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Honoring 6 Less-Recognized Black American Heroes

by David Engle | Feb 01, 2022 | 7 min read

We all know the names Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, Malcolm X., and Muhammad Ali. They are undoubtedly–and deservedly–some of the most prominent African American heroes for their activism, perseverance, and groundbreaking achievements. And we’ve heard and read about the accounts of their bravery in their fight for equality.

In this article, however, we’re going to take a look at a few names that aren’t quite as recognizable–but still quite important–when it comes to pioneering spirit and world-changing accomplishments. Because, as we honor the great Black Americans throughout history during Black History Month in February, these names deserve the same recognition as their more famous counterparts.

Ella Baker

Odds are you haven’t heard of Ella Baker, but she played an instrumental role in some of the biggest and most important groups of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. In fact, she’s been referred to as the “mother of the Civil Rights Movement” thanks to her passion for social justice, her contributions to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and her co-founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)–well-known as the group led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Additionally, Ms. Baker helped found the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

One of the reasons she may not be as well-known as the likes of Dr. King is that she didn’t position herself on the front lines of the movement; rather, she served as a mentor to the movement’s most prominent leaders and taught volunteers to become activists in their own communities. But, as a civil rights activist in the South, Ms. Baker risked her life on several occasions, particularly during the SNCC’s Freedom Summer voter registration drive in Mississippi in 1964.

There is speculation that she and Martin Luther King, Jr. had a contentious relationship, as Dr. King reportedly had some challenges dealing with assertive women like Ella Baker; this may have led to her departure from the SCLC. However, along with Dr. King, Ms. Baker made a profound and lasting impact on civil rights in the United States, and should be recognized for her efforts.

Frederick McKinley Jones

We probably don’t give much thought to how perishable foods make it from one location to the next without spoiling. But think of the world without portable refrigeration…How would the refrigerated and frozen foods that we eat make it to the grocery stores? How would medications and even blood or organ transplants get to hospitals in time to save people’s lives? They wouldn’t. And we can thank Frederick McKinley Jones for that.

A high school dropout with a passion for tinkering and inventing, Mr. Jones worked as an auto mechanic and taught himself all about electronics–one of his first jobs after returning home from World War I was building a transmitter for his hometown’s new radio station. This led to a job developing sound equipment for the small (but growing) movie industry. But it wasn’t until the summer of 1937 that he came up with his idea that changed the world.

“What if I could invent a portable cooling system that allows trucks to better transport perishable food?” He got to work, and by 1940, he had patented a refrigeration system for vehicles. And changed everything. All of a sudden, fresh produce and many other food items could be transported all across the world, not to mention blood and vaccines and medications for hospitals. With this invention, Mr. Jones co-founded Thermo King, which went on to invent refrigerated boxcars and other units–and is still a highly successful business today. In fact, multinational giant Ingersoll Rand purchased Thermo King for approximately $2.5 billion in 1997.

Mr. Jones secured more than 60 patents in his lifetime, and in 1991, he was posthumously awarded the National Medal of Technology, becoming the first African American to receive the honor.

Althea Gibson

Serena and Venus Williams are two of the most successful and famous women’s tennis players of all time–and they might never have had the opportunity if it wasn’t for Althea Gibson.

Before the 1950s, tennis was a very segregated sport. Ms. Gibson, while growing up in Harlem, learned to play paddle tennis and quickly realized that she was quite good. In fact, she won a New York City tournament at the age of 12. Her immense talent was obvious, but her family could not afford tennis lessons–so her neighbors in Harlem raised the necessary funds so Ms. Gibson could continue her pursuit of tennis.

It didn’t take long for her to dominate regional tournaments–however, because of her race, she was banned from competing nationally. In 1950, though, she forced her way into the U.S. National Championships (later the U.S. Open) and became the first African American to ever compete in the event. She soon took the tennis world by storm. In 1956, she became the first African American to win a Grand Slam tournament–what is now the French Open. By the following year, she became the first Black champion at Wimbledon in England. When all was said and done, Ms. Gibson captured 11 Grand Slam titles and was the top-ranked women’s tennis player in the world. So, off into the sunset, right? Nope.

At 37 years old, Althea Gibson decided to take up professional golf and became the first African American on the LPGA Tour–no easy undertaking, as she encountered racism nearly every step of the way because of her participation in what had historically been an all-white sport.

And while she never won an event on the LPGA Tour, her relentless pursuit of her dreams and equality make her a true champion in every sense of the word.

Garrett Morgan

If you’ve ever wondered about the kind of chaos that would plague roadways across the globe if there were no traffic lights, you can thank Garrett Morgan for creating the solution to that problem.

Possessing nothing more than a grade school education did not stop Mr. Morgan from creating some of the most important inventions of our time. As a teenager, he started his own repair business after previously working a job fixing sewing machines. It was around this time that he invented a hair-straightening cream for African Americans, a product that proved highly successful in the community.

His next breakthrough came when he patented what was called a safety hood in 1916; this hood was a personal breathing device designed to prevent miners and firefighters from inhaling smoke and other noxious gases. The hood worked so well that it served as the blueprint for gas masks that were used by soldiers in World War I. But Mr. Morgan had to tread lightly when selling the product, because at that time, many people refused to buy goods from African Americans. To avoid this problem, Mr. Morgan hired a white actor to portray the inventor of the product while Mr. Morgan wore the hood during the presentations.

But it wasn’t until he witnessed a car and buggy crash that Mr. Morgan invented the device that would change the way the world traveled–the traffic light, with its “stop”, “stop in all directions” (for pedestrians), and “go” signals. It even featured a warning light (which is now the yellow light) to alert drivers that they would soon have to stop their vehicles. The traffic light was patented in 1923 and sold by Mr. Morgan to General Electric–and the rest is history.

Jane Bolin

Jane Bolin never intended to make history–she simply wanted to work. But she certainly broke plenty of ground throughout her career as a judge. Actually, she began shattering glass ceilings even before she started her career–Ms. Bolin was the first Black woman to graduate from Yale Law School. As she pursued a career in social justice, she went into private practice as an attorney upon graduation.

In doing so, Ms. Bolin became the first Black woman to join the New York City Bar Association. Then she made even more history in 1939 (at age 31), when New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia appointed her as a family court judge; this appointment made Ms. Bolin the first Black female judge in the United States, and she served on the bench for 40 years.

After her mandated retirement at age 70, Ms. Bolin continued advocating for children and families and also served on the boards of many organizations, including the NAACP and the New York Urban League. While many may not recognize Jane Bolin’s name, it was her achievements that blazed the trail for not just Black female attorneys and judges, but for all female attorneys and judges.

Josh Gibson

Everyone’s heard of Babe Ruth. Not many have heard of Josh Gibson. Which is unfortunate, because he may have been the greatest baseball player of all time–he just never received the opportunity to showcase his skills in Major League Baseball because of the color of his skin.

Simply put, Josh Gibson was possibly the most powerful hitter in baseball history. Known as the “Black Babe Ruth,” Mr. Gibson starred in the Negro Leagues for 17 years and (supposedly…the true number isn’t actually known) crushed an astonishing 962 total home runs, though, according to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, many were hit against non-league teams and various levels of competition. His best seasons came when he cracked 75 home runs in 1931, 69 in 1934, and an unreal 84 in 1936. These types of power numbers caused many who saw both play refer to Babe Ruth as the “white Josh Gibson.”

Unfortunately, not many records or official statistics exist of Mr. Gibson’s heroics, so several feats may or may not be tall tales–such as when he hit a ball 580 feet, clear out of Yankee Stadium. But he wasn’t just a power hitter–over the course of his career, Josh Gibson compiled a .354 batting average in the Negro Leagues, a .373 average over two seasons in Mexico, a .412 batting average in exhibition games against Major League players, and a .479 clip in the Puerto Rican winter league. Mr. Gibson was also a top-flight catcher behind the plate for Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords. Sadly, he was never able to make his mark in the Major Leagues like pioneer Jackie Robinson did–Mr. Gibson tragically passed away from a stroke at the age of 35, less than three months before Mr. Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

Josh Gibson did eventually get the recognition he so deserved for his athletic prowess, becoming only the second Negro League player to be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, in 1972. The first? Legendary pitcher Satchel Paige, who perhaps summed up Mr. Gibson’s abilities by saying: “You look for his weakness and while you’re lookin’ for it, he’s liable to hit 45 home runs.”

There are so many more Black American pioneers, trailblazers, and heroes who don’t have the same recognition as the Martin Luther Kings or the Jackie Robinsons or the George Washington Carvers. But their accomplishments may have impacted as many lives as those iconic figures…and that’s why we celebrate them during Black History Month. For more education and homeschooling-related blog posts, follow our blog!

David Engle
Hello, and thanks for reading! I’m David Engle--dad, husband, sports fan, and writer/editor. As a father for the last 18 years (father of two for the last 14), I consider myself to be pretty well-versed in all things related to education, childhood, and parenting, and I'm thankful for the opportunity to share some insights and knowledge with fellow parents. I have been a professional writer and editor for a quarter of a century (it pains me to admit that) and have been writing in the educational space for a number of those years. I reside in southern New Jersey with my wife, two kids, two dogs, and three cats. Never a dull moment.
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