During Black History Month, I invite us to celebrate the many achievements and contributions of Black Canadians and Americans who have shaped North America.
This month, I am dedicating a Social Media post a day to a historical or current Black person who has made important contributions to our society. Here are 28 Black people who have significantly influenced our world:
1. Rosa Parks
(February 4, 1913 – October 24, 2005)
Also known as ‘the first lady of civil rights’ and ‘the mother of the freedom’ movement, in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to vacate her seat on a bus which was designated for white’s. Her actions influenced a larger boycott of the racist segregation law and eventually resulted in the 1956 decision that bus segregation is unconstitutional.
2. Serena & Venus Williams
(born: September 26, 1981 & June 17, 1980)
These sisters are icons of our generation. The two professional American tennis players with a combined total of 30 Grand Slam title wins (singles), 14 Grand Slam Women's title wins (Doubles), 12 Wimbledon singles titles and twice Olympic gold medalists. These megastars are celebrated for their athletic achievements, but also how they challenged the norms of beauty and fashion.
3. Althea Gibson
(August 25, 1927 – September 28, 2003)
Athea Gibson was a professional tennis player who opened the doors for Black athletes. She was the first African American to compete at the U.S. National Championships (1950) and the first African American to play at Wimbledon (1951). She won a total of 11 Grand Slam tournaments. If that wasn’t enough, the early 1960s she became the first African American player to compete on the Women's Professional Golf Tour.
4. Barack Obama
(born August 4, 1961)
Inaugurated on January 20, 2009, Barack Obama became the first African-American president of the United States. He will be remembered as one of the greatest and most transformative presidents of all time. Serving two terms, he led his country through a recession, mass shootings and great civil unrest whilst ending the war in Iraq.
5. Josephine Baker
(3 June 1906 – 12 April 1975)
Josephine Baker was an American-born entertainer who became a star in Paris. She was awarded the Croix de guerre by the French military for aiding, as a spy, in the French Resistance during World War II.
In America, Baker refused to perform for segregated audiences and is celebrated for her contributions to the civil rights movement.
6. Harriet Tubman
(March 1822 – March 10, 1913)
Escaping slavery, Harriet Tubman became a political activist and abolitionist. She led 13 missions to rescue hundreds of enslaved people to freedom along the Underground Railroad.
During the American Civil War, she was a military leader and a spy.
Later, she was an activist for women’s rights.
7. Hattie McDaniel
(June 10, 1893 – October 26, 1952)
Hattie McDaniel was the first African American to win an Oscar (1940) for her supporting role as “Mammy” in Gone With the Wind. She was an accomplished actor, despite encountering much racism and racial segregation. She was in over 300 films and only appeared in the credit for 83 of them. At the Oscars ceremony she was forced to sit at a segregated table at the side of the room and she was unable to attend the premiere because it was held at a whites-only theatre.
In addition to her accomplished acting career, Hattie recorded 16 blues and was one of the first black woman to sing on radio in the United States.
8. Donovan Bailey
(born December 16, 1967)
The Jamaican born athlete moved to Canada as a teenager. He is one of Canada’s most highly decorated track athletes. He held the world record in the 100m sprint, where he was the first Canadian to legally break the 10-second barrier. In addition, he won three world championships and two gold medals.
9. Viola Desmond
(July 6, 1914 – February 7, 1965)
Viola Desmond is a famed Canadian civil rights activist known for her accomplishments in business and for challenging racial segregation. In 1946, she refused to sit in the segregated balcony of the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. She sat on the main floor, which was exclusively reserved for whites. For this act, she was arrested and found guilty of not paying the full tax on a floor-seat ticket (one penny) and was sentenced to jail time along with a fine.
Her case was one of the most publicized incidents of racial discrimination in Canadian history and sparked the a civil rights movement in Canada.
10. Josiah Henson
(June 15, 1789 – May 5, 1883)
Escaping slavery in America, Josiah Henson emigrating to Canada in 1830. Establishing himself in modern day Ontario, he founded a settlement and laborer’s school for other escaped slaves. In addition, he was an accomplished author with his famed novel Uncle Tom's Story of His Life: An Autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson.
He also led a militia unit of black men in the Upper Canadian Rebellion of 1837.
11. Elijah McCoy
(May 2, 1844 – October 10, 1929)
Elijah McCoy was a Canadian-born inventor. He studied mechanical engineering in Scotland and developed 57 patented inventions, most related to devices that lubricated a train's moving parts while the train was in motion.
12. Mary Ann Shadd Cary
(October 9, 1823 – June 5, 1893)
Mary Ann Shadd Cary was the first Black woman to publish a newspaper in Canada. She also established a racially integrated school, which included Black refugee students and dedicated her life to teaching the children of former slaves arriving in Canada. Throughout her life, she was a civil activist and an advocate for women’s rights.
13. Willie O'Ree
(born October 15, 1935)
Willie O'Ree was a Candian-born athlete famed for being the first Black player in the National Hockey League. He played broke the colour barrier by playing winger for the Boston Bruins in the 1957-58 season.
14. Carrie Best
(March 4, 1903 – July 24, 2001)
Carrie Best was a Canadian poet, writer, journalist and social activist. She was Nova Scotia’s first Black newspaper publisher. In addition, she hosted The Quiet Corner radio program which ran for 12 years. Carrie was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1979.
15. Richard Pierpoint
Also known as Captain Pierpoint, he was sold into slavery in 1760, at the age of 16 from Senegal. He was freed during the American Revolution where he served as a soldier for the British. Afterwards, he settled in Canada and led the formation of a Black militia that would fight with the British during the War of 1812.
16. Tarana Burke
(born September 12, 1973)
Tarana Burke is a civil rights activist from New York and the original founder of the #MeToo movement. She started using it in 2006 to break the silence and encourage women to use their voice. It went viral in 2017 when women began using it to talk about the allegations against Harvey Weinstein before becoming a broader platform to raise awareness about sexual harassment, abuse, and assault.
17. Mary Jackson
(April 9, 1921 – February 11, 2005)
Mary Jackson was NASA’s first Black female aerospace engineer and mathematician. Dubbed a "human computer", Mary succeeded in earning the most senior engineering title before accepting a demotion to influence hiring and promotion of women in NASA’s science, engineering and mathematics careers.
18. Daniel Hale Williams
(January 18, 1856 – August 4, 1931)
Daniel Hale Williams performed the first successful open-heart surgery in the United States in 1893. He founded a hospital in Chicago, the first to have interracial staff and also founded an associated nursing school for African Americans. Williams was elected as the only African-American charter member of the American College of Surgeons and later became chief surgeon of the Freedmen’s Hospital.
19. Maya Angelou
(April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014)
Maya Angelou was a civil rights activist, poet and award-winning author. She made literary history as the first African American woman author of a nonfiction bestseller with the acclaimed 1969 memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She received dozens of awards and more than 50 honorary degrees.
20. Sarah Boone
Sarah Boone was an African American dressmaker who was awarded a patent to modernize the ironing board to create better functionality. Boone became one of the first African American women to be awarded a patent.
21. Frederick Douglass
(February 1818 – February 20, 1895)
Frederick Douglass was born enslaved and was taught to read by the lady of the house at a young age. As an adult, Fredrick successfully escaped to New York City where he married. They settled in Massachusetts where he became a preacher and an abolitionist leader dedicating his life to this work. Frederick became famed for his oratory and anti-slavery writing. His first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, became a best seller.
22. Benjamin O. Davis Jr.
(December 18, 1912 – July 4, 2002)
Benjamin O. Davis Jr. overcame segregation and racism to become the first African-American Brigadier general in the United States Air Force. He commanded the first all-Black unit of military pilots (the Tuskegee Airmen) who fought during World War II. He led his men into enemy territory throughout Germany and Italy, successfully completing several bombing and air combat missions.
23. Martin Luther King, Jr.
(January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968)
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great leader and spokesman for the civil rights movement from 1955 until his assassination in 1968. His nonviolent approach to combating racial inequality won him the Nobel Peace Prize on October 14, 1964.
King led peaceful marches advocating for Black civil rights, including the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered the infamous "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
24. Thurgood Marshall
(July 2, 1908 – January 24, 1993)
Thurgood Marshall served as the Court's first African-American Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.
Prior, as a lawyer, he won several highly influential civil rights cases, including Brown vs. Board of Education. He successfully argued that racial segregation in public education is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause, resulting in the abolition of school segregation in 1954.
He also founded the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
25. Ibram X. Kendi
(born, August 13, 1982)
Ibram X. Kendi is an American scholar and acclaimed author who has dedicated is life and career to anti-racist activism. His historical-based novel Stamped from the Beginning is a must read for historical knowledge and his best selling 2019 novel How to be an Antiracist provides actionable recommendations.
In July 2020, he assumed the position of Director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University.
He was included in Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People of 2020.Kamala Harris.
26. Kamala Harris
(born October 20, 1964)
Kamala Harris is a trailblazer politician who has shattered the glass ceiling time and time again. Most recently, she will be the United States first female Vice President, the highest-ranking female elected official in U.S. history. She is also the first Black woman and first Indian American to serve as Vice President.
27. Allyson Felix
(born, November 18, 1985)
Allyson Felix is a decorated American track and field sprinter. She is the only female track and field athlete to ever win six Olympic gold medals. She is also the most decorated athlete, male or female, in World Athletics Championships history with 18 career medals, and the most (13) gold medals.
In 2018, she became a spokesperson against pregnancy discrimination when she publicly denounced her sponsor (Nike) for threatening to pay her less after having her daughter.
28. Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi
Alica Garza (born January 4, 1981)
Patrisse Cullors (born June 20, 1983),
Opal Tometi (born August 15, 1984)
These are the founders of the global Black Lives Matter #BLM movement.
They are American civil rights activist who have advocated for a wide range of issues including health, ending police brutality, anti-racism, LGBTQ+ rights, violence against transgender and gender non-conforming people of color, migrant rights, and racial justice.
The Black Lives Matter movement has been nominated for the 2021 Nobel peace prize for the peaceful and impactful way its call for systemic change has spread globally.
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