It is impossible to understate the lasting influence of historic Black American leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Boise, and more recent voices like Barack and Michelle Obama. But the history of the Civil Rights Movement, as well as countless aspects of general American culture today can be traced back to lesser-known African-American people who’s efforts in their respective fields were just as groundbreaking and monumental. The Black American men and women whose collective contributions to politics, the arts, and science paved the way, just as the accomplishments of America’s most-revered Black heroes, for advancements of all sorts in American culture and tolerance. These are those leaders who unfortunately are less remembered than they ought to be by today’s history books.
Hiram Rhodes Revels (1827 – 1901)
Despite heavy opposition, Hiram Rhodes Revels became the United States’ first Black Senator in 1870. Revels faced resistance on all sides, but in the face of a government that clearly did not want him, he asserted his power and legal right to lead, and became an influence not only for young Black upstarts, but also future politicians in the White House. His most notable legal battles involved the fight to desegregate schools and reinstate Black legislators pushed out of office.
Sojourner Truth (1797 -1883)
Susan B. Anthony might be the most talked about figure in the Woman’s Suffrage movement, but no less remembered is activist Sojourner Truth. While the 15th Amendment gave women the vote, that right did not apply to Black Americans, and Truth worked tirelessly to provide that basic right to every Black American woman. She is perhaps most remembered for her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech. Her efforts have finally begun to garner proper recognition with a commemorative statue in Central Park.
Ida B. Wells (1862 – 1931)
Documenting one of the most disturbing and violent epidemics of the 1800s, the countless lynchings and other attacks on Black Americans, Ida B. Wells shone a light on the horribly unjust nature of her home country. Her reporting angered many; her offices were often destroyed; her writings were simply too shocking for some. Despite the danger to her life, Wells never stopped her journalistic career, constantly exposing the dangerous conditions African Americans lived under at the time. Her methods and style remain hugely inspirational in the field today.
William L. Dawson (1960 -1988)
Though not much is known of his early upbringing, William Dawson’s accomplishments as both a politician and lawyer to this day are remembered as major stepping stones for Black equality. As the first African-American to preside over a regular Congressional Committee, Dawson famously prevented the passing of the Winstead Amendment, which would have allowed US soldiers to decide for themselves whether they wanted to serve in integrated units. Dawson is even credited with securing John F. Kennedy’s vote in Illinois, which led to his margin victory.
Ella Baker (1903 -1986)
Ella Baker is the quintessential embodiment of the feminist movement-born statement “behind every great man is a great woman.” Baker worked directly with Martin Luther King Jr. on his Southern Christian Leadership Conference, organizing campaigns, protests and marches, as well as played a key role in the NAACP. She fought against Jim Crowe laws, and organized the meetings from which the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was born. Despite all that, Baker is one of the less-remembered figures of the Civil Rights Movement, and it is time she is given the recognition she deserves.
Benjamin Oliver Davis Sr. (1880 – 1970)
Benjamin O. Davis Sr. was not only the very first African-American general for the US Armed Forces, but one of the most prolific. Davis Sr. fought and/or led troops for the Spanish-American War, the Buffalo Soldiers in Liberia and the Philippines, and World War II. As he consistently rose in the military ranks, he was even promoted by Franklin D. Roosevelt to brigadier general in 1940. Even after he retired following 50 years of active service, he fought for full armed forces integration as a military advisor.
Katherine Johnson (1918 – 2020)
Another testament to the notion that behind every man there are inexplicably unrecognized great women, Katherine Johnson was one of the most instrumental figures in the field of physics and mathematics. A key player at NASA, Johnson, along with many other Black women, not only pioneered NASA’s use of computer technology, but was on the team that helped send John Glenn into space and orbit the Earth three times, one of the world’s most important space missions. Her story finally saw more eyes in 2016 in the aptly-titled Hidden Figures, which garnered near universal praise and an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.
Sidney Poitier (1927 – Present)
While not the first Black person to win an Oscar (that honor went to Hattie McDaniel for Gone with the Wind), Sidney Poitier was the godfather of the modern Black leading man in Hollywood. As the first Black man to win Best Actor at the Academy Awards (for Lilies of the Field), Poitier starred in a host of popular American films that dealt head-on with issues of race and racism, Like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and To Sir, With Love. Despite the tense subject matter, he became one of Hollywood’s biggest and brightest stars, which shifted cultural attitudes about the movies and inspired countless actors of color today.
Dr. Charles Drew (1904 – 1950)
The idea of preserving and later donating blood through banks is one many of us don’t give all that much thought to nowadays. But back in the 1940’s when our understanding of plasma was far more limited, Dr. Charles Drew’s research efforts transformed our thinking about blood and how it can be used. Without Drew, we would likely not have blood banks, which to this day have saved countless lives the world over. Drew also was part of the fight to desegregate the blood of Black and white people in said banks.
Booker T. Washington (1858 – 1915)
Perhaps the most widely known entry on this list, Booker T. Washington’s influence is incredibly far-reaching. An educator and writer with a fruitful and distinguished catalogue of books, Washington was the very first Black person invited to dine at the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt. His support for segregation and staunch rivalry with fellow African-American writer W.E.B. Du Bois are certainly dated when looked through a modern scope, but his influence amongst his community and several US presidents certainly lasts to this day.