Black History Month has officially begun and believe it or not, there are more African-American heroes who have contributed to the culture and this country aside from Harriet Tubman, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. Those three are all legendary names with contributions that have changed my life forever. However, they are just a few of the many individuals who have changed our world.
I don’t know if your schooling systems were anything like mine, but when it came to black history lessons, redundant was an understatement. We constantly learned of the same key players and only about the same periods (slavery and the civil right’s movement), so many game changers never got the recognition or respect they deserved. This, regardless of the blood, sweat and tears they put into this country.
So to the following names in black history, the inventors, the activists, the “firsts,” this one’s for you. You are appreciated.
Annie Turnbo Malone
When we think about the history of Black hair products, hair care and multi-million dollar business women, we instantly think about Madam C.J. Walker. But if it weren’t for Annie Turnbo Malone, there wouldn’t be a single one. Malone was the first to create her own brand of Black hair care products, eventually making her a millionaire. A self-taught chemist, her products focused on the treatment and texture of women’s hair. These products quickly brought her much success, and she used her talents and notoriety to share her many skills with others. In fact, Malone went on to train over 75,000 women entrepreneurs, one of them being Walker (formerly Sarah Breedlove), whom she called a mentee. Black women supporting black women? Here for it!
One of the names behind the civil rights movement, Bayard Rustin stood alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his many efforts for equal rights for all. From being heavily involved in the planning and organizing of the historic March on Washington, The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and even introducing Dr. King to many of Ghandi’s teachings, which he publicly practiced, Rustin was a leader. Still, he never got the full recognition he deserved because of his sexuality. Rustin was openly gay. Despite the thoughts of the many public opponents who knew of his sexual orientation, Rustin was one of the founding fathers of the civil rights movement and his efforts changed the world as we know it.
Mary Kenner was one of the most iconic inventors of everyday household items, many of which we still use today. Kenner invented the shower back washer, a bathroom tissue holder, the carrier attachment on walkers for the disabled and the sanitary belt for women, which would later be modernized into sanitary napkins. Because of her, our lives are filled with a little less hassle. Luckily for her, that’s exactly what she wanted. Kenner was never one who cared about money or fame, as she aimed to make people’s lives easier. That was her only goal.
Williams Wells Brown
Before Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, there was Williams Wells Brown, the first Black male novelist ever. Born to an enslaved woman and her master, Brown was deemed a “mulatto,” a term for biracial individuals used heavily at the time. After escaping slavery, Brown became a public abolitionist and writer, using his words to speak against the system. He is best known for his most controversial work entitled The President’s Daughter, which shares the fictional struggle of the biracial descendants of former president Thomas Jefferson.
Marsha P. Johnson
Marsha P. Johnson was an activist and drag queen who fought for equal rights for the LGBTQ community. From helping to create a shelter for young gay and trans young people on the streets in the ’70s to taking part in rallies and street activism, Johnson made sure that that the LGBTQ community would not be ignored. When the Stonewall riots occurred following a police raid at the popular establishment, Johnson boldly stood in solidarity to fight for justice. Although Johnson’s life tragically ended at only 46, the activist’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. A Netflix documentary was recently done about Johnson’s life and death.
Charles Hamilton Houston
Best known as “the man who killed Jim Crow,” Houston was a lawyer, activist and educator. One of the first to challenge the controversial “separate but equal” doctrine, Houston was involved in nearly every civil rights-related case to hit Supreme Court doors from 1930-1954. His impact in the judicial system inspired many Black male lawyers, and he also mentored one of the greats, Thurgood Marshall, who would later become the first African-American judge on the Supreme Court.
Ida B. Wells
Writer, teacher and co-founder of the NAACP, Ida B. Wells was a take no nonsense type of girl. A fighter against lynching in the 20th century, Wells vocally advocated against it in her work and speeches. Despite the many death threats for her public advocacy, Wells continued, even speaking out against the injustices faced by Blacks and fighting for women’s rights. In her 68 years, Wells was a mother, wife, editor, newspaper owner, author, investigative journalist, educator and proud Black woman. Wells the crusader inspired journalists today to fight for what’s right no matter what.
Victor Hugo Green
With organizations like The Black Travel Club and Travel Noire, it’s almost impossible to believe that Blacks were once not allowed to travel freely and safely. Well, believe it! Blacks were not allowed to travel into certain areas. They wouldn’t be attended to and in some cases, they would be kicked out altogether or face violence. But then came Victor Hugo Green, a creative genius who created The Green Book, a Black travel guide. This book listed restaurants that would serve them, areas where they could find hotel accommodations and nearby gas stations and more while not being mistreated due to the color of their skin. Green not only made Black travel easier but made it possible for future generations.
Susie Baker King
Since the beginning of time, Black women have always had a story to tell, and that includes Susie Baker King (born Susie King Taylor). Living during the American Civil War, King taught many how to read. If that wasn’t iconic enough, she then chose to write and publish a book about her wartime experience entitled Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33d United States Colored Troops, Late 1st S.C. Volunteers, making her the first African-American woman to write about such experiences and be an army nurse. The book shares her time attending to an all-Black army troop called The First South Carolina Volunteers, the 33rd regiment.
Frederick McKinley Jones
Frederick McKinley Jones was a genius innovator. Creating over 60 inventions throughout his lifetime, roughly 40 of these were work in refrigeration. Ever wonder how those transmitting trucks do those long drives to supermarkets and department stores without destroying all the produce? Well, it’s because of him. Jones invented an automatic refrigeration system, which would keep food fresh during transportation. Not quite sure how we were transmitting perishable goods nationwide before it, but thanks to Jones we no longer need to find out. Apart from his historic refrigerated invention, Jones also created air conditioning units for military field hospitals, the self-starting gas engine and a number of devices for movie projectors changing the film industry as well.