Black history through the years: 10 famous figures in the US

Black history in the U.S. dates back to 1619 when enslaved Africans were brought to Jamestown Colony — present-day Williamsburg, Virginia. 

Since then, Black Americans have persevered despite enormous challenges throughout the nation’s history and have been able to leave their mark on American culture

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From trailblazing abolitionists, scientists and artists to politicians, judges and civil rights leaders, numerous historical figures have done their part to shape America into the country it is today.

Here are 10 famous figures and the impactful contributions they made over the years.

Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth was born in 1797 under the name Isabella Baumfree, in Ulster County, New York — where slavery was still legal at the time. She escaped to freedom in 1826 with her infant daughter after her owner refused to comply with the gradual abolition of slavery law New York had passed, the National Parks Service reports. 

Baumfree later freed her son, who had been sold to an Alabama slave owner, by bringing her case to court. 

By 1828, she became the first Black woman to win a case against a former slave owner.

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Almost two decades later, Baumfree joined a Methodist church and changed her name to Sojourner Truth as she traveled the country to promote the abolition of slavery, the advancement of women’s rights, and religious tolerance. 

Baumfree famously delivered her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech in 1851 at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention and met President Abraham Lincoln in 1864 through her work for the National Freedmen’s Relief Association. She also dictated a group of memoirs that were published in her book “The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: a Northern Slave” (1850).

Frederick Douglass

Portrait of Frederick Douglass, who was born into slavery in 1818.

Portrait of Frederick Douglass, who was born into slavery in 1818.
(iStock)

Frederick Douglass, an American abolitionist and orator, was born as an enslaved person in February 1818 in Talbot County, Maryland. 

He became a national leader in the abolitionist movement in New York and Massachusetts after escaping bondage as a disguised sailor, according to the Library of Congress. 

Douglass delivered moving speeches and essays about his experience and anti-slavery stance, including his “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” speech (1852) and “Life and Times of Frederick Douglass” autobiography (1881). 

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Douglass also fought for civil reforms, including equal treatment for Black Americans and women, free public education, and the end of capital punishment. 

Harriet Tubman 

Harriet Tubman, American abolitionist leader (1820-1913), escaped slavery by marrying a free man and led many other slaves to safety through the use of the abolitionist network known as the Underground Railroad.   

Harriet Tubman, American abolitionist leader (1820-1913), escaped slavery by marrying a free man and led many other slaves to safety through the use of the abolitionist network known as the Underground Railroad.   
(MPI/Getty Images)

Harriet Tubman, conductor of the Underground Railroad and a Union Army spy, was born in March 1822 in Dorchester County, Maryland, under the name Araminta Ross. 

She changed her name in 1844 following her marriage to John Tubman, a free man, the National Parks Service reports. About five years after her marriage, Tubman escaped to freedom in Philadelphia, where slavery was abolished. 

Tubman spent the next decade of her life rescuing family and friends in what is now known as the Underground Railroad. She personally made “about 13 trips into Maryland” to free her companions and provided a map to freedom to “about 70 more,” according to the NPS. 

By the time the American Civil War broke out in the 1860s, Tubman served as an instrumental spy for the Union Army. She famously joined Colonel James Montgomery and his 2nd South Carolina Infantry during the group’s 1863 raid on Combahee River plantations, where Tubman provided scouting, nursing, and cooking aid.

George Washington Carver 

Agriculture scientist and educator George Washington Carver was born in the early- or mid-1860s in Diamond, Missouri. 

While initially enslaved with his mother and sister, Carver was separated from his family after he was kidnapped in a slave raid. The Carver family retrieved him from his captors and eventually taught him to read, write, and care for plants after the abolishment of slavery in 1865. 

Carver went on to attend various schools in the Midwest. He was accepted into the botany program at the Iowa State Agricultural School and became the first African American to earn a bachelor’s and master’s of science degree. 

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Carver’s agricultural research and inventions led to advancements in soil health, conservation, and rotational peanut crops, the USDA reports. Carver famously made a variety of peanut-based products and herbal concoctions, and later became a professor at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, a historically Black college.

Ida B. Wells

American journalist and civil rights advocate Ida B. Wells was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on July 16, 1862, five months and two weeks before the delivery of the Emancipation Proclamation. 

Wells moved to Tennessee and became a teacher in adulthood. Wells began to write political articles after she won a lawsuit against the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad in 1887 for being forcibly removed from a first-class train car she paid for; that decision was ultimately overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court, Mississippi History reports.

Wells went on to write exposés about school segregation and lynching in Memphis until she was forced to move to New York City for her safety. She continued her investigative reports about disparities in the American education system under segregation, mistreatment that African Americans experienced, and the road to women’s suffrage. 

Some of her famous written works include “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases” (1893) and “Mob Rule in New Orleans” (1900). 

Wells later moved to Chicago and took on a leadership role at the NAACP. She also ran for the Illinois legislature before her death in 1931.

W. E. B. Du Bois

American sociologist and historian William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born on Feb. 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Du Bois was the first Black graduate of Searles High School in 1884 and later earned his bachelor of arts from Fisk University in Tennessee, America’s Library reports. 

He then earned a second bachelor’s degree, a master’s and a doctorate in history from Harvard University. During his schooling, Du Bois also traveled to Germany for a fellowship at the University of Berlin, where he studied the works of famous social scientists, including Gustav von Schmoller and Heinrich von Treitschke.

Du Bois became a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), America’s oldest and largest civil rights organization.

Du Bois used his education and talents as a writer and editor to address race relations in the U.S. and advance rights for Black Americans. He published 16 books on sociology, history and politics, including “Black Reconstruction in America,” “The Souls of Black Folk” and “The Talented Tenth.” 

Du Bois became a professor of history, sociology and economics at Atlanta University, a historically Black research college with Methodist roots. He also became a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), America’s oldest and largest civil rights organization.

The NAACP characterizes itself as a grassroots organization that “builds Black political power to end structural racism.”

Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall, the great-grandson of a slave, was the first Black member of the United States Supreme Court.

Thurgood Marshall, the great-grandson of a slave, was the first Black member of the United States Supreme Court.
(Getty Images)

Thurgood Marshall, the first African American appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, was born on July 2, 1908, in Baltimore. 

He was formerly named Thoroughgood Marshall, but he legally changed his name at the age of 6. Marshall later became interested in the law as a high school student after he was ordered to read the U.S. Constitution as a punishment for a prank he pulled, United States Courts reports. 

From that moment, he was inspired to become a lawyer after he realized not all African Americans were able to enjoy the liberties laid out in the Bill of Rights.

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Marshall attended Lincoln University and then Howard University School of Law, where he worked with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Around 1935, Marshall found counterarguments for segregation when he reviewed the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which stated facilities could be divided by race if they were “separate but equal.” 

Marshall found that this doctrine was flawed and created discrepancies in the education children received, which led him to take on and win several landmark cases. 

His most famous case that changed the American school system was Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which declared that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

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President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall as a federal judge to the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1961. Four years later, Marshall was appointed as solicitor general by President Lyndon B. Johnson. By 1967, Johnson appointed Marshall to the Supreme Court — where he served as a justice until 1991.

Rosa Parks 

Rosa-Parks, civil rights activist, was born in 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama.

Rosa-Parks, civil rights activist, was born in 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama.
(Getty Images)

Civil rights leader Rosa Parks was born on Feb. 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Alabama, under the name Rosa Louise McCauley. She married her husband Raymond Parks in 1932 and worked as a seamstress before she became a member of the Montgomery National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Parks Service reports.

At age 42, Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat at the front of a bus to a White passenger and move to the back, a practice that wasn’t uncommon during the time of Jim Crow. 

The arrest inspired 17,000 African Americans to start the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted for 13 months and hurt the city bus service’s revenue. Parks remained a symbol of resilience during this time. 

The boycott finally came to an end in 1956 when the Supreme Court ruled that segregated buses were unconstitutional. Parks moved to Detroit a year later, working with the NAACP and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., to fight homelessness, and even created a job training institute.

She earned a Congressional Gold Medal of Honor in 1991.

Shirley Chisholm 

Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman to serve in the United States Congress, was born in Brooklyn on Nov. 30, 1924, under the name Shirley Anita St. Hill. 

In her youth, Chisholm was partially raised by her grandparents in Barbados before her family settled in Brooklyn for good, the U.S. House of Representatives reports. 

Chisholm earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Brooklyn College and a master’s in elementary education from Columbia University. She worked as a teacher, daycare center director, and educational consultant before entering politics.

Chisholm was elected to the New York state legislature in 1964 and then the U.S. House of Representatives in 1968, where she represented Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant district for seven terms. Chisholm made waves in the House when she appealed her initial committee assignment in agriculture to find a committee more relevant to her district. 

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She was reassigned to the Veterans Affairs Committee and moved up to the Education and Labor Committee, where she dedicated herself to advancing equal education and employment opportunities. In 1972, Chisholm, a Democrat, also became the first African American to run for a major political party’s nomination for president.

Martin Luther King Jr. 

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born in 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia.

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born in 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia.
(Getty Images)

Civil rights leader Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born on Jan. 15, 1929, in Atlanta. Post-college, King dedicated his life to fighting racial inequality with peaceful resistance to unjust laws. 

He notably protested segregation in public schools, restaurants and hotels with nonviolent sit-ins, America’s Library reports. King also delivered moving speeches that challenged the mistreatment that African Americans faced under Jim Crow laws and called for equality. 

King delivered his most famous speech, “I Have a Dream,” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

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King’s notable accomplishments during the Civil Rights Movement (1954 to 1968) included the Montgomery Bus Boycott; pleading for peace when U.S. marshals were called in to disperse the Freedom Riders (segregation protesters riding on interracial buses) in Montgomery; and leading the Voting Rights March from Selma to Montgomery, which was met with violent resistance. 

But it showed the world the assaults that African Americans faced during peaceful protests through photographs and video.

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