10 Overlooked African American Heroes

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Since 1976, February has been designated as Black History Month in the United States. So each February, children across America bring home projects or books featuring famous African-Americans such as Martin Luther King Jr., Booker T. Washington, Harriet Tubman and George Washington Carver. Those legendary figures are certainly worth celebrating, yet there have been many other African-American men and women who achieved significant milestones for their race, and made significant contributions to society, but get little attention today. Here are 10 notable African-Americans who are often overlooked during Black History Month.


10. Hattie McDaniel

Hattie McDanield became the first black Oscar winner, in 1940.

Hattie McDaniel in 1941.

Halle Berry made headlines in 2002 when she became the first African-American to win an Academy Award for Best Actress, for her role in Monster’s Ball. Yet this didn’t seem that unusual at a time only a few years removed from the election of the first black U.S. president. It was much more of a shock in 1940 when Hattie McDaniel became the first black person to win an Oscar. Ironically, McDaniel’s Oscar-winning performance as the character Mammy in Gone With the Wind was not universally viewed as a great achievement by blacks at the time; many criticized her appearance in a film sympathetic to the view of slaveholders. It wasn’t the only irony surrounding McDaniel’s award — in keeping with segregation protocols at the time, McDaniel sat at a blacks-only table during the Oscar ceremony. Although McDaniel is best remembered for her GWTW performance, she appeared in more than 80 other films during the 1930s and 1940s. She is also regarded as the first black woman to sing on radio in the United States. Fittingly, she has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, honoring both her singing and film careers.


9. Guion Bluford

Guion Bluford was the first African-American astronaut in space.

Guion Bluford; NASA image

With the liftoff of a 1983 mission aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger, Guion Bluford became the first African-American astronaut to reach space. Bluford was no stranger to flight, logging 144 combat missions as a U.S. Air Force pilot in Vietnam. Boasting a resume filled with military flight experience and advanced degrees in aerospace engineering, Bluford could have made more money in the private sector, but he opted for the astronaut route. He made four shuttle flights between 1983 and 1992 and later served as an engineering consultant.


8. Edward Bouchet

Edward Bouchet was the first African-American to earn a Ph.D.

Portrait of Edward Bouchet in Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University.

Edward Bouchet (1852-1918) overcame many segregationist obstacles on his way to become the first African-American to receive a Ph.D. at an American university. The fact Bouchet earned that degree from Yale, in Physics no less, makes his achievement even more remarkable. Unfortunately, Bouchet’s academic credentials weren’t enough to break the wall of segregation and this brilliant man spent the remainder of his life teaching in obscurity, separated from his professional and intellectual peers because of his race.


7. Fritz Pollard

Fritz Pollard broke the color barrier in more ways than one in the NFL.

Fritz Pollard was the first African-American coach in the NFL.

Many football fans probably recall the media coverage in 1989 when Art Shell became the first black head coach in the NFL’s modern era. Not too many fans likely remember the fine print in that announcement, that the first black head coach in the league predated Shell by about 70 years. That honor belongs to Fritz Pollard, who served as a player-coach with the Akron Pros in 1921. At the time, Pollard was much better known for his abilities on the field, primarily as a runner, but also in breaking the color barrier. While at Brown University, he became the first African-American to play in the Rose Bowl. He and another black player, Bobby Marshall, broke the color barrier in pro football in 1920. Pollard was first team all-pro in 1920, and led Akron to the league championship before moving on to play and coach with other teams in the league. Unfortunately, Pollard was kicked out of the NFL, along with other black players, in 1926 as the league opted for segregation. Pollard’s legacy might have been forgotten forever, had he not been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005.


6. Oscar Micheaux

Oscar Micheaux founded his own film company and authored several books.

Oscar Micheaux was the first noted African-American filmmaker.

Oscar Micheaux rose to fame as a producer in the early years of the film industry, but he went on to a multifaceted career as an author, publisher, playwright and lecturer. In 1919, at the age of 35, he produced The Homesteader, the first full-length movie featuring only black characters. Founder of the Micheaux Film and Book Co., which produced more than 30 films, Micheaux also wrote and published several best-selling books. Born in southern Illinois, Micheaux lived much of his adult life in New York, where he became a leading figure in the Harlem community. Micheaux died in 1951, but his legacy is still celebrated, with several annual Oscar Micheaux film festivals around the country.


5. Crispus Attucks

Crispus Attucks is regarded by some historians as the first casualty of the American Revolution.

Lithograph depicting the death of Crispus Attucks at the Boston Massacre, 1770.

Crispus Attucks was the first casualty of the Boston Massacre, which occurred on March 5, 1770 when British soldiers shot into a crowd of angry colonists. Some historians consider Attucks the first victim in colonial America’s fight for freedom from Great Britain, but at the time, his death sparked controversy; John Adams, who would later become the second U.S. president, served as the lawyer for the British soldiers and won an acquittal for several soldiers, claiming that Attucks wasn’t a patriot, but rather a troublemaker who caused the violent encounter. Either way, Attucks, born in 1723 to a black slave and Native American woman, eventually became a symbol of the revolution. His legacy lives on through his representation on the Boston Massacre Monument erected at the Boston Commons in 1888.


4. James “Cool Papa” Bell

Cool Papa Bell was one of the greatest players in baseball history.

James (Cool Papa) Bell; Photo courtesy Negro Baseball League Museum

Jackie Robinson made history when he broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947, but as blacks began joining the big leagues, it was too late for many former Negro League legends. One such player was James “Cool Papa” Bell, who was reportedly offered a chance to play in the big leagues in 1951, but turned it down because he was 48. Widely regarded as one of the fastest players in baseball history, the outfielder began his career in 1922 at age 19 with the St. Louis Stars, and would play for several other teams during his quarter-century career. Although Negro League statistics were notoriously unreliable, BaseballLibrary.com credits Bell with once stealing 175 bases in a 200-game season; he also reportedly had several seasons with a batting average over .400. Bell was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974.


3. Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman was the first African-American to earn a pilot's license.

Bessie Coleman; Photo courtesy of National Air and Space Museum

The story of Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman began amidst the racially charged atmosphere of the American South at the beginning of the 20th century. Born in 1892 in Atlanta, Texas, the 10th of 13 children, Coleman was allowed to focus on her education in her youth rather than toil with her siblings on the farm. As a young woman, she traveled to Chicago and landed work as a manicurist, but after hearing returning World War I veterans talk about the exploits of female airplane pilots in Europe, Coleman set out to earn her pilot’s license. With no such opportunity available under the prevailing Jim Crow laws, Coleman traveled to Paris, where she became the first African-American to obtain an international pilot’s license. Coleman went on to become a world-renowned show pilot. Several years of successful shows and accolades followed until tragedy struck on April 30, 1926, when Coleman fell out of her plane during a practice flight in Florida.


2. Madam C.J. Walker

Madam C.J. Walker turned a one-dollar investment into a million-dollar fortune.

Madam C.J. Walker, the first black millionaire, drives some of her friends around in her car.

Before Oprah Winfrey earned recognition as the world’s first black billionaire, there was Madam C.J. Walker, who is regarded as not just the first black millionaire, but the first female millionaire who achieved that status through work rather than marriage. Born Sarah Breedlove in Louisiana in 1867, Walker’s rise to wealth and prominence did not come without heartache and hard work. Orphaned at 7 and married for the first time at 14, then widowed at age 20, Walker worked with four of her brothers at a St. Louis barbershop when she began to suffer from hair loss. After experimenting with several homemade concoctions, Walker claimed a dream inspired her to create Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, a product designed to repair and condition black women’s hair. She began to sell and demonstrate her product throughout the U.S., and in the next dozen years, turned her initial investment of $1.25 into a fortune. Later, she took on many other businesses, including real estate investment, and she became heavily involved in African-American causes before her death in 1919.


1. Matthew Henson

Matthew Henson and Robert Peary became estranged after Henson claimed he beat Peary to the North Pole.

Matthew Henson is credited by many as the first man to reach the North Pole, in 1909.

Many history books teach that Robert Peary became the first man to reach the North Pole, on April 6, 1909. Many of these same books omit an important member of his team, Matthew Henson. Born on a Maryland farm in 1866, Henson worked as a seaman before accepting employment on a Nicaraguan expedition led by Peary in 1887. The two worked together for two decades, most of it spent in the Arctic, before mounting their successful bid to reach the North Pole. As they neared the expedition’s end, Peary fell ill and sent Henson ahead. Henson became the first to reach the pole and planted the American flag, although Peary received most of the acclaim. When Henson penned the novel A Negro Explorer at the North Pole in 1912, Peary vilified the book and subsequent lecture tours, referring to Henson as no more than a glorified servant. As Henson told the Boston American in 1910, “After twenty-two years of service with Peary we are now as strangers … From the moment I declared to Commander Peary that I believed we stood upon the Pole he apparently ceased to be my friend.”

Henson passed away in 1955 at the age of 88, but the years since have seen him posthumously given the kind of recognition he was denied during his lifetime, including the naming of a U.S. Navy vessel, the USNS Henson, in his honor. Peary himself would undoubtedly be surprised to find that Henson’s final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery is very near Peary’s grave.


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