When you think of pioneers in African American history, who comes to mind? For most of us, it’s leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou, and James Baldwin – and rightfully so. But, if names like Pauli Murray, Matthew Henson, and Katherine Johnson don’t ring a bell, you’re not alone. In honor of Black History Month, here’s an opportunity to learn about activists, adventurers, and scientists who enriched the American culture by following their calling – often breaking barriers for those who rose to fame in recent history.
1. Pauli Murray. Overlooked by history, Pauli Murray was a legal trailblazer whose ideas influenced Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s fight for gender equality and Thurgood Marshall’s civil rights arguments. Pauli was a Black, non-binary luminary, lawyer, activist, poet, and priest who transformed our world.
Learn more: My Name is Pauli Murray (Amazon Prime, 2021)
Quote: In not a single one of these little campaigns was I victorious. In other words, in each case, I personally failed, but I have lived to see the thesis upon which I was operating vindicated. And what I very often say is that I’ve lived to see my lost causes found.
2. Buck Franklin. Born in 1879 in what is now known as Oklahoma, Buck Colbert Franklin studied law by mail, and after passing the bar, moved his family to Tulsa. Tulsa’s Greenwood District was one of the wealthiest communities in the United States. In 1921, a young Black man was arrested over an incident with a White girl which led to the Tulsa Race Massacre destroying more than 35 blocks along with 1,200 homes. 300 died, mostly Blacks. After the massacre, Tulsa city council passed an ordinance preventing Black people from re-building their homes. Buck Franklin sued the city in Oklahoma Supreme Court and won.
Learn more: A Long-Lost Manuscript Contains a Searing Eyewitness Account of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 (Smithsonian Magazine)
Quote: This is true today and will continue to be true to the end of time: that most great issues are moral, not political; are human, not racial; that the statesman can never be displaced by the politician without harmful dislocations of natural evolutionary processes; and that the entire world is both mentally and spiritually ill today because of this derangement.
3. Matthew Henson. While the geographic location of the North Pole was understood in theory, the hostile environment was not explored until 1909 when Matthew Henson and Robert Peary became the first people to reach the top of the world. Although Peary was the public face of their partnership, Henson was the front man in the field. With his skills as a carpenter and craftsman, Henson personally built and maintained all of the dog sleds used on their expeditions. He was fluent in the Inuit language and established a rapport with the native people of the region. Henson learned the methods the Inuit used to survive and travel through the incredibly hostile landscape of the Arctic.
Learn more: The Legacy of Arctic Explorer Matthew Henson (National Geographic)
Quote: There can be no conquest to the man who dwells in the narrow and small environment of a groveling life, and there can be no vision to the man the horizon of whose vision is limited by the bounds of self. But the great things of the world, the great accomplishments of the world, have been achieved by men who had high ideals and who have received great visions. The path is not easy, the climbing is rugged and hard, but the glory at the end is worthwhile.
4. Benjamin Banneker. A self-taught astronomer and farmer, Banneker is best known for his series of highly successful astronomical almanacs that ‘predicted’ events such as solar eclipses, sunrises, and sunsets. Many passages also contained predictions of the weather and seasonal changes and medical remedies and advice on planting crops. Banneker sent a copy of his first almanac to then U.S. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson along with other documents explaining his position on racial equality. His earlier accomplishments included constructing an irrigation system for the family farm. At the age of 22, having seen only two timepieces in his lifetime – a sundial and a pocket watch – Banneker constructed a striking clock that was reputed to keep accurate time and ran for more than 50 years.
Learn more: Benjamin Banneker (YouTube)
Quote: Presumption should never make us neglect that which appears easy to us, nor despair make us lose courage at the sight of difficulties.
5. Katherine Johnson. Johnson was the youngest of four children. She would show an interest and aptitude for mathematics at a young age, which her parents nurtured into her adulthood. Because her home county did not offer public schooling for African-American students past the eighth grade, her family arranged for her to attend high school in West Virginia. Johnson attended West Virginia State University, and graduated summa cum laude with degrees in Mathematics and French at the age of 18.
Post-graduation, she worked for a time as a schoolteacher before joining NACA at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1952. At NACA, Johnson first worked as a “human computer” and then, after NACA became NASA, on the space program, where she became an aerospace technologist, calculating the trajectories for many NASA missions.
During the Mercury space missions, when NASA began using electronic computers for the first time, astronaut John Glenn apparently refused to fly unless Johnson first verified the calculations. She also published 26 scientific papers throughout her career. Her work at NASA was profiled in the film Hidden Figures.
Learn more: September 2017 Video Interview (NASA.gov)
Quote: When the space program came along, I just happened to be working with guys and when they had briefings I asked permission to go, and they said the girls don’t usually go. And I said, well, is there a law? They said no and then my boss said let her go.
If you’d like to hear more stories to celebrate Black History Month, listen to this beautiful StoryCorps collection featuring Black voices in conversation.
Question: What stories would you want to see elevated in the narrative of American history?
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