Lesser Known Figures in Black History


Courtesy Tribune News Service

From a museum display on a famous lunch-counter sit-in protest of segregation.

Tea Smith, Staff Reporter

Black history is something that we tend to glaze over each year in history class, never really learning anything.  Sure, every year we are taught about Civil Rights, slavery, and a few of the many achievements by African Americans throughout history but it is always the same people that we have heard about a thousand times before.  

We can probably all quote at least one line from Dr. King’s famous “I have a dream” speech and compile a list of achievements made during the Civil Rights Movement on the spot.  But, what else do we know about Black History?

There are many people and things that we are not taught about Black History that are important and should be as widely recognizable by as Dr. King or Harriett Tubman.  Many of us do not even know how Black History Month came to be.

Black History Month was not always called Black History Month; it began as “Negro History Week” in 1926.  It started with Carter G. Woodson, an alumni of the University of Chicago, who wanted to popularize and share his (and others) findings  about the life and history of African Americans.  Woodson hoped to publish these findings in The Journal of Negro History, which he established in 1916.  In February of 1926, Woodson sent out a press release about Negro History Week to help popularize the knowledge of black history. 50 years later, in 1976 Negro History Week was changed a month long celebration and renamed Black History Month.

Before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger, Claudette Colvin did the same a few months prior. Colvin was an activist in Alabama who stood up against segregation when she was only 15 years old.   

Phillis Wheatley was a slave in Massachusetts who became the first African American to publish a book of poetry in 1773. A few years before that, in 1767, she published her first poem.  Wheatley was only ever able to publish one book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, before her death.

Hattie McDaniel was the first black performer to win an Academy Award for her performance in Gone With the Wind in 1940.  Special accommodations had to be made for her to attend the ceremony because the hotel it was being held at had a strict no-blacks policy.  Even though she was allowed in the hotel she did not sit with her fellow cast members, instead she was seated at a table set against the wall for her.

We are taught about the same major figures in history but never about the less significant people who still did major things for black history.

Zenobia Goodman, a student at IRHS, says “I understand that some history icons will be more famous than others, but the others need to be acknowledged.”

The list of black achievements that are not acknowledged in a classroom setting are endless.