February Is Black History Month.
In the United States, this month is set aside to celebrate the accomplishments that Black people have made in the country. The story of the Black American is one of tragedy and pain, yet also one of great triumph and victory. This country could not have the economic power that it has today without the slave labor of stolen Africans.
Not only did Black people create this nation’s economic wealth, Black Americans shaped the very fabric of U.S. culture. From music to theater to science and brilliant innovations, Blackness formed some of the greatest aspects of this nation.
And while Black History Month is dedicated to the Black experience in the United States, I also wanted to take time to celebrate the contributions of all Black peoples around the globe.
Happy Black History Month!
30 amazing black people from around the world that you should know:
Queen Nanny was born in Ghana, West Africa. She was kidnapped into slavery and brought to the island of Jamaica, where she led slave uprisings for freedom and revolts against the British. Escaping from slavery led her to the mountains where she joined communities with other freed slaves. Queen Nanny planned and executed successful attacks on plantations and helped free over 1,000 enslaved Africans over her lifetime. She is held as a national hero in Jamaica and is credited with preserving African culture on the island.
Fleeta Drumago, George Jackson and John Clutchette were inmates in the Soledad prison in California. The three men became prison activists, writing letters about the harsh treatments by guards, and they led hunger strikes to protest slave-like conditions within the prison. Their example gave courage to prisoners all over the country to demand humane treatment.
Nine months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin would not move from hers. When told to give her place to a white passenger she replied, “it's my constitutional right to sit here as much as that lady. I paid my fare, it's my constitutional right." She was removed from the bus by two white men and became the first person arrested in Montgomery, Alabama for challenging bus segregation. She was arrested on various charges and spent several hours in jail. She had to face a court appearance for her courageous act, and defiantly pled not guilty to every accusation against her. She was eventually placed on probation by the courts for violating segregation laws. While rarely receiving credit for her role in the civil rights movement, and often forgotten in Black history, her story is sure to inspire the young and old alike.
Arturo Schomburg was a leader of the Harlem Renaissance. He advocated for the advancement of Black people across the globe, and he spent years chronicling their achievements. He created the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City, which held a collection of slave narratives, art, literature and other historical archives from around the globe. Schomburg was an Afro-Puerto Rican who advocated for the country’s independence. He was also a founding member of “Las Dos Antillas,” a group that recognized the common political struggles of Cuba and Puerto Rico.
Shirley Chisholm was a politician, author and educator. She was born in Brooklyn, New York to a Guyanese father and Barbadian mother. Shirley became the first Black woman in the United States to be elected to the U.S. congress, and the first woman and Black American to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Chisholm courageously fought for the underprivileged and is credited with a major role in the creation of the WIC program; she also helped champion the fight to ensure workers received a minimum wage for their work.
Yanga was believed to be a member of the royal family of Gabon. He was captured, sold into slavery and brought to México, where he eventually escaped his chains. He led other stolen Africans to liberty, and established the first free Black settlement in the Americas in the highlands of Veracruz. The settlement remained hidden for over 30 years, but it was eventually attacked by the Spanish. After years of bloody battles, the local government heeded to Yanga’s terms: recognition of the free Black settlements. In 1630, San Lorenzo de los Negros de Cerralvo was officially recognized by the government, and the people left in peace. The settlement remains today in the Veracruz region of México, appropriately renamed “Yanga.”
rebecca lee crumpler
Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first Black woman in the United States to earn a medical degree. She was born free in Delaware and studied at the New England Female Medical College. She founded a medical practice in Boston for poor women and children; she also wrote the Book of Medical Discourses, which was a manual on medical care specifically for women and children. Currently, the United States has the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the western world; a disproportional amount of these deaths are Black women and children. Now, more than ever, we need Rebecca Lee Crumpler’s example and raise medical professionals from our own communities.
Patrice Lumumba was an anti-colonial hero, freedom fighter, political prisoner and first prime minister of the Republic of Congo. He played an active role in the fight to free his country from Belgium’s brutal colonial rule, and he envisioned a Congo that controlled its own natural resources and economy. He also believed in an Africa that was free and totally independent of imperial control. Lumumba became a symbol of liberation for people around the world, beloved by the likes of Malcolm X. Statues in his honor have been erected all over the world, including countries such as Cuba, Hungary and Russia.
victoria “toya” montou
Victoria Montou was a Haitian solider, midwife and spiritual leader. It is believed that she taught Haiti’s revolutionary leader, Jean-Jaques Dessalines, to fight in hand-to-hand combat. She also taught him to throw a knife and shoot a gun. She commanded soldiers in battle during the famous uprising against the French, that lead to Haiti becoming the first free Black nation in the western world. Upon her death, she was given a state funeral with a procession of eight sergeants.
James h. cone
James H. Cone was a theologian from the United States, known for his writings on Black liberation theology. Liberation theology is a belief that centers the gospel message with the sufferings of the oppressed, especially peoples of color around the world. Cone understood that the gospel message of Jesus could coincide with the political movements of the 1960s, and his teachings and writings reflected this reality. He authored theological classics such as “The God of the Oppressed,” “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” and “Black Power and Black Theology” to name a few.
Fatima Bernawi is an Afro-Palestinian freedom fighter and liberation hero. She was born in Jerusalem in 1939, but was forced to move to a refugee camp near Jordan after the siege of Palestine. Years later, she would become a nurse and move to Saudi Arabia for a job with the Arab-American Oil Company. Because she was a Black woman, she was denied the right as a medical professional to administer shots to patients. Bernawi would return to Palestine, where she would join the resistance in the struggle to recover her homeland from its occupation. She would become a guerrilla fighter and resistance organizer, and is the first Palestinian woman to organize and lead a paramilitary operation. Bernawi would be arrested and sentenced to life in prison for her activism, but she served ten years; she is also the first Palestinian woman to be arrested by the occupation forces. After her release, Bernawi would eventually become the the chief of police in Gaza and the highest-ranking woman in the Fatah political party. She is revered as a pioneer of Palestinian resistance and liberation, and is admired across the nation for her heroics.
Stokely Carmichael was a social activist who protested for civil rights and advocated for global liberation of those of African descent. Born on the Caribbean island of Trinidad, Carmichael moved to Harlem, New York at the age of eleven. He went on to attend the historical Black college, Howard, where his passion for activism was birthed. He was only nineteen when he took his first Freedom Ride, and he became the youngest person jailed for attempting to integrate a “white’s only” counter in Mississippi. Carmichael later took a radical turn in his activism and famously said, “we been saying ‘freedom’ for six years…what we are going to start saying now is ‘Black Power.'” After this speech, the phrase “black power” became the battle cry for international Black liberation movements. Carmichael would spend his latter years traveling through Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, calling for freedom for oppressed peoples. His example inspired a new generation of activist, including the founders of the Black Panther Party.
Jane Bolin was the first Black woman to receive a law degree from Yale University. She also became the first Black female judge in the United States. Bolin was sworn in by Mayor La Guardia in 1933, and she championed causes for the well-being of children, including projects to eliminate juvenile crime. She also helped change segregation policies in New York.
Esteban Hotesse was born in the Dominican Republic. He was a member of the famed all-Black WWII fighter pilots, the Tuskegee Airmen. He left the Dominican Republic at two years old with his mother and sister, ending up in New York City. Little is known about his life before entering the military, and he unfortunately died at the age of 26 in a plane crash.
Evelyn Scott was an Indigenous Australian elder and civil rights activist. She helped create the 1967 referendum to officially recognize Indigenous people in the country. When Evelyn began her activism, Indigenous people, regardless of age, were seen as minors under the law. The colonial government of Australia saw them as needing “protection”—they had no legal rights and were unrecognized on their own land. In 1971, she became the vice president of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI). She fought for Aboriginal access to adequate education, proper medical care, employment, housing and the rights of Indigenous women. Scott also organized for the protection of the Great Barrier Reef.
Robert Smalls was born enslaved in North Carolina. It is rumored that his slave master’s son was his father. Robert was shown tremendous favor compared to other slaves, saw little hard labor and even ignored slave curfew laws while out at night with white companions. When he was a teenager, his mother demanded that he spend time working in the fields to experience hard labor and witness slave beatings. Robert was eventually “rented out” for work in Charleston and spent time on the docks in varying roles—this is where he learned about sailing. Durning the Civil War, he worked on a confederate ship that he eventually stole, and sailed 17 people to freedom, including his family. After this daring mission, Smalls, along with Fredrick Douglas, convinced Abraham Lincoln to allow Black men to fight for the Union. After the war, Smalls bought the plantation he was raised on. He also opened a store, a school for Black children and started his own newspaper. He spent nine months after the war learning to read and write in English, and he spoke fluent Gullah, taught to him by his mother. He was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives where he supported a bill to provide free public schools in South Carolina. He was also elected the to U.S. House of Representatives where he served two terms.
Nzinga was queen of the Mbundu people of present day Angola. The Mbundu people are one the the oldest and largest ethnic groups within Angola, and they remain within the region to this day. Nzinga’s father showed her incredible favor by allowing her to be at his side as he governed, and he even brought her along as he carried out military battles. Nzinga was trained in archery, hunting and diplomacy alongside of her brother, from whom she would inherit the throne. When Nzinga was queen, the Transatlantic slave trade began nearing her shores—she knew that her kingdom and people were in danger. As the Portuguese arrived in the country, she used her impeccable diplomatic skills to outwit them. Nzinga had learned to speak fluent Portuguese from a priest that her people had taken as prisoner, and she pretended to convert to Catholicism to form diplomatic treaties with Portugal. This led to peace and protection for her people while other tribes were being conquered and sold into slavery. Once the Portuguese turned on Nzinga and broke the treaties they made with her, she led successful military strikes against them. Through her brilliant strategies on the battlefield, her armies were able to keep the Portuguese at bay for more than forty years. She is regarded as one of the greatest military leaders in history, and a true hero of Black freedom.
Winfredo Lam was a world-renowned Afro-Chinese Cuban artist, who built his career around reviving the Afro-Cuban spirit through art. Known primarily as a painter, he was also a skilled printmaker and worked in ceramics and sculpting. Lam’s father was a Chinese immigrant, but he was raised in his mother’s rich Afro-Cuban heritage. His artistic interests took him to Spain, where he studied under Fernando Álvarez de Sotomayor y Zaragoza—Salvador Dalí’s teacher. His years in Spain led him to a friendship with Pablo Picasso and other famous European painters of the era; he also spent time living in France, where he was an intricate part of the thriving art community. His early works were heavily inspired by Spanish modernest painters, but he would go on to develop his own surrealist style. After more than twenty years in Europe, Lam returned to Cuba and was disheartened to see his Afro-Cuban culture at the risk of being erased. Black bodies and African customs had been degraded and used as tourist props; the power of Blackness that his mother and grandmother had taught him was evaporating across the island. Lam began reaching deep into his African heritage, creating figures in his work that fused human and plant elements—influences that came from African poetry and culture. In solidarity with the Cuban Revolution, he gifted a painting for the presidential palace that currently hangs in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana. Lam’s work can be found in fine art museums all over the world, and he held hundreds of exhibits in his life time.
Mary Kenner was born in North Carolina and is the inventor of the sanitary belt. Thirty years before the invention of the sanitary pad, Mary created a sanitary belt that included a moisture-proof pad pocket attached to it. Due to racial discrimination, no company would distribute the product because she was a Black woman. Mary also invented the toilet paper roll holder that is mounted to bathroom walls all over the world. In her lifetime, she held five patents for household and hygiene products.
Ignatius Sancho was a British composer, businessman, writer and abolitionist. He is the first Black Briton to vote in a general election, and he did so twice in his lifetime. Born on a slave ship to a mother who would eventually die, and a father who chose death over slavery, he ended up doing domestic work in Britain as a child. He published various collections of musical compositions and owned a general store. Sancho used his influence and status to encourage notable Britons to stand against slavery by writing letters in opposition of the barbaric practice.
Rosa Clemente is a Bronx-raised Afro-Puerto Rican activist, professor, scholar, journalist and politician. Clemente is known for her radical work in communities of color and her fight for Puerto Rican independence. She is also respected in the academic world, having lectured in universities around the country. In 2008, she was the Vice-Presidential candidate for the Green Party. She, along with Cynthia McKinney, made history by being the only Black women-led ticket for the presidency in U.S history.
Matthew Henson was an explorer, writer and the first man to reach the North Pole. He was born in Maryland to parents who were free people of color before the Civil War. By the age of twelve, he was working at the docks in Baltimore, where he traveled to various African countries, China, Japan and even Russia. Henson was eventually recruited by the explorer, Robert C. Peary, to accompany on an expedition to Nicaragua. They would go on to forge a twenty-year partnership, with a mission to reach the North Pole. After spending years in the arctic preparing to reach the geographic North Pole, Henson became fluent in the Inuit language, and traded often with their people. He was also taught the art of Inuit dogsled driving, and is known as the only non-Inuit to have mastered dog training and sledding in this particular fashion. In 1908, Henson and Peary left Greenland accompanied by a group of Inuit men, women and children for their eighth attempt at reaching the North Pole. Peary was sick and exhausted, and Henson went ahead of him to lead the way and made it to the North Pole before anyone else in the group. Upon returning to the U.S., Peary was given all the credit for the mission and Henson was largely forgotten about. He went on to write his own autobiography, “A Negro Explorer at the North Pole”, and he spent thirty years working for the U.S. Customs House in New York, at the request of Teddy Roosevelt.
María Remedios del Valle
María Remedios del Valle was an Afro-Argentine wife and mother-turned-solider in the Argentine War of Independence. María, along with her husband and sons, traveled with the army as it fought to liberate Argentina from Spanish colonial rule. They were most likely recruited to travel with the army to carry arms, cook food and to give medical care to soldiers. María requested permission to tend to soldiers on the front lines, but she was denied the opportunity to do so because it was believed that women did not belong in battle. She defied these orders and went anyway; she would tend to the wounds of soldiers who had been shot. For her bravery, she was given the rank of captain and recognized by the army, making her a solider. María would be shot and captured by the Spanish and held as a prisoner of war. While captured, she aided many soldiers in their escapes. After the war, the Argentine government denied her compensation for her service because she was Black, and she died as a homeless street beggar. In 2013, Argentina declared November 8 as a nationally recognized day to honor Afro-Argentines and Black culture—María Remedios del Valle is now celebrated on this day. She is referred to as “La Madre de la Patria,” and she is credited as the mother of modern Argentina.
Fredrick McKinley Jones
Fredrick McKinley Jones was an inventor born in Kentucky, who would eventually settle in Minnesota. He became a mechanic at fourteen, and this is where his passion for building and fixing machines was birthed. He also did repair work on furnaces, farm equipment and steamships. He enlisted in World War I and was placed in the all Black units; once word of his repairing abilities were known, he began to travel around repairing anything that was broken. After returning home, Jones taught himself about electronics and began to tinker around and building devices, leading to some of his first inventions and projects. He built a radio transmitter for his town and a sound track unit to accompany the sound technology for films. He went on to receive his first patent for a movie theater ticket machine, and would go on to receive over sixty patents in his lifetime. His most notable invention was a cooling unit for trucks that allowed for the transportation of perishable goods. He also invented cooling units for airplanes, ships and trains. This would go on to play a huge role in WWII because it allowed for the transporting of blood, food and medical supplies all over the world. He would also go on to develop a portable X-ray machine that he never patented, along with portable engines and sound machines. He was the first Black American to be a member of the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers. He was also awarded the National Medal of Technology and was inducted into the Minnesota Inventors Fall of Fame.
Portia White was an Afro-Canadian operatic contralto who became an international singing sensation. She was born in Nova Scotia to a mother whose descendants were Black Loyalists and whose paternal grandparents had been slaves in Virginia before moving to Canada. She began her singing career in her church choir and was singing opera by the age of eight. She dreamed of becoming a professional singer and walked ten miles per week for her lessons. Portia would sing on her father’s Christian radio program, give small concerts and would become a teacher eventually. At the age of thirty, she made her official singing debut as a professional, but she had trouble booking roles and concerts due to anti-Black discrimination. Portia eventually rose to international fame and toured all over the United States, Europe, Latin American and Canada.
Jaime Hurtado González
Jaime Hurtado González was an Afro-Ecuadorian social activist and politician. He was born to illiterate parents in the Esmeraldas region of Ecuador, known for its large Black population. As a boy, he worked agricultural jobs to help support his family, but he dreamed of the possibility to study and receive a formal education. He began his studies at the age of ten and continued to help support the family through varying odd jobs. Jaime went on to study at the University of Guayaquil, where his passion for activism and politics grew. While in university, he served as the Association School of Law president and ran to be president of the Federation of University Students of Ecuador—this event was the beginning of his dedication to serving others. His determination for social justice grew, and he became an advocate for the disenfranchised—believing that the working class should rule the country. With the backing of many Black, Indigenous and working class Ecuadorians, Hurtado González would go on to become a congressman and the first Black man in the country to run for president. It is believed that Hurtado González had a strong chance of winning, but was politically assassinated in 1999 before the election.
Bessie Coleman was the first woman of Black American and Native American descent to receive a pilot license. Born to a Black American mother and Native American father, Bessie was one of thirteen children. She would eventually move to Chicago with her brothers and became a manicurist. Intrigued with flying airplanes, Bessie was determined to become a pilot. Durning this time in U.S. history, there were no flight schools that would accept white women as students nor men of color. As a Black and Native American woman, she had a “triple negatives” working against her, but she wouldn’t let this reality stop her from achieving her dream. She learned that women and persons of color could receive a pilot’s license in France, so she began studying the French language to prepare for her trip. Jesse Binga, a Black Chicago-based bank owner and business man, funded her travels and schooling. On November 20, 1921, Bessie sailed to Paris, where she would study at the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Upon completion of her studies, Coleman became the first Black American and Native American man or woman to earn a pilot’s license from the school. Bessie returned to the U.S. to much fanfare from her community and would go on to become an exhibition pilot, drawing crowds of all races.
Nuruddin Farah is a Somali writer and lecturer, whose works have been hailed all over the globe. He was born during the time of Italian colonial rule to a merchant father and a well-known oral poet mother. His early education led him to school in his native Somalia and neighboring Ethiopia, then on to India where he pursued university studies. Farah’s novels would lead him into exile as many of them brilliantly paralleled life under Somalia’s post-colonial military dictatorship. Exile led him to living across Europe and the United States, where he wrote and lectured in universities. Many of his works are praised as contemporary Somali feminist thought as they challenge patriarchy within his culture. Amongst his novels, Farrah is also an accomplished playwright and known for his short stories.
victoria Santa Cruz
Victoria Santa Cruz was an Afro-Peruvian activist and artist who championed Black Peruvian identity and visibility across the world. She was a choreographer, poet, composer and professor. She’s credited with sparking the revival of Afro-Peruvians connecting with their African ancestral heritage, and she was inspired by the Black American liberation movements of the 1960s. Her poem, “Me Gritaron Negra”, became the Black pride anthem across Latin America. She is the founder of the dance company, Teatro y Danzas Negras del Perú, that toured all over the world showcasing the spirit of Africa that was alive in her country. Victoria also spent time as a professor of theater at the prestigious Carnegie-Mellon University in the United States.
“Me gritaron: ¡Negra!”
By Victoria Santa Cruz (with English subtitles)
who are your favorite black heroes?
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