There are countless African American pioneers standing in the shadows of famous African Americans such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, Malcom X, Rosa Parks and Booker T. Washington. And although their names are not as well-known, their actions, spirit, determination and intelligence also helped shape history and ultimately changed the world. Below are just a few who made their mark.
Known as “Queen Bess,” Bessie Coleman defied racism and sexism to earn her international pilot’s license in 1921, establishing her legacy as the first African-American female and first person of Native American ancestry to achieve this goal, according to Biography.com Writer Joe McGasko. The American aviator trained in Paris among the top pilots in Europe to earn her license and effectively became an accomplished and popular pilot on the air show circuit.
Lieutenant Vernon Baker was one of just 10 African-American soldiers to earn the Medal of Honor, as a result of his bravery during World War II, according to FamilyEducation.com.
The son of a former slave, Edward Bouchet was the first African-American and sixth American to earn the advanced degree of Ph.D in the study of physics, graduating sixth in his class. ThoughtCo.com Writer Carol Bainbridge notes that for 26 years he inspired future generations of African Americans as a teacher at the Institute for Colored Youth.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler
Born on Feb. 8, 1831, Rebecca Lee Crumpler, maiden name Davis, grew up to be America’s first African-American female doctor, according to PBS.org Writer Dr. Howard Markal.
“In 1864, Rebecca became the New England Female Medical College’s only African-American graduate (the school closed its doors in 1873),” reports Markal. “In 1860, there were only 300 women out of 54,543 physicians in the United States and none of them were African-American.”
Mary Ellen Pleasant
Although her early history is unclear, Mary Ellen Pleasant was a remarkable entrepreneur, who amassed a great fortune that she used to fight for civil rights, according to McGasko. Pleasant filed and won cases against two streetcar companies, which were unlawfully treating African Americans; she also lent money to those who were fighting similar cases or abuses of civil rights.
“She became known in the black community for her philanthropy and very public support for civil rights, which was unusual for a woman and doubly unusual for a woman of color,” writes McGasko. “She used her money to defend wronged blacks and spent thousands in legal fees, becoming a hero to a generation of African-Americans in California.”
Gwendolyn Brooks’ book of poetry, “Annie Allen,” earned the writer a Pulitzer Prize, the first ever to be awarded to an African American writer, according to FamilyEducation.com. In 1968, Brooks was honored with the distinction of Poet Laureate of Illinois and later Poet Laureate of the United States in 1985.
History may not celebrate the lives and accomplishments of the notable African American listed above as well as it should, but history’s failing will never diminish their impact, which can still be felt today.