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One Time for the Underdogs: Notable Black Figures We All Should Know

One Time for the Underdogs: Notable Black Figures We All Should Know

March on Washington organizers Bayard Rustin (l) and Cleveland Robinson (r), 1963   (Library of Congress)

Dr. Martin Luther King  Jr., had a dream, Rosa Parks didn’t give up her seat to for discriminatory policies on public transportation, and Harriet Tubman navigated and led those enslaved, to the underground railroad. These are facts we’re all expected to know like the back of our hand, from these remarkable individuals who paved the way for those to lead behind them.

Although notable and forever engraved into our history, these figures along with the likes of Malcolm X, Madam C.J. Walker, Fredrick Douglass, Marcus Garvey and an endless list of game changers, we sometimes fail to acknowledge the stories untold, of those who accomplished just as great of a breakthroughs for our people.

You probably didn’t know, who was the first African-American male to win both the U.S. Open and Wimbledon, or who initially designed the March on Washington, in advisement to MLK, or the first black woman to appear on television as a reporter, from the West Coast.

These individuals paved the way for some of our most honorable mentions during black history month and history in general. Some were active at the time, but were overlooked, just to have their stories found years later.

We’re here to make sure those stories no longer go untold, as we unravel them and those who’ve made them graciously come to life. These are the underdogs.

Carter G. Woodson

Carter G. Woodson

Let’s take the time to appreciate and thank the man, who made this glorious month we all celebrate with so much pride happen, Carter G. Woodson, the “Father of Black History.”

In 1926, Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, started to reach out to schools and the general public, with a proposal of a “Negro History Week,” during the second week of February, which he believed was needed to allow blacks to be proud of their heritage and culture, and for Americans of other races, to understand it too.

The week soon expanded into what we call Black History Month, all 29 days of February dedicated to the history and excellence of black people, who’ve changed our lives. Woodson who was also one of the first scholars to study African-American history, specifically picked February for the celebration, to honor the birth month of abolitionists Fredrick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln.

 Claudette Colvin

Claudette Colvin

Before Rosa Park refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, due to the color of her skin, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin, was arrested for the same offense nine months before, in March of 1955.

Colvin’s bravery, rooted from a statement she made of how in the moment when she was asked to move to the back of the bus, she said, “It felt like Sojourner Truth was on one side pushing me down, and Harriet Tubman was on the other side of me pushing me down. I couldn’t get up.”

Because of how young Colvin was, the NAACP and other black organizations, thought Rosa Parks would be a better representation of the movement, than someone still in their youth.

We see you, Claudette, and the sacrifice and bravery you showed through your actions and voice, at such a young age. Forever the originator of not giving up, what you righteously deserve.

Arthur Ashe

Arthur Ashe after win at Wimbledon, 1975

Before we had powerhouse tennis players, Venus and Serena Williams, there were athletic talents like Arthur Ashe, in the same field, who put black excellence on the map for this sport.

Ashe earned the title as the number one tennis player in the United States, with three Grand Slam Championships under his belt. He also was the first black player selected to be a part of the United States David Cup Team, and the only black man to ever win the singles title at Wimbledon, the U.S. and Australian Open.

Off the court, Ashe became an advocate toward bringing awareness to the HIV/AIDS epidemic after being infected with the disease, from blood given during a bypass surgery he had in the early 80s. He worked hard after his 1992 announcement of his condition, to make sure the general public knew about HIV/AIDS, its effects and how to prevent it. Before his passing on February 6, 1993, he founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS and the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health.

Hattie McDaniel

Hattie McDaniel appears in a staging for an Oscars newsreel, her plaque is placed in the very front, 1939

The first African-American actress to earn an acting nomination and win an Academy Award, introducing, Ms. Hattie McDaniel.

She began her career as an acclaimed theatrical performer in Vaudeville, and was also accredited as one of the first black women on the radio.

Although occurring in many films throughout the 1930s, she was known for the stereotypical and culturally degrading storyline as Mammy, in the 1939 film, Gone With the Wind, in which the role earned her win and solidified history.

McDaniel is remembered for opening the doors of Hollywood for following black actors and actresses, our Viola Davis, Angela Bassetts, Taraji P. Hensons, Octavia Spencers, to star in roles that are versatile and showcases their incomparable talent, for all that it is.

Matthew Henson

Matthew Henson

In 1909, along with his partner, Robert Peary, who’s fame overshadowed him, Henson was the first African-American to reach the North Pole.

Henson and his partners made a total of six voyages, spending a total of 18 years in expeditions.

Despite not receiving the credit and accolades he deserved upon arrival, just as much as his other partners who were white, he recorded his Arctic memoir in the book, “A Negro Explorer at the North Pole.”

It wasn’t until Henson was 70-years-old, when the New York Explorers club, inducted him as an honorary member. In 1944, other members of the expedition and Henson, also received a Congressional medal, for their exploring efforts.

Mattie Smith Colin

Mattie Smith Colin (Provided by Anne Fredd)

We all remember learning the brutal and heartbreaking story of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who’s life was taken away from him way too soon, due to fabrication of a claim that caused devastation, but a stronger fight for fair justice within the black community.

Because of Mattie Smith Colin, a longtime reporter for the Chicago Defender, the public was able to know the full coverage of the injustices toward Emmett Till, as she took on the story of the return of his body and the day of his funeral, in 1955.

Colin’s remarkable and versatile work for the Defender, including food, fashion and editing, earned her affiliations with local and national politicians, as she was invited to the inauguration of Lyndon B. Johnson. She also served as a grand marshal in the largest African-American parade in the nation, known as the Bud Billiken Parade.

Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin (Courtesy of Associated Press)

Key adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King, Rayard Rustin was a revolutionist himself, a civil rights activist who turned every word into action, but was looked down upon and arrested multiple times, for his open homosexuality and rightful freedom of expression.

But he wasn’t just a key adviser, Rustin was the key to the event that gradually shifted the meaning of taking a stand, he was the main organizer and strategist of the infamous, March on Washington in 1963.

Rustin also assisted King with the boycotts of segregated buses in Montgomery, and was known more dominantly for his work and advocacy towards equality, access to jobs and overall freedom.

Honorable Mentions

Belva Davis
Belva Davis photographed by Greg Habiby © KQED 2009.

Davis was an award-winning journalist, and the first African-American woman to appear on television, as a reporter on the West Coast.

Benjamin O. Davis Sr.
Benjamin O. Davis Sr.

Davis was the first African-American general for the U.S. Army. Along with his expected service to the country, Davis made sure to implement plans for the limited desegregation of U.S. Combat forces in Europe during World War II, to battle segregation.

Jane Bolin

Jane Bolin was the first African-American woman to graduate from the law school of Yale, the first to join the New York City Bar Association and the first to join the new York City Law Department. She then went on to become the first African-American judge in the United States, among being sworn in at the New York City Domestic Relations Court in 1939.

We see you, we thank you and we honor you all, for your position in Black History.


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