February marks Black History Month in the USA. Its origins were rooted in a celebration of Abraham Lincoln and Fredrick Douglas’s legacy, two historic figures both born in February, who contributed significantly to the emancipation and abolition of African Americans as slaves. Now, every year, the month presents an opportunity to highlight the accomplishments, achievements and history of Black people across the US and globally.
In this piece, the spotlight is on iconic Black figures – past and present – and some of the hidden voices through Black history.
We unearth new stories every day. This time, we want to share some of the ones you may not know.
Amanda Gorman (1993 – present)
Amanda Gorman is the youth poet laureate and activist who’s taken the world by storm and, despite being such a modern (and young) figure, age just 22, she’s already become an icon for living Black history. Amanda seemingly become an overnight sensation when she was propelled into the spotlight following her poem recital at the Inauguration of Joe Biden. However, she received her laureate several years ago, and has been active since she was 16.
In 2021 alone Amanda’s recited to a global audience of millions; first with her inauguration day poem, then she became the first ever poet to perform at the US Super Bowl, watched by over 145million. She appeared on the front cover of Time magazine, where she was also cited in the 100 Next List, and established herself as a best-selling author of two books.
Her work focuses on issues of race, feminism, and the African diaspora. She’s an inspirational powerhouse who represents the voice of the next generation, and everything it can achieve.
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Kamala Harris (1964 – present)
Kamala Harris symbolises a current figure of hope in today’s world; in January, she officially became the United States first female vice president – and with it, the first Black woman to hold this position.
Harris is not afraid to speak her mind, ask difficult questions, and challenge the status quo. Biden reportedly asked her to bring her “lived experience” to the political sphere, and no doubt her race and gender will influence just some of the causes she champions and fights for in office. She’s spoken out in support of everything from women’s reproductive rights, minimum wage and police reform, and developed programs to combat female sex trafficking, end child exploitation, and protect LGBQT students.
Her huge platform gives an opportunity for one Black female to bring to light the stories, challenges and experiences of other less visible Black voices and women, and effect genuine change.
Annamie Paul (1972-present)
Like Kamala Harris, Annamie Paul is a woman of firsts. She’s the first Black Canadian and the first Jewish woman to be elected leader of a mainstream political party: the Green Party of Canada.
Born in Toronto, Annamie is a daughter of immigrants and describes herself as a “descendant of slaves.” As well as her work to support women, Indigenous people and People of Colour, she’s also committed to support indigenous people in their fight against racism within the police force, and a champion for true racial equality.
She recently called on the Canadian Government to recognise August 1 as Emancipation Day which is the day that slavery was first abolished in Canada. If her call is successful, it will mark an official day to both celebrate and give recognition to the remarkable contributions of Black and Indigenous People in Canada.
Speaking to CBC News she said: “Whilst we acknowledge how far we’ve come, we still know that we have a long way to go.”
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Claudette Colvin (1939 – present)
When Rosa Park’s refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus, it was a revolutionary act that galvanised the famous Montgomery bus boycotts – the first large scale demonstration against race segregation in the Deep South. But less people know that 15-year-old Claudette Colvin did exactly the same thing ten months previously.
Claudette had been studying slavery and the various injustices of the system in school. She describes how her teenage mind was “too full of Black history” to adhere to the segregation law on the bus that day, so she didn’t. She was thrown off and arrested.
Park’s act received notoriety, and her contribution to the Civil Rights Movement makes her one of Black history’s most iconic figures, but Colvin sat very much in her shadow. This is partly because she was considered too young, and Park’s was seen to be a better representative of the Civil Rights Movement . “She was an adult….She fit that [middle class] profile,” Colvin’s since said.
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Ruby Bridges (1954-present)
Ruby Bridges is an American civil rights activist. She became one of the first Black children, age 6, to attend an all-white public school in New Orleans in 1960. This later instigated the desegregation of all its schools and was a major milestone in the Civil Rights Movement.
Ruby was one of only six African American students who passed the entrance exam– made difficult as a deliberate barrier to prevent non-white children mixing with white children – and had to be escorted by marshals on her first day to protect her. At school, she experienced ostracisation from students and teachers, with the exception of one white female professor who supported her throughout and helped build her confidence.
A true triumph through adversity, Bridges went on to become a writer, speaker and activist, campaigning against racism, and for civil rights. She was later portrayed in a film Ruby Bridges which tells the story of her struggle through elementary school in the Deep South.
Coretta Scott King (1927-2006)
We all know Martin Luther King – leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s – but what about his wife Coretta? Like her husband, she was also a pioneer and leader for the movement, and after his assassination she became even more prominent. She was also highly active in the Woman’s Movement, the second-wave of feminism that begun in the 1960s.
Coretta described herself as “never just a wife, nor a widow” although she was labelled this way by the public, and much of her activism was overlooked in the shadow to King.
When she met Martin at university she was regarded as being the more politically active and outspoken of the two. When they married, she insisted that the promise to ‘obey’ her husband be removed from their vows.
Coretta was also a gifted singer who incorporated music into her activist work, and sang freedom songs that told the story of Black struggles. She campaigned for peace until she died and this is echoed in the family by their daughter, Bernice King, an American minister. She recently spoke out in support of further non-violent forms of protests to anti-racist activists in America.
Bayard Rustin (1912-1987)
Rustin was a gay civil rights activist and ally of Martin Luther King but was kept in the shadows by the Civil Rights Movement because his orientation was considered ‘too controversial’. He acted as an advisor, strategist and organiser for various civil rights protests but stayed out of the public domain.
Rustin contributed to a hugely influential essay pamphlet on alternate non-violent approaches, which would shape the emergence of new, peaceful protest tactics going forward. He felt it necessary to keep his name hidden in case it undermined the significance of the piece; however, it was Rustin who later convinced King to employ the non-violent approach that’s become so synonymous with his politics. This strategy on Rustin’s part – a deliberate means to dissociate Black people from any form of violence that could (and would) be used against them – paved the way for monumental change.
Although Rustin was criminalised and judged for his homosexuality throughout his life, by the 1970s had become a public advocate for gay rights.
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Marsha P. Johnson (1945-1992)
Marsha P. Johnson was a Black American transwoman and activist from New Jersey who had a profound influence on queer culture in the 60s and 70s.
A pioneer for the LGBQT community – bold, courageous and outspoken – Marsha wore her makeup and dresses with pride, and campaigned valiantly to support better rights for trans people, having experienced social ostracisation and homelessness because of her own identity.
Marsha founded STAR House with her best friend Sylvia Rivera in 1972, which was both an organisation and shelter offering support to the LGBQT community and sex-workers. Marsha and Sylvia, a fellow transgender activist, were the self-appointed ‘mothers’ of the community. They fought tirelessly to both protect the rights of, and protest on behalf of, sex workers, marginalised people, and those with AIDS.
Marsha was also a founding member of Gay Liberation Front, a movement fighting for better LGBQT rights in the US, and she worked as an AIDS activist in the 1980s.
The ‘P’ in her middle name refers to the response she’d give when people often asked her to identify her sexuality; “Pay it no mind”.
Audre Lorde (1934-1992)
Audre Lorde describes herself as “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” The New York born writer is most known for her passionate, political prose, using poems to express emotion, anger, sexuality, womanhood, and to confront social injustices on everything from sexism to racism and homophobia.
Lorde was an early pioneer of the feminist thought that argued how much of white feminism was built on the oppression of Black women – an unpopular opinion that ostracised her from the predominantly white feminist community in the 80s. It was too radical at the time. Today, Black women are celebrated as some of the original frontrunners of intersectional feminism, which recognises that true equality – for all women – cannot exist without equality at every level, including race.
Lorde was unapologetically outspoken, and impossible to ignore. As a civil rights activist, her work was considered shocking for many. But her progressive theories paved the way for a new wave of thinking and inclusivity. In poetry, she’s regarded as one of the technical masters of her time.
Katherine Johnson (1918-2020)
Katherine Johnson is another hidden figure in Black history who helped achieve the seeming impossible – put a man on the moon.
The NASA research mathematician enrolled in her first job with NASA as a literal “computer,” which is what humans with mathematical genius were called by the team back then. When NASA decided to try and send people to the moon in the 1960s there were heaps of complex problems to solve – where the spacecrafts would orbit, how they’d travel through space – but Katherine’s mathematical calculations were the winning formula that made it possible. Thanks to her, in 1969 the first astronaut moon landing was a success.
After over 30 years at NASA, she spent her later years encouraging students to pursue STEM careers. Following her death last February, age 101, NASA described her as “an American hero” with a “pioneering legacy”.
Viola Desmond (1914-1965)
Canadian born Viola Desmond was a notable civil rights activist in the 1940s and inspired the Canadian Civil Rights Movement when she challenged racial segregation in a theatre; her refusal to leave the ‘whites-only’ section and give up her seat resulted in her arrest and conviction. The conviction was because she’d refused to pay the additional fee for that seat, which prosecutors argued was tax evasion. This was just a clever guise for the blatant racial discrimination going on and it was only through being outspoken that the case received further scrutiny.
In a wry turn of events, she then became the first Canadian woman to appear on a banknote (the $10 bill).
Viola set the wheels in motion for a wider commitment by Canada to address racial inequality across the country.
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Lewis Latimer (1848-1928)
Most of us have heard of Thomas Edison, the man who invented lightbulbs. Few of us have heard of Lewis Latimer.
The self-taught engineer and inventor developed the patent for lightbulb filaments –the part that keeps the bulb alive and glowing. He sold this patent to the US and went on to work at Edison Electric Light Company. Thanks to Latimer’s invention, Edison was then able to develop electric lighting, and turn this into something both practical and affordable for the public.
Latimer’s genius was apparent from a young age. He taught himself mechanical drawing and helped patent everything from improvements to toilets on railroads, to telephones and air conditioning units. He later went on to work as a patent consultant for major law firms. He was a mastermind in the shadows, when historically non-whites could never be perceived as the face behind the big ideas.
Elijah McCoy (1844-1929)
Elijah McCoy was another inventor and engineer, born in Canada, hailing from African American descent. Like Latimer, he developed world-changing patents. Elijah was best known for patenting an engine oil lubricant that revolutionised the efficiency of train travel. Prior to his patent, engines could only be lubricated when they were stationary which made for lots of stop-start journeys. With Elijah’s patent it was possible to keep them lubricated on the move.
Heard the phrase ‘the real McCoy’? It starts with Elijah.
He earned a reputation for his quality lubricants which came to supply everything from trains, ships and factory machines. People would regularly request the real McCoy to avoid getting a cheap, low-quality version in its place.