All month long, Guideposts.org recognized the courageous, inventive and revolutionary African Americans who changed the course of history and made a lasting contribution to the world. Many of them became famous for being the first in their field, for fighting for their rights, standing up against injustice or for their talent and achievements in the arts. Here are some American figures we should be celebrating all year long.
Harriet Tubman was a brave abolitionist and humanitarian credited for creating the Underground Railroad--a network of safe houses from the south to the north that helped hundreds of enslaved people get to a free state. But did you know that Tubman was also a spy? Tubman was an agent of the Union Army during the Civil War and became the first woman to head up an armed expedition when she led the Combahee River Raid, which liberated more than 700 enslaved people in South Carolina. After the war ended, she dedicated her life to helping formerly enslaved people and creating a home for elderly African Americans.
Duke Ellington is remembered as one of the most influential jazz musicians in history. His music completely defined the genre and as an artist, he transcended boundaries. He was a Pulitzer Prize winner with 13 GRAMMYs under his belt and, in 1969, he was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Richard Nixon.
In this story from February 1971, Ellington shared with Guideposts how his sounds of praise came from his heart.
Oseola McCarty was a Mississippi cleaning woman who saved more than $150,000 in her life and donated it to the University of Southern Mississippi to fund a scholarship for deserving students who might not otherwise get a college education. She was also a Presidential Citizens Medal winner.
Years ago, McCarty shared her touching story of service with us. It's one you have to read.
Sojourner Truth is the definition of courage. The prominent abolitionist was born into slavery and suffered through at least three of her children being sold away from her. After escaping slavery, Truth turned to evangelical religion and became involved in moral reform and abolitionist work. She collected supplies for Black regiments during the Civil War and advocated for formerly enslaved people during the Reconstruction period. She was also an unapologetic women's rights activist.
Jesse Owens was an American track and field athlete and four-time Olympic gold medalist in the 1936 games, but what he did off the track is even more inspiring. The youngest of ten children, the athlete grew up in poverty, working his way through school to support his wife and young daughter. Owens had to contend with racial inequality not only during the '36 Games in Berlin—where Owens shattered Hitler’s racist agenda to promote a superior Aryan nation by beating Germany and everyone else to become the most successful athlete at the Games—but in America, as well, where Jim Crow was the law of the land.
His story recently made it to the big screen. Read how actor Stephan James brought the heroic athlete to life.
Phillis Wheatley was kidnapped from West Africa as a young child and enslaved to the Wheatley family. She learned to read and write while working as a servant and published her first poem when she was just 13 years old. Later, she would become the first African American woman, the first enslaved person and the third American woman in history to have a book of poetry published.
Madam C. J. Walker was an activist, philanthropist and the first American woman to become a self-made millionaire thanks to her creation of a line of beauty care products for African American women. Not only did her business provide a needed service to the African American community, but Walker also made a point of hiring Black women, giving them the means to support themselves. She also founded philanthropies that included educational scholarships and donations to homes for the elderly, the NAACP and other programs focused on improving African American lives.
Maya Angelou was a celebrated poet, memoirist and civil rights activist. She worked as a journalist in Egypt and Ghana, became the coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at the behest of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was a professor at Wake Forest University and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2010. Angelou used her gift to speak up about taboo issues of the time, including her sexual assault when she was a young girl. Her bravery and beautiful poetry continue to offer inspiration and hope.
Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson were the groundbreaking mathematicians and human computers at NASA whose calculations helped put astronauts into space and land on the moon. They had their stories make it to the big screen in 2016 with the Academy Award-nominated film Hidden Figures starring Guideposts cover star Taraji P. Henson. Vaughan, Johnson and Jackson not only made it possible for astronauts to make it to space and the moon, they pushed boundaries, shattered glass ceilings and achieved their dreams despite the racism and sexism they encountered.
Just two years ago, Misty Copeland made history by becoming the first ever Black principal ballerina in the American Ballet Theatre's 75-year history. Because of her determination, talent and drive, young girls of color across the country (and the world) can now see themselves in ballet and pursue their own dreams. Misty shared with Guideposts how she bounced back from setback and rejections in order to make history.
Born in Brooklyn, Shirley Chisholm became the first African American woman elected to Congress in 1968. Just four years later she would become the first Black person and the first woman of any race to run for President of the United States for the Democratic party. Chisholm spent her political career fighting for education and social justice, and she spent her life breaking barriers and paving the way for future women politicians. In November 2015, she was posthumously awarded the distinguished Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Charles Hamilton Houston was born in Washington, D.C. and served his country during World War I as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Outraged over the treatment of Black soldiers accused of crimes and unfairly sentenced, Houston returned home to study law at Harvard Law School where he was the first Black editor of the Harvard Law Review. He served as vice-dean of Howard University Law School for two years, training almost a quarter of the nation's black law students. But his most recognizable achievement came when, on behalf of the NAACP, he challenged the Jim Crow laws. His legal strategy eventually led the United States Supreme Court to declare segregation in American schools unconstitutional in the ground-breaking case Brown v. Board of Education.
Nina Simone made a name for herself, revolutionizing the jazz, blues and folk music genres with her unique voice and her memorable stage persona. What's even more inspiring about her music is that she used it to advocate for civil rights with songs that pushed boundaries and brought attention to the injustice faced by African Americans. Her courage and talent live on in her records and her legacy.
Jackie Joyner-Kersee is one of the most decorated female Olympians for Team USA. The former Track and Field star has won three Olympic gold medals, one silver and two bronze. She is a current world record holder in the heptathlon and the long jump. But even more impressive than her athletic resume is what she's done since retiring from sports. Kersee founded the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Youth Center Foundation, which is aimed at encouraging youth in her underprivileged hometown to play sports and helped establish Athletes for Hope, an organization that encourages athletes "to make a difference in the world."
Thurgood Marshall made history when he became the first African American justice to sit on the Supreme Court. Born in Maryland, Marshall studied law at Howard University before beginning work as legal counsel to the NAACP of Baltimore. Marshall fought many civil rights cases but his most famous was Brown vs. Board of Education, one of the most important cases of the 20th century that struck down the "separate but equal" doctrine that defined Jim Crow laws and other regulations endorsing segregation at the time.
Serena Williams grew up on the rough streets of Compton, practicing on the courts for hours a day. Her dad learned to play tennis from reading books and taught his daughters, Serena and her older sister Venus, the importance of hard work and dedication. The Williams sisters took those lessons and used them to become two of the greatest tennis players of their generation, and history. Serena just won her 23rd Grand Slam title, making her the most decorated female athlete in the sport. Nike has declared her the greatest athlete in history.
Serena shared with Guideposts the values her family and her faith instilled in her and how they help her on the court.
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