the train dining car.
After serving in the army during World War I, Pollard joined the Akron Pros of the American Professional Football Association, which later became the NFL. He was one of only two Black players in the new league.
Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman (1892-1926) Born to sharecroppers in the tiny Texas town of Atlanta, Bessie Coleman was the first Black woman to become a pilot.
Coleman became interested in flying while living in Chicago, where stories about the exploits of World War I pilots piqued her interest. American flight schools would not accept Coleman because of her race. Undaunted, she moved to Paris and enrolled in the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, where in 1921 she became the first African-American woman to “earn her wings.”
Back in the U.S., Coleman began performing on the barnstorming circuit, receiving cheers for her daring loops, acrobatic figure-eights and other aerial stunts. Fans called her “Queen Bess” and “Brave Bessie.” Coleman crashed in a test flight in 1926 and died at the age of 34.
Constance Baker Motley (1921-2005) The first Black woman to argue before the United States Supreme Court graduated from her Connecticut high school with honors.
Motley’s parents were Caribbean immigrants with few financial resources to send her to college. Therefore, Mortley became a youth activist who spoke at community events to help pay for her education. A philanthropist heard one of her speeches and was so impressed that he paid for her to attend New York University and Columbia Law School.
Motley was the lead trial attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and began arguing desegregation and fair housing cases across the country. Who hired her for the NAACP? Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
Motley penned the legal brief for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, which struck down racial segregation in American public schools.
Garrett A. Morgan (1877-1963) This man invented devices to make the world safer. The son of slaves, Morgan had little more than a grade-school education. He was an inventor with a rare gift for designing machines that directly aligned with the modernity of the 20th Century.
Initially he began repairing sewing machines which led to his first invention–a patented improved sewing machine of which the technology is still in use today. The idea of a liquid solution to help the sewing machine needle more easily run at high speeds–especially through thick woolen fabrics–led he and his wife to form the G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Co. to sell the cream (an early hair “relaxer” of sorts) to African-Americans.
Morgan invented a breathing device or “safety hood” to allow persons to more easily breath in smoke, gasses and other pollutants.That device became the prototype for gas masks used in World War I. Morgan invented the traffic signal, one with a warning light to alert drivers that they would need to stop. It was a rudimentary version of the modern three-way traffic signal used around the world.
Dorothy Height (1912-2010) Most often the only woman in the room, Dr. Dorothy Height spent her life fighting racism and sexism.
Height made it her life’s work to challenge prevailing norms about African-Americans, so much so that former President Barack Obama once called her the “godmother” of the Civil Rights Movement.
Height felt the sting of racism early on when after being accepted to New York’s Bernard College in 1929, she learned that there wasn’t a spot for her because the school had already satisfied its quota for two Black students per year. Instead, she enrolled at New York University and became a social worker in the New York and Washington, D.C. areas. It was during this period that she helped to lead the national YWCA and the United Christian Youth Movement.
Height was a protege of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, and in 1958 she became president of the National Coluncil of Negro Women, a position she held for more than 40 years. For the rest of her life she fought tirelessly for desegregation, affordable housing, women’s rights and criminal justice reform.