Black History 101: What You Weren’t Taught In School

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School’s in session!

With Black history books being systematically removed from library shelves, limiting access to crucial resources that elucidate the multifaceted experiences and contributions of Black Americans, it’s more important than ever to discuss and share Black History. The ongoing erasure of Black History in America has been exacerbated by politicians attempting to rewrite history to downplay the significance of Black stories. With the goal of amplifying, celebrating, and preserving the voices and experiences that shape Black history, BIN presents “Black History You Weren’t Taught In School.”

1. Henrietta Lacks’ Contributions To The World Of Science

HBO's The HeLa Project Exhibit For
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Henrietta Lacks, a mother from Baltimore, deserves recognition in every U.S. biology class for her significant impact on science and medicine. In 1951, while undergoing tumor treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital, cells from her biopsy were taken without her consent and became pivotal in ongoing medical research. Her cells were the first known human immortal cells used in medical research. Now referred to as the HeLa cell line, these cells have been used in AIDS, cancer, gene mapping, and other scientific work. Her contributions led to the creation of the first cell line capable of perpetual reproduction. Despite this being one of the era’s most significant medical advancements, the primary contributor, Lacks, passed away just two months after the initial biopsy, and her family remained unaware of the breakthrough for decades.

2. Tulsa Was Once Home To A Thriving “Black Wall Street”

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Following the Emancipation Proclamation in the 1890s, freed slaves flocked to Oklahoma as a haven for a fresh start. Black residents started businesses and eventually built a thriving community in Tulsa’s Greenwood District that became known as “Negro Wall Street.” The term was coined by Booker T. Washington. Black Wall Street was a place where Black residents could get loans, and business owners could pool their resources. This led to the flourishing of a variety of businesses in the area, including doctors’ offices, grocery stores, schools, movie theaters, churches, restaurants, hair salons, and more. However, In 1921, the thriving Greenwood District was destroyed by a white mob during a massacre that left an estimated 300 Black people dead and businesses and homes burned to the ground. Black people were forced to leave behind their homes and a lifetime of opportunities.

3. Josephine Baker’s Dazzling Performances Of The 1920’s

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An icon of the “Roaring Twenties” is American-born French dancer, singer, and actress Josephine Baker, whose artistic contributions shaped the Jazz Age and Roaring Twenties. Baker, a St. Louis native who went from street performer to one of the most famed dancers in American history, was the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture, the 1927 silent film Siren of the Tropics. Baker was in several Broadway productions in New York before she moved to France and performed at the iconic Danse Sauvage. Famously, Bake refused to perform in segregated venues and became an important figure in the civil rights movement.

4. Shirley Chisholm’s Historic Political Run

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New York native Shirley Chisholm may get left out of some textbooks but that doesn’t take away her historic political run. Chisholm was the first Black candidate to run for a major party nomination and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s nomination. Chisholm also made history as the first Black woman elected to Congress when she served as representative for New York’s 12 district.

“I am not the candidate of Black America, although I am Black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman and equally proud of that. I am the candidate of the people, and my presence before you symbolizes a new era in American political history,” Chisholm is famously quoted saying.

5. Katherine Johnson’s Contributions To Landing Man On The Moon

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Katherine Johnson, a skilled mathematician, played a pivotal role in sending astronauts into orbit and landing a man on the moon. After the Soviet Union launched the satellite Sputnik in 1957, Johnson joined the Space Task Force, laying out equations needed for orbital space flight. Johnson is credited for conducting one of the final tests to send John Glenn into space. Her orbital calculations were later used to send a man to the moon, a historic achievement for U.S. space flight. Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2015. Her work with the space agency was also featured in the 2016 movie Hidden Figures.

6. Dr. Gladys West: The Hidden Figure Behind The GPS

Photo: National Center For Women & Information Technology

Dr. Gladys West is another skilled mathematician who gets overlooked in most history lessons. West’s calculations were crucial in developing GPS technology. West collected and processed data from satellites and used the information to create precise models of the Earth’s shape while working at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Virginia. She later became a manager for the first satellite project that was able to remotely sense oceans. West was finally recognized for her work in 2018 and inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame.

7. Claudette Colvin: The 15-Year-Old Girl Who Refused To Give Up Her Bus Seat Before Rosa Parks

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Nine months before Rosa Parks‘s defining moment in history, a 15-year-old girl named Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger. Colvin was escorted off the bus by two police officers and arrested for not giving up her seat. The pivotal moment occurred on the same Montgomery, Alabama, bus system that Parks later infamously refused to give up her seat.

Colvin was later involved in the Browder v. Gayle court case, which overturned bus segregation laws in Alabama. She is one of several women who went unwritten in most textbooks for standing up against bus segregation.

8. James McCune Smith Paved The Way In The Medical Field

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America continues to see Black firsts in the medical field, and one ambitious Black doctor paved the way over two centuries ago. James McCune Smith was not only the first Black physician in the country, but he was the first Black American to earn a medical degree – especially at a time when no college would enroll him as a student, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Earning his medical degree from the University of Glasgow in the 1830s, the acclaimed doctor was recognized as one of the school’s best students at the time. As the first Black American to publish peer-reviewed articles in medical journals, he wrote essays and delivered speeches debunking pseudoscience asserting Black inferiority as a fact. The physician would become a leading abolitionist, as well, earning the praise of the renowned Frederick Douglass in 1859.

9. Mary Richards Bowser Helped Take Down Confederate Powerhouses During The Civil War

Because Black women couldn’t officially serve as troops in the Civil War, they opted to become nurses, scouts, and even spies. Mary Richards Bowser was one of those spies, a former enslaved maid under Elizabeth Van Lew’s household. Van Lew orchestrated one of the most infamous spy rings during the war and recruited Bowser into the fold. According to History.com, Bowser posed as Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ maid to feed intelligence back to Van Lew. The cunning spy used her photographic memory and superb acting skills to fool Confederate leaders and leak critical information to the Union.

10. The Biloxi Wade-Ins Put The Civil Rights Spotlight On Segregated Beaches

Palm tree and shadow on an empty beach in winter, Biloxi, Mississippi, USA
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As many know, Civil rights demonstrators often fought against segregated public facilities and institutions, including schools, buses, and even water fountains. However, a years-long demonstration that often gets left out of textbooks occurred on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. Black residents of Biloxi, Mississippi, spent years protesting segregation of public beaches, with physician Gilbert R. Mason Sr. leading the charge. Starting in May 1959, thousands of Black men, women, and children “waded in” the waters to stand against discrimination. The protests were marked by contentious meetings with city leaders, violent clashes with counter-protestors and police, and even a lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Justice. It took the 1964 Civil Rights Act of 1964 to legally desegregate Biloxi beaches, but the city didn’t open them to all races until 1968.

11. William Reynolds Challenged Segregated Schools In Court Before Brown v. Board of Education

Monroe School, Brown v Board of Education National Historic Site.
Photo: Corbis News / Getty Images

Before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that desegregated schools in the U.S., a Black father fighting for his child’s education took the issue to the Kansas state Supreme Court. William Reynolds, a Black tailor living in Topeka, sued the city’s School Board in May 1902 for forcing his eight-year-old son, Raoul, to attend a racially-segregated school. Raoul was a student at another school that had integrated classrooms, but it burned to the ground weeks before the start of the school year, forcing over 200 students, including 35 Black pupils, to attend segregated schools. Reynolds deemed the Black-only school was deemed unsanitary and inconvenient for his son, so the father filed a lawsuit against the School Board. Reynolds’ lawsuit reached the state supreme court, but a judge dismissed it based on the “separate but equal” doctrine established by Plessy v. Ferguson. Topeka, Kansas would also be where the groundbreaking Brown v. Board of Education would take shape before reaching the U.S. Supreme Court.

12. South Carolina’s Friendship Nine Inspired New Civil Rights Tactics

I Fight For Freedom
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A sit-in in a small South Carolina town would catch the attention of the nation during the civil rights era. On January 31, 1961, nine Black students attending Friendship College and the then-secretary of the Congress of Racial Equality sat at a lunch counter in Rock Hill to rebel against segregation. All ten of the men were immediately arrested, but nine of them declined to pay the $100 bail. As a result, they were jailed for thirty days and dubbed the “Friendship 9.” This act was the first instance of the “Jail, No Bail” tactic, and civil rights activists across the Southeast picked up the trick. The Freedom Riders would also deploy this strategy as they rode across the South to protest the lack of enforcement on desegregating buses.

13. The Arrest Of Six Black Teenagers Put The Spotlight On The “School-To-Prison Pipeline”

Jena Louisiana Civil Rights Gathering
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A 2006 incident at a Louisiana high school would shed light on the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a set of longstanding practices that shuttled at-risk Black youth into the criminal justice system. This started when six Black students beat up a white peer at Jena High School, sending the boy to the emergency room. All six defendants, whose ages ranged from 14 to 18, were arrested and charged with second-degree attempted murder, sparking protests in the small town. Activists claimed the charges were too harsh for a school fight, leading to most of the teens, dubbed the Jena Six, to get “no contest” pleas to lesser charges. One of the defendants, Mychal Bell, was already convicted but it was overturned on the grounds he should’ve been tried in juvenile court. He then pleaded guilty to simple battery, like the rest of the teenagers. The case drew national media attention and highlighted racial injustice when it came to school discipline.

14. Mathematician Benjamin Banneker Helped Survey Washington D.C. Despite Racial Struggles

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In the early years of the United States, a Black tobacco farmer debunked early American leaders’ notions of Black inferiority. Enter Benjamin Banneker, an astronomer and mathematician who helped survey the land that would become the nation’s capital: Washington D.C. President George Washington appointed three commissioners to oversee the “Federal City’s” construction, including his cousin Andrew Ellicott. Ellicott brought on Banneker as an assistant surveyor to help map out the land. Banneker’s peers and employers would also shift attention back to his race despite his immaculate skills and intelligence – something the scientist would later criticize in his writings.  

15. Security Guard Frank Wills Discovered A Piece Of Tape, Opening The Floodgates Of Watergate

Media Interviewing Frank Wills
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One of the biggest political scandals in American history started with an eagle-eyed Black security guard. On June 17, 1972, Frank Wills spotted a piece of duct tape covering the lock of the back parking door leading to the Watergate Office Building in Washington, D.C. He documented his findings in a security log and alerted the police about the tape, leading to the arrest of five key figures linked to President Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign. The controversy revealed a cavalcade of conspiracy, wiretapping, surveillance, and other insidious acts that culminated in Nixon’s historic resignation. According to the National Archives, Wills said he was denied a promotion and barely made money doing press interviews despite his role in uncovering the Watergate break-in.

16. Black Cowboys Played A Crucial Role In Expanding The American West

An African American Cowboy
Photo: Corbis Historical / Getty Images

Popular depictions of cowboys in the American West are usually reserved for white men. Following the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves, Black cowboys served an invaluable role in working on ranches across the West, especially freedmen who gained experience under slave masters. They were scouts, cattle herders, cooks, and workers in various roles except that of the trail boss, who led the “trail drive.” They also had to brave dangerous conditions on the frontier, from stampedes and intense weather to disputes with rogue ruffians. Out of the estimated 35,000 cowboys of the era, historians believe 6,000 to 9,000 of them were Black, according to the Library of Congress. Nonetheless, that didn’t stop Black Americans from having their own rodeos and cowboy communities, which continue today.

17. Garrett Morgan’s Invention Forever Changed The Flow Of American Traffic

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A Black man is responsible for one of the most important inventions in American traffic and transportation. Garrett Morgan crafted many creations over his career, but one of his most notable inventions was a version of the three-light traffic signal. Inspired by a gruesome car crash he witnessed in 1923, the inventor added a yellow light to signal oncoming drivers to slow down ahead of the red stop light. The businessman was granted his patent in 1924, fundamentally changing how motorists conduct themselves on the roads. His invention is now a permanent fixture on most American roads.

18. Lucia Harris Is The Only Woman Ever To Be Drafted By NBA

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Lusia Harris, widely revered as the “Queen of Basketball,” was a pioneer in the sport. While attending Delta State University, Harris was selected to be on the first Olympic women’s basketball team in 1976. The following year, Harris made history as the first and only woman to ever be officially drafted by an NBA Team. The Utah Jazz selected her in the seventh round of the 1977 draft, but because Harris felt the move was a publicity stunt, she turned down the offer. Harris went on to play for the Women’s Professional Basketball League’s Houston Angels. She died in January 2022.

19. Lucy Stanton Was The First Black American Woman To Earn 4-Year College Degree

Photo: Black Past

Lucy Stanton paved the way for Black women in education. Stanton is believed to be the first Black American woman to graduate from college with a four-year degree. In 1850, Stanton completed a Ladies Literary Course at Oberlin College, one of the first colleges in the U.S. to admit Black people. Stanton was elected as president of the school’s Ladies Literary Society. She also famously delivered a commencement speech called “A Plea for the Oppressed.” Staton went on to be an educator and active abolitionist.

20. Black History Month Started As “Negro History Week”

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A Black historian is the reason why we celebrate Black History Month in February. Carter G. Woodson diligently worked to establish an event to provide education on the struggles and achievements of Black Americans in U.S. History. The annual celebration we know today started in 1926 as a seven-day commemoration called “Negro History Week.” Despite Woodson’s work, Black History Month didn’t become nationally recognized until the 1970s. President Gerald Ford was the first to recognize the celebration officially, and Black educators and students at Kent State paved the way for it to be commemorated in educational institutions.

21. Rosetta Tharpe Is Known As The Godmother Of Rock ‘N Roll

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What’s not taught in many music classes is that a Black woman is considered the Godmother of Rock ‘N Roll. Born in 1915, Rosetta Tharpe was a trailblazer in the genre. With her distinctive voice and guitar skills, Tharpe combined secular and spiritual music to create a unique brand of rock. The likes of Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, and Johnny Cash have credited Tharpe for influencing their music.

22. The “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” Boycotts

Photo: Public Domain (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture)

The “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” boycotts, born out of necessity during the Great Depression, catalyzed a pivotal movement for Black employment rights.

Credited with creating tens of thousands of jobs for Black workers amid the country’s severe global economic downturn from 1929-1939, the movement became a crucial tactic used by Black Americans to combat discriminatory hiring practices.

Through organized boycotts and consumer activism, Black Americans refused to support businesses that upheld discriminatory policies, which compelled many employers to reconsider their practices and opened doors to employment opportunities for Black workers. These boycotts not only contributed to the economic empowerment of Black communities but also served as a catalyst for broader social change, highlighting the intertwined nature of economic justice and civil rights.

23. Jane Bolin Shattered Glass Ceilings That Paved The Way For Women On The Bench

Portrait Of Judge Jane Bolin
Photo: Getty Images

Jane Bolin is the first Black woman to graduate from Yale Law School. She graduated from the prestigious university in 1931, and eight years later, she broke yet another barrier when she became the first Black female judge in the United States. She served on the bench of New York City’s Domestic Relations Court for over 40 years. Bolin’s tenure as a judge was marked by her dedication to justice and advocacy for women, children, and families, particularly those from marginalized communities. Bolin’s groundbreaking achievements shattered barriers and paved the way for future generations of women of color in the legal profession.

24. Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Is A Trailblazer In The Fields Of Law, Academia, And Civil Rights Activism

Photo: Public Domain

Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander is known for her groundbreaking contributions as an economist, educator, and civil rights advocate. 

In 1921, Alexander became the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in economics, graduating from the University of Pennsylvania. The achievement also marked the second time a Black American woman received a PH.D. As noted by the American Economic Association, “because of her race and gender, [Alexander] was denied a regular academic position after graduating. 

Despite facing racial barriers, she went on to become the first woman to earn a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and the first Black woman to practice law in the state.

Throughout her illustrious career, Alexander made significant contributions to both academia and public service, advocating for racial and gender equality. She also played a key role in advancing civil rights through her work with the National Urban League and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Alexander is additionally known for writing speeches and articles about the economic condition of Black Americans.

She believed that the neglect of Black Americans’ contributions to the economic development of the United States, combined with “barriers to Black education and wealth accumulation, contributed to the false belief—held, unfortunately, by some prominent economists of the time, among many others—that Blacks were genetically inferior.”

25. The Negro Motorist Green Book Was “The Bible Of Black Travel During Jim Crow”

Photo: Fair Use

Published in 1936 by Victor Hugo Green (a Black American New York City postal worker), the Negro Motorist Green Book was an essential guidebook for Black American travelers during the Jim Crow era in the United States. The Green Book provided information on safe accommodations, restaurants, and businesses that welcomed Black patrons during a time marked by racial discrimination and violence against Black Americans. The guidebook was, in many ways, a lifeline for Black travelers navigating the Jim Crow South and other segregated areas across North America. The book was instrumental not only in facilitating safer travel for Black Americans but also in fostering a sense of community and solidarity within the Black community. 

26. William Tucker Is The First Known Person Of African Ancestry To Be Born In The 13 Colonies Of British North America

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Photo: AFP

Born in 1624 near Jamestown, Virginia (he appears on the first comprehensive census made in North America), William Tucker was the son of “Antoney and Isabell” — two of the first documented Africans to arrive in the British Colony of Virginia at Point Comfort (present-day Fort Monroe). Tucker was named after Captain William Tucker, whom his parents were servants of on the Tucker plantation, which was located in present-day Hampton.

While historians don’t know much about William Tucker’s life, what is known is that Tucker was the first African child baptized in English North America. Additionally, around 1635, when Tucker was 10 or 11, his parents were freed, and they established a farm in Kent County, Virginia. Descendants of William Tucker continue to reside in the Hampton Roads area.

27. Seneca Village Was A Thriving, Predominantly Black American Community That Existed In What Is Now Central Park.

A Lonely Wooden Bench in Central Park - Manhattan, New York City
Photo: iStockphoto

In 1825, two years before slavery was abolished in New York, Andrew Williams bought land in the middle of Manhattan. The 25-year-old Black American shoe shiner, along with hundreds of free Black Americans, built what became home to the largest number of Black American property owners in New York before the Civil War. Despite facing racial discrimination and social marginalization, Seneca Village thrived as a close-knit community. However, in the 1850s, the city forcibly evicted the residents and demolished the village to make way for the construction of Central Park.

28. John Rock Was The First African American Supreme Court Lawyer.

Photo: Library of Congress

Born in Salem, New Jersey, in 1825, John Rock is considered one of the most brilliant and influential Black figures in American history. Despite racial discrimination, Rock opened his own dental practice in Philadelphia in 1849. He then pursued his lifelong dream of becoming a physician, making him one of the first Black American men to earn a medical degree.

Rock’s commitment to equality and liberation went beyond his work in dentistry and medicine; he was also recognized as a prominent educator, abolitionist, and speaker. One of his notable speeches introduced the concept of “Black pride,” a phrase that later became integral to the Black Power movement. Additionally, he popularized the term “Black is beautiful.”

Despite encountering health challenges that led him to relinquish his medical practice in 1859, Rock persevered and transitioned into a career in law. By 1861, he had become one of the earliest Black Americans to be admitted to the Massachusetts Bar, and he was subsequently appointed as Justice of the Peace for Suffolk County. Then, on February 1, 1865, Dr. Rock reached another significant milestone, as he became the first African American admitted to practice before the Supreme Court, a feat achieved just one day after the House of Representatives passed the 13th Amendment.

29. Betty Boop Was Based On A Black Woman

Photo: Fair Use

The iconic cartoon character was originally inspired by Esther Jones, a Black woman and entertainer known by her stage name “Baby Esther.” Baby Esther gained popularity in the 1920s for her unique vocal style, characterized by “boop-oop-a-doop” scat singing. It is believed that cartoonist Max Fleischer, the creator of Betty Boop, drew inspiration from Baby Esther’s performances when developing the character’s distinctive voice and persona. 

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