Each February is Black History Month in the United States. It honors the contributions of African Americans to American history. Black History Month was first known as "Negro History Week." It was created in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, a noted African American historian, and scholar. Woodson is known as the "Father of Black History."
How did Black History Month begin?
Nearly a century ago, Dr. Woodson had the brilliant idea to set aside a special time each year to highlight the fascinating people and events of African descent in American history.
He chose February because black people had long celebrated the birthdays of Douglass and Lincoln during that month. Woodson built Negro History Week around the traditions that were already there. He simply asked people to extend their study of black history, not create a new tradition.
Dr. Woodson realized that without the efforts of abolitionists such as Douglass and politicians like Lincoln, African Americans may never have received the opportunity even to learn to read or write, much less earn university degrees.
Negro History Week celebrations just got bigger and bigger as the years went by. Cities all over the U.S. began recognizing the week.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s only increased the interest in black life and the role blacks played in American history.
By the time the nation celebrated its bicentennial in 1976, the federal government had decided to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans by turning Negro History Week into Black History Month.
There are many important African Americans who have shaped American history. Here are some noteworthy black Americans who accomplished great things and helped many people with their talents.
Martin Luther King Jr.
No article about the world’s most prominent Black heroes and heroines would be complete without mentioning Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights icon of the United States. Long after King was assassinated in 1968, his words, ideas, and deeds carried on in the United States through legislation passed in his name. Throughout the world, his method of nonviolent resistance has been emulated by various political movements.
Although many men and women took part in the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and ‘60s, helping to make it a success, in many ways, King embodied the movement and is the first person who comes to most people’s minds when they’re asked about the subject.
Martin Luther King Jr. faced many battles throughout his life. He fought segregation and discrimination in his personal life, faced challenges to his leadership within the Civil Rights Movement, and was opposed by militant segregationists throughout the United States (King faced more violent reactions to his marches and appearances in Chicago than anywhere).
In the end, Martin Luther King Jr. died for his beliefs, but in the process, he was made a martyr. Today, he has his own Federal holiday, a national monument in Washington, D.C. (alongside those of many presidents), and is viewed as a hero by millions of people of all backgrounds. For those reasons, Martin Luther King Jr. is often considered to be not only the premier civil rights hero but also first among all Black heroes.
In American history, the era before the Civil War was characterized by westward expansion, European immigration, and of course, slavery. The British brought the institution of slavery with them over to North America and for a time, it was widely practiced in all 13 of the original American colonies and even in what is now Canada.
The situation persisted after American independence, although the states north of the Mason-Dixon Line (the border between Virginia and Maryland that delineated free states from slave states) gradually abolished slavery. There were multiple reasons why slavery was abolished in the North: liberal anti-slavery and abolitionist sentiments were common, although not the majority; but more importantly, the Northern economy just didn’t rely on the labor system of slavery.
On the other hand, as the American republic expanded westward, new lands in the south opened that were prime locations for growing cotton, tobacco, rice, and sugar. All of these were labor-intensive crops and many of them were grown in regions that people of African descent were purportedly more adaptable toward than Europeans in terms of handling extreme heat and malaria.
Slave rebellions were rare and the exception, not the rule. But slaves absconding from their bondage was fairly common.
As the sectional differences between the North and South grew in the 1840s, many Northern politicians and leaders encouraged slaves to abscond from their masters, which led to fiery debates, accusations, and political fights in Washington, D.C. Northern White abolitionists began aiding escaped slaves, helping them secure their freedom.
But not all of those helping escaped slaves find freedom in the North and beyond, were White.
Some slaves and former slaves took the extra risk of helping fellow slaves find freedom in the North and Canada. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, White abolitionists caught helping slaves escape to freedom could face fines or jail time, but for a slave or former slave to get caught, it would usually mean something much worse.
Harriet Tubman was a former slave who took the great risk of helping former slaves find freedom in the North, not once or twice, but 13 times. Tubman became one of the legendary Underground Railroad’s top conductors, helping more than 70 slaves find the promised land. Once the Civil War began, she used her knowledge and networks to help the Union Army.
Tubman appeared unassuming and harmless, which allowed her to pull off incredible missions right under the noses of countless slave catchers. During her life, Tubman became a heroine to thousands of former slaves and in the century since her death, her fame and impact on modern society have only grown.
Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last 20 years, you know that Barack Obama was the United States’ 44th president for two terms from January 20, 2009 to January 20, 2017. Before being elected president, Obama served half a term as US Senator from the state of Illinois, and as a member of the Illinois Senate from January 8, 1997 to November 4, 2004.
Of course, what made Obama’s run historic, and made him a genuine Black hero to millions of Americans, was the fact that he became the United States’ first Black president. Born to a White American mother and a Kenyan father on August 4, 1961, Obama certainly didn’t seem “destined” to be the future president of the United States.
The closest any Black politician had come to the highest office in the land was Jesse Jackson’s run for the Democrat Party’s presidential nomination in 1984, which he lost to Walter Mondale, who was defeated in a landslide by President Ronald Reagan.
And during that 1984 election cycle, popular African-American comedian Eddie Murphy basically summed up the situation in his October 24, 1983 HBO standup special, Eddie Murphy Delirious:
“I’ve seen him (Jesse Jackson) running around the track and shit. I said why the fuck you getting in shape Jesse?”
“Because I’m going to be the first black president. I have to give speeches like this” (Murphy then runs back and forth across the stage).
Good comedy is often a reflection on contemporary society, and in 1983, which wasn’t too long ago, most people just didn’t think America would see a Black president anytime soon. Yes, some thought that assassination would be a real possibility, but most just thought that “the country wasn’t ready for it.”
Barack Obama proved everyone wrong when he ran and won in 2008.
Like most presidents, Obama experienced many highs and lows during his presidency, comforted the people during tragedies, and stood as a symbol of a new America in the world. But probably more important than any policy he advocated, or any bill he signed into law, Barack Obama is seen as a hero for the potential he represented and his ability to inspire others.
The institution of slavery has existed since the dawn of human civilization more than 5,000 years ago and probably much earlier. It is likely that the earliest humans, living in caves and other primitive settlements, practiced a form of “situational” slavery whereby they took captives during violent exchanges with other clans.
The reality is that slavery as a system is a byproduct of the civilized world. This may seem like an oxymoron, but it’s true.
As human societies became more complex and developed in terms of governments, division of labor, and economics, slavery came to play an increasing role in many of these societies. The type of slavery changed from society to society, ranging from serfdom to indentured servitude and chattel slavery, but many societies still practiced it until the 1800s.
The United States was one of the last countries in the Western world to abolish slavery, but it was the only country that fought a war that ended the practice. The debate over slavery in the United States was bitter and divisive. Yet, despite it ultimately concerning the lives and futures of millions of Black people, it was mostly a conflict between Whites.
Those who supported slavery were White, but even the vast majority of the abolitionists were also White.
There was one notable exception—Frederick Douglass.
Frederick Douglass was so much more than a Black abolitionist, though, as he was born a slave, taught himself to read, and eventually made the perilous journey to the North and freedom. Once in the North, Douglass found that his race still limited him in certain situations and that although slavery may have been illegal north of the Mason-Dixon Line, racial discrimination was very legal and sometimes very ubiquitous.
Like many of the heroes and heroines, Douglass preserved and continued to fight to end slavery. His anti-slavery campaign eventually brought him recognition and fame beyond the shores of America, leading him to search for allies in the fight against slavery in Ireland, Great Britain, and Canada.
After slavery ended, Douglass continued his activism by supporting the women’s suffrage movement and writing about his ideas, observations, and experiences in several books.
There’s little doubt that Frederick Douglass was one of the most influential Americans in the 19th century and that he played a major role in the end of slavery in the United States. Frederick Douglass is certainly a hero for that alone, but the way he accomplished so much makes him even more of a hero. Douglass was always willing to listen to others, even those he vehemently disagreed with, and he believed that violence should only be used as a last resort.
Marguerite Annie Johnson had an inspiring career spanning over five decades. She is known for her success in poetry, civil rights activism, dancing, screenwriting, and acting. Her best-known work has been the 1969 memoir, 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,' which was the first bestseller in the nonfiction category written by an African American woman.
Maya Angelou was one of the most influential African-American poets, giving a sense of freedom to many black female writers to express their personal experiences without shame. While Maya has labeled her written works as fictional autobiographies, many critics consider them her autobiographies, sharing various inspirational stories from her life.
Her collection of poems in the published book Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie (1971) was also nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Her autobiographies set an extraordinary example for the Black autobiography, where she inspired people by showcasing her life. Angelou's Caged Bird is one of many writings that influenced modern-day African-American communities and culture. Her poetry has also included modern hip-hop artists like Nicki Minaj, Common, Tupac Shakur, and Kanye West.
Throughout her life, Angelou was a strong advocate for abolishing gender and racial discrimination. She aspired to better the world, and through her passionate and wise words, she served as an inspiration to many. “If you're always trying to be normal you will never know how amazing you can be.”
To Maya, it was all about looking at the positives throughout life, no matter how challenging the trials or hardships were, and she advised me to do that without worrying about how different you are.
Madam C.J. Walker
Madam C.J. Walker was one of the first female self-made millionaires, appearing for this feat in the Guinness Book of World Records. The business she founded, the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, catered to hair and cosmetic products for African-American women, a consumer group often overlooked by her competitors. She used her wealth and influence to enrich her fellow African Americans' lives and donated significantly to various charities, political campaigns, and social activist groups.
Walker's story of going from servitude to a self-made millionaire is an inspirational tale that epitomizes the "American Dream." She was able to build her empire through hard work and a keen understanding of her consumer base, rivaling the business acumen of other nineteenth-century tycoons. Because she used her vast wealth to help others and try to make life better for more than just herself shows her as someone to be admired. Walker is still remembered today, even receiving a line of natural hair care products named in her honor.
The relentless struggle for equality, winning the space race, the diversity of the literature and music we consume today, and the world records made in history would not exist today without these Black heroes.