Madam C. J. Walker (1867–1919)
Madam C. J. Walker was the first female self-made millionaire in America. She was the first child born to her parents after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, and she made the most of it. She started her own factory and taught other black women how to build their own businesses. She was also a life-long philanthropist, helping causes such as the YMCA and education for black children.
W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963)
Born and raised in Massachusetts, Du Bois became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University after first graduating from the black liberal arts college Fisk University. With his 1899 publication of The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, he became widely recognized as the first scholar of black life in America. Hoping to use social sciences as a means to eliminate segregation, he taught at Atlanta University. However, he concluded that the only way to beat racism was to make noise. He disagreed with Booker T. Washington, his contemporary and the most influential black man in America, who wanted African Americans to accept segregation and racism while eliciting change through hard work in order to win the respect of whites. Soon there were two schools of thought in America: Du Bois’ radical approach and Washington’s conservative approach. Du Bois fought throughout his life for equality for blacks in America, even calling out President Woodrow Wilson for allowing segregation in the federal government. In 1951, at the age of 83, he was prosecuted for affiliation with the Communist party. He wasn’t a member, so the case was thrown out. Disgusted, he joined the Communist party, moved to Ghana, and renounced his US citizenship.
Duke Ellington (1899–1974)
If there ever was a king of jazz, it would be Duke Ellington. He began playing music professionally in 1917 in Washington, D.C., and moved to New York in 1923. He and his band hit the big time when their manager, Irving Mills, helped them re-record some of their earlier songs and land a gig at the Cotton Club, a whites-only night club that featured some of the best black talent New York had to offer. Duke’s music hit the radio airwaves, making him enough money to concentrate on building a band of amazing musicians that he could write and arrange music for. He also acted in twelve films and recorded three solo albums. Duke composed music in many different genres, including hot jazz, swing, and religious music. After his death, his son became band leader, and the music played on.
Bessie Coleman (1892–1926)
Amelia Earhart may have been America’s sweetheart, but Bessie Coleman was America’s sparkplug. Part American Indian, she grew up in Oklahoma, where she graduated from eighth grade with high enough marks to go to college for a semester. After reading about aviation and hearing tales about French women flying planes in the First World War, she began applying to aviation schools. She was turned down every time. Her solution? Move to France! In 1920, she was accepted into a flying school and became the first African American woman to earn a pilot’s licence. Returning to America, the black press heralded her achievements, but the mainstream press ignored her. She wanted to make a living as a pilot, so she returned to Europe to train as a stunt pilot. For five years, she was a star in air shows around America. She died tragically on April 30, 1926, when a loose wrench jammed the gear box of a plane she was flying as she planned stunts for a May Day celebration. Her legacy continues today with the Bessie Coleman Aero clubs and her inclusion in the National Women’s Hall of Fame in New York.
Patricia Bath (1942– )
Patricia Bath was the first African American to complete a residence in ophthalmology (the branch of medicine specializing in the eye, its anatomy, and its diseases). In 1975, she became the first female faculty member at UCLA’s Department of Ophthalmology at the Jules Stein Eye Institute, making her an inspiration for African Americans and women. Her credo that “eyesight is a basic human right” led her to co-found the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness as well as to help create and chair an ophthalmology training program at UCLA–Drew, another first for a woman in America!
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All photos from Wikipedia.