More than a pianist, Count formed his own big band and defined swing music. With hits like “One O’Clock Jump” and “Blue Skies,” Mr. Basie became the first African-American male recipient of a GRAMMY Award for Best Jazz Performance (Group) and Best Performance by a Dance Band, at the very first GRAMMY Awards Show in 1958. His talent led him to work with several other famed artists of the day like Joe Williams and Ella Fitzgerald. Count Basie has several recordings in the Grammy Hall of Fame and he was inducted in to the New Jersey Hall of Fame after his death.
Guion S. Bluford was the first African American to travel in space in 1983, as a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Challenger. He has a very impressive educational resume as well as a bachelor, master, and doctorate degrees in aerospace engineering, and a master in business administration. Mr. Bluford began his career as a pilot in the Air Force, flying 144 missions during the Vietnam War. He became an astronaut in 1979. He later participated in three other missions. With the completion of his fourth flight, Bluford has logged over 688 hours in space.
“Blacks should maintain the struggle for equal rights while accepting the responsibilities that come with freedom; whites must demonstrate that democracy is color-blind.” –Ralph Bunche
Jack Johnson aka “The Galveston Giant” traveled to Sydney, Australia in 1908 to compete for the heavyweight championship. He won the fight against Tommy Burns and had to defend his title five times over the next two years. Even James Jeffries, who was once the heavyweight champ, came out of retirement to fight Johnson. White fans encouraged the match between Johnson and Jeffries, hoping for a victory for Jeffries in “The Fight of the Century.” Johnson soundly beat Jeffries and was later inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
Strategist. Activist. Organizer. Bayard Rustin is the brain behind much of the Civil Rights Movement, specifically the 1963 March on Washington. This march was one of the largest non-violent protests ever held in the United States, where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his well-known “I Have A Dream” speech. Rustin mentored Dr. King in the practice of non-violent resistance and protests. Many have not heard of Mr. Rustin because he was an openly gay man during this very tense era. He was discriminated against because of his race and sexual orientation.
Robert Smalls became the first black man to successfully sail an armed Confederate ship with 17 black passengers (nine men, five women, and three children) from slavery to freedom during the Civil War. He had successfully maneuvered tightly surveyed and guarded waters. Once free, he served the Union Army as Captain; becoming the first African-American captain of a vessel. Mr. Smalls also served five terms in Congress and advised President Abraham Lincoln alongside Frederick Douglass.
“My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.” –Robert Smalls
“It is the duty of the men of today, in whose hands is intrusted the destiny of the Republic, to remove from the path of its upward progress every obstacle which may impede its advance in the future.” –Josiah T. Wells
Called “The Father of Black Surgery,” Daniel Hale Williams’ name is absent from many medical history books. In 1893, Dr. Williams was met with a stab victim with a severe chest wound. The victim would need to have his pericardium (membranous sac around the heart) sutured; the first surgery of its kind. Dr. Williams successfully performed this surgery and it is now considered the first open-heart surgery. Dr. Williams worked as chief surgeon of the neglected Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., a hospital specifically for former slaves. He turned the activity of the hospital around to improve surgery, begin ambulance services, and hired a multi-racial staff including black physicians and nursing staff. Dr. Williams also co-founded the National Medical Association, a professional organization for black medical practitioners who could not become members of the American Medical Association because of their race.
Jonathan Jasper Wright was the first African American to serve on a state Supreme Court. When Mr. Wright was initially refused admission to the Pennsylvania bar because of his race, he was later named justice of the South Carolina State Supreme Court. Although he was 30 years-old with little experience, he served alongside two white Democrats. While a justice, false allegations were brought against him that resulted in his resignation. Mr. Wright relocated to Charleston to set up a law practice, teach classes from his office, and establish Claflin College’s law department; now Claflin University. After his passing, his reputation was subjected to suspicion, racism and neglect, to the extent that official portraits could no longer be found.
Get Up and Go!
Please clear the way and let me pass,
If you intend to give up here:
It seems a shame that you should yield
Your life without its fullest share.You are a coward for your pains,
To come this way, and then blow out:
Real men are made of stuff to last,
Which they, themselves, would never doubt.Get up! You broken bits of flesh!
Take courage and go fighting on;
For every black man there’s a day,
Which pride in race has well begun. –Marcus Garvey
The men listed above have shown courage and strength by blazing trails for this generation. Racial barriers did not hinder their ability to fight for equality in education, theater, politics, and music. Thank you for persevering. Thank you for being a pillar of strength. Thank you for your strategic leadership. Thank you for your creativity. Thank you for your intelligence. Thank you for your physical and mental endurance, even if it cost you your life. Thank you for your example to get up and go.
As the month of February winds down, I hope you have taken time to reflect on the beautiful, inspiring figures in Black History. Although February is National Black History Month, do not let this be the only time you educate yourself and others on forgotten faces and names in this nation’s history.