Black History Month gives us the opportunity to learn more about Black heroes and the most influential Black people in world history. Recognizing the trials others have overcome that have led us to a brighter future we all benefit from is a key component to better understanding ourselves and others. Black folks are not a monolith and draw from a wide range of cultures and ethnicities that greatly affect their experiences and contributions. Let's discover some unsung Black heroes from across the globe, including unknown Black activists, scientists, ancient leaders, and others who have shaped the world we know today.
We hear a great deal about white explorers but rarely do we learn about the Black people who uncovered and charted new lands. Born in 1866 and orphaned early on, American Matthew Henson challenged the “Adventure Gap” between Black and white outdoorsmen by reaching the North Pole in 1909 with Robert Peary, making the famed explorer’s mission possible. Racial tensions at the time didn’t give Henson the credit he deserved, and the history books left out his contribution to the expedition, making him sadly one of our forgotten African American heroes.
Most people believe that Rosa Parks was the first African American to refuse to give up her seat in a designated “white” section of public transportation. However, as amazing as Parks’ contribution was, Claudette Colvin actually did the same thing nine months earlier at the remarkable age of 15. Colvin was arrested in Montgomery for her protest against segregation during what was at the time called Negro History Week and was a plaintiff in Browder v. Gayle, which overturned bus segregation laws in Alabama.
Bessie Coleman became the first Black and Native American woman to earn a pilot’s license in 1921. She had to take flying lessons in France because both her gender and her race kept her out of US aviation schools. Coleman’s legacy, which inspired other brave women and people wanting to break the colour barrier, lived on after her death. She died in an airplane accident in 1926, and her funeral service was performed by Ida B. Wells-Barnett.
Going back in time, Mansa Musa was the ruler of an enormous African empire from present-day Senegal to Algeria. Also known as Musa I of Mali, Mansa Musa may have been the richest person to have ever lived, and he built sophisticated cities with mosques and universities in the 1300s. After his death in 1337, Mali thrived, even as the Hundred Years’ War saw Europe struggling.
James Armistead Lafayette
Have you ever wondered who were the seven Black heroes of the American Revolution? One of them was James Armistead, who worked as a double agent, pretending to be a runaway slave, who were often recruited by the British with promises of freedom. His intel was key in the Siege of Yorktown that ended the war, after which he received his freedom, taking the last name of his trusted General, the Marquis de Lafayette.
Frederick McKinley Jones
We don’t often hear of famous Black inventors, but you probably owe the meal on your table to the work of Frederick McKinley Jones. One of his 60 patents was for a roof-mounted truck cooling system that revolutionized food transportation in the 1930s and 1940s. His business, U.S. Thermo Control Company, which later became Thermo King, also helped preserve blood, food, and supplies during World War II.
Oscar Devereaux Micheaux
The first African American filmmaker Oscar Devereaux Micheaux was the child of former slaves. He was a pioneer in the film industry, writing, directing, and producing silent films and “talkies,” and he also championed all-Black casts, which was rare in the early 20th century. Micheaux encouraged Black businessmen in Virginia to invest in his films, and when he wasn’t behind the camera, he was busy authoring novels, before heading to New York City to become an integral part of the Harlem Renaissance.
The first Black woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, author, scholar, and activist Wangari Maathai was recognized in 2004 for her environmental work in Kenya. She was also the first woman in East and Central Africa to be awarded a doctorate degree. Her Green Belt Movement planted over 51 million trees since 1977 in Kenya, with the help of the National Council of Women in Kenya.
A leader in the Black feminism movement in Brazil today, Djamila Ribeiro works as an academic and activist. Originally from São Paulo, Ribeiro leads discussions about discrimination and racism on television and online. She became São Paulo’s deputy secretary for Human Rights and Citizenship Affairs in 2016, and in 2019, the BBC named her as one of the 100 most inspirational and influential women in the world.
The world needs more of these heroes and people ready to start the conversation, like Djamila Ribeiro. This is exactly why Tough Convos is here to help you keep the momentum going. We facilitate discussions, programs and training on a wide variety of diversity, equity and inclusion topics for workplaces like yours. Call us at 858-876-8176, or reach out online to get the discussion going.