Black History Month is celebrated in February to honor and celebrate the accomplishments and contributions of Black Americans who have often gone underappreciated. While it has been celebrated every year since Carter G. Woodson laid the foundations for it back in the 1920s, there are still so many Black success stories that average students are not aware of.
Here is a list of stories from influential Black citizens spanning across the last century that you might not have heard of:
1930s: Mary Jane McLeod Bethune
Dr. Mary Jane Bethune was the founder of the National Council of Negro Women in 1935. The NCNW is still around today and strives to advocate for women of African descent. The organization promotes education, economic literacy and social justice while providing access to health care and information about women’s health.
Dr. Bethune also worked beside Former President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create the Black Cabinet and found Bethune-Cookman University, located in Daytona Florida. She dedicated her lifetime to activism and is known as “The First Lady of Struggle” because of her contributions.
1940s: Alice Coachman
Alice Coachman was a track star who specialized in the high jump. She grew up in a time when it was questionable for women to participate in athletics, and she struggled to find access to training centers because of her race. Despite this, Coachman attended Tuskegee Institute College and became one of the best track and field runners in the nation.
Later, she became the first Black woman in the world to win an Olympic gold medal, also setting a new national and Olympic high jump record. Alice Coachman paved the way for Black athletes across several generations.
1950s: Willie Lee Thrower Sr.
Willie Thrower was the first Black quarterback to play in the NFL. Thrower had a passion for football throughout his life. While in high school, he served as his team’s quarterback. Through the span of his sophomore year to his senior year, he won 24 straight games. Thrower played college ball for the Michigan State Spartans who ended the 1952 championship season as the number one college team in the nation.
After school, he was picked up by the Chicago Bears as a backup player to George Blanda. Because of his race, Willie Thrower was only awarded the chance to play a few short times before he was dropped. He was recruited at a time when NFL teams only hired white players, and he went on to receive a place in the NFL Hall of Fame for his accomplishments.
1960s: Wilma Rudolph
Wilma Rudolph is still considered one of the best athletes of the 20th century. Following Alice Coachman’s lead, she was an outstanding track and field star who went on to set world records. Rudolph won 3 gold medals in the 1960 Olympics for track and field. This makes her the first Black American woman to accomplish this.
The following year in 1961, she received The Associated Press Award for Female Athlete of the Year and the James E. Sullivan Award – which is the most outstanding and prestigious award for college athletes. She was the first Black woman to win the Sullivan Award. Wilma Rudolph was originally from Saint Bethlehem, which is an unincorporated community in Montgomery, Tennessee. One of the busiest streets in Clarksville is named after her, just a short drive from Austin Peay.
1970s: Beverly Johnson
Beverly Johnson is an American model whose career took off after she became the first Black woman to be represented on the cover of a major fashion magazine. She was just starting her modeling career when she was picked up by Glamour magazine in 1971, making her the first Black woman on the cover of a major publication.
By 1974, she was featured on the cover of Vogue. This was the first time in Vogue’s history that a Black model was represented on the cover. Just a year later in 1974, she became the first Black woman on the cover of Elle. At the end of her career, Beverly Johnson was pictured on over 500 magazine covers. She now assists in designing pieces for New York Fashion Week.
1980s: Bryant Gumbel
In 1982, Bryant Gumbel became the first Black man to host a morning news program. He hosted NBC’s The Today Show for 15 years. He now has his own series on HBO titled Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. Because of his work on the Today Show, he has accumulated a fan base who continues to follow and support him through his current endeavors.
He has won 4 Emmy Awards and was the first Black journalist to receive the Sports Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award.
1990s: Mae Jemison
Mae Jemison helped to pave the way for space exploration by people of color. In 1992, Jemison became the first African American woman to become an astronaut and to orbit Earth. This makes her the first Black woman ever to visit space. Jemison was brilliant from an early age, having attended Stanford University at age 16.
She participated in the Peace Corps and assisted in the development of the hepatitis B vaccine. After starting with NASA, she formed the Jemison Group which assists in developing advanced technologies and integrating cultural issues into their designs. Jemison now spends her time assisting with the Artemis program, whose goal is to once again take humans to the Moon, by 2025.
2000s: Condoleezza Rice
Condoleezza Rice became the first Black woman to hold the title of National Security Advisor. She was appointed to this role under former President George W. Bush in the year 2000. At the time, she was the highest-ranking woman in the presidential line of succession in U.S. history.
She has now dedicated her life to her teachings and has written and published multiple books. She is now working as a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
2010s: Ursula Burns
Ursula Burns is the former CEO of Xerox, a position she held from 2009 to 2016. Starting her position in 2009, she became the first Black woman to head a Fortune 500 company. Former President Barack Obama assigned Burns as the leader of the White House national STEM program, and she was rated by Forbes as one of the most powerful women in the world in 2014.
Her current net worth is listed at over $1.2 Million. Despite her massive accomplishments, she still experiences hate because of her race and gender. There have been numerous reports naming her one of the worst CEOs in American history, but she stands strong as an advocate for equity and racial inclusion in capitalism.
2020s: Nicholas Johnson
Nicholas Johnson was Princeton University’s first Black valedictorian in 2020. This is shocking considering the school’s 275-year history. Johnson has become an advocate for racial equality.
He has spoken out about himself being the first Black valedictorian, stating that racial work in America still needs to be done. He is now earning his doctoral degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.