Celebrating Black History Month with these 10 pioneers.

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February is Black History Month, so we’d like to applaud and celebrate some heroes of the Untied States civil rights movement. Initiated by Carter G. Woodsen in 1921 as only a week, this reverence for African American contribution and culture was placed in February because it marked the birthdays of both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. It was later expanded to a full month in 1970 after urging by Kent State students and in 1976, Black History Month was officially recognized by the U.S. Government as part of the Bicentennial celebration. It’s since has become universal in the United States, Canada, and Germany, and in the United Kingdom in October.

There are far too many contributors and pioneers of African American culture to detail, but here are a few we’d like to shine the spotlight on.

Ruby Nell Bridges Hall 
(September 8, 1954-present)

Ruby was the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school in the South, William Frantz Elementary, in the spring of 1960. It came as a result of the court-ordered integration of schools in New Orleans that qualified six children to attend all-white schools. Two of the six kids decided to stay at their schools, three were transferred to the mixed Mcdonough School, and Ruby was the only one who went to an all-white school by herself. She was accompanied by National Guardsman amid death threats and hostile crowds and had to spend her whole first day in the principal’s office for safety. Some white parents pulled their kids from school and Ruby had to bring her lunch from home every day in case her school lunch was poisoned. The only teacher who agreed to work with Ruby was Barbara Henry, from Boston, Massachusetts, so for over a year, the entire classroom consisted of her and Ruby.

W.E.B. Du Bois
(February 23, 1868 – August 27, 1963)

Du Bois was a sociologist, author, historian, and civil rights activist.  He graduated from Harvard and became the first black man to earn a doctorate and became a university professor.  He went on to co-found the NAACP and dedicate his life to a storied career as a civil rights leader, educator, and storyteller.

Hiriam R. Revels
(September 27, 1827 – January 16, 1901)

Revels was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church but took to politics and became the first African American to serve in the Senate in 1871, and first in Congress, when he was voted in by Mississippi during Civil War Reconstruction.

Hattie McDaniel 
(June 10, 1895-October 26, 1952)

The youngest of 13 children from Wichita, Kansas, the talented Hattie became an accomplished singer, comedian, radio personality, and actress. She became the first African-American to win an Academy Award, winning Best Supporting Actress for her role of Mammy in Gone with the Wind (1939). She led the way for other African-American Academy Award winners like Sydney Poitier (1963,) Louis Gossett Jr. (1982,) and later Holly Berry, the first to win Best Actress in 2001.

Jackie Robinson
(January 31, 1919 – October 24, 1972)

Classy and charismatic Robinson was the first African-American to play Major League Baseball debuting in 1947 with Branch Rickey’s Brooklyn Dodgers. He was a pioneer, the first black man to play any integrated professional sport, but the real victory was that he distinguished himself with honor, temperance, and civility amidst constant racist threats, violence, and criticism, and he was also a hell of a ball player! Amazingly, Robinson’s feats came a year before the US Army was integrated, seven years before Brown v. Board of Education, eight years before Rosa Parks’ accomplishments and before Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggles, making him a true pioneer.

Vivien Thomas
(August 29, 1910 – November 26, 1985)

Vivien Thomas, a groundbreaking surgical technician, development heart surgery techniques to cure blue baby syndrome in newborns.  He practiced medicine at Vanderbilt University Hospital and later Johns Hopkins University, despite a racist system that wouldn’t let him advance past a formal high school education.  Still, he worked as an apprentice and became so amazing at surgery that he became one of the top cardiologists in the country and a teacher to many top recognized surgeons. His story was told in a recent TV movie with Mos Def playing Thomas.

Booker T. Washington 
(April 5, 1856 – November 14, 1915)

Booker T. Washington was an educator, author, orator, and political advisor to several US presidents.  Being of the last generation born into slavery, he represented their voice against Jim Crow law and became the first African-American person to receive an invite to the White House when Theodore Roosevelt extended the offer. Washington was also the first black man to have his likeness dedicated to a postage stamp.  Foremost, he was an advocate for equal rights and worked tirelessly for that cause through Washington’s political machine.

Thurgood Marshall
(July 2, 1908 – January 24, 1993)

Born right after the turn of the century in a time when Jim Crow laws and racial segregation were the status quo, Marshall undertook to fight for civil rights through the law, becoming a distinguished attorney in the process.  He presented more than 30 civil rights cases before the Supreme Court Between 1938 and 196 and amazingly won 29 of them, including the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education, which ended segregation in public schools. By law, black and white students had to attend separate public schools. He went on to become the first African-American Supreme Court Justice in American history, serving from 1967 to 1991.

Rosa Parks
February 4, 1913 – October 24, 2005)

Rosa Parks has been called “the first lady of civil rights by the US Congress, but her career started with humble beginnings as a secretary of the NAACP in Montgomery, Alabama. On December 1, 1955, she boarded a bus to work but was ordered to give up her seat in the front for a white passenger, and instead to go sit in the back. She refused and was arrested, sparking a civil rights protest and the Montgomery Bus Boycott for a whole year, until the US Supreme Court ruled that segregation on buses was unconstitutional. For her role as a civil rights pioneer, Parks received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, and a posthumous statue in the United States Capitol’s National Statuary Hall.

Martin Luther King, Jr.
(January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968)

Doctor King became the preeminent leader of the civil-rights movement and the conscience of America as he vehemently fought racism and segregation but by deploying peaceful civil disobedience. He motivated men and women to their highest purpose like no other charismatic leader and gave grand orations that shook the podiums with applause. He was involved in just about every major peace protest, march, boycott, and rally for civil rights in his time, and On October 14, 1964, King received the Nobel Peace Prize. He was assassinated on April 4, 1968, a bullet taking his life but never quieting his message of humanity and peace.

Of course, there are so many men and women that deserve our praise and recognition  during Black History Month, like The Little Rock 9, the Tuskegee Airmen, Jack Johnson, Buck Williams, Daisy Bates, Diane Nash, Arthur Ashe, Julian Bond, James Baldwin, Frederick Douglass, Medgar Evans, Jesse Jackson, Jesse Owens, and many more. To find out more about all of these unsung heroes and pioneers, or more information about African American History, got to AfricanAmericanHistory.gov.


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