In February, Black History Month celebrates the achievements of African Americans. In 1976 that the entire month was dedicated to the celebration of Black History. During this time, many are reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, etc., but here are some lesser known African American activists and trailblazers.
Jacob Lawrence was born in New Jersey in 1917. He was an African-American painter known for his portrayal of African American life through his style known as “dynamic cubism,” influenced by the shapes and colors of Harlem. When he was 23 years old, he gained national recognition with his 60-panel Migration Series, a depiction of the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the North, painted on cardboard. Lawrence was given his first major solo exhibition, in the 1940s, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. He later became the most celebrated African-American painter in the country.
Miriam Makeba, also known as Mama Afrika, was born in South Africa in 1932. She began singing at an early age in her school choir and later became a professional vocalist. She appeared in “Come Back, Africa,” which spurred a successful American singing career, with songs critiquing South African segregation policies. However, when she attempted to return to South Africa she was denied reentry. The South African government also banned her records and confiscated her passport. She continued to flourish in America, however, even winning a Grammy.
Bessie Coleman was an American aviator born in Texas in 1892. She was denied entry into flying schools because of her race and gender in the United States so she taught herself how to speak French and moved to France. There, she earned her pilot’s license, becoming the first African American woman to do so. She then returned to the U.S. and became the first African American woman in America to make public flight. She specialized in stunt flying and parachuting.
Lewis Latimer was born in Massachusetts in 1848. He was an inventor and engineer born to parents who fled slavery. Latmier enlisted in the United States Navy during the Civil War, at the age of 16, and returned on honorable discharge. He taught himself mechanical drawing and drafting by observing the work of draftsmen. Latmier is best known for his contributions to the patenting of the light bulb and telephone. Over the course of his career, Latimer worked with Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. With this knowledge of patents and electrical engineering, Latimer became an indispensable partner to Edison.
Ralph Bunche was born in Michigan in 1904. Bunche earned an athletic scholarship to University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) where he graduated as a valedictorian with a major in international relations. He later began his graduate studies in political science with a scholarship granted by Harvard University. The first African American to win, Bunche was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize after negotiating armistice agreements between Israel and four Arab states, during the time he provided service to the United Nations (UN) and U.S. government.
Claudette Colvin was born in Alabama in 1939. When she was 16, Colvin refused to give up her seat for a white passenger. She was arrested. The NAACP used Rosa Parks’ similar story nine months later to challenge segregation laws instead of Colvin’s due to her youth and unmarried pregnancy. She was still able to make an impact in Montgomery by being a plaintiff on the Browder v. Gayle case, which declared that bus segregation in Montgomery was unconstitutional.