10 Black Unknown Figures

Daphne Piña, Staff Writer

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1. Bessie Coleman- first African American female pilot

Born- January 26, 1892, in Atlanta TX
Death- April 30, 1926, in Jacksonville FL
Brief Description- Bessie Coleman is known as the first African American and Native American woman pilot. Her piloting career didn’t begin until later on in her life. At the age of 23, she attended the Burnham School of Beauty Culture and became a manicurist. Her brothers served in the military during World War 1 and when they came back home they came with many stories. One of Coleman’s brothers teased her about women not being able to be a pilot which inspired her to do so out of frustration. Coleman ended up being accepted into the Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France. She received her international pilots license on June 15, 1921. In 1922, she performed the first public flight by an African American woman. She was known as “Brave Bessie,” “Queen Bess,” and “The Only Race Aviatrix in the World” because of all the tricks she would do while flying. She was famous for doing “loop-the-loops” and making the shape of an “8” in an airplane. Throughout her career, she had many accidents because of the stunts she would do while flying. On April 20, 1926, during a flight test, she lost her life due to a loose wrench that got stuck in the engine.

2. Matthew Henson

Born- August 8, 1866, in Nanjemoy MD
Death- March 9, 1955, in The Bronx New York NY
Brief Description- Matthew Henson was an orphan as a child. At age 12 Henson went to sea as a cabin boy on the sailing ship Katie Hines. In 1887 he was hired by Robert E. Peary as a valet for his next expedition to Nicaragua in 1888. Peary became impressed with Henson’s ability and resourcefulness and ended up employing him as an attendant on his seven subsequent expeditions to the Arctic that went on from 1891 to 1909. In 1909, most of the group had turned back and left but Smalls, Peary and four other men became the first men to reach the North Pole. Henson’s regards of the journey, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, appeared in 1912.

3. Robert Smalls

Born- April 5, 1839, in Beaufort SC
Death- February 23, 1915, in Beaufort SC
Brief Description- Robert Smalls was born a slave and worked as a house slave until the age of 12 years when he was sent to work as a waiter, ship rigger, and sailor by his slave owner. In 1861 Smalls was hired to work on the Confederate transport steamer Planter, a Confederate steamer, to work as a deckhand. On May 13, 1862, Smalls was left to guard the ship while the crew went ashore. Smalls took this as an opportunity and snuck his wife, children, and 12 other slaves onto the ship and sailed it to the area of the harbor. As he sailed he raised the Confederate flag and sailed it past other Confederate ships on its way to the Union to share Confederate secrets.

4. Martin Robison Delany

Born- May 6, 1812, in Charles Town WV
Death- January 24, 1885, in Wilberforce OH
Brief Description- Martin Delany was one of the very first blacks to be admitted to Harvard medical school. He acted as a physician during cholera epidemics and was the first African-American field officer in the United States Army and an active abolitionist and journalist. Martin Delany was born free in Virginia and moved to Pennsylvania because his parents wanted to find a good place for him and his siblings to get a good education. When he was around 19 years old he became involved in several racial improvement groups in Pittsburg. In 1839 he became a doctor assistant and dental care because he was being taught and instructed by two sympathetic physicians, where he worked in the south and southwest. When he went back to Pittsburgh he began a weekly newspaper called The Mystery, where he talked about injustices towards African Americans and talked about women rights. His newspaper gained a good reputation and was sometimes reprinted in white newspapers. Between 1846 and 1849, Delany worked in partnership with the abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York, where they published another weekly called the North Star. Three years later Delany realized that he wanted to pursue medical studies so he applied to Harvard University where he was one of the first African Americans to be admitted to and became the lead physician in Pittsburg. At the beginning of the Civil War he had helped recruit troops for the famous 54th Massachusetts Volunteers, in which he served as a surgeon. In 1865 he became the first African American to receive a regular army commission and received the title of being a major, where he was assigned to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, to recruit and organize former slaves for the North.

5. Gerald Anderson “Jerry” Lawson

Born- December 1, 1940, in Brooklyn New York NY
Death- April 9, 2011, in Santa Clara CA
Brief Description- All of Gerald Lawson life, he was interested in science, ham radio and the chemistry behind them. When he was a teenager he made money by fixing television sets. His interest in computing remained throughout his life. In the 1970s he joined the Silicon Valley’s Homebrew Computer Club where he and another man were the only African Americans. While being in this club he invented a coin-operated arcade game called Demolition Derby. In 1976, he began to work in a computer firm, Fairchild Semiconductor, where he helped develop The Fairchild Channel F which allowed users to insert different cartridges that stored new games. This paved the way of a new era for video game consoles such as the Atari 2600, Nintendo, Xbox, and PlayStation. In 1980 he left the company and created his own called Videosoft where he created games for manufacturers, including Atari. In March 2011 Lawson was honored as an industry pioneer by the International Game Developers Association because he was among a handful of black engineering pioneers in the world that were involved in electronics and particularly in electronic gaming.

6. Sarah Rector

Born- March 3, 1902, in Taft OK
Death- July 22, 1967, in Kansas City MO
Brief Description- Sarah Rector was born a slave whose great-great-grandmother belonged to Creek Chief Opothleyahola in Alabama. Her people ended up being forced to move to the west of Mississippi by the U.S. government and took his slaves with him. Since the territory in which Rector was born became Oklahoma in 1907 when Rector was just four years old the federal government gave everyone who had to move a land allotment. Since Rector was given land also, her parents were forced to pay taxes on the property which made them want to sell but was denied by state law. Since she couldn’t sell it she decided to lease it out to Standard Oil Company, and that’s when she began to acquire a large sum of money. At the turn of the 20th century, the Indian Territory was the country’s biggest oil producer. She began to make $300 a day, $8,000 in today’s money, which quickly resulted in Rector having a net worth of $1 million, $26 million today. She became known as “the richest negro in the world.”

7. Bayard Rustin

Born- March 17, 1912, in Westchester PA
Death- August 24, 1987, in Manhattan New York City, NY
Brief Description- Bayard Rustin was raised by his grandparents and as a child, he excelled in school, was good at sports, music, and academics in the integrated West Chester Senior High School. While in high school he was arrested for sitting in the “whites only” section in the movie theaters. In college, he decided to dedicate himself to the cause of peace and civil rights; throughout the years he participated in many movements. Rustin’s most significant contributions occurred in the civil rights arena, however, where he served as the chief tactician of the movement. In 1955 he worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to organize the successful boycott of the segregated local bus system in Montgomery, Ala. He remained as King’s close adviser and special assistant for the next five years. In 1963, A. Philip Randolph asked Rustin to help him organize a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom to mark the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, but this quickly turned into an issue. Rustin’s left-wing past and sexual identity, in which he never kept a secret about him being homosexual, made him a controversial figure to many of the more conservative members of the coalition Randolph wanted to bring together. To calm down the people he wanted to bring together, Randolph accepted the position of being the marches official director and Rustin was chief organizer. The gathering is most often remembered as the setting for King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, but it also helped secure passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1963 and the Voting Rights Act of 1964. Rustin was one of the people who organized the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and was the reason to why Martin Luther King, Jr. had the platform he did to speak from. Rustin didn’t get as much attention as he should have due to him being openly gay.

8. Susie King Taylor

Born- August 6, 1848, Liberty County, Georgia, GA
Death- October 6, 1912
Brief Description- Susie King Taylor was born into slavery but despite the laws against the formal education of African Americans, she was taught in two secret schools by black women. Not only was she educated but she also helped other African Americans become educated. At the age of 14, she was freed and was seeing safety behind Union lines on the South Carolina Sea Islands along with thousands of other African Americans. She joined the First South Carolina Volunteers, the first black regiment in the US Army. Her job was a regimental laundress and she also did essential things like wash and cook. Although these things seem to not require much literacy knowledge, her literacy did come in handy when she read the directions to other people. She then published a wartime memoir about the Civil War and was the only confirmed African American women to do so.

9. Benjamin “Pap” Singleton

Born- 1809, Davidson County, Tennessee, TN
Death- February 17, 1900, Kansas City, MO
Brief Description- Benjamin “Pap” Singleton was born a slave and worked the majority of his life as a cabinet maker. He was later sold to the Deep South Singleton and escaped to Canada. After the end of the Civil War, Singleton moved back to Nashville to work as a carpenter. Singleton believed that African Americans having farm ownership was the key to salvation and that it was his duty to remove blacks African Americans from the south. His first attempt of acquiring land was in the late 1860s in Tennessee but was later changed to attempting to acquire land in Kansas in 1871. Seven years later he led the first emigrants, two hundred settlers, to Kansas. Singleton formed the Edgefield Real Estate and Homestead Association, through this association between 1877 and 1879 he led more than 20,000 migrants to Kansas. Singleton tried again two different times to emigrant African Americans to a different place but failed both times. Although he failed he was still known as the “Father of the Exodus” for his work in the Exoduster Movement of 1879, having helped hundreds of out-of-home black Tennesseans move to the Midwest.

10. William Wells Brown

Born- Lexington, KY
Death- November 6, 1884, Chelsea, MA
Brief Description- William Wells Brown was born a slave who after being in slavery for twenty years escaped to freedom in January 1834. In 1836 he moved to Buffalo and started his career in the abolitionist movement by attending meetings regularly of the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society. Brown began to participate more and more in the antislavery movement which increased his sophistication as a speaker and his reputation in the antislavery community. This growing reputation brought an invitation to lecture. In May 1847 he was hired as a Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society lecture agent and later moved to Boston. By the end of the year, Brown had published a Narrative of his life. In 1849, he began a lecture tour of Britain and remained in the tour until 1854. That same year in which Brown returned from the tour, he prompted British abolitionists to “purchase” his freedom because of the Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850, which made it dangerous for the escaped slave to return to America. Upon his arrival from the tour he had written Colet, the first novel published by an Afro-American. Throughout the remainder of his life, he continued to travel, lecture and write and produced three major volumes of black history.

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