Four weeks ago, it was just before the beginning of February, and I wrote a quick and simplified history of Black History Month, from its roots in colleges to present day ways of honoring and celebrating the history of Black Americans. I followed that up two weeks later by talking about how so much of the advertisements, news stories, and educational content we hear is centered around Black figures that fought against slavery of segregation, and that there were other Black figures worth celebrating, like historical and present-day Black authors. Today I want to wrap up this series of posts on Black History Month by looking at other people worth celebrating throughout Black History, like actors and explorers, athletes and politicians, inventors and scientists. Black people throughout history did more than just fight back against their persecution, and deserve to be celebrated for their wide array of contributions to and impacts on society.
For example, did you know the first Black actress to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress was Hattie McDaniel in 1940, for her role in Gone with the Wind? She wasn’t allowed to see the premier because it was at a white’s-only theater, and she sat in a segregated section when she accepted her award. Sydney Poitier was the first Black actor to win an Oscar for Best Actor for the 1964 movie Lilies of the Field. Still largely kept out of casting for blockbuster films despite clear talent, it would take until 2001 for the first Black actress to win the Oscar for Best Actress, when Halle Berry won with Monster’s Ball. In just under 100 years of Oscars and over 3,000 awards, only 43 Black actors, actresses, writers, directors, and the like have been awarded an Oscar.
In other art mediums, Stevie Wonder became the first Black musician to win a Grammy for album of the year in 1974. He is also still the only person ever to win the album of the year award for three albums in a row. In visual art, Henry Ossawa Tanner became the first internationally celebrated Black artist in 1896 when his work was added to the Paris Salon art exhibit.
Or there’s the first Black athlete to win an Olympic gold medal, John Baxter Taylor, Jr., who won competing in a relay race in track and field. Still today, new firsts are happening, with four-time gold medalist and Black gymnast Simone Biles having been the first woman to land a triple double in competition, and currently practicing to be the first to land a triple pike, a move that at this time can’t even be scored because it’s never been done.
In politics, the first Black congressmen were elected during Reconstruction in 1870, with Hiram Rhodes Revels elected to the US Senate in 1870 by the Mississippi State Legislature, and Joseph Rainey elected to the U.S. House of Representatives by the general population of South Carolina. It would take almost a century longer to elect the first Black congresswoman, Shirley Chisholm, in 1969, and still another forty years after that before we had the first Black President, Barack Obama, in 2009.
What about inventors and scientists? Dr. Daniel Hale WIlliams founded the first Black-owned hospital and performed the first successful open-heart surgery in 1893. He went on to become Chief Surgeon at multiple other world-renowned hospitals, started the first nursing school that accepted Black students, and co-founded the National Medical Association for Black Doctors.
And there’s Elijah McCoy, inventor of a variety of things including the ironing board, lawn sprinklers, and in 1872, a more efficient lubrication system for trains, which for the first time allowed them to travel long distances without pausing for maintenance. Largely unable to mass produce these inventions because of a lack of financial and social mobility due to his race, he was known for selling off his patents to his employers and investors.
I did a lot of research for this article, and this is just the tip of the iceberg! There are so many Black Americans that have accomplished incredible firsts, created new inventions, and influenced art and American culture, who go unheard of or unnoticed. Partly due to past structural racism that stopped these figures from getting well-deserved recognition and partly due to our education system, which doesn’t prioritize teaching students about these figures and the influence they had, many Americans have never heard most of these names. This combined with the fact that Black History Month so often focuses only on those that fought against slavery and racism, many Black Americans worth celebrating are not given the credit they deserve.
If you’d like to learn more about some lesser-known but important Black Americans that’ve influenced history and our modern world, check out this list of biographies!