By Kelli Drummer-Avendano
The very first time Black history was officially honored was in 1926, during what was called “Negro History Week.” It wasn’t until 1976, however, that February officially became Black History Month.
It was chosen because two important figures have birthdays this month: Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.
While you’ve almost certainly heard of Douglass and Lincoln, you may not know about these groundbreakers in Black American history:
Madam C.J. Walker
Madam C. J. Walker was the first American woman—and the first Black woman—to become a self-made millionaire.
She was born in 1867 to recently freed slaves on a cotton plantation in Louisiana. As an adult, Walker suffered from a scalp condition and began experimenting with homemade remedies.
She went on to create a line of hair care products specifically made for Black hair. The products became popular and ultimately made her a millionaire.
John Mercer Langston
The first Black man in America to become a lawyer was John Mercer Langston. He passed the bar in 1854 in Ohio.
He later became the town clerk of Brownhelm, Ohio. This elected position also gave him the honor of being one of the first Black Americans to hold a public office.
Bessie Coleman was the first Black woman to become a licensed pilot. In order to achiever her dream, she had to overcome poverty, discrimination, and finally, move to France.
It was there that Coleman finally received her international pilot’s license in 1921. After her return to the United States, she became famous for the stunts she performed at air shows.
Historically black colleges and universities have played a vital role in the fight for equal rights for Black Americans.
The first such institute was founded in April of 1837 as the Institute for Colored Youth in Cheyney, Pennsylvania.
It was originally dedicated to training free people of color for jobs in a trade or agriculture. In 1983, it officially became part of the higher education system in Pennsylvania and was renamed Cheyney University.
Perhaps one of the best-known “firsts,” Jackie Robinson became the first Black baseball player in the major leagues in 1947.
He played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, where he became the first player to win Rookie of the Year. Robinson didn’t let discrimination, harassment, or even death threats stop him from becoming one of the best players of all time.
In 1955, with Robinson a major contributor to their roster, the Dodgers won the World Series.
Read also: Resources for your Spanish Classroom: The History Behind Black History Month
Explore our Higher Education programs here