Black Americans we should know about
Many Black Americans are well-known – Barack Obama, Denzel Washington, Beyoncé, Ella Fitzgerald, Toni Morrison, and Martin Luther King, Jr. to name just a few. Many others, however, are less well-known and some are hardly known at all. But Black history is American history and history is told, in part, in the lives of the people who inhabit it. This webpage offers information about Black Americans who have inhabited American history and should be more well-known.
NOTE: This webpage is under construction. New names will be added periodically.
ALLEN, RICHARD (born in 1760, died in 1831). Richard Allen was born into slavery and known as “Negro Richard” and, along with his family, was sold to a farmer in Delaware. Allen’s owner allowed him to buy his freedom, which he eventually did, after saving the substantial sum of $2000. Allen converted to Methodism as a teen-ager. However, frustrated by the segregation in his church, Allen left that church with the goal of creating an independent Methodist church. Along with several others, Allen founded the Bethel Church which became a stopping point on the Underground Railroad and served as the starting point for the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. Allen also helped found 2 organizations for helping the Black community: the Free African Society, a mutual aid society, and the Free Produce Society, enabling members to buy products from non-enslaved labor.
BAKER, ELLA (born in 1903, died in 1986). Ella Baker was born in Virginia and grew up hearing stories from her grandmother, who had been enslaved. She attended Shaw University and graduated as the class valedictorian. After moving to New York, Baker began her career as a community organizer by founding the Young Negroes Cooperative League (YNCL) working to promote Black-owned businesses. In 1940, Baker joined the NAACP. She believed that people were helped more by local organizations and she brought this view to the NAACP, training people how to organize and lead grassroots groups within the NAACP. Baker left and then rejoined the NAACP and worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to establish the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and trained leaders of local SCLC chapters. She left the SCLC in 1960 and later formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Baker is considered by many to be an unsung hero of the Civil Rights Movement. Her work is continued by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.
BATES, DAISY (born Daisy Gaston in 1914, died in 1999). When Daisy Gaston was 3 years old, her mother was killed by white men and she was raised in a foster home in Arkansas. Later, she and her husband started a newspaper that focused on Civil Rights. After the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U. S. Supreme Court, Bates also served as the president of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP and worked hard to ensure students were protected as they integrated Arkansas schools, including the 1957 integration of Central High School in Little Rock. To honor her work, the state of Arkansas established the 3rd Monday of February as Daisy Gaston Bates Day.
HOUSTON, CHARLES HAMILTON (born 1895, died 1950). Charles Hamilton Houston was an attorney who earned law degrees from Harvard and was the first Black editor of the Harvard Law Review. After admission to the bar in Washington, D. C. Houston served as the first special counsel of the NAACP, a job he held from the 1930s until his death. In this position he played a part in a large number of civil rights cases and became known as “the man who killed Jim Crow. He devised the legal strategy of attacking Jim Crow by challenging the “separate but equal” doctrine, leading to the Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954. Houston was a also a faculty member at the Howard University Law School and mentored a number of Black law students, including Thurgood Marshall, who later succeeded him as the NAACP special counsel and successfully argued the Brown case in the Supreme Court.
SMALLS, ROBERT (born in 1839, died in 1915). Robert Smalls was born into slavery in South Carolina. Beginning as a teenager, Smalls began working on the docks and surrounding waters of Beaufort, SC, serving as a navigator and pilot, though not in name or rank because of his race. On the night of May 12, 1862, when the ship’s white officers were on shore, Smalls put into action an audacious and dangerous plan to disguise himself as the captain of the Planter, a ship in the Confederate States Navy, and surrendering it to the Union Navy blockading Fort Sumter. Smalls was rewarded with enough money to buy the freedom of his family, also on board the Planter. In addition, he was instrumental in efforts to enlist Black soldiers and served in the Union Navy himself. After the Civil War, Smalls was one of the first Blacks elected to the US Congress in the South, representing South Carolina in the US House of Representatives from 1874 to 1886, when Reconstruction was rolled back. He had also purchased the house of his former owner in Beaufort and died there in 1915.
WALKER, MADAM C. J. (born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, died in 1919). Sarah Breedlove was born in Louisiana to sharecroppers who had been born into slavery. She was orphaned at 6, married at 14, and widowed at 20. She moved to St. Louis and then to Denver where she married and later divorced Charles J. Walker. Walker is best known for the Madam C. J. Walker Company that produced and sold hair care products created specifically for Black women. She moved her business headquarters to Indianapolis where it is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and serves as the Madam Walker Legacy Center. Walker was a self-made millionaire and became a prominent philanthropist, giving generously to Black-led organizations.