As always, Black history month is a time to honor the many achievements – personal, professional, and societal – of all those who made a difference to the Black Diaspora in the United States and globally. While we love all of our often-sung heroes, there are far too many who go unsung. Here are a few of the many we should remember:
1. Robert Smalls (April 5, 1839 – February 23, 1915)
Robert Smalls was born into slavery in South Carolina, where he worked as a house slave up until age 12 when his “owner” sent him to work on the docks of Charleston. Up until he was 18 years old, his owner kept all his pay, but Smalls then negotiated with his owner to keep $15, which he would save to eventually purchase his wife and daughter from their owner.
During the Civil War, Smalls worked the Confederate transport steamer that brought armaments to their forts. On one evening, Smalls gathered his family and 12 slaves and sailed to the Union blockade where he would deliver all Confederate intelligence and armaments to the Union. In 1863, Smalls became the first Black American in the United States to hold the title of Captain of the vessel. After the war, Smalls became a politician, where he helped legislate free and a compulsory public school system. (Source)
2. Madam C.J. Walker (December 23, 1867 – May 25, 1919)
It ought to be a crime that Madam C.J. Walker’s story is not widely known in American history. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, was the first child of her family born “free” and would become the first female self-made millionaire in America. That means she was the first woman of any race or ethnicity to accomplish this feat.
Walker’s fortune came from her self-titled manufacturing company that produced cosmetic products. Walker gave back to her community not only through philanthropy and support of numerous Black institutions of her day, but she trained and empowered many Black women specifically on how to build and run a successful business. (Source)
3. Gloria Richardson (May 6, 1922 – )
Gloria Richardson Dandridge, originally Gloria St. Clair, was born into the wealthy St. Clair family in Cambridge, where Black people could vote. She graduated from Howard University in 1942 but with discriminatory hiring practices, found it difficult to find a job, and spent much of her time after college as a homemaker.
In the height of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement however, Richardson emerged the leader of the Cambridge Movement where she was particularly focused on economic justice. It is important to note that Richardson disagreed with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolence stance. She was credited as one of the people who made the Treaty of Cambridge possible, which she negotiated with Attorney General Robert Kennedy. The treaty focused on desegregation, housing, and employment. (Source)
4. Benjamin Hooks (January 31, 1925 – April 15, 2010)
Benjamin Hooks was born considerably “comfortable” by the standards for black people in his time, although he was not by any means well off. His paternal grandmother graduated from Berea College in 1874 and at the time was only the second black American woman to graduate from college. Hooks graduated from Lemoyne-Owen College in Memphis Tennessee, his hometown, and it was during these years where his attention to segregation grew.
Hooks attended DePaul University for law school and then returned back to Memphis to set up his own practice. Initially, he tried unsuccessfully to enter politics. He later became the first criminal court judge in Tennessee history. Aside from being a preacher, he served as the NAACP’s executive director for fifteen years, from 1977 to 1992. (Source)
5. Claudette Colvin (September 5, 1939 – )
It is slowly coming to light that long before Rosa Parks said she wasn’t giving up her seat for a white man in December 1955, a 15-year-old girl had done just that on another bus (also in Alabama) a few months earlier in March. Her name was Claudette Colvin. Colvin refused to get up from her seat and was consequently dragged out, handcuffed, jailed, and charged with many offenses, including assault and battery, disorderly conduct, and breaking the segregation law.
Although Colvin wanted to fight the system, Fred Gray, the lawyer who represented Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. concluded that she didn’t have appropriate civil rights training. Additionally, Colvin was not made into a symbol of the civil rights symbol like Parks because she was young, would become pregnant at age 16, and was seen as “militant.” All the same, what Colvin did was courageous and would spark many famous bus boycotts and protests.
These five often forgotten heroes are still just five in the great scheme of things – five of hundreds if not thousands whose action made a difference to their communities in their time and ours. Every hero is important in the struggle for equality, which of course is till ongoing. So any opportunity to remember our lesser-sung heroes is one we should see as an opportunity to widen our version of history, which can change what we know of our present.
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