Ira Aldridge: Despite launching his acting career at the black-owned and operated African Grove Theater in New York in the 1820s, Ira Aldridge grew frustrated with American racism and relocated to England. Wowing British audiences with his portrayal of Othello, Aldridge became a star and received top billing throughout Europe. Aldridge’s acting talents were so respected he even donned white face to play the title role in “Richard III” and other noted works. Often closing his performances with an anti-slavery message, Aldridge, who died in Poland in 1867, while on tour, contributed money to the American abolitionist movement.
(Image from the Google Print copy of The Cambridge History of American Theatre: Beginnings to 1870)
William Wells Brown: The product of an enslaved black woman and her master, William Wells Brown, who escaped to freedom in 1834 after about 20 years of enslavement, first rose to prominence as an anti-slavery speaker and activist. His 1847 slave narrative, Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave, made him a bigger draw and he traveled to England. There, in 1853, he published Clotel; or The President’s Daughter, widely considered the first published novel by an African-American. Controversial for its story line of tracing several mixed-race female descendants of Thomas Jefferson, a reference to the long rumored relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings, Clotel helped pave the way for other African-American novels that explored miscegenation and passing.
(Image from Three Years in Europe: Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met.)
William Still: The New York Times acknowledged William Still as the “Father of the Underground Railroad” in his 1902 obituary. Later in life, the former slave became a wealthy man, leaving between $750,000 and $1 million upon his death. Working tirelessly on the Underground Railroad, it’s estimated that Still helped as many as 60 slaves a month escape to freedom. His most enduring legacy remains the meticulous records he kept about Underground Railroad activity and, most importantly, the fugitive slaves themselves that are found within his 1872 book, “The Underground Railroad.”
(From: “The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom” By Wilbur Henry Siebert, Albert Bushnell Hart Edition: 2 Published by Macmillan, 1898, pg. 74)
Robert Smalls: Born a slave in Beaufort, South Carolina, Robert Smalls, who taught himself to read, grew up largely in Charleston, mastering the sea. In 1862, as its white officers slept, Smalls smuggled his wife and three children aboard “Planter,” a Confederate steamer, hoisted the Confederate flag and sailed it past other Confederate ships to deliver it and its secrets to the Union. After the war, Smalls served in the South Carolina Senate and the U.S. Congress.
(Photo from National Archive)
Susie King Taylor: The only known African-American woman to publish a wartime memoir about the Civil War, Susie King Taylor was born a slave near Savannah. Taylor, who secretly learned to read as a child, fled to freedom at St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, which Union Soldiers had occupied. Her literacy was noticed there and she was encouraged to form a school. Traveling with her husband Edward King, a noncommissioned officer in the Union army, King served as a nurse and laundress to Union forces. Reminiscences of My Life in Camp: An African American Woman’s Civil War Memoir, detailing her experiences, was originally published in 1902.
(Public domain photo)
Thomas Morris Chester: Harrisburg, Pennsylvania native Thomas Morris Chester, who supported colonization and lived in Liberia for a period of time, is most praised for his accounts as a Civil War correspondent for “The Philadelphia Press” where he covered the nation’s black troops. Offering the only known daily accounts of black soldiers during the Civil War, Chester’s dispatches, including accounts of the critical fall of Richmond, are contained in the book Thomas Morris Chester: Black Civil War Correspondent.
The Thomas Morris Chester Benevolent Corporation
Benjamin “Pap” Singleton: Following the Civil War, former fugitive slave Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, who actively helped other runaways, returned to his native Tennessee intent on helping other black people. White Tennesseans’ refusal to sell the land at fair prices prompted Singleton, along with partner Columbus Johnson, to stake out land in Kansas for black people. Part of the Black Exodus or the Exoduster Movement of 1879, Singleton, known as the “Father of the Exodus,” personally facilitated the relocation of hundreds of black Tennesseans to the Midwest. At least 50,000 African Americans left the South for the Midwest from 1879 to 1881 in response to the federal government pulling the plug on Reconstruction.
(Photo courtesy of BlackPast.org)
Annie Turnbo Malone: Her most famous employee, Madam C.J. Walker, has overshadowed her legacy but Annie Turnbo Malone, born in Metropolis, Illinois in 1869, was a millionaire by the 1920s. Developing hair care products that were sold door to door, Malone’s business really boomed when she relocated to St. Louis in 1902. Naming her products Poro, which she copyrighted, Malone trained agents to sell Poro products nationally as well as built her own factory and beauty training school known as Poro College before relocating to Chicago. Distinguished also for her philanthropy, Malone donated large sums of money to black colleges and students as well as organizations assisting needy children and families.
(Photo from ‘The Negro in our history. Woodson, Carter Godwin’, 1922)
Thomas Andrew Dorsey: Georgia native Thomas Andrew Dorsey began his musical career as blues pianist “Georgia Tom,” even touring with Ma Rainey. Composing and arranging several successful blues hits, Dorsey’s secular music career flourished. When he lost his beloved wife Nettie in childbirth and their infant son also died, his only solace was his faith. Out of that grief, he wrote “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” which his early protégé Mahalia Jackson sang at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. More than that, Dorsey helped develop and shape modern day gospel music through the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, which he founded. Widely acknowledged as the “Father of Gospel Music,” Dorsey also composed “Peace in the Valley,” a favorite of country singers first performed by Mahalia Jackson and even covered by Elvis Presley.
(Photo courtesy of BlackPast.org)
Charles Hamilton Houston – Tagged “the man who killed Jim Crow,” Charles Hamilton Houston masterminded the NAACP legal strategy to dismantle segregation by challenging the “separate but equal” doctrine of “Plessy v. Ferguson,” particularly with educational institutions. Racist experiences serving in the army during World War I as one of its first African American officers dedicated Houston to ending Jim Crow. Back in the United States, he enrolled in Harvard Law School, becoming the first black editor at the “Harvard Law Review.” Eventually heading Howard Law School, Houston largely built the school’s reputation, enlisting its brightest students into the legal struggle for civil rights. Serving as special counsel to the NAACP from the early 1930s until his death in 1950, Houston, who mentored Thurgood Marshall, had a hand in every major civil rights case of that time.
(Photo courtesy of Charles Hamilton Houston IInstitute for Race & Justice at Harvard)
Irene Morgan: Returning to Baltimore on a Greyhound bus after visiting her mother in Virginia, Irene Morgan, a young mother of two, refused to yield her seat to white patrons when the bus got crowded in the summer of 1944. Although Morgan paid the $100 fine for resisting arrest, she refused to pay the $10 for “violating” the Virginia law requiring segregated seating on buses. That act of defiance attracted the attention of the NAACP, with Thurgood Marshall serving as a lead attorney. Appealing the case all the way to the Supreme Court, the state ruling in Morgan v. Virginia was overturned. The Supreme Court ruled segregation in interstate travel illegal in 1947, setting an important precedent in dismantling Jim Crow.
(AP Photo/Newport News Daily Press, Kyndell Harkness)
Pauli Murray: Orphaned at a young age, Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray grew up in Durham, North Carolina with her maternal aunt and grandparents. The only woman in her 1944 graduating class at Howard Law School, Murray won a Rosenwald Fellowship to Harvard but was rejected because of her gender. A leader in civil rights law, Murray published “States’ Laws on Race and Color,” a book praised by Thurgood Marshall, in 1951. Murray, who participated in early sit-ins organized by CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality) and worked closely with A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King, Jr., was very critical of the lack of women in key leadership roles in civil rights organizations. Those experiences led to her becoming one of the key founders of the National Organization of Women (NOW).
Bayard Rustin: Openly gay in a homophobic era, Bayard Rustin was a tireless activist. Although a Pennsylvania native, Rustin, who was also a Quaker, flourished in Harlem, joining the national effort to free the Scottsboro boys as well as contributing to early Communist efforts to end racism. Working with A. Philip Randolph, the legendary labor and civil rights leader, Rustin was part of the original March on Washington, proposed first in 1941 and was the main organizer of the historic 1963 march. Rustin participated in the 1947 Freedom Rides organized by the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Traveling to India in 1948, Rustin, who studied with Gandhi’s disciples and was a critical advisor during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, is credited for fully converting Dr. King to nonviolent direct action.
(AP Photo/A. Camerano)
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Few Americans are unaware of the historic contributions African-Americans like Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and, of course, Barack Obama have made towards bettering the United States. But these aren’t the only African-Americans who have helped the United States move closer to becoming “a more perfect union.” So many people have contributed greatly to the ongoing struggle for justice and equality and yet have remained woefully under-appreciated. These are just some of the unsung heroes.