Black History Month shines a spotlight on the vast accomplishments and notable “firsts” of the African American community, but those accomplishments deserve the spotlight year ‘round. Many names on the list are very well known, while others don’t get quite the same recognition.
Learn more about those African Americans who made history and broke barriers in remarkable ways, from sports and entertainment to politics and careers.
Bessie Coleman: First African American Female Pilot
Bessie Coleman grew up in Texas, but quickly explored the world in her quest to become a pilot. Her love of aviation took her to France, where she finally learned to fly after being denied admission to several flight schools in the United States. She learned French and completed the Caudron Brother’s School of Aviation in France in seven months.
Her “first” came in 1922, when Bessie earned her international aviation license and became the first female African American pilot. She became the first African American woman to perform a public flight in the U.S. that same year. Stunt flying and parachuting were her specialties. She earned a living performing various aerial tricks until her death during an accident while rehearsing in 1926.
Thomas L. Jennings: First African American Patent Holder
Many African American inventors have made an impact on the world, but Thomas L. Jennings claimed a first related to his dry-cleaning invention. He developed a process called dry scouring, which turned out to be the basis for the modern dry-cleaning process. He invented the process while running his own company in New York City.
In 1821, at the age of 30, Jennings patented that special dry-cleaning process, thereby becoming the first African American to be granted a patent.
Sarah E. Goode made other patent history in 1885, when she became the first African American woman to receive a patent. Her design was a bed that folds into a closet.
Alexander Lucius Twilight: First African American State-Elected Official
Alexander Lucius Twilight claimed two firsts in African American history. Twilight became the first African American graduate of a U.S. college when he earned a bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College in 1823.
His second entry in the history books came in 1836, when he became the first state-elected African American official. He was elected into the Vermont legislature.
John Mercer Langston: First African American Local Elected Official
Several years later, in 1855, John Mercer Langston became the first African American local elected official in Brownhelm Township, Ohio. He became the clerk of the town. But while his election is one the prominent achievements he is known for, Langston broke barriers in other arenas as well.
He also claims the title of the first African American lawyer in the state of Ohio. In 1888, Langston became Virginia’s first African American congressional election winner when he won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Daniel A. Payne: First African American College President
Daniel A. Payne achieved many accomplishments in his life, in both religion and education. In 1839, he become the first African American ordained minister in the Lutheran Church. He eventually moved to the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1881, he presided over the Methodist Ecumenical Conference, and was the first African American to serve in this leadership role.
In the education field, Payne achieved his first in 1856. In that year, he became the first African American to lead a college when he served as the president of Wilberforce University.
Ruth Simmons also achieved a first when she became the first African American president of an Ivy League college. She took over as president of Brown University in 2001. She previously made history in 1995, when she became the president of Smith College, making her the first African American woman to lead a major college.
P.B.S. Pinchback: First Appointed African American Governor
In 1872, P.B.S. Pinchback became the first official African American governor. He was appointed as the governor of Louisiana while the elected governor was going through impeachment proceedings. He served only a short time, from December 9, 1872 to January 13, 1873, but that stint earned him the title of first African American governor.
In 1990, L. Douglas Wilder made additional history in the governor arena. He became the first African American to be elected governor while serving as the governor of Virginia from 1990 to 1994.
George Poage: First African American Olympic Gold Medalist
George Poage made sports history in 1904, when he became the first African American to win an Olympic medal. His win took place at the Summer Games. He brought home two bronze medals that year: one for the 200-meter hurdles and one for the 400-meter hurdles.
Poage isn’t the only African American to make Olympic history. Other groundbreaking medal winners include:
- John Baxter “Doc” Taylor: Taylor became the first African American to win Olympic gold. It happened during the 1908 Summer Games, when Taylor won the gold, along with his 4 x 400 relay team.
- Dehart Hubbard: Hubbard claims the title of the first African American to win an individual gold Olympic medal for his long jump win in the 1924 Summer Games.
- Debi Thomas: It wasn’t until 1988 that an African American won a medal in the Winter Games. Thomas brought home a bronze medal for figure skating that year.
- Vonetta Flowers: In 2002, Flowers made another stride in Olympic history by becoming the first African American to win a gold medal. She won in the Winter Games in the bobsled event.
- Gabby Douglas: In more recent Olympic news, Douglas became the first African American to win the individual all-around event in Olympic gymnastics.
Jack Johnson: First African American Heavyweight Boxing Champion
Nicknamed the Galveston Giant, Jack Johnson played an important role in sports. He wanted to live his life as a boxer, but in the early 1900s, he was met with much resistance. He dominated in the black boxing circuit, but he wanted a chance at the world heavyweight title.
The titleholder at the time, Jim Jeffries, refused to fight Johnson because he was African American. This was very common at the time, with many white boxers refusing to fight African American boxers. In 1908, the world heavyweight title was held by Tommy Burns, an Australian boxer. Burns agreed to fight Johnson, with the help of a cash reward guaranteed by the promoters.
Johnson and Burns battled for 14 rounds. Johnson came out victorious when police finally ended the fight. This propelled him to his spot in history as the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion. In 1910, he finally got the chance to fight Jeffries, and Johnson came out victorious.
Eugene Jacques Bullard: First African American Combat Pilot
Born in Georgia, Eugene Jacque Bullard wanted to serve in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1917, but was denied because he was African American. But this didn’t stop him from serving in World War I. Since he couldn’t serve for the United States, Bullard joined the French Flying Corps. He was well-decorated from his time serving with the French, and received the highest honor in France: The Legion of Honor.
Benjamin O. Davis, Sr.: First African American General in the U.S. Army
Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. started his military career in the 8th U.S. Volunteer Infantry in 1898. In June of 1899, he entered the U.S. Army as a private. He worked his way through roles as a corporal, squadron sergeant major and second lieutenant of Cavalry. On October 25, 1940, Davis became the first African American to achieve the rank of general officer.
Davis was awarded the Bronze Star Medal and the Distinguished Service Medal for his service.
Hattie McDaniel: First African American Oscar Winner
The year was 1940. The actress was Hattie McDaniel: the first African American to win an Oscar. She won the award for best supporting actress for her role of Mammy in “Gone With the Wind.”
Sidney Poitier made Oscar history as the first African American to win the Best Actor Oscar in 1963 for his role in “Liles of the Field.” Halle Berry was the first woman to win the Best Actress Oscar in 2001, for “Monster’s Ball.”
Booker T. Washington: First African American Featured on a Postage Stamp
Booker T. Washington made many marks on history throughout his life. He was born a slave, but he grew to be a very influential intellectual and eventually founded the Tuskegee Institute. But Washington received a posthumous “first” long after his death in 1915.
He became the first African American to be portrayed on a U.S. postage stamp. The stamp was released in 1940, making it a significant event in U.S. history. Washington was honored on another U.S. postage stamp in 1956.
Todd Duncan: First African American Member of the New York City Opera
Todd Duncan’s role in the New York City Opera was a groundbreaking move in the world of music. In 1945, he became the first African American to perform with the group. His previous performance history was primarily in African American opera companies, so this was a big deal. Duncan also made history in his role playing the original Porgy in “Porgy and Bess,” by George Gershwin.
In 1955, Marian Anderson became the first African American performer in the Metropolitan Opera Company. As a child, her family was unable to afford formal training to nurture her vocal talent, but her church congregation stepped in, raising money to pay for a year of music school. That investment paid off when she became a groundbreaking performer.
Jackie Robinson: First African America MVP and First African American Hall of Fame Inductee
If you know anything about baseball, you know Jackie Robinson made great strides for African Americans in Major League Baseball. In 1947, he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first African American in the MLB. He had an impressive first year with 12 home runs and the Rookie of the Year title.
In addition to those strides, Robinson claimed another first in 1949 when he became the first African American to earn the Most Valuable Player award in the MLB. Robinson hit yet another first in 1962 as the first African American Major League Baseball player to become inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Gwendolyn Brooks: First African American Pulitzer Prize Winner
Gwendolyn Brooks used her words to make history. As a poet, she won many awards for her work, but her big “first” came in 1950. In that year, Brooks became the first African American author to win the Pulitzer Prize. She paved the way with another first when she became the first African American woman to serve as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress.
Ralph J. Bunche: First African American Nobel Peace Prize Winner
With the support of his grandmother, who raised him after his mother died, Ralph J. Bunche excelled in school. He eventually joined the National Defense Program and began work for the U.S. State Department, where he helped with the development of the United Nations.
Bunche became known for peacekeeping, particularly in the Middle East. He is particularly well-known for his work in Palestine between 1947 and 1949. Bunche led negotiations between Arab and Israeli forces after his supervisor was killed. It was that work that led to his “first.” Bunche became the first African American to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
Arthur Mitchell: First African American Principal Dancer for a Major Dance Company
In the world of dance, Arthur Mitchell was a force for African Americans. He performed in several Broadway musicals after attending the High School for Performing Arts in New York City. A major achievement came in 1956, when he became the first African American performer in the New York City Ballet. He achieved another first in 1959 with the New York City Ballet, when he became the first principal dancer in a major dance company. Several roles were created for him in the company’s performances.
Mitchell made further progress in the dance world for African Americans when he, along with Karel Shook, formed the Dance Theatre of Harlem. The integrated ballet school was his answer to the prejudice against African Americans that was all too common in the ballet world at the time. The school still operates, serving the kids of Harlem.
Mitchell received recognition of his achievements in dance in 1998, when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame for the National Museum of Dance.
Nat King Cole: First Africa American to Host a Network Television Show
He may be known for his musical talent, but Nat King Cole played another important role in history. He was the first African American to host his own network television show. His show, called “The Nat King Cole Show,” debuted in 1956.
In 1986, Oprah Winfrey claimed the title as the first African American woman to become a TV host.
Althea Gibson: First African American to Win Wimbledon
Althea Gibson broke ground in the world of tennis when she became the first African American to play in the U.S. National Championships for tennis in 1950 and in Wimbledon in 1951. She won Wimbledon in 1957, in both singles and doubles. In 1958, she won the U.S. Open.
While tennis was Gibson’s primary sport, she also led the way for African American women in golf: she was the first to compete in the pro tour.
Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald: First African Americans to Win Grammy Awards
The year 1958 was a big one for African American musicians. It was in this year that both Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald won Grammy Awards. They were the first male and female African Americans to win Grammy Awards.
Count Basie was actually born William James Basie, and led a swing big band. He had many hits during his musical career and played his whole life.
Ella Fitzgerald made a name for herself as a pop and jazz singer. She was known for her scat singing and had many mainstream hits. She first received a Grammy Award in 1958, the first of many throughout her musical career.
Carl Stokes: First African American Mayor of a Major City
In 1967, Carl Stokes made history as the first African American mayor of a major U.S. city. The city was Cleveland, Ohio, and he served as mayor until 1971, but it took more than one try to earn his title. Stokes lost the mayoral election in 1965 before running again and ultimately winning in 1967. During his tenure as mayor, he paved the way for more minorities, allowing African Americans and women to fill city positions.
Sharon Pratt Dixon Kelly earned the title of first African American woman to serve as mayor of a major U.S. city. She served as the mayor of Washington, DC from 1991 to 1995.
Thurgood Marshall: First African American U.S. Supreme Court Justice
Thurgood Marshall achieved another first for African Americans in 1967, when he was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In his early law career, Marshall worked hard to eliminate segregation and discrimination, particularly in the education arena. Marshall had personal experience after being denied admission to the University of Maryland Law School based on his race.
Marshall started his climb to the Supreme Court in 1961, when he was appointed as a U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals judge by President Kennedy. In 1965, Marshall became the first African American U.S. solicitor general, based on an appointment by President Johnson. Johnson then nominated Marshall for a spot on the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967. He served for 24 years until his retirement in 1991.
Robert H. Lawrence, Jr.: First African American Astronaut
Robert H. Lawrence, Jr. started his career in the Air Force, becoming a pilot and research scientist. In 1967, he was selected as an astronaut, becoming the first African American astronaut ever. Unfortunately, Lawrence never actually made it into space. He died during a training flight when a student lost control of the aircraft in which Lawrence was serving as instructor and co-pilot.
It wasn’t until 1983 that the first African American astronaut traveled to space. That astronaut was Guion Bluford. Mae Jemison made history again in 1992 by becoming the first female African American astronaut. In 1998, even more space firsts came with Frederick D. Gregory’s role as the first shuttle commander from the African American community.
Condoleezza Rice: First African American Female U.S. Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice broke barriers in the political arena for African Americans, and especially for African American women. Rice was the first African American woman to serve as the U.S. Secretary of State. She also made a name for herself as the first woman to be the National Security Advisor.
Before Rice, General Colin Powell became the first African American to serve as the U.S. Secretary of State. He served from 2001 to 2004, when Rice took over the role in 2005.
Barack Obama: First African American President of the United States
President Barack Obama claimed the spot as the first African American to earn a major party’s nomination for president in 2008. In November of the same year, he reached a new first when he won the presidential election over Senator John McCain. Michelle Obama became the first African American First Lady upon Barack’s win.
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