The heroic stories of several black people have been greatly undermined and some of important historical accounts lost due to white washing the travails and struggles of black people. However, there are some important people in black history whose heroic deeds withstood the test of time and who have stood against white supremacy and fought for black people to have equal rights and live in a society, free of segregation, apartheid, racism and other forms of oppression.
Below is a list of 10 important people in black history.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.
Born January 15, 1929, Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the important people in black history, who grew to become a prominent figure in the civil rights movements. Born as Michael King Jr., King got a name change in 1934, after his father came back from a church mission in Nazi-led Germany. King Jr.’s father, Michael King Sr., while in Germany, visited sites associated with the Reformation leader, Martin Luther. This encounter with the history of the church reformist inspired Michael King Sr. to change his first and second name to Martin Luther, and that of his first son too.
One of the earliest experiences that made King realize he was living in an unjust society was when he turned six and had to be registered in a school. He was registered in a school different from that of a white playmate whose father had a store across the street. Not long after, the parents of his white playmate asked him to stop being friends with their son. When young Martin questioned his parents on why he could not be in the same school as his friend nor play anymore with him, his parents explained the history of slavery and racism to him.
On April 13, 1944, in his junior year, King gave his first public speech during an oratorical contest. In his speech he stated, “black America still wears chains. The finest negro is at the mercy of the meanest white man. Even winners of our highest honors face the class color bar.” King won the contest but was racially abused on a bus while on his way back when he and his teacher were asked by the bus driver to vacate their seats for some white passengers.
After bagging a college degree and a doctorate from Boston University, King was called to be a minister in 1954 at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where he became popular for his oratorical preaching. King’s preaching became so influential in Alabama that his listeners started questioning the racial injustice through civil disobedience. After some incidents that involved people of color who were punished for refusing to give up their bus seats for white passengers, King led a bus boycott amongst the black community which lasted for 385 days.
King’s role in the bus boycott transformed him into a national figure and the best-known spokesman of the civil rights movement. This didn’t come without a cost. King’s House was bombed while he was arrested, but the demonstration led to the law that prohibited segregation in public buses. King and some other civil rights activists founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957. The SCLC put into practice the tactics of nonviolent protest with great success by strategically choosing the methods and places in which protests were carried out.
One of his most famous speech, was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, where he delivered the famous speech now known as I Have A Dream. King was fatally shot by James Earl on Thursday, April 4, 1968, while he was at his hotel balcony in one of his visits to Memphis. King died an hour later at St. Joseph’s Hospital at the age of 39.
Muhammad Ali, born Casius Clay in January 17, 1942, was an American boxer and activist. At the age of 18, Ali got his professional accolade after he won the gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the 1960 summer Olympics. In 1961, Ali professed Islam.
When he won his heavyweight title in 1964, after beating Sony Liston, he changed his name from Casius Clay to Muhammad Ali with the reason that his former name was a slave name, a name of a slave master. Ali’s keen interest in civil rights activism made him join Nation Of ISLAM.
In 1966, Ali was inducted to serve in the US military and was drafted to join the war in Vietnam. Citing religious reasons, he refused to be part of the war in Vietnam. According to Ali, his religion only allowed him to fight a war of self-defense and not as an aggressor. Ali’s further comments on his unavailability in fighting for the white establishment when Negro people are still treated like slaves devoid of human rights also suggests he rejected the draft as a protest against the racial discrimination in the United States.
Ali was arrested for his failure to participate in the drafting. Subsequently, the New York State Athletic Commission suspended his boxing license and stripped him of his title. Ali was unable to participate in any boxing competition in the United States for three years. Ali’s refusal to serve in Vietnam became an inspiration to the African-American community and the freedom movement.
The former NBA star, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, while recalling Ali’s brave refusal to be drafted, said: “I remember the teachers at my high school didn’t like Ali because he was so anti-establishment and he kind of thumbed his nose at authority and got away with it. The fact that he was proud to be a black man and that he had so much talent … made some people think that he was dangerous. But for those very reasons I enjoyed him.”
After his return to professional boxing in 1971, Ali had many other boxing bouts before his retirement in 1981. One of his many fights was the popular bout against George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire (D.R. Congo), which was dubbed the Rumble in the Jungle. All through the build-up to the fight and during the fight, the streets of Kinshasa cheered Ali in Lingala saying “Ali, Bomaye,” which translated to “Ali, kill him.” In his professional boxing career Ali had a total 61 fights, won 56 and lost only 5 times.
Ali died on June 3, 2016 at the age of 74, after he was hospitalized for a respiratory illness a day before. Ali is still remembered as one of the important black people in history, who fought for titles in the ring and for racial desegregation outside the rings. He was famously known as The Greatest.
Shirley Chisolm was an American politician who in 1968 became the first black woman elected to the United States Congress. Born Shirley Anita St. Hill on November 30, 1924 in Brooklyn, New York City, Shirley spent a good part of her childhood in Barbados where her parents were from.
While a student of Brooklyn College, Shirley was a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority and the Harriet Tubman Society. As a member of the Harriet Tubman Society, she advocated for inclusion, the addition of courses that focused on African-American history, and the involvement of more women in the student government.
In 1953, Shirley joined Bedford–Stuyvesant Political League (BSPL). The BSPL pushed candidates to support civil rights, fought against racial discrimination in housing, and sought to improve economic opportunities and services in Brooklyn. Shirley would eventually leave the group in 1958 as a protest to the groups unwilling attitude towards giving the female members more input in decision making.
In 1960, Shirley joined a new organization, the Unity Democratic Club (UDC). The UDC membership was mostly middle class, racially integrated, and included women in leadership positions. In 1964, Shirley decided to run for a legislative seat in the New York State assembly. She won despite the initial disapproval she faced based on her sex. Her successes in the legislature included getting unemployment benefits extended to domestic workers. In 1968, Shirley ran for a seat in the US Congress. She staged an overwhelming victory and Shirley Chisholm thereby became the first black woman elected to Congress.
Shirley Chisholm also explored the possibility of running for the president of the United States after she registered her interest and ran for the primaries in 1972. Chisholm became the first African American to run for a major party’s nomination for President of the United States, in the 1972 U.S. presidential election, making her also the first woman ever to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.
Chisholm died on January 1, 2005, at her home in Ormond Beach, Florida; her health had been in decline following a series of small strokes she had had the previous summer.
Born as Araminta Ross in 1822 in Maryland, Harriet was born enslaved. She was tortured by various masters while growing up. In 1849, Harriet escaped to Philadelphia, only to return to Maryland to rescue her family soon after. Slowly, one group at a time, she brought relatives with her out of the state, and eventually guided dozens of other enslaved people to freedom. Traveling by night and in extreme secrecy, Harriet never lost a passenger.
Harriet helped the breakaway slaves travel farther North to the British North since the fugitive slave act of 1850 made sure runaway slaves were captured and sent back to their masters. She also helped freed enslaved people find work.
When the Civil War began, Tubman worked for the Union Army, first as a cook and nurse, and then as an armed scout and spy. The first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war, she guided the raid at Combahee Ferry, which liberated more than 700 enslaved people. She became an icon of courage and freedom. Harriet Tubman died on March 10, 1913 in Auburn, New York.
Marshall was born on July 2, 1908, in Maryland, a time when Black people were discriminated against in southern states. He knew that Black people didn’t have the same rights as other white Americans and realized the best way to fight for justice was through the law. Thurgood Marshall was inspired to become a lawyer after his high school principal made him read the United States constitution as a punishment for pulling a prank in high school.
After graduating from law school, Marshall started working on civil rights cases to fight for equality for African Americans. But probably his best known case was Brown vs. Board of Education, which challenged school segregation, when white and Black students are forced to go to separate schools.
In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him as the first African-American justice to serve on the Supreme Court. He continued to fight for civil rights, using the law to protect all people. He died on January 24, 1993.
An African-American born in St Louis Missouri, on April 4, 1928, was an American poet and civil right activist. Originally known as Marguerite Annie Johnson, Maya Angelou was the second child of her parents and at the dissolution of her parent’s marriage, she was sent to live with her grandmother, who prospered amidst the harsh economic situations of the African-Americans and world war 11.
At the age of 5, when she moved back to her mother, Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend; this situation led to many unpleasant situations in her life.
In 1951, Angelou married a Greek man, despite the interracial discrimination as at the time.
In 1954, her marriage to Tosh Angelos ended and she concentrated on her dance career.
In 1959, after meeting with Novelist John Oliver Killens, Angelou moved to New York and her writing career took a new turn.
Angelou met Martin Luther King Jr in 1960 and this particular incident, energised her to kick-start an anti-apartheid activism; defending the downtrodden and standing for the rights of women.
She was notable for using her voice in speaking against the segregation witnessed at that time. Through her works, Angelou was able to condemn the travails experienced by the African-American community.
Her works include; I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, And Still I Rise, Phenomenal Woman, The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou, amongst others. Her most famous work was the seven autobiographies, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings; the story holds every detail about her childhood.
She received several awards and died on the 28th of May 2014.
A lawyer, human right activist, politician, democrat, anti-apartheid revolutionist, a writer, a reformist and the first president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela is a world renowned African leader. He was and still is one of the important people in black history. Born in July 1918, Mandela was the first to receive a formal education in his family.
He attended a missionary school, before proceeding to University of Fort Hare and University of Witwatersrand, where he studied law.
He married thrice; Evelyn Mase(1944-1958), Winnie Mandela (1958-1996) and Graca Machel (1998-2013) and is survived by six children.
Nelson Mandela dedicated his life to fighting for the freedom of South Africa.
He was notable for resisting the policy of apartheid in the 20th century and this led to his imprisonment.
Mandela, a founding father of the African National Congress, led many protests regarded as peaceful at the time. He fought for equality between black and white races.
In 1962, Mandela was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment for treason. He spent 27years in prison and was later released in 1990.
In 1993, he was elected South Africa’s first democratic black/African president. Mandela retired from politics in 1999 and until his death in 2013, he was an exceptional and respected African leader.
An African-American writer, reformist and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass was born in February 1818, in Maryland USA.
He became a national leader of the abolitionist movement in New York and Massachusetts, after escaping from slavery.
A writer, notable for direct writing and famous for his Autobiographies. His first Autobiography The Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, catapulted him into fame and strengthened the abolitionist movement.
He compiled his travails as a slave and his autobiographies were rated one the best in the history of the black race.
As captured in his autobiography, Douglass who was an illiterate as a slave, learnt how to read and write without formal education. He ensured the plantation owners sent him on errands that would enable him to meet white kids, who’d teach him how to read and write.
He also tutored his fellow slaves on how to read and write.
In 1838, Anna Murray, an African-American freeborn, helped Douglass Frederick escape from slavery. He disguised as a sailor, took off to Manhattan, where he became a free man.
Fascinating things about him were;
He ran to Britain to avoid being re-enslaved.
He gave abolition speeches in Britain where he bought his freedom.
He was the most photographed black man of the 19th century.
He was an advocate of women’s rights.
Frederick got married to his helper, Anna Murray in 1883 and they remained married until her death in 1882. Frederick remarried in 1884 to Helen Pitts, a marriage termed as “controversial”; being that Helen was white and Frederick an African-American.
Douglass remained an active freedom fighter, abolitionist, speaker and writer, until his death on the 20th of February 1895.
The first African-American woman to hold the pilot license and the first black person to bag an international pilot license, Bessie Coleman was born on the 26h of January 1892 to Susan and George Coleman.
Coleman developed interest in flying at an early age, despite the lack of opportunities for women at the time, Coleman’s determination led her to France, and with sponsors, she attended a flight school. She received her pilot license in 1921 and became a practicing pilot.
Coleman was renowned for encouraging African-American women to pursue and achieve their dreams.
Her flying stunts and tricks were so amazing that she was able to save up to acquire her own plane. At one of her shows, Coleman refused to perform because the audience witnessed segregation.
Bessie Coleman died in a plane crash, at the age of 34, she fell off a plane.
A Ghanaian freedom fighter, political theorist and renowned for advocating for the country’s independence from Britain.
Nkrumah was born on the 21st of September 1909 in Nkroful Ghana and married with children.
He became the first president of Ghana in 1957, having led the country to independence.
Nkrumah is a prominent African, being a founding member of Organization of African Unity.
He was Ghana prime minister from 1952 to 1957. Ghana gained independence in 1957, and he was elected the president of Ghana in 1960.
Nkrumah was notable for playing a great role in the development of Ghana and west Africa; his achievement was mainly in the educational sector.
Dr. Nkrumah built schools all over Ghana, being an educationist, his contributions to the education sector are unequaled to other achievements. He set up Ghana Education Trust, which was tasked with setting up secondary schools and training colleges. He didn’t stop there, as he set up tertiary institutions. The Ghana Education sector is undoubtedly one of the best sectors in the whole of Africa; Nkrumah did this.
Ghana is the first African country to gain independence from the European colony and the process was described as a nonviolent approach, applied by Kwame Nkrumah.
Dr Nkrumah’s leadership came to an abrupt end in 1966; his government was overthrown in a violent coup by the National Liberation Party, led by General Joseph Authur Ankrah and ruled as a military government for three years.
Prior to the end of Nkrumah’s reign, he imbibed revolutionary tactics, became actively involved in revolution; synergising with other African nations in fighting liberation war and his involvement in Organisation of African Unity dwindled.
Kwame Nkrumah was forcibly exiled and never returned to Ghana until his death.
He died in Bucharest in 1972, at the age of 62.
His works include: The Autobiography of Kwame Nkrumah (1957), Africa Must Unite (1963), African Personality (1963), Axioms of Kwame Nkrumah (1967), Voice Of Conakry (1967), Dark Days in Ghana (1968) amongst others.
Even after his death, his name and actions were not erased from African history and memories; not only was Nkrumah referred to as the founding father of the Republic of Ghana, but the African revolutionist, who created an ideology and believed Nkrumaism- an ideology of Neo-Africa independent of the influence of colonization, is the key to the liberation of Africa.