While the acts of these unsung heroes of black history may not have caught national media attention, they still made an impact on the lives of hundreds if not thousands of people.
Rustin was one of the main organizers of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and without him, Martin Luther King, Jr. would not have had the platform he did (literally and figuratively) to speak from. The reason Rustin didn’t get as much attention as he should have is that he was openly gay, and was constantly dealing with the struggles of being in two minority groups at the time — the black community and the gay community.
Smalls was born into slavery in South Carolina, and worked mostly on ships. He taught himself to read and in 1862, Smalls snuck his family aboard the “Planter,”— a Confederate steamer — raised the Confederate flag and sailed it past other Confederate ships on its way to the Union to share Confederate secrets. Smalls later went on to serve on the South Carolina Senate and the U.S. Congress.
The Soledad Brothers — George Jackson, Fleeta Drumgo and John Clutchette — helped show the world how authority figures were creating an atmosphere much like slavery inside prisons. The brothers led a hunger strike and uprising in San Quentin to bring attention to the inhumane treatment of inmates that had caused the death of several of their black fellow prisoners.
Taylor is the only African-American woman who is confirmed to have published a wartime memoir about the Civil War. Born into slavery, Taylor taught herself to read and when she escaped to St. Simon’s Island in Georgia, she founded a school. Taylor’s husband served in the Union Army, and she was both a nurse and laundress to the Union forces.
Otherwise known as the Black Panthers, Huggins and Carter worked to fight the white supremacist acts of the Los Angeles Police Department in the black neighborhoods of L.A. The two worked with Elaine Brown, Ericka Huggins and other more-known figures to fight injustices against black communities. The two men were assassinated by FBI operatives in 1969 while they were students in University of California, Los Angeles’ High Potential Program. A memorial is held for them each year on the UCLA campus.
After the U.S. Civil War, most white landowners refused to sell land to blacks at fair prices. A Tennessee native and former slave, Singleton, along with his partner Columbus Johnson, founded settlements in Kansas and helped hundreds of out-of-home black Tennesseans move to the Midwest. He became known as the “Father of the Exodus” for his work in the Exoduster Movement of 1879.
South African Steve Biko coined the slogan “Black is Beautiful” during his days as an activist, writing literature encouraging black urban populations to mobilize. He founded the Black Consciousness Movement and today is a martyr figure of the anti-apartheid movement. Biko’s face was used in campaign posters in South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994.
Many regard Brown as the first-ever African American to publish a novel. Born to an enslaved black mother and her master, Brown escaped slavery in 1834 and became a well-known anti-slavery speaker, activist and writer. He is best known for his controversial novel “Clotel: or The President’s Daughter,” which traced mixed-race female descendants of Thomas Jefferson.
Most only know of her most famous employee, Madam C.J. Walker, but Malone was a millionaire in the 1920s. Malone developed her own line of hair care products, which she sold door-to-door, and eventually she trained a staff of agents to sell nationally. She went on to build a factory and founded a beauty training school called Poro College. Malone donated a large percentage of her revenue to black colleges and organizations helping black families in need.
Known as “the man who killed Jim Crow,” Houston was a legal genius who challenged the “separate but equal” doctrine, particularly in schools. After racist experiences in the Army in World War I, Houston was determined to end Jim Crow and when he returned to the states, he enrolled in Harvard Law School. Houston went on to be one of the heads of the school, and enlisted some of the top students in the fight for civil rights. Houston also served as special counsel to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Turner was born free in South Carolina and was the first Southern bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He worked a lot in Georgia organizing congregations for the black community and when Jim Crow laws were reinstated in the South in the 19th century, he became a leader in Black nationalism and in encouraging blacks in America to emigrate to Africa.
Makeba was a South African singer who used her stage presence to speak out against racial segregation in South Africa. Makeba even campaigned abroad to stop racial segregation and as a consequence the South African government revoked her passport and kicked her out of the country. Several African countries came to her rescue granting her international passports and nearly 30 years after leaving South Africa she was able to return.
Many are familiar with the story of Rosa Parks refusing to acknowledge racial segregation on the bus in the 50’s, but barely a year before that incident Colvin was arrested for the same act and taken to an adult jail, when she was only 15 years old. It was Colvin’s story that ignited the slowly growing revolt we saw in Rosa Parks’ eventual protest.
Tinubu was one of the first women to rise to a position of political power in West Africa. She fought again British colonization of what is today known as Nigeria and against slavery in her region. She was an influential business person during her time and named Iyalode–the title given to the most powerful woman in a town. She was a big proponent of spreading awareness of the type of cruelty happening in slavery in Europe and the Americas.
Delany was a pioneer in black history in many ways. Born free in Virginia, he was one of the very first blacks to be admitted to Harvard medical school and he acted as a physician during cholera epidemics when most physicians fled the area. He was the first African-American field officer in the United States army and an active abolitionist and journalist.
Henson was born in Nanjemoy, Md. and many believe he was the first man to reach the North Pole. Henson was the right hand man to famous explorer Robert Peary, with whom he traveled for 23 years, trading with the Inuit.
Ali was born in North Carolina and founded the Moorish Science Temple of America. The Temple had its first location in Newark, N.J. but quickly gained branches throughout major cities in the Northeast. He was an influential voice in encouraging African Americans to get involved with civic development and activities. He was a leader of the black islamic movement in the United States.