Black History Month Heroes
Black History Month honors the contributions of African Americans to U.S. history. The month of February was chosen to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. In an effort to honor this expansive and growing history, we must take the time to honor these icons, many of whom are overlooked.
Dr. Charles Richard Drew (1904-1950)
Dr. Charles Drew was a black surgeon who developed ways to process and store blood plasma. He organized the first large-scale blood bank in the United States.
- Charles directed the blood plasma programs of the U.S. and Great Britain in World War II, two of the largest blood banks in the world.
- He resigned from this role after a ruling that the blood of African Americans would be segregated.
- Charles graduated second in his class from McGill University, earning both Doctor of Medicine and Master of Surgery degrees.
- He has been featured in the United States Postal Service’s Great Americans stamp series.
- In 1943, the NAACP honored Charles with the Spingarn Medal, recognizing the highest and noblest achievements by African-Americans.
Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander (1898-1989)
Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander was the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. in economics in the United States, the first black woman to enroll (and graduate) at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law, and the first black woman to practice law in the state of Pennsylvania.
- Sadie graduated with honors from University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1927.
- The Sadie Turner Mossell Alexander University of Pennsylvania Partnership School in West Philadelphia is named after her.
- She was appointed by U.S. President Harry Truman to serve on his Committee on Human Rights in 1947.
- She joined her husband’s law firm and the couple became leading advocates against racial discrimination, segregation, and employment inequality.
Alice Coachman (1923–2014)
Alice Coachman became the first black woman from any country to win an Olympic Gold Medal at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London.
- She set the American and Olympic record for the high jump, clearing 5 feet, 6 1/8 inches, and the gold medal was presented to her by King George VI.
- In an era of racial segregation, Alice rarely had access to athletic facilities in her hometown of Albany, Georgia. She often ran barefoot on dirt roads and created makeshift hurdles for practice.
- Though she qualified for the Olympics at age 15, she wasn’t able to perform on a national stage until 1948 due to the cancellation of the Games in 1940 and 1944 during World War II.
- In 1975, she was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 2004.
Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm (1924-2005)
Shirley Chisholm was the first black woman in congress and the first woman and black woman to run for President of the United States.
- Shirley served seven terms in the U.S. House of Representatives for the state of New York from 1969-1983.
- She became known as “Fighting Shirley” in Congress.
- Shirley introduced more than 50 pieces of legislation surrounding racial and gender equality, economic disparity, and ending the Vietnam War.
- She was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
Mae C. Jemison (Born: 1956)
Mae C. Jemison was the first female African-American astronaut in the United States, as well as the first African-American woman in space. She was also an engineer and a physician.
- Before pursuing her dream to be an astronaut, Mae worked in medicine, earning her M.D. from Cornell University Medical College in 1981.
- While working in medicine, Mae spent time as a medical officer in the Peace Corps for Sierra Leone and Liberia.
- In 1985, she decided to change her career and was one of 15 candidates selected from a field of 2,000 to be admitted into NASA’s astronaut training program.
- Mae earned the title “Science Mission Specialist” and was in charge of conducting crew-related scientific experiments on the space shuttle.
- On Sept. 12, 1992, Jemison and six other astronauts flew into space aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour on mission STS-47.
Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. (1880-1970)
Benjamin Oliver Davis, Sr. was the first black general in the U.S. Army.
- During his time in the army, there were 2-3 black officers in the army. Today, there are as many as 10,000.
- After working his way through the ranks, General Davis was largely responsible for persuading the Army to try a limited form of integration. The success of this effort led to a federal mandate for the integration of the entire American armed forces.
- General Davis’s son, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., became the fourth African-American to graduate from West Point.
- When General Davis passed away, President Harry Truman oversaw his public ceremony. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Dorothy Height (1912-2010)
Dorothy Height is recognized as one of the most influential women in the modern civil rights movement, beginning her activism at the age of 25.
- Dorothy was a leader in the Young Women’s Christian Association (YYWCA).
- She was also president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) for 40+ years.
- Dorothy was one of the chief organizers and one of few women present at the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
- She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004 for her civil rights activism.