February is Black History Month — a time to honor and remember those who fought against racial discrimination and championed equality in the United States.
But many black leaders of rights movements are an essential part of American history, whose names and accomplishments should be celebrated, not just in February, but year-round. Whether they made history in politics, fashion, science, or entertainment, these figures have helped changed the course of history for the better.
This Black History Month, we're highlighting trailblazers who helped us get to where we are today, and those who are still carrying on the fight for greater equality.
1. Claudette Colvin
In 1955, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was riding on a packed public bus in Alabama, when four white passengers boarded the bus. The teen stood her ground by refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus, nine months later Rosa Parks drew national attention for doing the same.
The laws at the time required African American bus riders to sit at the back of the bus and to surrender their seats to white passengers when the front section of the bus was full.
After all of the front section seats had filled up, a white woman boarded the bus and the driver told Colvin and her three friends to move.
“He wanted me to give up my seat for a white person and I would have done it for an elderly person, but this was a young white woman," said Colvin.
She refused to give up her seat and was arrested, making her the first person to be arrested for challenging Montgomery's bus segregation policies.
“Whenever people ask me: 'Why didn't you get up when the bus driver asked you?' I say it felt as though Harriet Tubman's hands were pushing me down on one shoulder and Sojourner Truth's hands were pushing me down on the other shoulder,” said Colvin.
The NAACP considered using Colvin’s case to fight segregation laws, but they decided that she was too young to be put under such scrutiny, particularly after she became pregnant while unmarried, which was highly stigmatized at that time. Still, Colvin’s bravery paved the way for Parks who later followed suit and eventually led to the Montgomery Bus Boycotts.
2. Dr. Gladys West
MDOT MTA would like to highlight the achievements of Dr. Gladys West during #BlackHistoryMonth for her contributions to transportation. Dr. West was inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame for her contributions in the creation of GPS. pic.twitter.com/rHLyAf2gF4— MTA Maryland (@mtamaryland) February 12, 2019
Though not widely known, the world wouldn't have GPS systems if not for the work of mathematician Dr. Gladys West. In 1956, she was hired to do computing for the US Naval Weapons Laboratory, where she contributed to an award-winning astronomical study that proved that the regularity of Pluto’s motion in relation to Neptune.
In the 1970s through the 1980s, she used algorithms to measure variations in gravitational and forces that affect the earth’s shape. She programmed an IBM 7030 ‘Stretch’ computer to create calculations for a geodetic Earth Model, which late became the groundwork for the Global Positioning System (GPS).
West's accomplishments were particularly impressive as few women were accepted to work in her field, and even fewer women of color. Recently, West was inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame in December.
3. The Greensboro Four: Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain, and Joseph McNeil
In the early 1960s, segregation laws were in effect, requiring white-owned and white-run businesses and food establishments to refuse black customers. But on Feb. 1, 1960, four black students had finally had enough. Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain, and Joseph McNeil — who came to be known as the Greensboro Four — walked into Woolworth’s, a white-only restaurant in Greensboro, North Carolina, and, despite, being refused service, refused to move in protest of segregation laws.
The next day, the young men, all students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, returned, this time bringing more student protesters. In just four days, over 300 students participated in the protest at Woolworth’s. The sit-ins drew heavy media coverage, sparking similar demonstrations in in 55 cities across the country. Some protesters were arrested for trespassing, disorderly conduct, and disturbing the peace.
However, their efforts ultimately lead to the Woolworth’s to desegregate by the end of July. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 later ended segregation in all public spaces.
4. Ruby Bridges
1954: SCOTUS issues a unanimous decision on Brown v. Board of Education that ruled segregated schools unconstitutional and inherently unequal.— ACLU (@ACLU) March 15, 2018
Six years later, Ruby Bridges began her first day of school at William Frantz Elementary. pic.twitter.com/zNcf3LzxWO
Six-year-old Ruby Bridges made history as the first African American student to attend William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case required schools to desegregate in 1954 — though many schools in the south continued to resist integration.
On Nov. 14, 1960, Bridges was escorted by four federal marshals into her new elementary school amidst a crowd of angry protestors. The scene later inspired Norman Rockwell's famous 1964 art piece “The Problem We All Live With,” which became a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement and was later displayed in the White House. Bridges herself, though a child at the time of her heroic act, went on to become a symbol of the movement as well.
5. Shirley Chisholm
Throughout her life, Shirley Chisholm continuously paved the way for African Americans in politics and helped shatter the glass ceiling for women of color in politics. In 1968, Chisholm became the first African American woman to be elected to Congress. Three years later, she co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus.
In 1972, she ran for president, making her the first black woman from a major political party to seek a presidential nomination. And though she did not win the election, she inspired many others, paving the way for minorities in politics.
“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair,” said Chisholm, speaking of her determination to be included in political debates and law-making.
Chisholm served seven terms in the house before retiring and becoming a public speaker; she passed away in 2005.
6. Jordan Peele
Comedian Jordan Peele rose to fame as a result of his sketch show Key and Peele on Comedy Central. But, in 2017, Peele stepped away from comedy, making his directorial debut with the horror film Get Out. The film, which Peele wrote and directed, centers on a man in an interracial relationship, who meets his partner’s family for the first time. The movie takes a critical look at race relations in the US.
In March 2018, Get Outwon the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, making Peele the first African American to receive the award. Peele used his acceptance speech as an opportunity to highlight the need for more black directors in entertainment both to create more diverse art and to serve as role models.
“I almost never became a director. There was such a shortage of role models,” he said in his acceptance speech. “I’m so proud to be a part of a time at the beginning of a movement where I feel like the best films in every genre are being brought to me by my fellow black directors.”
Get Out gained widespread success, grossing over $255 million worldwide on a $4.5 million budget, and also prompted a nationwide discussion about race by highlighting these issues.
7. Tyler Mitchell
Many remember when Beyoncé graced the September cover of Vogue, but behind the iconic photo shoot, was 23-year-old Tyler Mitchell, the first black photographer to ever shoot the famed magazine's cover.
Mitchell is also one of the youngest photographers to have received the honor. He’s tied with David Bailey, who was also 23 when he shot for Vogue's cover in the 1960s.
Social justice issues and cultural identity are recurring themes in Mitchell's work.
“For so long, black people have been considered things,” he said. “We’ve been thingified physically, sexually, emotionally. With my work, I’m looking to revitalize and elevate the black body.”
8. John Legend
John Legend became the first African American man to receive an EGOT — meaning winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and a Tony award — last year, after he took home an Emmy Award for producing “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert.”
Only 13 people in have ever achieved this accomplishment, and Legend is the youngest to have done so at age 39.
While he is the first black man to win an EGOT, the first black person to ever win an EGOT was Whoopi Goldberg in 2002.
Legend won his Oscar and a Grammy for his work on Selma, a film about the civil rights movement and fight for voting rights. He took home a Tony Award for his role as co-producer in the Broadway show Jitney.
Legend is a vocal advocate for criminal justice reform and gender equality, and performed at the Global Citizen Festival 2018 in New York.
Last September, Rihanna graced the cover of British Vogue, making her the first black woman to appear on the magazine’s cover.
“I always knew it had to be Rihanna,” said British Vogue editor-in-chief Edward Enninful. “A fearless music-industry icon and businesswoman, when it comes to that potent mix of fashion and celebrity, nobody does it quite like her.”
The singer, designer, businesswoman, and Global Citizen Ambassador is a proud advocate for racial equality, women's rights, and education.
Her makeup line, Fenty Beauty, launched in 2017. The singer said she created the line “so that women everywhere would be included.” Her foundation’s extensive shade range and diverse model representation made makeup more accessible for to people of all skin tones, especially people of color. Her makeup line was named one of Time’s 25 Best Inventions of 2017.
“I never could have anticipated the emotional connection that women are having with the products and the brand as a whole,” said Rihanna. “Some are finding their shade of foundation for the first time, getting emotional at the counter. That’s something I will never get over.”
10. Lt. Andrea Lewis
“At first I was a little hesitant, but (my dad) encouraged me and it was a great fit,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a phone interview Wednesday. https://t.co/o842i4VRTi— AJC (@ajc) February 8, 2019
Lt. Andrea Lewis became the first black female pilot in the history of the Georgia Air National Guard (ANG), in April of 2017.
“It is my dream job, one I hoped for and set my sights to accomplish,” said Lewis. “When I got my wings, I couldn’t believe it finally was happening.”
Now, she’s set to become the first black women to deploy as a part of the Georgia ANG. Guard officials announced in a statement in February, that Lt. Lewis would be the first to embark on this journey — and make history.
Only about 4% of US pilots are women, and even fewer are women of color.
“I want to tell people to always keep all options on the table regardless of how unobtainable they may seem,” said Lewis. “Never ever let fear or doubt get in the way of accomplishing your mission.”