25 Unheralded African-American Pioneers and Trailblazers You Should Know
As we celebrate Black History Month, it's important to look back at the brave men and women who faced off against prejudice and bigotry in order to share their unique talents with the world. Whether they were involved in Civil Rights, politics, science, technology, sports, or music, African-American history is full of innovators, though they don't always get their due. Here are 25 unheralded African-American pioneers and trailblazers you should know.
1. JESSE L. BROWN
When Jesse LeRoy Brown was a teenager, he wrote a letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to express his disappointment that African Americans weren't flying in the military. While that changed in the Air Force in the early '40s with the Tuskegee Airmen, it would be Brown himself that would break that barrier for the Navy in 1947. By 1949 he was an officer, and in 1950, the United States was at war in Korea and he was in the action. Brown and his unit were soon airborne, completing dangerous missions to take out targets and protect troops on the ground.
On December 4, 1950, while on a mission to provide cover for a Marine regiment, Brown's plane was struck—leaking fuel, he crash-landed on a slope but was still alive. His wingman, Thomas Hudner, crash-landed his own plane to reach Brown in order to help. Though Brown died shortly after due to his wounds from the crash, both men were honored by the United States: Brown received a posthumous Flying Cross medal for bravery, while Hudner, who survived the ordeal, was presented with the Medal of Honor. A Naval frigate, the USS Jesse L. Brown, was also built and operated in the '70s.
At a gathering to commemorate Brown and Hudner's rescue attempt, NAS Jacksonville Commanding Officer Capt. Jeffrey Maclay remarked: "When Brown risked his life to help a Marine regiment that day, he didn't consider their race. And when his fellow pilots saw him in danger, they did not think about the color of their skin. They only knew he was an American in trouble."
2. JO ANN ROBINSON
Jo Ann Robinson is an often-overlooked part of the Civil Rights Movement, but her contributions were crucial. Born in Georgia in 1912, Robinson focused her early life on education. She began by graduating college in 1934, and later became a public school teacher in Macon, Georgia. After receiving her master’s degree, she took a job as a college professor in Alabama and began becoming more socially active, eventually being named president of the Women's Political Council (WPC) in 1950.
Seeing how African Americans were being treated in the Montgomery, Alabama area, Robinson used her position at the WPC to try to pressure the city's mayor, William A. Gale, to desegregate public buses, to no avail. After Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955, Robinson and a group of activists distributed tens of thousands of pamphlets urging a one-day boycott of the bus system. It was a success, and the now-famous boycott of the Montgomery bus system soon ballooned, lasting for months with the help of Robinson.
Though the boycotts were eventually successful, Robinson faced severe harassment and intimidation from local police throughout—including having rocks thrown through her windows and acid poured on her car. Eventually, state police were ordered to protect her. Once the boycotts ended and buses desegregated, Robinson moved from Alabama to teach in California. She died in 1992.
3. MARK E. DEAN
For many in the '80s, IBM computers were likely their first experience with the technology that would define the future. And a big part of what made the company so successful is thanks to Mark Dean, an engineer whose work helped create the company's ISA bus. This hardware add-on allowed peripheral accessories like printers, disk drives, and keyboards to be plugged directly into the computer. Amazingly, he holds three of IBM's original nine PC patents.
His later breakthroughs included work that led to the creation of the color PC monitor and the first gigahertz chip, which allows a machine to compute a billion calculations per second and is instrumental in everything from computer systems to gaming consoles today.
He's still in the industry today, telling Engadget that he's currently "looking to develop an alternative computing architecture leveraging what we know about neuroscience and brain structures."
4. MADAM C.J. WALKER
Known as "the first black woman millionaire in America," Madam C.J. Walker—born Sarah Breedlove—broke the bank with her own line of hair products that she developed while trying to find a cure for her own hair loss. After experimenting with products by an African-American businesswoman named Annie Malone, Breedlove decided to strike out on her own with a method called the "Walker System." This basically boiled down to scalp prep, lotions, and an iron comb specifically designed for black hair care.
To drum up publicity and mystique, the name Madam C.J. Walker was crafted, and she soon began selling her products around the country to an African-American clientele that was often ignored by mainstream marketing. Perhaps her most long-standing accomplishment is the fact that her beauty empire helped employ others looking to make a living by selling the Walker System. Estimates put the number of employees somewhere around 40,000 at a time when holding a job as a black woman wasn't necessarily common.
With her success came a responsibility to her community, and Walker was also involved in regular donations to black charities like the NAACP and Tuskegee Institute. For a woman who was both a poor orphan and widow at 20, the Madam C.J. Walker empire is a true success story.
5. THOMAS L. JENNINGS
Thomas L. Jennings is known as the first African American to receive a patent in the United States for his invention of an early form of dry cleaning called "dry scouring." The patent was given in 1821 but was first met with resistance on the grounds that, at the time, all slaveowners legally owned the "fruits of the labor of the slave both manual and intellectual." Jennings was a free man, though, and set a precedent for all other free African Americans after him. He could now make money from his own innovations.
The money earned from his invention went toward freeing other members of his family from slavery, as well as going into various abolitionist causes.
The road from the pop rock acts of the '50s and '60s to the punk rock of the late '70s and '80s was bridged by what's now known as the proto-punk movement. This loose fraternity of raw, underproduced garage rock bands was prepping listeners for what was to come in the music industry. This was a genre that replaced the slick, polished tunes of the previous decades with the abrasive rhythms of anger, alienation, and attitude. But even music aficionados with a deep back catalog of the proto-punk scene might not know of a little band called Death.
Death is made up of the Hackney brothers—David, Bobby, and Dannis—and had a sound that would fit right at home next to bands like The Stooges, The Modern Lovers, and MC5. They were denied success in the '70s when Clive Davis, president of Columbia Records, pulled financial support after the band refused to change its name. This stopped the band in its tracks, and they soon fizzled after their self-financed record, Politicians in my Eyes, failed to sell.
Only a few songs from Death were ever recorded, but they had amassed a cult following over the years, leading to subsequent re-releases of their material and a documentary about the band, produced in 2013. They're just now being recognized as one of the early shots fired in the punk movement.
7. BESSIE COLEMAN
When Bessie Coleman was denied the right to learn to fly in the United States, she decided to go to school, learn French, and travel overseas to France to get her pilot's license. In seven months, she got her license and returned to the States in 1921, where she created a media stir as the nation's first black female pilot.
Coleman soon began performing at air shows and doing stunts for waves of spectators, all while making sure to use her celebrity to raise awareness of racial inequality and encourage women of any skin color to fly. Unfortunately, just a few years later in 1926, while prepping for a stunt in Jacksonville, Florida, a wrench became stuck in the gears of her plane, which went into an unexpected nosedive and spin. Coleman wasn't wearing a seatbelt and was thrown from the plane. She died on impact.
8. JERRY LAWSON
Remember those video game cartridges you had growing up? The ones you'd swap in and out of your console and occasionally have to blow into to make them work? That technology was made possible with the help of Jerry Lawson, the chief hardware engineer at Fairchild Semiconductor’s game division. Lawson began his life cobbling electronics together as a child and making his own radio station in his housing complex. That interest in electronics led him to Fairchild and its burgeoning video games branch.
Lawson’s most high-profile assignment was designing the electronics behind the Fairchild Channel F video game console in 1976. This system was interesting for a lot of reasons—the first of which was that players could now play against the computer, rather than needing another participant to work the game.
More important, though, is the fact that he and his team had devised the first video game cartridge that would allow players to switch out to different games instead of needing them to be hardwired into the system. The technology already existed in a rough state and was licensed to Fairchild, but Lawson and his team perfected it, making video game cartridges an omnipresent part of the industry from the '70s all the way through to today.
Need more proof that Lawson was an early Silicon Valley pioneer? He was in the same homebrew computer club as Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs in the '70s and '80s (though he apparently wasn't too impressed with either of them).
9. CHRISTOPHER PRIEST
Longtime comic book fans may know the name Christopher Priest from writing Black Panther in the late '90s and early 2000s, and even older ones may know the name he went by earlier in his career, Jim Owsley. What most don’t know is just how groundbreaking his career has been, despite not always getting his due.
Priest came on to the Marvel scene as an intern in the late '70s and became a writer in the early '80s, working on characters like Spider-Man, Iron Fist, and Falcon. He then moved on to become the first African-American editor for a mainstream comics publication when he was given the job of handling the company’s Spider-Man line while still in his early twenties.
During his career, he’s dipped in and out of high-profile gigs, writing stories for characters like Deadpool, Batman, Conan the Barbarian, and so many others. And while personal reasons forced him out early, he was also one of the original architects behind Milestone Comics, a company founded by black creators looking to give a diverse voice to the industry. When work slowed down or he needed to take a break from the politics of the comic book industry, he retreated from the business, at one point becoming a bus driver in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Fans curious about Priest are in luck, though. After falling out of the mainstream comics spotlight for years, he recently spearheaded DC Comics' relaunched Deathstroke title and had a stint on the main Justice League comic as well as Marvel's Inhumans: Once and Future Kings.
10. MARIE VAN BRITTAN BROWN
All Marie Van Brittan Brown wanted to do was feel safe at night, and along the way she reshaped how people all over the world secure their homes. Brown lived in Jamaica, Queens at a time when the crime rate in New York City was on a steady ascent, and police were often unable to respond to every emergency. To help ensure the family's safety, Brown, a nurse, and her husband, Albert, an electronics technician, created a security system made up of peepholes, monitors, microphones, remote door locks, and an emergency alarm button that could contact police.
This is credited as the first modern home security system, and the invention was patented in 1966. Many of these features would become standard in the home security systems of the next decade into today.
11. FRITZ POLLARD
Standing at only 5 feet 9 inches, Fritz Pollard didn't have the type of size that was typical for gridiron success, but he still managed to break down football's color barrier multiple times. Before making it to the pros, Pollard was a standout in college, becoming the first black player to play in the Rose Bowl while attending Brown.
After school, he served a stint in the army before joining the Akron Pros of the American Professional Football League (later the NFL) in 1920. In 1921, he was named coach of the team, while also still playing. The APFA became the NFL in 1922 while Pollard was still a coach at Akron, which makes him the NFL's first African-American coach. He continued until 1926, when the NFL segregated and got rid of all black coaches and athletes.
Before retiring from the sport, Pollard would attempt to create all-black teams to play against NFL squads but was never successful. Despite his unfortunate departure from the game, Pollard was posthumously inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005.
12. OSCAR MICHEAUX
Oscar Micheaux is credited with being the first African American to make a feature film and is one of the more successful black filmmakers of the early years of the movie industry. Micheaux worked as a porter for years before homesteading a farm in South Dakota and getting to work as a writer. One of his books, The Homesteader, was of interest to the country's first black film production company, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company.
However, instead of taking the film company's offer, Micheaux decided to produce it himself independently to have more control over the project. In his career, he produced more than 40 movies, with many of them garnering controversy from black audiences, white audiences, and oftentimes both. And though he never won much praise from contemporaries or film historians, Micheaux's story is an outlier during a time when black filmmakers were basically unheard of.
13. MOLLY WILLIAMS
Before the FDNY was even established, the city of New York had its first female firefighter in Molly Williams, who also happened to be a slave at the time. She belonged to Benjamin Aymar at 42 Greenwich St. in the early 19th century, and she soon found herself a part of Oceanus Engine Co. 11, where Aymar served as a volunteer.
Williams was well known around the fire house, with records indicating that she was either a cook or a personal helper to Aymar during this time. In March 1818, though, the city was struck by two calamities: a historic blizzard crippled the streets and a wave of flu incapacitated many of the volunteer firefighters. So, of course, this is exactly when a fire call would come in.
According to legend, Molly was the only one physically capable of answering the call, and the image of the lone woman hauling the water pumper out in the snowy streets has since become a sort of folklore. She was reportedly adopted as an unofficial volunteer of the fire house afterwards, given the distinction Volunteer No. 11.
14. LUTHER LINDSAY
Luther Lindsay predated the days of superstar African-American pro-wrestlers like Ernie Ladd, Bobo Brazil, and the Junkyard Dog, but his trailblazing career helped open the doors for all of them. Noted as a superb athlete, Lindsay pulled off the rare feat of making the renowned Stu Hart tap out in the Hart Dungeon (his wrestling school)—an accomplishment which earned Hart's respect enough that he apparently kept a photo of Lindsay in his wallet until his death.
Inside the ring, Lindsay was a technician, but culturally he is best known for two barrier-breaking moments. He was the first black wrestler to go against a white wrestler in the South, when he was pitted against Ron White in Texas. And while the National Guard was brought in to fend off any riots, the crowd was overwhelmingly in favor for Lindsay that night. White even stated, "We had riots down there, but instead of killing Luther Lindsay they was trying to kill me."
His next cultural achievement came when he was given the honor of being the first black wrestler to challenge for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship when he went up against the legendary Lou Thesz in 1953. Lindsay battled the champ to a time-limit draw.
Lindsay died of a heart attack during a match in 1972, but his pioneering career helped countless black wrestlers achieve stardom over the years.
15. EARL LLOYD
In 1950, the first three black players in NBA history were drafted by the league, but through a quirk in the schedule (not every team began the season on the same night), Earl Lloyd of the Washington Capitols earned the distinction as the first African-American to play in an NBA game. The other two players were Chuck Cooper of the Boston Celtics and Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton with the New York Knicks.
The stint didn't last long, as Lloyd was drafted to fight in Korea after just seven games. He would play for the Syracuse Nationals and the Detroit Pistons upon his return, and he later served as a scout and assistant coach for the Pistons (a first for the NBA). He would later be named the team’s head coach—the fourth black head coach in league history but the first that was not also a player simultaneously.
16. DR. SHIRLEY JACKSON
Much of the technology behind how we communicate today was made easier by advancements that Dr. Shirley Jackson helped create. While working at AT&T Bell Laboratories, she worked on—and helped invent—the technologies that would go into everything from fiber optics cables to fax machines, and even Caller ID. It's no surprise that Jackson was able to accomplish all of this in her career—as a student, she became the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D in physics and the first to earn her doctorate in any subject from MIT.
17. MAURICE ASHLEY
Maurice Ashley was born in Jamaica and moved to the Brownsville section of Brooklyn when he was 12. It would be another two years before he would discover the game that would earn him a unique place in history: chess. Though his first game wasn't anything close to a success, Ashley would learn from his mistakes and study the ins and outs of his new craft, eventually becoming the first African American to be named a chess Grandmaster and the first black player ever in the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame.
Despite chess being a spirited, respectful game, Ashley has heard his share of slurs over the years, though he would always keep forging ahead. He told the Chicago Tribune that's exactly why he likes the game, because with chess, "Your moves do the talking."
18. ALLISON DAVIS
During the 1940s, anthropologist Dr. William Allison Davis was coming out with brilliant, pointed, and perceptive studies on race that helped illuminate the African-American struggle in the United States. In his studies, Davis would state that race and class worked as "interlocking systems of oppression" and helped point out the ineffectiveness of tools such as standardized intelligence tests when it came to assessing children of lower class.
Davis wrote numerous books on these subjects along with his wife and fellow anthropologist, Elizabeth Stubbs Davis. In the case of the I.Q. tests, Davis led groups that helped cities discard their standard formats, which he proved to be biased.
19. FRAN ROSS
Though writer Fran Ross doesn't have a prolific body of work, what does exist of her all-too-short career is a glimpse into someone far ahead of her time. Her lone novel, Oreo, published in 1974, takes a hard-edged, satirical look at race as it centers on the titular Oreo, a young African-American girl who goes on a quest to New York City to find her white, Jewish father.
Ross combined timely themes, absurd humor, and shades of the mythological Greek story of Theseus to craft a story that stood out from the other, more conventional socially conscious novels of the time. Oreo didn't necessarily find success in the '70s, but it has gained something of a cult following since.
Ross's writing career didn't end there; she also contributed to magazines like Essence and Playboy, and even briefly wrote comedy for Richard Pryor. Her voice was different from the authors writing about race at the time, but that doesn't mean what Fran Ross had to say was any less profound.
20. WILBUR C. SWEATMAN
There are a lot of "firsts" to check off on the resume of Wilbur C. Sweatman. He is reportedly the first musician to record a take on Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" and among the first to join the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). Most notably, though, he was also the first African American to receive a long-term record contract and possibly to record jazz in general.
21. LEWIS LATIMER
Lewis Latimer was born in 1848 to parents who had fled to Massachusetts after escaping slavery. After serving in the Civil War, Latimer taught himself technical drawing, which led to him designing a number of inventions, including a take on an air conditioner unit and a new style of bathroom for rail cars. He soon began working with Alexander Graham Bell, helping him with the drawings that would eventually be part of Bell's patent for the telephone.
Most notable, though, was Latimer's own patent for a carbon filament. Before this, Thomas Edison's light bulbs were powered with a filament made of paper, which would burn out quickly. This carbon filament would last far longer and helped popularize the bulb for average users. The patent was sold, and Latimer then patented the process to efficiently produce the filament on a large scale. His electrical and engineering know-how led to him supervising the installation of public lights throughout major cities like New York, Philadelphia, and London.
22. MARY ANN SHADD CARY
Mary Ann Shadd Cary can sometimes get lost among the names of African-American social activists of the 19th century, but her impact is as important as anyone's. She was born in Wilmington, Delaware to a free African-American family. Her father worked for a newspaper called The Liberator, which was run by William Lloyd Garrison, a noted abolitionist who also supported the later women's suffrage movement.
In the years before the Civil War, Cary was an ardent abolitionist and eventually moved with her brother to Canada after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act. She founded a newspaper there called The Provincial Freeman, making her the first black newspaper editor in North America.
She moved back to the United States during the war and became a recruiting officer for the Union in Indiana. And Cary eventually attended Harvard where she got her law degree, making her the second black woman in the country ever to do so.
23. LONNIE G. JOHNSON
You might not know the name Lonnie Johnson, but if you've ever been around a group of kids on a hot summer day, you've definitely (and probably unwillingly) felt his influence. Johnson, a former engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is the man behind the infamous Super Soaker squirt gun.
The idea came to him in 1982 when he shot some pressurized streams of water across a room when he was working on a new heat pump for refrigerators. Realizing this could make for a fun squirt gun, and a new feather in his cap as a prospective inventor, Johnson said he "put the hard science stuff behind and start[ed] working on some really fun stuff."
After winning a lawsuit in 2013, Johnson was awarded underpaid royalties for his invention, netting him more than $72 million from Hasbro. Johnson's work also includes contributions to NASA's Galileo mission to Jupiter and the Cassini probe, which studied Saturn.
24. ALEXANDER MILES
Before Alexander Miles invented a system for elevator doors to open and close automatically, it was up to people—either the riders themselves or an operator—to make sure the car and shaft doors were secure. And guess what? People would forget, and accidents ensued.
Miles saw the potential for danger when riding in an elevator with his young daughter, so he devised a system wherein an elevator's doors could open and close on their own, eliminating the hazard of human error. His design made it so the cage of the elevator car would trigger a mechanism that would close the door to the shaft on its own.
And, after moving to Chicago in 1899, he founded The United Brotherhood, a life insurance company that catered to an African-American population that wasn't always guaranteed coverage by other companies in the market.
25. SHIRLEY CHISHOLM
Shirley Chisholm never faced a barrier she wasn't willing to break. An educator from Brooklyn, Chisholm became the first African-American woman to serve on the United States Congress, remaining in office from 1969 to 1983. While representing New York's 12th Congressional District, she founded the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Women's Political Caucus, and served on the Education and Labor Committee, all while exclusively staffing her office with women.
And while that's enough of a career for any successful politician, Chisholm's most high-profile work came when she decided to be the first woman to run for president as a Democrat in 1972.
On January 25, 1972, she made a speech outside of the U.S. Capitol, proclaiming:
"I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I'm not the candidate of the women's movement of this country, although I am a woman, and I'm equally proud of that. I am not the candidate of any political bosses or fat cats or special interests.
"I stand here now without endorsements from many big-name politicians or celebrities or any kind of prop. I do not intend to offer to you the tired and glib cliches which have for too long been an accepted part of our political life. I am the candidate of the people, and my presence before you now symbolizes a new era in American political history."
This story originally ran in 2018.