Forgotten Heroes of Black History


Forgotten Heroes of Black History by Lysious/AURN
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Each February, Black History Month rolls around with the predictable parade of familiar faces. From civil rights activists to freedom fighters, it’s understood their impact is undeniable, but framing Black history within this narrow timeframe risks reducing it to a temporary exhibit. This month, let’s challenge the limitations of commemoration and recognize the ongoing, multifaceted narrative of Black achievement that weaves through the history and fabric of America.

Their footprints may not grace calendar pages, but their impact resonates just as profoundly, whispering forgotten chapters of American history, waiting to be rediscovered. Let us venture off the beaten path this February, and follow these unsung voices as they guide us towards a richer, more inclusive understanding of Black history.

Bayard Rustin

FILE – In this Aug. 24, 1963 file photo, Bayard Rustin points to a map showing the path of the March on Washington during a news conference at the New York City headquarters. Months before Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” declaration galvanized a quarter-million people at the 1963 March on Washington, Rustin was planning all the essential details to keep the crowd orderly and engaged. A Quaker and a pacifist, Rustin served as chief strategist for King’s march over the objections of some leaders, but was kept mostly in the background with some organizers considering him a liability. Notably, he was gay in an era when same-sex relations were widely reviled in American society. He died in 1987, and is sometimes forgotten in civil rights history. (AP Photo/File)

An often-overlooked figure, Bayard Rustin, was a powerhouse behind the scenes of the Civil Rights Movement and he advised Martin Luther King, according to Britannica. Though openly gay and Black in a time of immense prejudice, his strategic genius and unwavering commitment to nonviolence left an indelible mark. 

Rustin’s fingerprints are most visible on the historic 1963 March on Washington, where he masterminded logistics and strategy, ensuring its pivotal role in advancing racial equality. Beyond this iconic event, he tirelessly championed diverse causes like LGBTQ+ rights, economic justice, and anti-colonialism. While facing discrimination himself, he paved the way for progress for countless others. Today, Rustin’s story serves as a powerful reminder of the unsung heroes who fueled the fight for justice, urging us to recognize the multifaceted tapestry of voices that continue to shape America.

Claudette Colvin

Claudette Colvin credit by The Beacon

A 15-year-old student at the time, Claudette Colvin ignited the flames of the Montgomery Bus Boycott nine months before Rosa Parks’ arrest. In 1955, she refused to surrender her seat to a white man on a crowded bus, a defiant act that challenged Jim Crow laws at the time, according to History. Colvin recalls “it [feeling] like Sojourner Truth was on one side pushing me down, and Harriet Tubman was on the other side of me pushing me down. I couldn’t get up.”

Claudette Colvin credit by Civil Rights Teaching

Although Rosa Parks’ case became the symbol of the movement, Colvin’s courage paved the way, showcasing the everyday heroism of ordinary people fighting for racial equality. Her story reminds us that the fight for justice often begins with quiet acts of defiance, and that recognizing the contributions of lesser-known heroes like Colvin enriches our understanding of the Civil Rights Movement and its enduring legacy.

Jane Bolin

Jane Bolin credit by AP

Jane Bolin was a legal powerhouse who shattered glass ceilings with every stride. She became the first Black woman to graduate from Yale Law, enter the New York City Bar, and become a judge, blazing a trail for generations to follow, according to Yale Law School.

Throughout her 40-year career, she championed racial justice in family courts, fighting segregation and advocating for equality. A pioneer and a champion, Bolin’s legacy echoes through the American legal system, a testament to the power of resilience and the fight for what’s right. She “spent her later years volunteering as a reading instructor in New York City public schools and was a member of the Regents Review Committee of the New York State Board of Regents,” according to the law school.

Max Robinson

Max Robinson credit by BOTWC

Max Robinson shattered racial barriers in American journalism. As the first African American man to anchor a network newscast, he reshaped how Black Americans were seen and represented on national television. According to Britannica, “in 1965 he joined WTOP-TV in Washington, D.C., as a correspondent and camera operator, but he moved quickly to nearby WRC-TV, where he won awards for coverage of race riots and a documentary on life in poor urban neighborhoods.”

While his on-air presence challenged stereotypes and inspired countless aspiring journalists, his impact went beyond. He co-founded the National Association of Black Journalists, advocating for media diversity and empowering future generations of Black voices. Don Lemon said “Max Robinson was an inspirational figure for me when I decided to become a TV journalist and news anchor,” according to The Aids Monument. Robinson’s legacy stands as a testament to the power of breaking through barriers and using your platform to amplify underrepresented narratives. He paved the way for a more inclusive media landscape, leaving a lasting impact on both journalism and the perception of Black communities in America.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler

Rebecca Lee Crumpler credit by Neighborhood Outreach Access to Health

Rebecca Lee Crumpler was not just a doctor; she was a trailblazer who defied both racial and gender barriers to become the first African American woman physician in the United States. “In 1864, Crumpler was the first African American woman in the United States to earn an M.D. degree, and the only African American woman to graduate from the New England Female Medical College,” despite the immense prejudice of the time, according to the National Institute of Health.

Dr. Crumpler’s impact went far beyond her groundbreaking achievement. She dedicated her life to serving underserved communities, particularly focusing on caring for women and children in poor Black communities. She practiced in Boston and, after the Civil War, in Richmond, Virginia, working with the Freedmen’s Bureau to offer medical care to formerly enslaved people.

But Dr. Crumpler’s contributions extended beyond clinical practice. In 1883, she published A Book of Medical Discourses, one of the first medical texts written by an African American and specifically aimed at improving health outcomes for Black women and children, according to Scientific American. This pioneering work offered practical advice on hygiene, childcare, and common ailments, empowering women to take charge of their families’ health.

Dr. Crumpler’s legacy is a testament to the power of perseverance and a call to action for greater equity in healthcare. Her story reminds us that even in the face of tremendous obstacles, individuals can make a lasting impact by dedicating their talents and passion to serving others.

Gil Scott-Heron

Gil Scott-Heron credit by The Daily Beast/Neal Preston

Referred to by some as the “godfather of rap,” Gil Scott-Heron wasn’t just a musician; he was a revolutionary voice who wielded jazz, soul, and poetry as weapons against injustice, according to Culture Trip. Imagine Bob Dylan infused with the rhythms of Marvin Gaye, spitting lyrics that tackled everything from poverty and racism to political corruption and the Vietnam War. That was Gil Scott-Heron.

His spoken-word masterpieces like “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and “Whitey on the Moon” resonated with a generation yearning for change, according to Pitchfork. He gave voice to the voiceless, his soulful music a soundtrack for the Black Power movement and beyond. His influence didn’t stop there; he was a novelist, a social activist, and a pioneer of what would become known as hip-hop.

Though often overlooked by mainstream history, Gil Scott-Heron’s impact remains undeniable. He challenged listeners to think critically, to fight for what’s right, and to never stop demanding a better world. His music still carries a potent charge, his words a reminder that the revolution must continue, even if it’s not broadcast on prime time.

Howard Thurman

Howard Thurman credit by Everett Herald

Howard Thurman wasn’t a man of the front lines, but his influence on the Civil Rights Movement ran deep. A theologian, philosopher, and mystic, Thurman’s legacy lies in his profound spiritual teachings and his role in shaping the minds and hearts of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., according to CNN.

Born the grandson of a former slave in 1899, Thurman navigated the challenges of racial segregation, eventually graduating from Morehouse College and Colgate-Rochester Divinity School, according to Boston University. Throughout his life, he served as a dean at Howard University and Boston University, becoming the first African American dean of a chapel at a predominantly white university.

Beyond academia, Thurman’s true impact resonated through his sermons, writings, and personal guidance. His books, like “Jesus and the Disinherited,” explored themes of liberation theology and nonviolence, influencing not only King but also other key figures in the movement. Thurman’s own experiences with Mahatma Gandhi further solidified his belief in nonviolent resistance as a powerful tool for social change, according to Britannica. He actively mentored and counseled young activists, instilling in them the importance of spiritual grounding and inner strength alongside outward action.

Thurman’s legacy wasn’t limited to the Civil Rights Movement. He championed interfaith dialogue and social justice causes throughout his life, leaving behind a lasting influence on American religious thought and activism. In a world often fueled by anger and division, Thurman’s message of spiritual grounding, nonviolent resistance, and empathy remains as relevant as ever. His life and work continue to inspire those seeking to create a more just and equitable world.

Eunice Carter

Eunice Carter credit by Fordham News

Eunice Carter was a trailblazer in a world built for men. As one of New York’s first Black female lawyers, she earned the nickname “Lady Racketbuster” for her fearless pursuit of justice, according to the Historical Society of the New York Courts. Her impact echoed far beyond the courtroom, paving the way for generations of women and minorities in law enforcement.

Carter’s journey began in 1899, and by the 1930s, she was breaking barriers. She tackled segregation head on, becoming the first Black woman to work in New York’s “women’s court,” focusing on cases like prostitution. This seemingly obscure role became a springboard for her most iconic achievement: helping to bring down mob kingpin Lucky Luciano, according to Biography.

Carter’s keen legal mind and deep understanding of the city’s underbelly proved invaluable in building the case against Luciano. She unearthed crucial evidence and challenged ingrained biases, ultimately contributing to his historic conviction for compulsory prostitution. This landmark case dealt a major blow to organized crime and cemented Carter’s legacy as a fearless fighter for justice, according to Biography.

But her impact extended beyond a single case. Carter served as a role model for countless aspiring lawyers and activists, proving that talent and determination could overcome any obstacle. She fought against racism and sexism within the legal system, paving the way for a more inclusive future.

Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks credit by The Rake

Emerging from poverty and segregation, Gordon Parks’ lens captured the raw humanity of the Civil Rights Movement, the stark reality of urban poverty, and the quiet dignity of everyday faces. Parks was “a self-taught artist who became the first African American photographer for Life and Vogue magazines,” according to Biography.

His iconic images, like “American Gothic” and “Emerging Man,” became potent symbols of social issues, challenging stereotypes and sparking empathy, according to Google Arts & Culture. Beyond individual photos, Parks wove powerful narratives through photo essays for Life magazine, showcasing the struggles and resilience of Black America.

But Parks’ legacy extends beyond his camera. “In 1969, Parks became the first African American to direct a major Hollywood movie, the film adaptation of The Learning Tree” and he directed groundbreaking films like “Shaft,” broke barriers in Hollywood, and was a prolific poet and musician, according to Biography. His artistic versatility showcased the multifaceted reality of Black experience, further diversifying and enriching American culture.

In a nutshell, Gordon Parks was a visual storyteller, a social documentarian, and a pioneer artist. His life and work serve as a testament to the power of artistic expression to illuminate injustices, celebrate beauty, and ultimately, pave the way for a more equitable world.

While we could only highlight so many forgotten heroes of Black history, we challenge you to look into more of them, for each forgotten face whispers untold chapters, revealing the diverse tapestry of struggles, triumphs, and legacies that have shaped America.

advanced divider
advanced divider