The Hidden Figures of Black History

By: Amarah Din and Sarah Govert

The month of February is dedicated to learning about and honoring Black history. Black History Month was first celebrated by Black professors and students at Kent State University in February of 1970. United States President Gerald Ford officially recognized February as Black History Month in 1976. As Americans, it’s our responsibility to recognize the endurance of the Black community and what certain figures within have accomplished.

Alvin Ailey

Alvin Ailey was born on January 5, 1931, in Rogers, Texas and passed away from an AIDS related illness on December 1, 1989, in Manhattan, New York. Growing up, he was abandoned by his father when he was three months old and was forced to work in cotton fields with his mother, as it was the only employment that was available to them. He would go and watch people dance in order to escape, and he saw his first ballet in 1946 in Los Angeles when he was 15 years old. In 1949, one of his friends took him to the studio of dance teacher Lester Horton. Horton’s studio was one of the first that was racially integrated, and Ailey was able to study a large range of dance techniques while at his studio. He took over as artistic director and choreographer at Horton’s studio after he died suddenly of a heart attack in 1953, and he choreographed the Broadway show House of Flowers in 1954. In 1958, Ailey founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. In the ballets that he choreographed, he employed a mixture of jazz, ballet, modern dance, and spirituals to celebrate and shed light on the Black experience in America, also drawing on his memories of growing up in Texas in the 1930s. He posthumously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014. To learn more about Ailey and his company, see this link.

Cori Bush:

Born on July 21st, 1976 in St. Louis, Missouri, Cori Bush accomplished a lot of firsts for her state. In her early life, she quit her job when she had her son, Zion, who was born four months premature. She had another son, Angel, soon after and had to return to work. Unfortunately, she and her family were homeless and moved from place to place for months until her boss secured a new home for the family. After becoming a single mother, she earned her nursing degree in 2008 from the Lutheran School of Nursing. She was an RN at SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital and became a pastor after starting her own church called the Kingdom Embassy International Church. She later became a nursing supervisor. Bush was at the forefront of protests against the murder of Michael Brown Jr. in 2014. She spent 400 days protesting in Ferguson. Bush ran for U.S. Congressional seats in 2016 and 2018 but lost both times. She achieved a win in 2020, after being elected to Missouri’s 1st Congressional District, making her the district’s first female representative and the state’s first Black woman and nurse representative. Despite being a victim of police brutality and a survivor of rape, Cori Bush stands as an inspiration for Black women across America. To learn more about her efforts, check out this link.

Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat was born on December 22, 1960, in Brooklyn, New York and passed away from a heroin overdose on August 12, 1988, in Manhattan, New York. He was the second of four children. Basquiat was a talented artist from a young age, and he was sent to Saint Ann’s School, an exclusive arts-oriented private school in New York City. By the age of seven, he had created a children’s book with best friend Marc Prozzo. His mother was in and out of mental institutions since he was 10 years old, leading him to run away from home at the age of 15. He was arrested and returned home within the week, then going on to attend City-As-School. Basquiat and Al Diaz, a schoolmate of his, started spray painting graffiti on buildings in Lower Manhattan in May of 1978. They went by the pseudonym SAMO. This project ended, along with their friendship, in the early 1980s. After the SAMO project concluded, Basquiat worked as a solo artist, first gaining recognition in The Times Square Show in June of 1980. He then had his first solo show in May of 1981, and he became the youngest artist ever to participate in documenta, an exhibition of contemporary art that takes place in Kassel, Germany every five years, at age 21. He also became the youngest artist ever to participate in the Whitney Biennial exhibition of contemporary art. If you want to learn more about Basquiat and his artwork, see this link.

Shirley Chisholm:

Shirley Chisholm was born on November 30th, 1924, in Brooklyn, New York to immigrant parents. She graduated from Brooklyn College in 1946 and later graduated from Columbia University with a master’s in elementary education. She was the director of the Hamilton-Madison Child Care Center and the educational consultant for New York City’s Bureau of Child Welfare. She was the first ever Black woman elected to the U.S. Congress where she worked in committees such as the House Forestry Committee, Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and the Education and Labor Committee. In 1969, she co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus. She made history in 1972 when she became the first Black person and second woman to run for a major political party’s nomination for U.S. President. She expressed, “I am not the candidate of Black America, although I am Black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman and I am equally proud of that. I am the candidate of the people, and my presence before you now symbolizes a new era in American political history.” She unfortunately lost the Democratic nomination to Senator George McGovern. After serving seven terms in Congress, she left to teach at Mount Holyoke College. She was an active member of NOW and the NAACP, and she was later inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. After her passing in 2005, Chisholm was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 by former President Barack Obama—the first African-American President. Before her passing, she wrote an autobiography entitled Unbought and Unbossed(1970) and another book about her experience running for President in The Good Fight(1973). Shirley Chisholm paved the way for women of color in politics. To learn more about her life, check out this link.

Dr. Charles Drew

Dr. Charles Drew was born on June 3, 1904, in Washington, DC and passed away from injuries due to a car accident on April 1, 1950, in Burlington, North Carolina. He was born to a middle-class family in Washington, DC, to a father who worked as a carpet layer and a mother who was trained as a teacher. Drew attended Amherst College on an athletic scholarship, and spent the two years after he graduated at Morgan College as a chemistry and biology professor, football coach, and athletic director in order to gain money to pay for medical school. He attended McGill University in Toronto for medical school and graduated second in his class. He worked as a faculty instructor at Howard University and later did graduate work at Columbia University, where he received a Doctor of Science in Surgery. In 1940, he received a Doctor of Science in Medicine, becoming the first African-American to do so. During his graduate work, he did exhaustive studies and research on blood preservation methods. Because of this, he was recruited by John Scudder just before the United States entered World War II to be the medical director for the Blood for Britain project. The goal of the Blood for Britain project was to give blood from Americans to British soldiers, and Drew’s job was to collect, test, and transport the blood. During this project, Dr. Drew started bloodmobiles, made sure all blood plasma was tested, and created a central location where all donors could give blood. In 1941, he was appointed director of the American Red Cross Blood Bank for his work during the Blood for Britain project, but he resigned in 1942 after the military ruled that African-American blood would be stored separately from the blood of whites. Drew became the first African-American surgeon to serve as an examiner on the American Board of Surgery in 1941, and he was also awarded the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP in 1944. To learn more about Dr. Drew and his work on blood storage, see this link.

Alice Coachman

Alice Coachman was born on November 9th, 1923, in Albany, Georgia. She was a natural-born athlete, and was encouraged by her fifth grade teacher and her aunt to advance her talents, despite her parents lack of support. Tuskegee Institute took a liking to Coachman after reviewing her performance in track and field at Madison High School and offered her a scholarship at its high school program. She accepted and competed in the segregated South. She advanced to the college division in 1943 for both track and field and basketball. She won four national championships in track events. In 1949, Coachman graduated from Albany State College with a B.S. degree in Home Economics and a minor in science. At just 24-years-old, she competed in the 1948 Olympic games in London, where she won a gold medal for high jumping a record-setting 5ft 6.125in. With this earning, she became the first ever Black woman to win an Olympic Gold Medal. She won thirty-four national titles and was inducted into multiple halls of fame. She founded the Alice Coachman Track and Field Foundation which provided support for new and up-coming athletes, as well as retired athletes. She passed away in her hometown of Albany on July 14th, 2014. Alice Coachman defied the status quo and pushed through barriers set by the Jim Crow South. Get to know more about her impact on the world of athletics at this link.

William H. Hastie Jr.

William Hastie Jr. was born on November 17, 1904, in Knoxville, Tennessee and passed away on April 14, 1976, in East Norriton, Pennsylvania. Hastie attended Amherst College and graduated first in his class. He then received a Bachelor of Laws from Harvard Law School in 1930, followed by a Doctor of Judicial Science, also from Harvard Law School, in 1933. From 1930-1933, Hastie worked in private practice in Washington, DC, but served as the assistant solicitor for the Department of the Interior from 1933-1937. President Roosevelt appointed Hastie to the District Court of the Virgin Islands in 1937, and by doing so, made Hastie the first African-American federal judge. He served on the district court until 1939, when he stepped down to become the dean of the Howard University School of Law, with Thurgood Marshall studying under him. In the case of Smith v Allwright, which ruled against white primaries, Hastie served as a co-lead lawyer with Marshall. Hastie worked as a civilian aide to the Secretary of War during World War II, but he resigned from his position in 1943 in protest to the racially segregated training facilities, inadequate training, and uneven assignment distribution in the Air Force. He was awarded the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP for both his actions during the war and his lifetime achievements. In 1946, President Truman appointed Hastie as Territorial Governor of the Virgin Islands, becoming the first African-American to have this position. In 1949, he was appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit by President Truman, and he was confirmed by the Senate in 1950. He also served as the Chief officer of the Judicial Conference of the United States from 1968-1971. To learn more about Hastie and his achievements in the judicial branch, see this link.

Maj. Nancy Leftenant-Colon:

Nancy Leftenant-Colon was born on September 29th, 1920, growing up with 12 siblings. From an early age, she dreamed of becoming a nurse, though military service was taken up by many of her siblings. Due to the Army Nurse Corps being a whites-only service, she joined the Army Reserves in 1945. After the military was desegregated, Leftenant-Colon became the first Black woman to join the Army Air Corps in 1948. Being a traveling nurse, she feared racism on her journeys between bases in the South and tried to avoid contact with anyone in her travels. She became a flight nurse in the 1950s and traveled with a Tuskegee crew in Korea, Japan, and Germany. After 20 years, she retired from service and worked as a nurse at Amityville High School. To add onto her list of achievements, she was the first female president of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc., which honors the history of aviation service along with providing financial support. Leftenant-Colon serves as an inspiration for young Black women joining the military. She recently celebrated her 100th birthday, in which she was awarded the title of “Living Legend” by the Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation. Check out a video of her celebrating her birthday back in September at this link!

Dr. Huey P. Newton

Dr. Huey Newton was born on February 17, 1942, in Monroe, Louisiana and was assassinated on August 22, 1989, in Oakland, California. His family moved to Oakland during the second wave of the Great Migration in response to the extreme violence in Louisiana’s Ouachita Parish. Newton was arrested several times during his teenage years, including charges for gun possession and vandalism. He earned an Associate of Arts degree in 1966 from Merritt College, studied at San Francisco Law School, earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Santa Cruz, and earned a PhD in social philosophy at the University of California at Santa Cruz as well. While he was studying at Merritt College, Newton joined the Afro-American Association and learned about Black history from the leader of the AAA, Donal Warden. He also met Bobby Seale while he studied at Merritt, and together, the two founded the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in 1966. Seale was the Chairman, and Newton was the Minister of Defense. The Black Panther Party advocated for the right of self-defense for Black people in the United States and was greatly influenced by Malcolm X. The political goals of the Black Panther Party included better housing, jobs, and education. The party also had a Ten-Point Program, which was a set of guidelines for their ideals. Newton and the Black Panther Party were able to create social programs in Oakland, including the Oakland Community School and Free Breakfast for Children Program. In 1968, Newton was convicted of voluntary manslaughter for the killing of police officer John Frey and was sentenced to 2-15 years in prison. In 1970, the conviction was reversed and eventually dismissed by the Alameda County Superior Court. Newton was murdered in 1989 by Tyrone Robinson, who said that his motive was to advance in the Black Guerilla Family prison gang. The Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation was founded by his widow, Fredrike Newton, in 1993. To learn more about Dr. Newton, see this link, and to learn more about this foundation, see this link.

Marsha P. Johnson:

Marsha P. Johnson was born on August 24, 1945, in Elizabeth, New Jersey and passed away from undetermined causes on July 6, 1992, in New York City, New York. Johnson was born Malcolm Michaels Jr to a deeply religious family. At the age of five, Johnson decided that she wanted to start wearing dresses, attracting the attention of boys that lived nearby that were determined to harass and sexually assault her. After graduating from Edison High School, Johnson left home and moved to Greenwich Village in New York City in 1966. Johnson identified as gay and as a queen, in reference to her work as a drag queen. It was then that Johnson decided on the moniker of Marsha P. Johnson as her drag queen name. From 1970-1990s, Johnson performed as a member of the Hot Peaches, an NYC-based drag performance troupe. On the day of the Stonewall Riots on June 28, 1969, she arrived at the Stonewall Inn after the riots had already begun. Johnson was identified as one of the individuals that led the way in pushing back the police during the riots. After the riots, Johnson marched in the first Gay Pride rally in 1970 and joined the Gay Liberation Front. She also staged a sit-in protest at Weinstein Hall at NYU when she found out that administrators had canceled a dance sponsored by gay organizations. Johnson also founded the STAR House, a shelter in New York City for gay and trans street kids, in 1972. To learn more about Marsha P. Johnson and her activism for gay rights, see this link.

Black History Month is a celebration of the achievements of Black people and their crucial role in American history, and all of these men and women are incredible examples of the kind of change and achievements that this month is able to recognize and celebrate. We encourage you to continue to learn more about the achievements and role of Black people in American history and world history in this month and beyond.

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