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African American History and Culture
A list of resources concerning the African-American community.
A former slave turned notable abolitionist, Frederick Douglass wrote movingly about his experience in slavery, lending support to the abolitionist cause and later acting as a recruiter for the Union Army during the Civil War.
After her escape from slavery in 1849, Harriet Tubman defiantly reentered the slave-holding south approximately 19 times to lead more than 300 men, women, and children, to freedom in the North and Canada. During the Civil War, Tubman served the North's Union Army as a nurse, scout, and spy, and in her later years, founded a home for older, impoverished black people. Because of her daring and courage, Tubman became known as the "Moses" of her people.
A painter and printmaker, Chris White used his art to comment on poverty, social justice and the lives of ordinary Black men and women, creating numerous murals for the WPA during the Great Depression.
A social realist, Jacob Lawrene was a painter and printmaker whose works focused on the biographies of several famous African Americans, as well as the daily lives of blacks and other Americans. He was one of the first nationally recognized African American artists and part of the Harlem Renaissance.
No single artist represented the contemporary art scene of the 1980s more than Jean-Michel Basquiat. He rose from an anonymous, homeless graffiti artist spraying cryptic social messages on building walls around New York City's SoHo and East Village in the late 1970s to become, within five years, one of the first African American artists to receive international recognition, with sales of his works grossing millions of dollars
One of the most significant pioneering black American artists, Joshua Johnson––sometimes spelled “Johnston”––was a prolific portrait artist who produced more than 80 paintings in Baltimore at the turn of the nineteenth century. He became noted for his delightful, albeit stiff, depictions of wealthy Marylanders, replete with props and tack–studded Federal–style furniture.
Hank Aaron was major league baseball's leading homerun hitter with a career total of 755 upon his retirement in 1976. He broke ground for the participation of African Americans in professional sports and also spoke out in support of opportunities for blacks as managers and office personnel.
Called the “world's fastest human,” Olympic athlete and winner of four gold medals in 1936, Jesse Owens became a legend in his own time. He overcame crippling poverty, segregation, and racial discrimination to soar to the heights of his Olympic aspirations.
Author Alice Walker had been an acclaimed poet, short story writer, and novelist since the late 1960s, long before her Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 book The Color Purple and its 1985 film adaptation stirred emotions for its brutal portrayal of domestic violence. Prior to and since that novel captured attention and created controversy for its negative portrayal of the main African American male character, Walker has not skirted complex and painful topics.
A novelist and essayist of considerable renown, Baldwin found readers of every race and nationality, though his message reflected bitter disappointment in his native land and its white majority. Throughout his distinguished career Baldwin called himself a "disturber of the peace"--one who revealed uncomfortable truths to a society mired in complacency.
One of the most talented and prolific writers to emerge from the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Langston Hughes enjoyed a long and successful career as a poet and author of short stories, novels, magazine and newspaper articles, plays, and numerous other works.
"One of the geniuses of Afro-American serial autobiography," according to Houston A. Baker in the New York Times Book Review, Angelou has been praised for the rich and insightful prose of her narratives and for offering what many observers feel is an indispensable record of black experience.
Lauded for his brilliance as a writer of modern fiction, Ralph Ellison produced works that continue to have a profound impact on the understanding of race and social thought in the United States. His often surrealistic images reveal how people--despite their diverse geographic, racial, or social backgrounds-share a universal "common humanity."
Toni Morrison was best known for her intricately woven novels, which focus on intimate relationships, especially between men and women, set against the backdrop of African American culture. She won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for her fifth novel, Beloved, the 1993 Nobel Prize for literature, and a 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Zora Neale Hurston was the most published black female author in her time and arguably the most important collector of African-American folklore ever. Hurston was a complex artist whose persona ranged from charming and outrageous to fragile and inconsistent, but she always remained a driven and brilliant talent.
Malcolm X was an African American Muslim leader and Black nationalist activist whose militant advocacy of Black pride, separatism, and armed self-defense foreshadowed the Black Power movement of the late 1960s.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the most popular and effective leader of the African American struggle for civil rights in the United States. His philosophy of nonviolent direct action galvanized thousands of Americans, both black and white, to press for granting the full measure of human and political rights to African Americans.
Scholar, educator, philosopher, and social activist, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois is among the most influential public intellectuals of the twentieth century. A pioneer of the civil rights movement, Du Bois dedicated his life to ending colonialism, exploitation, and racism worldwide. Experiencing many changes in the nation's political history, he served as a voice for generations of African Americans seeking social justice.
Ben Carson overcame poverty, racism, and a violent temper to become a world-renowned neurosurgeon and serve his country in the political arena. Carson was a Republican presidential candidate for the 2016 election, but lost the spot to future President Donald Trump. Trump appointed Carson to Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first black woman to receive a medical degree in the United States. She spent her lifetime working to improve the health of the black community, and wrote a book - A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts - which addressed medical issues of maternal and children's health.
Solomon Fuller, the first black psychiatrist in the United States, played a key role in the development of psychiatry in the 1900s. Known for his research on dementia, Fuller helped make the United States the leader in psychiatry that it is today. In addition, as a professor at Boston University School of Medicine for more than 30 years, Fuller helped train the next generation of psychiatrists.
Vivien Thomas was highly regarded in the medical community for his scientific genius and surgical skill. With no formal medical training, Thomas helped develop intricate surgical techniques that ultimately saved thousands of lives. Thomas performed research in the animal laboratories at Vanderbilt University during the 1930s, leading to the widespread use of blood and plasma transfusions during World War II. Later, at Johns Hopkins University, Thomas worked with Dr. Alfred Blalock as he performed hundreds of experimental procedures to develop the "blue baby" operation for treating congenital cyanotic heart disease
Charles Hamilton Houston a law professor, litigator, and civil rights legal strategist, played a principal role in conceptualizing, defining and setting the pace of the legal phase of the African-American struggle against racial discrimination and segregation in education from the 1930s to 1950.
Eric H. Holder became the highest–ranking black American law enforcement official in U.S. history in 1997 when he earned unanimous confirmation by the Senate as deputy attorney general. When President Clinton appointed him U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia in 1993, he was also the first black American to hold that post. In each of these positions Holder has demonstrated a desire to bridge the communication gap between racial communities while, at the same time, he proved his intolerance for violent crime by cracking down on criminal activity.
Federal prosecutor Loretta Lynch was sworn in as U.S. attorney general in the spring of 2015. The North Carolina native and Harvard Law School graduate is not the first African American--nor even the first woman--to serve as the nation's top law enforcement official but she is the first African-American woman to oversee the U.S. Department of Justice and its 113,000-plus employees.
Macon Bolling Allen was the first recorded licensed African American lawyer in the United States. He was a self-taught lawyer who gained his knowledge and legal skills by serving as an apprentice and law clerk to practicing white lawyers in the pre-Civil War era. He later became a judge in Charleston, South Carolina.
United States Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall built a distinguished career fighting for the cause of civil rights and equal opportunity. The first African-American to serve on the Supreme Court, Marshall stood alone as the Supreme Court's liberal conscience toward the end of his career, the last impassioned spokesman for a left-wing view on such causes as affirmative action, abolishment of the death penalty, and due process.
Alexander Thomas Augusta's career as a physician was punctuated with firsts. By appealing directly to President Abraham Lincoln, Augusta became the first black to be offered a commission with the U.S. Army's colored troops. The first black man to become the head of a hospital in the United States and the first black to be appointed to the faculty of a U.S. medical school, Augusta's leadership helped steer the fledgling Howard University medical department through the economic turmoil of 1873, ensuring the school's survival.
Carl Brashear overcame the obstacles of racism in his pursuit to become a deep sea diver. Even after losing his leg in an diving accident, Brashear returned to diving after proving that he could walk with a prosthetic limb in a 300-pound diving suit.
Retired American Army officer Colin Luther Powell (born 1937) served as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, and under President George Bush he became the first African American to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-1993). Then, under President George W. Bush, he became the first African American secretary of state.
Daniel “Chappie” James Jr., also known as the “Black Eagle,” was one of the original Tuskegee Airmen. He later distinguished himself as an outstanding pilot and leader who became the first black in history to be promoted to the rank of four–star general. He was also commander–in–chief of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) and Aerospace Defense Command.
The first African-American pilot to fly as a military pilot, although for the French during World War I as a member of the French Foreign Legion. He later joined the French Resistance during World War 2, and was made a knight of the Legion Honor in 1959.
Gen. Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. (1877-1970) was the first African American general in the regular United States Armed Services. He assisted in developing and implementing a plan for the limited desegregation of U.S. combat forces in Europe during World War II.
Henry O. Flipper was one of the original Buffalo Soldiers and the first African American to graduate from the United States Military Academy, or West Point.. Flipper's military career was cut short when he was falsely accused of mishandling company funds and of conduct unbecoming of an officer. Acquitted of the first charge, he failed to clear his name of the second. When he was discharged from the army after serving nine years, Flipper went on as a civilian to become an author, engineer, and a notable figure in American history.
During a career that spanned more than fifty years, Duke Ellington almost singlehandedly changed the way people throughout the world regarded the uniquely American form of music known as jazz. In his hands, jazz became serious art, as lyrical and as complex as any symphony.
"The First Lady of Song" is the title Ella Fitzgerald was given by critics and fans, and it was well-deserved. With a career spanning 60 years, with hundreds of recordings to her credit, and with accolades that included the Kennedy Center honors, 14 Grammy awards, and a school of performing arts in her name, Fitzgerald was perhaps the world's most celebrated and accomplished female vocalist. She was so loved by her many fans that they simply referred to her as "Ella."
An amazing performer, James Brown had the highest number of singles to reach the top 20, and the second-highest number of singles to reach the top 100 after Elvis Presley; he reinvented soul music at least twice; and it is impossible to know what soul music, funk, disco, or rap would sound like if not for his musical influence.
Public Enemy is one of the most influential and acclaimed rap groups in history. With its first three studio releases, Yo! Bum Rush the Show (1987), It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988), and Fear of a Black Planet (1990), the group changed the sound of hip-hop and introduced potent political and social concerns to a genre previously identified with an easygoing, partying mentality.
Singer and pianist Ray Charles's popularity, undiminished by his death in 2004, has spanned several generations. Toddlers may have seen Charles singing the alphabet with Elmo on Sesame Street. Teenagers may remember a catchy Pepsi commercial with Charles singing in his gravely voice, "You Got the Right One, Baby, Uh-huh!" Many adults, however, grew up listening to his blend of gospel, blues, and rock and roll songs that cemented Charles's name in the history books. He was one of the first soul stars, and became a major influence for the musicians who would follow him.
Along with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk (1917-1982) was a vital member of the jazz revolution which took place in the early 1940s. Monk's unique piano style and his talent as a composer made him a leader in the development of modern jazz.
The first African-American President of the United States, Barack Obama ended the war in Iraq, withdrew troops from Afghanistan and signed numerous influential bills, including the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act and the Affordable Care Act.
Madam C. J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove (1867–1919), was an inventor, businesswoman, philanthropist, and political activist who founded the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, which sold and manufactured hair care and beauty products for African Americans and people of African descent across the world. The first American woman to become a self-made millionaire, by 1918 she had turned her company into the nation's largest African American–owned business.
Oprah Winfrey, a billionaire businesswoman, is one of the most affluent and powerful people in the United States. Deemed the undisputed "Queen of Talk" since the mid-1980s, she was the first Black woman to host a nationally syndicated weekday talk show. Winfrey became the third woman to own her own studio when she started Harpo Studios in 1988.
Journalist and one of the first African-American millionaires, Robert S. Abbott was also the founder of the Chicago Defender, one of the first African-American newspapers and a major driver of the Great Migration of African-Americans from the America South to the North.
George R. Carruthers is best known for his invention of a camera and spectrograph--imaging devices--which uses ultraviolet light to capture images of both Earth and space from the surface of the moon. A team of engineers built a model according to his design for use during the Apollo 16 mission in 1972, and the resulting photographs provided startling new evidence about ways to control pollution in the Earth's atmosphere and about the presence of hydrogen in deep space.
Katherine Johnson was a pioneer scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). She determined the trajectories for America's first manned space flights in 1961 and 1962. In 1969 her work was instrumental in landing men on the moon. The following year she helped bring the ill-fated Apollo 13 safely back to Earth. An early computer expert, Johnson was considered to be one of the most brilliant mathematicians at NASA.
Mae Jemison received two undergraduate degrees and a medical degree, served two years as a Peace Corps medical officer in West Africa, and was selected to join the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) astronaut training program before her thirtieth birthday. Her eight-day space flight aboard the space shuttle Endeavour in 1992 established Jemison as the United States' first female African American space traveler.
Mark E. Dean is one of the top engineering minds at the International Business Machines (IBM) Corporation, and one of just fifty prestigious fellows at the legendary company. Dean's area of expertise lies in computer systems, and he made his first mark in the industry in the early 1980s, when he and a colleague developed one of the pieces of internal architecture that allows a computer to communicate with a printer and other devices. Of the nine patents for IBM's revolutionary personal computer (PC) introduced in the 1980s, Dean is the holder of three. He is also the recipient of numerous honors and professional accolades, including a place in the National Inventors' Hall of Fame,
Known as both an eminent astrophysicist and a writer who makes complex scientific concepts accessible to the layperson, Neil deGrasse Tyson has been a highly visible figure in the scientific community through his writings, research efforts, and television appearances. As the director of the famed Hayden Planetarium in New York City, he helps bring a greater knowledge and appreciation of astronomy to thousands of people each year.
Born in Dallas, Texas on August 29, 1920, Boykin invented dozens of electronic and mechanical devices including a control unit used in heart pacemakers, components for guided missiles and computers, an electronic air filter, and a theft-resistant cash register.