It’s Black History Month, and there are many African American historical figures worth celebrating as having helped shaped the history of the United States. And while we encourage to get to know some of the more iconic figures in Black History such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and others, we wanted to highlight some important African Americans who are not as well known, but most certainly played an important part in the shaping of American history and culture.
These mini-biographies are not listed in any order of importance or stature. We’re giving you just enough information about their lives in the hopes you will want to study them further, and we feel they have been largely overlooked by historians as having played significant roles in American history. Let’s start with :
Blair Caldwell African American Research Museum
Somewhere around the year 1800, James Beckwourth was born into slavery on a plantation in Virginia. His father and the owner of the plantation had become good friends in the years before James’ birth, and when he died, the plantation owner granted Beckworth his freedom, right around the age of 15. Beckwourth traveled west to seek his fortune and worked on all kinds of jobs; he was a U.S. Army courier, and later worked as a private courier.
He was a fur trapper, a card player and a one-time store owner in Sonoma California. During his months as a courier, he had a regular route delivering mail between Sacramento and Los Angeles (similar to what the Pony Express was, but Jim was the only rider). The journey took two days each way, and he would stop for the night at a local farming family’s house in California’s Central Valley.
As legend has it, one evening Jim rode upon the house and instantly knew something was wrong. The dog had not come out to bark at him as it usually did, and the family’s youngest daughter, upon hearing the dog, would always run after to greet him. The house was dark, and nothing made a sound. Beckworth turned his horse around and rode away, then made a wide circle around the house, keeping out of sight, dismounted, and crept up into the building through the back door. He found the family tied up in the cellar. When he released them, the farmer told him a group of bandits had been waiting to ambush him and steal the payroll he was carrying. Beckwourth told them to quietly creep outside while he went upstairs to deal with the bandits.
Soon, 11 criminals lay dead in various locations throughout the house in what would later be remembered as one of the greatest Old West Shootouts against impossible odds. It’s certainly a great story, but many historians claim it was only 3 or 4 bandits. Either way, it’s a remarkable tale. Beckwourth later moved into the Sierra Nevada Mountains near what today is Portola California.
He is credited with discovering a mountain pass through that region (which still remains an important railroad route through the mountains). He became a mountain man, hunting and trading furs. Eventually he married a Washoe Indian woman and lived the rest of his life in those mountains. Most movie westerns don’t show many African American cowboys, but there were more of them than you might believe. James Beckwourth was one of those cowboys, and he left his mark on western American history.
Born December 23, 1867, Sarah Breedlove grew up to found the Madame C.J. Walker Company; a manufacturer of hair care products and make up for women. And she was quite successful in the endeavor. Her products were hugely popular with American women of all races and Breedlove is credited with becoming the first self-made female millionaire in American History.
Later she would officially change her name to Madame CJ Walker, and go on to become a philanthropist, political activist and eventually, one of the most successful business owners in terms of the fact that she never took the company public and maintained direct control over the business. Walker would also go on to give most of her fortune away in the form of charitable grants and scholarships for disadvantaged youth. At a time when many African Americans were relegated to eating and drinking from segregated facilities, Walker rose above it all as a self-made American Businesswoman who happened to be African American.
Josh Gibson may have been the greatest baseball player in American History, but we will never know if that’s true. Born in December of 1921 in Georgia, Josh’s father moved the family to the Pittsburgh area to take a job at a steel mill. When he was old enough, Josh himself began working at the steel mill and was recruited to play on the company’s baseball team. Josh would be playing baseball for the rest of his life. Because Major League Baseball was unofficially segregated (there was never any actual rule that said blacks could not play in professional baseball), Josh played most of his career in the Negro Leagues with the Pittsburgh Crawfords and later the Pittsburgh Greys.
In the off season, he would travel to Cuba or Central America and play in the Latin leagues. He lived and breathed baseball. He is said to have hit more than a thousand home runs over the course of his career, but stats from that era are unreliable. He was a catcher, and is also said to have thrown out more base stealers than anyone else in history. But the greatest part of Gibson’s legend is the story that he is the only human being to have ever hit a home run all the way out of Yankee Stadium during an exhibition game. The hit was never officially recorded because it was an exhibition game, but hundreds of people who were in attendance swore they witnessed the ball sail out of the park entirely and land on the train tracks behind the stadium. No other player has ever done that.
By the time professional baseball was ready to begin admitting black players, Gibson was determined to be the first, but ran into problems when the Brooklyn Dodgers refused to take a look at him because of rumors he was a heavy drinker. Those rumors were true, as Gibson drank to combat the chronic headaches he suffered from. In January of 1947, Gibson died in his home in Pittsburgh of a stroke at the age of just 35, three months before Jackie Robinson started playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Josh Gibson was voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.
Portrait of Zora Neale Hurston, 1938
Zora Neale Hurston
Author and playwright, Hurston’s most famous novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God” is an unflinching look at Southern African American life in the early 20th century. There are virtually no characters of other races, and the story focuses around a town in Florida that is founded with the intent of having an all-black population. The characters in the book are varied, and the story carries the theme that we (as humans) bring as much misery upon ourselves as that which happens to us.
The book was also famous for using the Southern Black vernacular, which was controversial at the time because many found it to portray blacks as not very well spoken. But Hurston was unfazed, saying her book needed to be authentic if it was to be believable. She wrote other books as well as stage plays and even a musical or two, and she’s been awarded many posthumous literary prizes in recognition of her work.
In a time when racial tensions were boiling over, Meadowlark Lemon traveled the world (or rather, trotted the globe) as part of a team of basketball players who specialized in trick plays and sometimes questionable methods of playing the game of basketball. If you don’t recognize the name, Mr. Lemon was the captain of the Harlem Globetrotters. The team entertained millions of adults and children the world over, never once making race an issue about who they were or who they thought their audience should be.
The Globetrotters broke color barriers and racial divide simply be being a great entertainer (and philanthropist; he would often visit sick children in local hospitals), and a great athlete who demonstrated terrific prowess with trick plays and acrobatic moves (the poor referee). He played over 1,600 games in his lifetime, and it is unclear whether he lost any one of them.
Not the first African American pop artist in American History, nor the bestselling. But his rendition of ‘America the Beautiful’ has often been touted as the “New National Anthem” and after hearing it, one would be hard pressed to disagree with such an assessment. His recording of the patriotic anthem is registered in the National Archives.
First African American to ever receive the Nobel Peace Prize, Bunche was a diplomat who served as a mediator between the newly formed nation of Israel and the surrounding nations in 1948. He continued to work as a mediator for war torn African nations until he was voted to the position of undersecretary of the United Nations. Bunche not only helped shape U.S. History, but world history as well.
Born a free African American in Baltimore County in 1731, Benneker made a name for himself by becoming an astronomer. His calculations in regards to upcoming solar and lunar eclipses are regarded as among the first such accurate calculations in the history of the world. Benneker used this information to publish ‘Benneker’s Almanac’ which assisted farmers by letting them know when the moon would be brightest. He also made predictions about weather patterns that were more accurate than not, and soon, farmers came to rely on his publication for their operations.
Legend has it that Benjamin Franklin patterned his own ‘Poor Farmer’s Almanac’ on calculations Benneker freely shared with him. Benneker was a frequent correspondent with Thomas Jefferson and they shared ideas and opinions on racial matters in the days before the United States came into existence.
Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable
A French African, he built his house on the banks of a river in the Great Lakes region because he felt the climate was amicable for growing crops. He may have been a little off about the winters, but a town eventually grew up around his farm and he is considered the very first resident of Chicago.
Was an African American poet whose published works in the mid 1700’s were consumed and celebrated by a pre-American readership. She is considered one of the first successful females authors in American history.
Not the name she was born with, but it was the name she adopted as her own when she became an activist who spoke out against slavery. In the south. In the years just before the Civil War. That is what we call courage. Many attempts were made by southerners to permanently silence her voice, but she managed to escape each incident unharmed. When the war ended, she turned her attention to fiercely advocating for women’s rights.
In 1831 – 30 years before the civil war – a major revolt broke out in Southampton, Virginia. From one plantation to another, a group of slaves attacked and freed the residents, then collected their weapons. In a fashion reminiscent of the great Spartacus, Nat Turner led the largest slave uprising in American History. The rebellion was eventually put down, and Turner – like Spartacus before him – was publicly executed. He is credited with stoking abolitionist sentiment in the Union following his death.
Was the first African American Field Officer in the United States Army. He was among the first recruits into the Army’s 54th Division, an all-black unit that fought for the North during the Civil War. After the war he went on to graduate from Harvard medical school and served as a medical practitioner before getting involved in politics. Never elected to office, he did help run campaigns for others who relied on his experience to get them elected.
Portrait of Yankee outfielders Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron posing in batting stance.
Henry “Hank” Aaron
‘Hammerin’ Hank Aaron’ was one of the greatest hitters in the history of professional baseball. He played 21 seasons for the Braves, who began in Mailwaukee and moved to Atlanta. In 1955, Aaron hit for an average of .314 (anything above .300 is considered outstanding) with 106 RBIs and 27 home runs. On the night of September 29, 1973, he hit the 713th home run of his career, one homer away from tying Babe Ruth’s record, and two away from breaking it. The following day was the last day of the season, and Aaron was unable to connect and go deep.
During the off season, Aaron received so many death threats and letters deriding him for his race that he had to go into hiding. When the 1974 season began, Aaron hit the tying run in Cincinnati. He was roundly booed for the accomplishment. But on April 8th, 1974 in front of the home crowd in Atlanta, Hank Aaron broke one of the longest standing records in baseball history with his 715th career home run. If anyone in the crowd booed, they were solidly overwhelmed by the ecstatic cheers Aaron received as he trotted around the bases. Hank Aaron currently serves as the vice president of the Atlanta Braves, and his record has since been broken. But he will always be remembered as a man who calmly yet defiantly swung the bat in the face of bigotry and hate.
CASH 1 hopes you have enjoyed these stories of important but not as well-known historical figures for Black History Month. We love the diversity of our great country and would like to help you solve any financial difficulties you might be experiencing. Call, click or stop by.