As we celebrate Black History Month, iconic heroes instantly come to mind: Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou, Harriet Tubman. But throughout the course of history, countless African Americans have paved the way for progress in all industries, from sports and entertainment to science and politics. Though they’re not often featured in the history books or on TV, it’s essential to acknowledge and honor the individuals who helped make history.
- Phillis Wheatley
Phillis Wheatley was the first published African-American female poet. Sold into slavery at age 7, she was taught to read and write by the family who purchased her. Her first poem was published in 1767.
- Bayard Rustin
Gay and black civil rights activist Bayard Rustin organized the famous 1963 March on Washington. It’s believed he acted as a mentor for Martin Luther King, Jr.. In 2013, President Barack Obama honored him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
- Dorothy Dandridge
Most remember that Halle Barry was the first black female to win an Academy Award. Dorothy Dandridge was the first African-American actress to be nominated for one for her performance in the 1954 film Carmen Jones.
- Henrietta Lacks
Perhaps one of the most fascinating stories is that of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black farmer whose cancer cells became an invaluable part of medical research. A doctor from Johns Hopkins removed a piece of her tumor without telling her, sent them in for examination and, much to the scientific community’s surprise, the cells never died. They were essential to developing the polio vaccine and were even part of the first space mission to see what would happen to cells in zero gravity. Her cells are known in the medical community as the HeLa cells, the first immortal human cells ever grown in culture.
- Willie O’Ree
The Jackie Robinson of ice hockey, Willie O’Ree was the first black player in the National Hockey League. He was 95% blind in his right eye due to a hockey injury, but he kept it a secret from the League and went on to play 43 games in the NHL.
- Charlie Sifford
The first African American to play on the PGA Tour, Charles Sifford arguably paved the way for golfers like Tiger Woods. Charlie was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014.
- Bessie Coleman
Bessie Coleman was the first black female pilot and the first Native American woman to hold a pilot’s license. No flying school in the U.S. would admit her, so she moved to France, where she earned her license and began making history, specializing in stunt flying and parachuting.
- Nina Simone
Singer, pianist, civil rights activist … Nina Simone’s music addressed racial inequality head on. You might have heard her songs in The Big Lebowski, Six Feet Under and Sex and the City to name a few. She received 15 Grammy nominations over the course of her career.