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Important and Famous African Americans

From the earliest days of the African presence in the United States, blacks have contributed to the fiber of American culture, ranging from useful inventions to innovative musical interludes, and beyond. Blacks have served and died in defense of their adopted homeland. The individuals that make up the whole of the black population, have offered up their talents to forward the cause of peace and prosperity in America.

The following individuals have been selected from thousands of examples of selfless acts, sacrificing, in some cases, their own lives for the betterment of all. Obviously, this table provides only a small sample of these courageous Americans; u-s-history.com will continue to add to this list from time to time.


Name

Claim to Fame

Lifespan

Summary

Benjamin Banneker

Astronomer, clockmaker, publisher

1731-1806

Was able to make the calculations to predict solar and lunar eclipses and to compile an ephemeris for the Benjamin Banneker`s Almanac.

Jean Baptiste Point du Sable

First resident of Chicago

1745-1813

du Sable built his first house in the 1770s, 30 years before Fort Dearborn was established on the banks of the Chicago River.

Phillis Wheatley

Poet

1753-1784

One of the first African-American poets whose works were published.

The Reverend Richard Allen

Religious leader

1760-1831

In 1816, founded the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Philadelphia.

Peter Spencer

Religious leader

1760-1831

Founder of the first independent black Christian denomination in the U.S., the A.U.M.P. Church.

Sojourner Truth

Abolitionist

1797-1883

A.K.A. Isabella Baumfree; noted speaker for both the abolitionist movement and the women`s rights movement.

1800s

Nat Turner

Rebellion leader

1800-1831

In 1831, led failed slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia; the most remarkable instance of black resistance to enslavement.

Norbert Rilleaux

Inventor and engineer

1806-1894

Most noted for inventing the multiple-effect evaporator, an energy-efficient means of evaporating water.

Martin Delany

Abolitionist

1812-1885

First African-American field officer in the United States Army.

Frederick Douglass

Abolitionist, editor, orator, author, statesman, reformer

1818-1895

"Sage of Anacostia;" among the most prominent and influential African-American lecturers and authors in U.S. history.

Harriet Tubman

Writer, abolitionist

1820-1913

As an abolitionist, she acted as intelligence gatherer, refugee organizer, raid leader, nurse, revival speaker, and fund raiser.

Frances Harper

Poet, novelist, lecturer, activist

1754-1832

Was also a strong supporter of prohibition and woman`s suffrage.

Harriet Wilson

Novelist

1825-1900

First African American of either gender to publish a novel on the North American continent.

William H. Carney

Civil War hero

1842-1908

Sgt. Carney was the first African American to be awarded the Medal of Honor.

Elijah McCoy

Inventor

1844-1929

Invented an automatic lubricator for oiling the steam engines of locomotives, boats, etc.

George Washington Buckner

Physician and diplomat

1885-1943

First African American to serve as diplomatic minister to a foreign country.

George Washington Johnson

Pioneer recording artist

1855-1914

Famous for whistling and singing "The Whistling Coon" and "The Laughing Coon."

Booker T. Washington

Political leader, educator, author

1856-1915

One of the dominant figures in African-American history from 1890 to 1915; did much to improve the friendship and working relationship between the races.

George Washington Carver

Plant scientist

1860-1943

Taught former slaves farming techniques for self-sufficiency; known for suggesting hundreds of uses for the peanut, other plants.

Madame C.J. Walker

First woman millionaire

1867-1919

A.K.A. Sarah Breedlove; founded the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company to sell hair care products and cosmetics.

W.E.B. DuBois

Civil rights activist, sociologist, historian, writer, editor, poet, freemason, scholar.

1868-1963

"Father of Pan-Africanism" with issues of segregation, political disenfranchisement. Believed that people of African descent should work together to battle prejudice, inequality.

Scott Joplin

Ragtime composer

ca 1867-1917

Most famous piece was Maple Leaf Rag, set standard for ragtime genre.

James W. Johnson

Author, poet, folklorist, civil rights leader

ca 1871-1938

Prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance; works included The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912).

Paul L. Dunbar

Poet

1872-1906

Gained national recognition for his 1896 Lyrics of a Lowly Life.

W.C. Handy

Blues composer

1873-1958

Known as "The Father of the Blues."

Benjamin O. Davis Sr.

General

1877-1970

First African-American general in the U.S. Army.

Jack Johnson

Pugilist

1878-1946

First black heavyweight boxing champion of the world.

George Herriman

Cartoonist

1880-1944

Best known for his comic strip Krazy Kat.

Eubie Blake

Composer and musician

1883-1983

Shuffle Along (with Noble Sissle), in 1921, was the first Broadway musical ever to be written and directed by African Americans.

Arthur W. Mitchell

Politician

1883-1968

First black Congressman from the Democratic Party.

Mamie Smith

Vaudeville singer, dancer, pianist, actress, blues singer.

1883-1946

First African American to make vocal blues recordings, in 1920.

Marcus Garvey

Publisher, journalist, entrepreneur

1887-1940

Best remembered as a champion of the "Back-to-Africa" movement.

Bessie Coleman

Pilot

1892-1926

First black licensed pilot in the world.

Ethel Waters

Blues, gospel vocalist

1892-1977

Successful in a number of styles; member of the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.

Oscar Charleston

Negro Leagues star

1896-1954

Some consider him to be the best all-around ball player the Negro Leagues ever produced.

Marian Anderson

Opera, concert singer

1897-1993

Contralto, best remembered for her performance on Easter Sunday, 1939, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.

Duke Ellington

Jazz composer, musician, bandleader

1899-1974

Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969 and the Legion of Honor by France in 1973.

Oliver Law

Communist, labor organizer, social activist

1899-1937

Fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.

1900s

Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong

Jazz trumpeter

1901-1971

Was a charismatic, innovative performer with musical skill; bright personality transformed jazz into a popular art form.

Langston Hughes

Poet, novelist, playwright, newspaper columnist

1902-1967

Particularly known for his insightful, colorful portrayals of black life in America from the 1920s through the 1960s.

Cool Papa Bell

Negro Leagues star

1903-1991

Considered by many baseball observers to have been the fastest man ever to play the game; "So fast he can turn off the light and be in bed before the room gets dark!" (Satchel Paige)

Count Basie

Jazz pianist, organist, bandleader

1904-1984

One O`Clock Jump and Jumpin` at the Woodside were among his more popular numbers.

Ralph Bunche

Diplomat; Nobel laureate, 1950

1904-1971

Was the first African American, and first individual of non-European ethnicity or race, to be so honored in the history of the prize.

Satchel Paige

Negro Leagues star

1905?-1982

Pronounced the greatest pitcher in the history of the Negro Leagues; career highlights span five decades; legendary showman.

Buck Leonard

Negro Leagues star

1907-1997

First baseman; called the "Black Lou Gehrig" as a result of hitting prowess, defensive position.

Thurgood Marshall

Jurist

1908-1993

First African American to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Josh Gibson

Negro Leagues star

1911-1947

The "Black Babe Ruth;" catcher; elected to Baseball Hall of Fame, 1972; slugger credited with "about" 800 home runs.

Jesse Owens

Track and field athlete

1913-1980

Won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, embarrassing German dictator Adolf Hitler.

Rosa Parks

Civil rights activist, seamstress

1913-2005

Dubbed the "Mother of the modern-day Civil Rights Movement."

Emmett Ashford

Umpire

1914-1980

First African-American umpire in Major League Baseball.

Joe Louis

Pugilist

1914-1981

A.K.A. the "Brown Bomber;" heavyweight boxing champion.

Muddy Waters

Blues musician

1915-1983

Considered "The Father of Chicago Blues."

Ella Fitzgerald

Jazz singer

1918-1996

The "First Lady of Song;" winner of 13 Grammy awards.

Edward Brooke III

Politician

1919-

First African American elected to the U.S. Senate.

Jackie Robinson

Athlete

1919-1972

First African American to play Major League Baseball in the 20th century.

Goose Tatum

Harlem Globetrotters

1921-1967

Considered to be the original "clown prince" of the Trotters.

James Baldwin

Novelist, short story writer, essayist

1924-1987

Known for his novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain.

Shirley Chisholm

Politician, educator, author

1924-2005

First African-American woman elected to Congress.

Sammy Davis Jr.

Entertainer

1925-1990

Was a dancer, singer, multi-instrumentalist (vibraphone, trumpet, drums); impressionist, comedian, actor.

Medgar Evers

Civil rights activist

1925-1963

Instrumental in eventually desegregating the University of Mississippi.

Malcolm X

Civil rights leader

1925-1965

A.K.A. El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz; one-time Nation of Islam leader.

Miles Davis

Jazz trumpeter, bandleader, composer

1926-1991

Was at the forefront of almost every major development in jazz after World War II.

Althea Gibson

Sportswoman

1927-2003

First African-American woman to be a competitor on the world tennis tour.

Coretta Scott King

Activist

1927-2006

Widow of the slain civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.^; noted community leader in her own right.

Maya Angelou

Poet, memoirist, actress, civil rights activist

1928-

Best known for her autobiographical writings I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969); All God`s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986).

Bo Diddley

Rock and roll singer, songwriter, guitarist

1928-

Best known for the "Bo Diddley beat", a rhumba-based beat.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Civil rights activist, minister, Nobel laureate

1929-1968

Won the Nobel Peace Prize, Presidential Medal of Freedom before assassination in 1968; known for advocating non-violence, racial equality; peacemaker, martyr.

Ray Charles

Pop musician

1930-2004

Brought soulful sound to everything from country music to pop standards to now-iconic rendition of "America the Beautiful."

Willie Mays

Major League Baseball

1931-

"The Say Hey Kid," played center field; Hall of Famer; regarded as one of the finest players ever to have played the game.

Toni Morrison

Author, Nobel laureate

1931-

Instrumental in bringing recognition to the genre of African-American literature.

Louis Farrakhan

Nation of Islam leader

1933-

Controversial quote, "Hitler was a very great man;" in response to a Jewish journalist referring to him as a "Black Hitler."

Hank Aaron

Major League Baseball

1934-

Hall of Famer; holds career mark for home runs, RBIs, other records.

Bill Russell

Basketball

1934-

Considered the greatest defensive center to ever play the game.

Eldridge Cleaver

Civil rights activist

1935-1998

Prominent member of the Black Panther party; author of Soul on Ice.

Bob Gibson

Major League Baseball

1935-

Hall of Fame pitcher; voted to the all-20th-century team.

Meadowlark Lemon

Harlem Globetrotters

1935-

Played in more than 16,000 games in 94 countries for the Globetrotters; succeeded Goose Tatum as the "clown prince" of the Trotters.

Frank Robinson

Major League Baseball

1935-

First player to win MVP awards in both National, American leagues.

Jim Brown

Football, actor, activist

1936-

College All-American in football, lacrosse; Pro Football Hall of Fame running back.

Wilt Chamberlain

Basketball

1936-1999

The "Big Dipper;" regarded as one of the most dominant basketball players of all time.

Bill Cosby

Entertainer, actor, comic, educator, television producer, philanthropist.

1937-

TV entertainer known for roles in I Spy, The Bill Cosby Show, others.

Colin Powell

U.S. Army general, statesman

1937-

Highest ranking African-American government official in history.

Tina Turner

"Queen of Rock"

1939-

Kennedy Center Honors recipient, most known for her frenetic interpretation of "Proud Mary" by Credence Clearwater Revival.

Ron Brown

Politician

1941-1996

Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, becoming the first African American to lead a major American political party.

Jessie Jackson

Politician, civil rights activist, minister.

1941-

Created the "Rainbow Coalition" of various minority groups.

Dr. Maulana Karenga

Activist, author, founder of Kwanzaa

1941-

Best known as founder of Kwanzaa, a week-long celebration following Christmas.

Muhammad Ali

Boxer; war protester; member, Nation of Islam; civil rights protester; poet

1942-

A.K.A. Cassius Clay; three-time heavyweight boxing champion; crowned Sportsman of the (20th) Century by Sports Illustrated.

Aretha Franklin

Gospel, soul, R&B singer

1942-

"Queen of Soul;" first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Huey Newton

Activist

1942-1989

Co-founder, inspirational leader of the Black Panther party.

Arthur Ashe

Tennis star, activist

1943-1993

One of the key figures behind the formation of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP).

Angela Davis

Author, activist

1944-

Radical activist, member of the Black Panther party, working for racial, gender equity; prison abolition.

Barry White

Record producer, singer

1944-2003

Known for deep bass voice, suave delivery.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Basketball

1947-

A.K.A. Lew Alcindor; NBA`s all-time leading scorer.

Clarence Thomas

Jurist

1948-

Second African American to serve on U.S. Supreme Court.

Stevie Wonder

Singer, songwriter, producer, musician, humanitarian, social activist

1950-

Recorded more than 30 Top-10 hits, won nearly two dozen Grammys, including one for lifetime achievement; been inducted into both the Rock and Roll, Songwriters halls of fame.

Walter Payton

Football

1954-1999

"Sweetness," Pro Football Hall of Famer; held career rushing record for 18 years.

Condoleezza Rice

University professor, politician

1954-

Current U.S. Secretary of State.

Earvin "Magic" Johnson

Basketball, entertainment entrepreneur

1959-

The only NBA rookie to win the NBA Finals MVP Award.

Jerry Rice

Football

1962-

Regarded as the best receiver ever to play the game; arguably the greatest football player ever; holder of 38 NFL records.

Michael Jordan

Basketball

1963-

"Air Jordan," "His Airness;" named "the greatest North American athlete of the 20th century," by ESPN.

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