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Phoenix Forward

5 black Americans who made history (and why it’s a darn shame you’ve never heard of them)

Mary McLeod-Bethune

Ask any American history expert to name five important black Americans who haven’t made it into most textbooks, and you’ll get similar answers. “Oh my gosh! I could name a million and one!” exclaims Ketwana Schoos, who is a University of Phoenix faculty member in the College of Humanities and Sciences and associate director of the Multicultural Success Center at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis. Her list includes politicians, trailblazers and even the man who created the concept of Black History month.


Gen. Benjamin Oliver Davis Jr.

This year, Black History Month was kicked off by the premiere of the movie “Red Tails,” the story of the prejudice that the all-black fleet of fighter pilots, known as the Tuskegee Airmen, faced during World War II. Davis, the leader of the group, had to fight to even get black pilots the right to fly in combat. He also fought for integration into the armed forces and was the first black general in the United States Air Force.


Ida B. Wells-Barnett

“She had a bounty on her head,” explains Schoos of the journalist who led a crusade against the lynching of blacks in the 1800s. Wells-Barnett was outspoken at a time when women were expected to remain quiet, staging a “Rosa Parks-like” protest nearly 70 years before the real thing. In 1884, Wells-Barnett refused to sit in the “colored” section of a train, leading three men to drag her out of her seat in the “white” section of the car. “She showed incredible courage,” adds Schoos.


Asa Philip Randolph

Most of us know about Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 March on Washington, but few know about Randolph. "Randolph is credited as being the man behind the idea to use a March on Washington as a method of protest," explains Schoos. He planned to protest discrimination in the defense industry and armed forces in 1941, but the president ordered a stop to the discrimination before the march was held. Randolph was also the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and fought for the people who worked on trains, often for long hours and for low pay.


Mary McLeod-Bethune

McLeod-Bethune was the first black woman to serve in an official capacity to a president, and the only woman in the so-called “Black Cabinet” formed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936 to advise on racial issues.


Dr. Carter G. Woodson

Woodson launched Negro History Week back in 1926. He chose a week in February because it was the birth month of civil rights pioneer Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln, who freed the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation. Self-taught until age 17, Woodson graduated from Harvard University in 1912 with a PhD in history. According to Schoos, Woodson fought to bring national attention to the contributions of black people to our nation’s history. “He’s very important,” she adds “and if people don’t know him, they should.”