For far too long, Black history has been overlooked, minimized or — even worse — erased. Yet there’s no question that the contributions of Black people influence every part of how we live today, from the art and culture we consume to the rights we have (and are still fighting for).
Their impact is felt daily, but how much do we really know about the famous figures who worked — and continue to work — tirelessly to make America a fairer, richer place for all? Read through these little-known Black history facts from the book Timelines from Black History: Leaders, Legends, Legacies.
This is only just a start, though. To take things one step further, add these inspiring reads and movies to your queue during Black History Month and beyond.
- One of the greatest African rulers of all time, Mansa Musa(1280–1337)led the Mali Empire at the height of its power and creativity. He directly controlled the price of gold, and he has been described as the richest person in human history.
- Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831–1895), the first Black woman in the United States to qualify as a doctor, opened her own medical clinic in Boston and dedicated herself to treating women and children who lived in poverty. She treated patients regardless of their ability to pay and often took no money for her work.
- During the U.S. Civil War, more than 178,000 Black soldiersserved across 175 regiments, making up 10% of the Union Army’s soldiers and representing the key to the Union’s victory.
- Though they were forbidden from signing up officially, a large number of Black women served as scouts, nurses and spies in the Civil War.
- A teenager named Claudette Colvingot arrested in 1955 for refusing to give up her bus seat for a white woman. Some local civil rights leaders saw the event as a chance to highlight the city’s unfair bus policy, but decided that Colvin was too young to represent the struggle. Still, Colvin’s act inspired Rosa Parks to do the same thing nine months later — and Parks’ arrest sparked one of the biggest civil rights campaigns of all time.
- Businesswoman Annie Turnbo Malone (1869–1957)became one of the first Black millionaires. Malone set up the Poro Company, which produced popular hair and beauty products for the Black community. She hired the young Sarah Breedlove (1867–1919)as one of her door-to-door sales agents and inspired Breedlove to build her own multi-million-dollar beauty brand.
Acclaimed writer and poet Maya Angelou(1928–2014)had another noteworthy distinction: In 1944, she became the first female Black cable car conductor in San Francisco.
- Civil rights activist and campaigner Septima Poinsette Clark (1898–1987)helped to found nearly 1,000 citizenship schools, which contributed to helping Blacks register to vote.
- Described as a “forgotten pioneer,”Althea Gibson (1927–2003)was the first Black tennis player to win a tennis Grand Slam in 1956. She won 11 Grand Slam tournaments over the course of her career.
- Lewis Howard Latimer (1848–1928)invented and patented the carbon filament, which allowed lightbulbs to last longer than they did with the paper filament used in Thomas Edison’s design. (Latimer eventually went on to work for the Edison Electric Light Company.)
The ironing board (invented by Sarah Boone), the traffic light system (invented by Garrett Morgan), and the home security system (invented Marie Van Brittan Brown) all came down to us from Black inventors.