Leaders You Should Know: Individuals not so frequently referenced, but who have made outstanding contributions to our society.
The book and movie Hidden Figures drew attention to the fact that many significant achievements have occurred throughout history by people who were not recognized. During Black History Month, we would like to recognize a person each day who made outstanding contributions to our society. We would like to bring some of these hidden figures out of the shadow of history and into the light. Below is the list of individuals recognized during Black History Month, February 2021.
February 1: Shirley Chisholm (1924 - 2005)
Congress is more diverse now than it’s ever been. However, when Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman elected to Congress during the racially contentious 1960’s things were very different. She served seven terms in the U.S. House of Representatives for New York's 12th District from 1969 to 1982. She became the first Black woman and the second woman to serve on the powerful House Rules Committee and was the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Her campaign slogan and motto "Unbought and Unbossed” resonates even louder today.
Source: O The Oprah Magazine, January 2021, National Women's History Museum and Encyclopedia Britannica
February 2: Bayard Rustin (1912 - 1987)
The March on Washington in August of 1963, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, was the “greatest demonstration for freedom” in American history. The man who organized and strategized the march behind the scenes was Bayard Rustin. A man who had controversial ties to communism, he was considered too much of a liability to be on the front lines of the movement. However, he was considered one of the most brilliant minds and served his community while pushing for more jobs and better wages.
Source: O The Oprah Magazine, January 2021, Encyclopedia Britannica, National Park Service
February 3: Claudette Colvin (1939 - )
Nine months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, there was a brave 15-year-old girl who refused to move to the back of the bus. That young girl, Claudette Colvin, was the first to really challenge the law. Stating her constitutional right to stay seated near the middle of the bus, Colvin challenged the driver and was arrested. She was the first woman to be detained for her resistance. In a 2009 interview, Colvin said, “It felt like Sojourner Truth was on one side pushing me down, and Harriet Tubman was on the other side of me pushing me down. I couldn't get up.”
Source: O The Oprah Magazine, January 2021, Encyclopedia Britannica, NPR, Biography.com
February 4: Annie Lee Cooper (1910 - 2010)
A native of Selma, Alabama, Annie Lee Cooper played a crucial part in the 1965 Selma Voting Rights Movement. Described by John Lewis as “Upfront, pleasant and…absolutely fearless”, Ms. Cooper was on the front lines of that fight. It wasn’t until Oprah played her in the 2014 Oscar-nominated film, Selma, that people took notice of her activism. Although lauded for punching Alabama Sheriff Jim Clark in the face, she really deserves to be celebrated for fighting to restore and protect voting rights.
Source: O The Oprah Magazine, January 2021, SNCC Legacy Project (The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), The Selma Times-Journal
February 5: Dorothy Height (1912 - 2010)
Known as the “godmother of the women’s movement,” Dorothy Height used her education in social work to advance women’s rights. She is credited as the first person to merge the issues of women’s equality and civil rights. She was a leader in the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), and the president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) for more than 40 years. She was one of the chief organizers and represented the only women’s organization recognized at the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004 for her civil rights activism.
Source: O The Oprah Magazine, January 2021, National Parks Services, National Women’s History Museum
February 6: Henrietta Lacks 1920 - 1951)
Henrietta Lacks, age 31, was diagnosed with cervical cancer at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. A sample of her cancer cells were taken without her consent by a researcher. Although Mrs. Lack passed away that same year, her cells had the unique ability to survive and reproduce, doubling every 20-24 hours. The researcher shared the cells, known as HeLa, with other scientists, and they became widely used in biological research and have been involved in many advances in medicine. “They have been used to test the effect of radiation and poisons, to study the human genome, to learn more about how viruses work, and played a crucial role in the development of the polio vaccine,” Johns Hopkins said. The book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot was made into an HBO movie in 2017, starred in and executive produced by Oprah Winfrey.
Source: O The Oprah Magazine, January 2021, The John Hopkins Medicine, Encyclopedia Britannica
February 7: Benjamin O. Davis Sr. (1880 - 1970)
Benjamin O. Davis Sr. was the first Black general in the American military. He entered military service during the Spanish American War as a temporary first lieutenant of the 8th United States Volunteer Infantry, an all-Black unit. He enlisted in 1899 and rose to sergeant major within two years. General Davis was a professor of military science at Tuskegee and Wilberforce University, commander of the 369th Regiment, New York National Guard, and special assistant to the Secretary of the Army. He retired in 1948 after 50 years of service. President Harry Truman oversaw the public ceremony. General Davis Sr. is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Source: O The Oprah Magazine, January 2021, U.S. Army Center of Military History, Encyclopedia Britannica
February 8: Jesse Owens (1913 - 1980)
At the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, track-and-field athlete Jesse Owens set a world record in the long jump which went unrivaled for 25 years. He also won four gold medals that year in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, along with the 100-meter relay and other events off the track. In 1976, Mr. Owens received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1990.
Source: O The Oprah Magazine, January 2021, Olympics.org, Biography.com, History.com
February 9: Bessie Coleman (1892 - 1926)
Although she was the first licensed Black woman pilot in the world, Bessie Coleman wasn’t recognized as a pioneer in aviation until after her death. Coleman was denied admittance to flying schools in the United States as she was an African American and a woman, so she applied for flight school in France and was accepted. Known as “Brave Bessie” or “Queen Bess” she performed daring flying tricks and spoke of her experiences to audiences. Coleman refused to perform in venues in which African Americans were segregated or discriminated against. She paved the way for a new generation of fliers such as the Tuskegee airmen, Blackbirds and Flying Hobos.
Update: On January 3, 2023, the U.S. Mint released a quarter featuring Ms. Coleman as part of the American Women Quarters Program.
Source: O The Oprah Magazine, January 2021, National Women’s History Museum, Encyclopedia Britannica
February 10: Robert Sengstacke Abbott (1870 - 1940)
Black publications of today, such as Ebony, Essence, Black Enterprise and Upscale, would probably not exist without the weekly newspaper Chicago Defender. The publication founded by Robert Sengstacke Abbott in 1905 began as a four-page pamphlet, which increased in circulation with every edition. The newspaper actively encouraged African Americans to migrate from the South for better economic opportunities. The Defender promoted Black pride, dignity and assertiveness.
Source: O The Oprah Magazine, January 2021, PBS, The Chicago Literacy Hall of Fame, Encyclopedia Britannica
February 11: Ethel Waters (1896 - 1977)
Ethel Waters was one of the most influential popular singers. She began her career as a blues singer in the 1920s and expanded from recording music to performance on Broadway and in the movies. She made history for her work in television with her own show in 1939, The Ethel Waters Show. She was nominated for an Oscar in 1950 for Best Actress in a Supporting Role and was nominated for an Emmy in 1962 for Outstanding Single Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role.
Source: O The Oprah Magazine, January 2021, PBS, Encyclopedia Britannica
February 12: Gwendolyn Brooks (1917 - 2000)
Gwendolyn Brooks is one of the most revered and influential poets of the 20th century. She holds the distinction of being the first Black author to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for Annie Allen. She served as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, the first Black woman to hold that position, and was the poet laureate of the State of Illinois. Many of her works display a political and social awareness of the 1960s, including the civil rights activism and economic climate of the time.
Source: O The Oprah Magazine, January 2021, Poetry Foundation, Encyclopedia Britannica
February 13: Ella Baker (1903 - 1986)
Ella Baker has been called the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement” for her essential role in shaping the civil rights movement. She was a field secretary and branch director for the NAACP, co-founded an organization that raised money to fight Jim Crow laws, and was a key organizer for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). It could be said that her biggest contribution to the movement was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which prioritized nonviolent protests, assisted in organizing the 1961 Freedom Rides, and aided in registering Black voters. The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights carries on her legacy.
Source: O The Oprah Magazine, January 2021; Ella Baker Center for Human Rights; Time Magazine, January 2017; SNCC Legacy Project (The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee)
February 14: Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831 - 1895)
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first Black female doctor in the United States. After attending the prestigious Massachusetts private school West-Newton English and Classical School, she worked as a nurse for eight years. Impressed by her nursing skills, many of the doctors she worked with wrote letters of recommendation for her to attend medical school. She was accepted into the New England Female Medical College in 1860 and graduated four years later. She worked as a physician for the Freedman’s Bureau for the State of Virginia. In 1869, she returned to Boston and practiced in Beacon Hill, which was a predominantly Black neighborhood at the time. Dr. Crumpler published A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts, in 1883, making her one of the first African American authors of a medical book.
Source: O The Oprah Magazine, January 2021; U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Park Service, The Resilient Sisterhood Project
February 15: Alice Coachman (1923 - 2014)
Growing up in Albany, Georgia, the up-and-coming track star got her start running on hard dusty dirt roads (sometimes barefoot) and jumping over makeshift hurdles. She was the first Black woman from any country to win an Olympic Gold Medal at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, where, despite a back injury, she set the American and Olympic records with a successful first attempt at 5 feet and 6 1/8 inches. During her athletic career, she won 34 national titles, 10 of which were in the high jump. Upon returning from the Olympics, she was honored with a 175-mile motorcade and was cheered by black and white supporters. She was the first Black female athlete to endorse an international product when she was signed to promote Coca-Cola. In 1975, she was officially inducted into the National Track-and-Field Hall of Fame, and in 2004 into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.
Source: O The Oprah Magazine, January 2021, Olympic.org, United States Olympic and Paralympic Museum
February 16: Gordon Parks (1912 - 2006)
A self-taught photographer, Gordon Parks was the first African American on the staff of LIFE magazine and he was responsible for some of the most beautiful imagery in the pages of Vogue. He extended himself beyond photography. He was also a poet, musician, storyteller, filmmaker, and activist. In 1971 he was the first Black director of a major film, Shaft, which helped shape the blaxploitation era in the 1970s. In a 1999 interview with LIFE magazine, Parks said, "I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs. I knew at that point I had to have a camera."
Source: The Oprah Magazine, The Gordon Parks Foundation, The National Gallery of Art
February 17: Jane Bolin (1908 - 2007)
A trailblazer in law, Jane Bolin was the first Black woman to attend Yale Law School in 1931. She was also the first Black woman to join the New York City Bar Association. She became the first African American female judge in the United States in 1939 for a ten-year term. She was reinstated as judge for three more 10-year terms. Throughout her career, she worked with private employers to hire people based on their skills, as opposed to discriminating against them due to race. She served on the boards of the NAACP, Child Welfare League of America, New York Urban League, and the Neighborhood Children’s Center.
Source: O The Oprah Magazine, Biography.com, The Wonder Woman Project and Essence
February 18: Maria P. Williams (1866 - 1932)
Maria P. Williams was the first Black woman to produce, write, and act in her own film, The Flames of Wrath (1923). Thanks to her accomplishments, we have female directors and producers such as Oprah Winfrey, Ava DuVernay, and Shonda Rhimes.
Mrs. Williams, a former Kansas City school teacher, authored the book, My Work and Public Sentiment, published in 1916, which details her social activism and leadership skills.
Source: O The Oprah Magazine, January 2021; Columbia University Libraries (Women Film Pioneers)
February 19: Minnie Riperton (1947 - 1979)
Minnie Riperton’s five-octave vocal range made her one of soul music’s most unforgettable voices. She perfected the technique of singing in the whistle register, the highest the human voice is capable of reaching, for which such artists as Mariah Carey and Ariana Grande are celebrated today. The whistling can be heard on her biggest hit, Lovin’ You. The ballad, co-produced by Stevie Wonder, was an ode to her daughter, comedian and actress, Maya Rudolph. After being diagnosed with breast cancer, she became a spokesperson for the American Cancer Society and was awarded the Society Courage Award by President Jimmy Carter. She died in 1979 at the age of 31.
Source: O The Oprah Magazine, January 2021, AllMusic
February 20: Rose Marie McCoy (1922 - 2015)
Like many songwriters, you may not know her name, but you may know her songs. In the 1950s, an African American woman, Rose Marie McCoy wrote and produced some of the biggest pop songs in an industry dominated by white males. She worked as a songwriter for many record labels, including Motown, Atlantic and Stax, and wrote for recording artists such as Elvis Presley, Ike and Tina Turner, and Big Maybelle. Two of her biggest hits were Presley’s, Trying to Get You, and Ike and Tina Turner’s, I Think It’s Gonna Work Out Fine.
Source: O The Oprah Magazine, January 2021, January 2021, NPR
February 21: Phillis Wheatley (1754 - 1784)
In the 1770s, West African-born slave Phillis Wheatley became the first African American and third woman to publish a book of poems. The book, Poems on Various Subjects, was well known among literate colonists, and her success became a catalyst for the fledgling antislavery movement. Enslaved most of her life to John Wheatley and his wife, she became one of the best-known poets of her time. Unfortunately, she died before securing a publisher for her second book of poetry. Wheatley is honored with a statue at the Boston Women’s Memorial, which is dedicated to women who helped shape the city.
Source: O The Oprah Magazine, January 2021, Poetry Foundation, City of Boston
February 22: Ruby Bridges (1954 - )
At six years old, Ruby Bridges probably did not know that she would advance the cause of civil rights when she went to her new school on November 14, 1960. She was the first African American student to attend William Frantz Elementary in Louisiana, setting off a chain of events leading to the integration of schools in the South. Ms. Bridges wrote a book about her experiences, This Is Your Time, which received the Carter G. Woodson Book Award. She established the Ruby Bridges Foundation in 1999 to promote “the values of tolerance, respect, and appreciation of all differences."
Source: O The Oprah Magazine, January 2021, National Women’s History Museum
February 23: Mae Jemison (1956 - )
In 1992, Mae Jemison fulfilled a lifelong dream of traveling into space. Her flight aboard the shuttle Endeavour made her the first African American woman to orbit in space. Dr. Jemison is also a physician, teacher, and Peach Corps volunteer. She is the president of The Jemison Group, a company she created to encourage science, technology, and social change. She works to advance young women of color in the fields of technology, engineering, and math careers.
Source: O The Oprah Magazine, January 2021, National Women’s History Museum, NASA
February 24: Marian Anderson (1897 - 1993)
Marian Anderson, considered one of the greatest contralto singers in the world, was often denied the opportunity to perform due to her race. Yet on Sunday, April 9, 1939, Marian Anderson performed at the Lincoln Memorial before a mixed-race crowd estimated to be 75,000, after being denied use of Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.). In 1957, she went on a 12-nation tour sponsored by the Department of State and the American National Theatre and Academy. Her autobiography, My Lord What a Morning, documents her experiences. She received many awards, including the Edward Bok Award (1941) for distinguished service to the city of Philadelphia, the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award (1963) and the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammy’s (1991). She was named as a delegate to the 13th General Assembly of the United Nations by President Eisenhower.
Source: O The Oprah Magazine, January 2021, The Kennedy Center, PBS American Experience, Smithsonian National Museum
February 25: Percy Lavon Julian (1899 - 1975)
Dr. Percy Julian was not only one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century, but he was also a leader in civil rights and a businessman. He refused to let racial discrimination prevent him from achieving his goals. His pioneering research led to ways to create important medicinal compounds from plant sources, making them affordable for mass production. His discoveries have helped those with glaucoma and rheumatoid arthritis, to name a few. He also developed, Aer-o-foam, a fire-retardant foam which saved thousands of lives in World War II. In 1973, Dr. Julian was awarded membership in the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, only the second African American to receive this honor.
Source: Science History Institute; PBS, NOVA; American Chemical Society
February 26: Alvin Ailey (1931 - 1989)
An acclaimed choreographer, dancer and director, Alvin Ailey had a profound impact on modern dance and received global recognition. In 1949 he joined the Lester Horton Dance Theater, where he perfected his technique. In 1958, he created the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. He choreographed his own ballets and works in which he explored African American heritage and culture. The hugely popular dance company was one of the first to have a multiracial troupe featuring dancers from all races and backgrounds. His masterwork, Revelations, a tribute to the Southern Black Church, brought the Company international praise and has been seen by more than 23 million people in 71 countries since its creation in 1960.
Source: O The Oprah Magazine, January 2021; Encyclopedia Britannica; Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater; The Kennedy Center
February 27: Mary Jackson (1921 - 2005)
Mary W. Jackson was the first African American female engineer to work at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). She began her career in 1951 in the segregated West Area Computing Unit as a mathematician, known as one of the human computers, for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which succeeded NASA. Her role became widely known in 2016 when Janelle Monáe portrayed her character in the movie Hidden Figures. After working as an aerospace engineer for 20 years, she joined Langley’s Federal Women’s program in 1979 to address the hiring and promotion of female mathematicians, engineers, and scientists.
Source: NASA; Encyclopedia Britannica
February 28: Tom Bass (1859 - 1934)
Born into slavery in southern Boone County near Ashland, Tom Bass went on to become a world-famous rider and trainer of show horses. Sometime after the Civil War, he moved to Mexico, Missouri, where he opened his own horse-training stable. Known as a lover of horses, it was said that he never beat a horse and rarely raised his voice. He would come to international fame for inventing the “Bass Bit”, which did not injure a horse’s mouth. The bit is still used today. He is credited as a founder of the American Royal Horse Show. His reputation earned him the respect of leading figures of the day who visited him at his home, including President Theodore Roosevelt, President William McKinley, William Jennings Bryan, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Will Rogers. Tom Bass was inducted into the Hall of Famous Missourians in 1999.
Source: City of Columbia, Columbia Missouri Bicentennial, Kansas City Public Library Digital History, The State Historical Society of Missouri