This month, be sure to celebrate Black History’s hidden figures

From the civil rights movement to electrical engineering, these Black pioneers should be recognized in American history.

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As we continue to pay homage to the pioneers of Black History, it is vital we also take the time to recognize a few of our less visible figures. As young students, most of our educational institutions provided a very small portion of our history; highlighting icons such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman seemed to be the repetitive narrative each February. In recent years, films like 2016’s Hidden Figures (starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe), have helped shine a light on some of the lesser-known leaders and changemakers who contributed to our history. In hopes of keeping the conversation going and furthering the education of Black History in February and beyond, here are a few hidden figures you and the youngsters in your life should know about. 

African-American civil rights activist Bayard Rustin (1912 – 1987) talks to a reporter during the Harlem Riots in Manhattan, 23rd July 1964. Photo: Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin (pictured above) was both a great leader and a key figure in the civil rights movement. The March on Washington has long been associated with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his famous “I Have a Dream ” speech but Rustin’s contributions helped make it possible. He was one of the primary organizers of the march and acted as an advisor for Dr. King. Unfortunately, as an openly gay man during a time it was widely considered unacceptable, Rustin never truly received the recognition and respect he deserved in life.

Recommended reads: Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin; Bayard Rustin, Leaders Like Us Series (for kids) 

Annie Turnbo Malone

Historically, Black female entrepreneurs’ contributions to the world of business and entrepreneurship have always been far less recognized than men. Annie Turnbo Malone was one of the first multi-millionaires of the 20th century as well as a philanthropist. Her studies of chemistry and hair care led her to creating her own line of non-damaging hair care products and opening a professional cosmetology school, Poro College. Before leaving her own mark on the hair care industry, Madam C. J. Walker worked as an agent for Malone, who we can thank for pioneering one of the largest industries in which Black entrepreneurs are still thriving today.

Recommended read: “A Friend to All Mankind”: Mrs. Annie Turnbo Malone and Poro College

Mrs. Fannie Hamer of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party walks firmly toward the convention hall entrance, where she and other members of her group were finally admitted on August 25, 1964, in Atlantic City, NJ.
Photo: Getty Images

Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer’s career as a voting rights advocate began when she was fired and nearly beaten to death for trying to register to vote. She went on to help organize Mississippi’s Freedom Summer and eventually became vice chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the Democratic Convention of 1964. Hamer’s persistence and dedication to challenging the all-white, anti-civil rights official delegation has made her one of the greatest figures of Black history. Powerful Black women activists of today sit on the shoulders of Fannie Lou Hamer and heroic contributions.

Recommended reads: Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America; Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer: The Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement (for kids)

Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman defied the odds when she became the first African American woman to get both a national and international pilot’s license. Her unconventional tactics to create the life and career she wanted continued to inspire generations to come. After hearing stories about the pilots in WWI, Coleman took interest in training to become a pilot herself. Finding it hard to find anyone to train her in the US, she ventured off to France to accrue her hours and accreditation. Bessie Coleman’s determination and unstoppable attitude led her to make history.

Recommended reads: Up in the Air: The Story of Bessie Coleman (Trailblazer Biographies); Flying Free: How Bessie Coleman’s Dreams Took Flight (A Sweet Blackberry Book) (for kids)

Phillip A. Payton, Jr.

Long before the ladies of Netflix’s Selling Tampa made waves for spreading Black Girl Magic all over the real estate industry, Phillip A. Payton, Jr. laid the groundwork in the early 1900s. During his time working as a barber, handyman and porter at a real estate firm, Payton was able to save enough earnings to purchase an office space in Harlem, NY to manage buildings with Black tenants. By 1907, Payton Jr. owned over 20 apartment buildings, ultimately changing the dynamics of Harlem. Recommended read: Philip Payton: The Father of Black Harlem

Arthur Ulysses Craig

The world of tech is one of the most lucrative and innovative industries of modern day and we can thank Arthur Ulysses Craig for his contributions. In 1895, Craig was named the first Black electrical engineer after he helped install a university’s first lighting system. His work with electrical engineering continues to provide a foundation for advances made in tech today.

Keasya Hudgins

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