Every year in February, the United States celebrates Black History Month. It’s a chance for us to acknowledge the many contributions African Americans have made to the growth and betterment of our country. It is also opportunity to inspire others through the lives and accomplishments of those men and women came before. As is tradition here on Inquiry Insider, I’d like to celebrate this time by highlighting five extraordinary Black Americans who made history with their writings, artwork, discoveries, and determination. It’s no exaggeration to say these five figures literally changed the world!
Here are 5 African Americans who Made History:
Benjamin Banneker – Writer and Mathematician
(1731 – 1806)
Born in 1731, Benjamin Banneker grew up with little to no formal education, but nonetheless demonstrated a prodigious skill in mathematics. By combining his passion for numbers with his practical experience as a surveyor and astronomer, Banneker went on to pen several influential almanacs. His work included information on medicines and medical treatment, astronomical forecasts, and eclipses that Banneker had calculated. Eventually, Banneker caught the attention of President George Washington, who tasked him with mapping out a new national capital: modern day Washington, D.C.!
George Washington Carver – Botanist, Inventor, Professor
(1860 – 1943)
George Washington Carver is often mistakenly credited as the inventor of peanut butter. While he didn’t invent this particular snack, his work did revolutionize the field of botany. Carver was an agricultural scientist who helped introduced alternative crops to cotton. This not only assisted struggling farmers but also prevented soil depletion. His work would earn him the Spingarn Medal for Outstanding Achievement and he would serve as a distinguished professor at the Tuskegee Institute for many years. He also invented over 100 peanut based products, including chili sauce, shaving cream, and glue!
Bessie Coleman – Pilot and Trailblazer
(1892 – 1926)
Bessie Coleman was an American aviator who reached new heights by becoming the first African American (as well as first Native American) woman to hold a pilot license. As a child, Coleman dreamed of flying. However, she was unable to attend flight training in the United States due to segregation. Undeterred, Coleman saved her money and traveled to France where she earned an international pilot’s license. Coleman would go on to use her platform to combat segregation and inspire future generations of African American pilots.
Alvin Ailey – Dancer and Choreographer
(1931 – 1989)
One of the most influential artists of his day, Alvin Ailey’s work has inspired countless dancers from all backgrounds. Ailey began his career as a trained dancer but quickly established himself as an exceptional artistic director and choreographer. Using the medium of dance, Ailey helped spread global awareness of black life in the United States. His work also provided commentary on many high-profile historical events. Ailey’s greatest achievement is arguably founding the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. To this day, the AAADT continues to provide guidance for young dancers and remains a popular touring company on the international stage.
Mae C. Jemison – Professor, Entrepreneur, Astronaut
(1956 – Present)
Mae Jemison is many things; a physician, a professor, an entrepreneur, but she is best known as the first African American woman to travel into space. Jemison joined the NASA space program after completing her medical degree at Cornell University and serving in the Peace Corps for two years. On September 12th, 1992, she joined the STS-47 crew on an eight-day mission into space. Following her career at NASA, Jemison founded The Jemison Group Inc. This organization helped improve healthcare in developing countries through satellite-based telecommunications. (Fun Fact: While in space, Jemison brought along a poster from the AAADT and a photo of Bessie Coleman!)
Want to learn more about the impact Black Americans have had on history? Download four FREE mini lessons that will keep your students engaged while learning more about the remarkable contributions of Black Americans.