Black History Month illustration

Profiles in perseverance

You may not know their names. But these courageous Black Americans changed history.

Published February 1, 2021

Every Black History Month, we tend to celebrate the same cast of historic figures. They are the civil rights leaders and abolitionists whose faces we see plastered on calendars and postage stamps. They resurface each February when the nation commemorates African Americans who have transformed America.

They deserve all their accolades. But this month we are focusing instead on 28 seminal Black figures – one for each day of February – who don’t often make the history books.

Each transformed America in a profound way. Many don’t fit the conventional definition of a hero. Some were foul-tempered, weighed down by personal demons, and misunderstood by their contemporaries.

One was a mystic, another was a spy who posed as a slave, and another was a brilliant but troubled poet dubbed the “Godfather of Rap.” Few were household names. All of them were pioneers.

It’s time for these American heroes to get their due.

February 16

Jane Bolin


Jane Bolin

The first Black woman judge in the US

Jane Bolin made history over and over.

She was the first Black woman to graduate from Yale Law School. The first Black woman to join the New York City Bar Association. The nation’s first Black female judge.

The daughter of an influential lawyer, Bolin grew up admiring her father’s leather-bound books while recoiling at photos of lynchings in the NAACP magazine.

Wanting a career in social justice, she graduated from Wellesley and Yale Law School and went into private practice in New York City.

In 1939, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia appointed her a family court judge. As the first Black female judge in the country, she made national headlines.

For the compassionate Bolin, the job was a good fit. She didn’t wear judicial robes in court to make children feel more at ease and committed herself to seeking equal treatment for all who appeared before her, regardless of their economic or ethnic background.

In an interview after becoming a judge, Bolin said she hoped to show “a broad sympathy for human suffering.”

She served on the bench for 40 years. Before her death at age 98, she looked back at her lifetime of shattering glass ceilings.

“Everyone else makes a fuss about it, but I didn’t think about it, and I still don’t,” she said in 1993. “I wasn’t concerned about (being) first, second or last. My work was my primary concern.”

Read full biography +


February 15

Frederick McKinley Jones


Frederick McKinley Jones

He pioneered the modern refrigeration system

Frederick McKinley Jones was orphaned by age 8 and raised by a Catholic priest before he dropped out of high school.

That didn’t stop him from pursuing his calling as an inventor whose work changed the world.

A curious youth with a passion for tinkering with machines and mechanical devices, he worked as an auto mechanic and taught himself electronics. After serving in World War I, he returned to his Minnesota town and built a transmitter for its new radio station.

This caught the attention of a businessman, Joseph Numero, who offered Jones a job developing sound equipment for the fledgling movie industry.

On a hot summer night in 1937, Jones was driving when an idea struck him: What if he could invent a portable cooling system that would allow trucks to better transport perishable food?

In 1940, he patented a refrigeration system for vehicles, a concept that suddenly opened a global market for fresh produce and changed the definition of seasonal foods. He and Numero parlayed his invention into a successful company, Thermo King, which is still thriving today.

It also helped open new frontiers in medicine because hospitals could get shipments of blood and vaccines.

Before his death, Jones earned more than 60 patents, including one for a portable X-ray machine. In 1991, long after his death, he became the first African American to receive the National Medal of Technology.

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February 14

Max Robinson


Max Robinson

The first Black anchor of a network newscast

A trailblazer in broadcasting and journalism, Max Robinson in 1978 became the first Black person to anchor the nightly network news.

But his road to the anchor’s chair wasn’t easy.

Robinson got his start in 1959 when he was hired to read the news at a station in Portsmouth, Virginia. His face was hidden behind a graphic that read, “NEWS.” One day he told the cameraman to remove the slide.

“I thought it would be good for all my folks and friends to see me rather than this dumb news sign up there,” Robinson once told an interviewer. He was fired the next day.

Robinson’s profile began to rise after he moved to Washington, where he worked as a TV reporter and later co-anchored the evening news at the city’s most popular station – the first Black anchor in a major US city.

He drew raves for his smooth delivery and rapport with the camera. ABC News noticed, moved him to Chicago and named him one of three co-anchors on “World News Tonight,” which also featured Frank Reynolds in Washington and Peter Jennings in London.

Later in his career, Robinson became increasingly outspoken about racism and the portrayal of African Americans in the media. He also sought to mentor young Black broadcasters and was one of the 44 founders of the National Association of Black Journalists.

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February 13

Bessie Coleman


Bessie Coleman

The first Black woman to become a pilot

Born to sharecroppers in a small Texas town, Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman became interested in flying while living in Chicago, where stories about the exploits of World War I pilots piqued her interest.

But flight schools in the US wouldn’t let her in because of her race and gender.

Undeterred, Coleman learned French, moved to Paris and enrolled in a prestigious aviation school, where in 1921 she became the first Black woman to earn a pilot’s license.

Back in the US, Coleman began performing on the barnstorming circuit, earning cheers for her daring loops, acrobatic figure-eights and other aerial stunts. Fans called her “Queen Bess” and “Brave Bessie.”

Coleman dreamed of opening a flight school for African Americans, but her vision never got a chance to take off.

On April 30, 1926, she was practicing for a May Day celebration in Jacksonville, Florida, when her plane, piloted by her mechanic, flipped during a dive. Coleman wasn’t wearing a seatbelt and plunged to her death. She was only 34.

But her brief career inspired other Black pilots to earn their wings, and in 1995 the Postal Service issued a stamp in her honor.

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February 12

Fannie Lou Hamer


Fannie Lou Hamer

She riveted viewers at the DNC

Most of the civil rights movement’s leaders were Black male preachers with impressive degrees and big churches. Fannie Lou Hamer was a poor, uneducated Black woman who showed that a person didn’t need fancy credentials to inspire others.

She was so charismatic that even the President of the United States took notice.

Hamer was the youngest of 20 children born to a sharecropping family in Mississippi. She had a powerful speaking and gospel singing voice, and when activists launched voter registration drives in the mid-1960s, they recruited her to help out.

She paid a price for her activism. Hamer was fired from her job for attempting to register to vote. She was beaten, arrested and subjected to constant death threats.

Yet seasoned civil rights workers were impressed with her courage. Hamer even co-founded a new political party in Mississippi as part of her work to desegregate the state’s Democratic Party.

Hamer spoke at the 1964 Democratic Convention about the brutal conditions Blacks faced while trying to vote in Mississippi. Her televised testimony was so riveting that President Lyndon B. Johnson forced the networks to break away by calling a last-minute press conference. Johnson was afraid Hamer’s eloquence would alienate Southern Democrats who supported segregation.

“I guess if I’d had any sense, I’da been a little scared,” Hamer said later about that night.

“But what was the point of being scared?” she added. “The only thing the whites could do was kill me, and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember.”

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February 11

Paul Robeson


Paul Robeson

One of Broadway’s most acclaimed Othellos

Paul Robeson was a true Renaissance man – an athlete, actor, author, lawyer, singer and activist whose talent was undeniable and whose outspokenness almost killed his career.

An All-American football star at Rutgers University, where he was class valedictorian, Robeson earned a law degree at Columbia and worked for a New York City law firm until he quit in protest over its racism.

In the 1920s, he turned to the theater, where his commanding presence landed him lead roles in Eugene O’Neill’s “All God’s Chillun Got Wings” and “The Emperor Jones.” He later sang “Ol’ Man River,” which became his signature tune, in stage and film productions of “Show Boat.”

Robeson performed songs in at least 25 different languages and became one of the most famous concert singers of his time, developing a large following in Europe.

He was perhaps best known for performing the title role in Shakespeare’s “Othello,” which he reprised several times. One production in 1943-44, co-starring Uta Hagen and Jose Ferrer, became the longest-running Shakespeare play in Broadway history.

Robeson also became a controversial figure for using his celebrity to advance human rights causes around the world. His push for social justice clashed with the repressive climate of the 1950s, and he was blacklisted. He stopped performing, his passport was revoked and his songs disappeared from the radio for years.

“The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery,” Robeson once said. “I have made my choice. I had no alternative.”

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February 10

Constance Baker Motley


Constance Baker Motley

The first Black woman to argue before the Supreme Court

Constance Baker Motley graduated from her Connecticut high school with honors, but her parents, immigrants from the Caribbean, couldn’t afford to pay for college. So Motley, a youth activist who spoke at community events, made her own good fortune.

A philanthropist heard one of her speeches and was so impressed he paid for her to attend NYU and Columbia Law School. And a brilliant legal career was born.

Motley became the lead trial attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and began arguing desegregation and fair housing cases across the country. The person at the NAACP who hired her? Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Motley wrote the legal brief for the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case, which struck down racial segregation in American public schools. Soon she herself was arguing before the Supreme Court – the first Black woman to do so.

Over the years she successfully represented Martin Luther King Jr., Freedom Riders, lunch-counter protesters and the Birmingham Children Marchers. She won nine of the 10 cases that she argued before the high court.

Motley maintained her composure even as some judges turned their backs when she spoke.

“I rejected any notion that my race or sex would bar my success in life,” Motley wrote in her memoir, “Equal Justice Under Law.”

After leaving the NAACP, Motley continued her trailblazing path, becoming the first Black woman to serve in the New York state Senate and later the first Black woman federal judge. Vice President Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor, has cited her as an inspiration.

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February 9

Charles Richard Drew


Charles Richard Drew

The father of the blood bank

Anyone who has ever had a blood transfusion owes a debt to Charles Richard Drew, whose immense contributions to the medical field made him one of the most important scientists of the 20th century.

Drew helped develop America’s first large-scale blood banking program in the 1940s, earning him accolades as “the father of the blood bank.”

Drew won a sports scholarship for football and track and field at Amherst College, where a biology professor piqued his interest in medicine. At the time, racial segregation limited the options for medical training for African Americans, leading Drew to attend med school at McGill University in Montréal.

He then became the first Black student to earn a medical doctorate from Columbia University, where his interest in the science of blood transfusions led to groundbreaking work separating plasma from blood. This made it possible to store blood for a week – a huge breakthrough for doctors treating wounded soldiers in World War II.

In 1940, Drew led an effort to transport desperately needed blood and plasma to Great Britain, then under attack by Germany. The program saved countless lives and became a model for a Red Cross pilot program to mass-produce dried plasma.

Ironically, the Red Cross at first excluded Black people from donating blood, making Drew ineligible to participate. That policy was later changed, but the Red Cross segregated blood donations by race, which Drew criticized as “unscientific and insulting.”

Drew also pioneered the bloodmobile — a refrigerated truck that collected, stored and transported blood donations to where they were needed.

After the war he taught medicine at Howard University and its hospital, where he fought to break down racial barriers for Black physicians.

Read full biography +


February 8

Eunice Hunton Carter


Eunice Hunton Carter

She brought down a fabled Mafia boss

Eunice Hunton Carter was a social worker and prosecutor whose investigative work in New York City in the 1930s led to what was then the largest prosecution of organized crime in US history.

When notorious mob boss Charles “Lucky” Luciano met his downfall, the credit went to the young prosecutor Thomas Dewey, who eventually ran for president.

But it was Carter, an assistant district attorney on his team, who laid the foundation for the case.

Carter was born in Atlanta, the granddaughter of enslaved people. In 1932, she became the first Black woman to graduate from Fordham Law School – at a time when few lawyers were Black or women, let alone Black women.

By then Carter was already married to a dentist and had a son, but she had no interest in being a society mom.

She soon became the first African American woman in New York state to serve as assistant district attorney. As the only woman on Dewey’s team, which had been assembled to fight organized crime, she was relegated to mostly prosecuting crimes against women, such as prostitution.

But while doing so, she discovered that brothels in New York were controlled by Luciano’s mob, which received a share of their earnings in exchange for legal representation. Her painstaking investigative skills built the case against Luciano and led to his conviction in 1936.

Later Carter went into private practice and on to a litany of other accomplishments, including a committee chair at the United Nations.

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February 7

Josh Gibson


Josh Gibson

They called him the ‘black Babe Ruth’

Although racism and fate kept him from the major leagues, Josh Gibson was one of the most dominant sluggers in baseball history.

The former Negro Leagues star is credited with hitting almost 800 home runs over his 17-year career and was such a fearsome hitter that many fans called him the “black Babe Ruth.” Some who saw both play even called Ruth the “white Josh Gibson.”

Because of incomplete statistics, many of Gibson’s legendary feats – like hitting a ball 580 feet at Yankee Stadium – are just that, the stuff of legends.

Even his origin story is larger than life. He was reportedly a spectator at a Homestead Grays game in Pittsburgh in 1930 when the catcher hurt his hand. Gibson, already a semi-pro player, was invited to come down from the stands and replace him.

He never looked back. Gibson ultimately became the second-highest-paid player in the Negro Leagues behind another legend, Satchel Paige.

“You look for his weakness and while you’re lookin’ for it, he’s liable to hit 45 home runs,” Paige once famously said of Gibson. Renowned player and coach Buck O’Neil called him “the best hitter that I’ve ever seen.”

Unfortunately, Gibson never got a chance to play in the majors. He died of a stroke at 35 in 1947, less than three months before Jackie Robinson made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke baseball’s color barrier.

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February 6

Gerald Wilson


Gerald Wilson

A jazz composer who redefined big band music

Elegant, swinging, exuberant – it’s hard to find one word to describe the lush music of Gerald Wilson, one of the most important bandleaders in the history of jazz. Wilson never got the attention of big band arrangers like Duke Ellington, but he was also a major innovator in jazz music.

A slim, enthusiastic man known for his personal kindness, Wilson practically danced when he directed his orchestra. A lover of many musical styles, he incorporated everything from blues, Basie and Bartok in his arrangements.

While many big-band recordings sound dated today, Wilson’s music still sounds cutting-edge. One critic noted that Wilson’s influence was so wide that “even if you had never heard of him, you were often hearing him.”

Born in Shelby, Mississippi, Wilson learned piano from his mother. He started as a trumpet player, moved to Los Angeles and eventually became a composer-arranger, working with everyone from Ellington and Count Basie to Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald.

At one point, when his career was thriving, Wilson stepped away from commercial success to study classical masters such as Stravinsky and Bartok.

Wilson is best known for his recordings on the Pacific Jazz label, which redefined big band music. One critic said Wilson’s Pacific Jazz music was full of “gorgeous nuances, and an elegance that hasn’t been equaled since that time.”

His arrangements were archived by the Library of Congress and in 1990, the National Endowment for the Arts honored him with a Jazz Masters Award. When he died at 96, one musician said Wilson’s energy always made him seem like he was the youngest person in the room.

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February 5

Amelia Boynton Robinson


Amelia Boynton Robinson

Her beating helped galvanize the civil rights movement

She lay sprawled unconscious in the road, beaten and gassed by Alabama state troopers. A White officer with a billy club stood over her.

The woman was Amelia Boynton Robinson, and a famous photo of that shocking moment helped galvanize the civil rights movement. It was taken during the “Bloody Sunday” march at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965.

That attack by White officers against peaceful Black demonstrators horrified the nation and led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. It also revealed the toughness of Robinson, dubbed “the matriarch of the voting rights movement.”

“I wasn’t looking for notoriety,” Robinson later said. “But if that’s what it took, I didn’t care how many licks I got. It just made me even more determined to fight for our cause.”

Robinson had been fighting for Black voting rights long before Selma. As far back as the 1930s, she was registering Black voters in Alabama – a brave undertaking that could have cost Robinson her life in the Jim Crow South. In 1964, she became the first African American woman to run for Congress in Alabama.

President Obama honored her half a century later when he clutched her hand – she was frail by then, and in a wheelchair – as they crossed the Selma bridge in March 2015 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Robinson died five months later at age 104.

“She was as strong, as hopeful, and as indomitable of spirit — as quintessentially American — as I’m sure she was that day 50 years ago,” Obama said at her death. “To honor the legacy of an American hero like Amelia Boynton requires only that we follow her example — that all of us fight to protect everyone’s right to vote.”

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February 4

James Armistead Lafayette


James Armistead Lafayette

He spied on the British army as a double agent

James Armistead’s life would make a great movie.

Under Lafayette, the French general who helped the American colonists fight for their freedom, he infiltrated the British army as a spy near the end of the Revolutionary War.

He once reported to Benedict Arnold, the traitorous colonist who betrayed his troops to fight for the British. And he provided crucial intelligence that helped defeat the British and end the war.

Armistead was a slave in Virginia in 1781 when he got permission from his owner, who helped supply the Continental Army, to join the war effort. Lafayette dispatched him as a spy, posing as a runaway slave, and he joined British forces in Virginia who valued his knowledge of the local terrain.

Once he’d gained their trust, Armistead moved back and forth between the two armies’ camps, feeding false information to the British while secretly documenting their strategies and relaying them to Lafayette.

His most crucial intel detailed British general Charles Cornwallis’ plans to move thousands of troops from Portsmouth to Yorktown. Armed with this knowledge, Lafayette alerted George Washington, and they set up a blockade around Yorktown which led to Cornwallis’ surrender.

Virginia lawmakers, after lobbying by Lafayette, granted Armistead his freedom in 1787. His owner, William Armistead, was paid £250.

Armistead married, raised a family and spent the rest of his life as a free man on his own Virginia farm. He added Lafayette to his name as a token of gratitude to the French general.
*Some sources list his birth year as 1760 and his death year as 1832.

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February 3

Major Taylor


Major Taylor

A fearless cyclist who set world records

Cycling is viewed mostly as a White sport. But one of the fastest men ever to race on two wheels was Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor, an American who dominated sprint cycling in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

A hugely gifted rider, Taylor won the first amateur race he entered, at 14. He turned professional four years later and continued winning races, most of them sprints around oval tracks at Madison Square Garden and other arenas in the eastern US.

Soon Taylor was competing in races across Europe and Australia, becoming the second Black athlete to win a world championship in any sport.

He did all this while battling bitter racial prejudice – often from White cyclists who refused to compete against him or tried to harm him during races. One rival, after losing to Taylor in Boston, attacked him and choked him unconscious.

“In most of my races I not only struggled for victory but also for my very life and limb,” Taylor wrote in his autobiography.

But this didn’t stop him from setting world records, drawing huge crowds and becoming perhaps the first Black celebrity athlete.

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February 2

Dorothy Height


Dorothy Height

She spent her life fighting sexism and racism

Dorothy Height was often the only woman in the room. She made it her life’s work to change that, fighting battles against both sexism and racism to become, as President Obama called her, the “godmother” of the civil rights movement.

Height felt the sting of racism at an early age. She was accepted to New York’s Barnard College in 1929 but learned there wasn’t a spot for her because the school had already filled its quota of two Black students per year.

Instead she enrolled at NYU and earned a master’s in educational psychology. This led to a career as a social worker in New York and Washington, where she helped lead the YWCA and the United Christian Youth Movement.

In 1958, Height became president of the National Council of Negro Women, a position she held for more than 40 years. In that role she fought tirelessly for desegregation, affordable housing, criminal justice reform and other causes.

By the 1960s, Height had become one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s key advisers. Historians say that as an organizer of the March on Washington, she was the only woman activist on the speakers’ platform during King’s “I Have a Dream’’ speech.

Historians say her contributions to the civil rights movement were overlooked at the time because of her sex. But by the time of her death in 2010, Height had taken her place among the movement’s towering figures.

“She was truly a pioneer, and she must be remembered as one of those brave and courageous souls that never gave up,” Rep. John Lewis once said. “She was a feminist and a major spokesperson for the rights of women long before there was a women’s movement.”

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February 1

Garrett Morgan


Garrett Morgan

His inventions made the world safer

The son of two former slaves, Garrett Morgan had little more than a grade-school education.

But that didn’t stop the Ohio man from becoming an inventor with a rare gift for designing machines that saved people’s lives – including an early version of the traffic light.

As a teenager Morgan got a job repairing sewing machines, which led him to his first invention – a revamped sewing machine – and his first entrepreneurial venture: his own repair business.

Soon he was inventing other products, including a hair-straightener for African Americans. In 1916, he patented a “safety hood,” a personal breathing device that protected miners and firefighters from smoke and harmful gases. It became the precursor of the gas masks used by soldiers during WWI.

To avoid racist resistance to his product, Morgan hired a white actor to pose as the inventor while he wore the hood during presentations to potential buyers.

Later, after witnessing a car and buggy crash, Morgan was inspired to create a traffic light that had three signals: “stop,” “go,” and “stop in all directions,” to allow pedestrians to safely cross the street.

It also had a warning light – now today’s yellow light – to warn drivers they would soon have to stop. His traffic light was patented in 1923 and Morgan eventually sold its design for $40,000 to General Electric.

His legacy can be seen today at intersections across the country and the world.

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Editor: Brandon Griggs

Editorial oversight: Saeed Ahmed and John Blake

Contributors: Simret Aklilu, Leah Asmelash, John Blake, Nicole Chavez, Alaa Elassar, Faith Karimi, Harmeet Kaur, Amir Vera and Sydney Walton

Photo editor: Clint Alwahab

Design and development: Priya Krishnakumar, Alberto Mier and Ivory Sherman