While there are many well-known black figures who have made significant contributions to history, there are also countless lesser-known black heroes and sheroes who have had and are having a profound impact on their communities and on the world at large. Here are 20 we wanted to bring to your attention.
And of course, we’re all about action around here, we close with a list of black owned B Corps you can support and some places where you can continue your learning around Black History. These are very short summaries, meant to pique your interest, we encourage you to continue reading about and learning from these and the many other black leaders not mentioned here.
A former slave who later served in the US Congress, Smalls was a hero of the Civil War, commandeering a Confederate ship and delivering it to Union forces, helping to turn the tide of the war.
A physician, civil rights leader, and co-founder of the National Medical Association, Holmes fought tirelessly against racial segregation in healthcare and helped to establish a number of hospitals and clinics for black patients.
The first black woman to found and serve as president of a bank, Walker was a key figure in the economic empowerment of black communities in the early 20th century.
A physician and medical researcher, Drew pioneered techniques for the storage and transfusion of blood plasma, saving countless lives during World War II.
Gladys Bentley was a pioneering blues singer and pianist who defied gender norms and openly expressed her same-sex attraction during a time when it was widely stigmatized. As a gender bending performer, she became an icon in the LGBTQ+ community and inspired many others to embrace their identities and fight for their rights.
A lawyer, civil rights activist, and Episcopal priest, Murray was a key figure in the fight for gender and racial equality. She co-founded the National Organization for Women and served as a legal advisor to the Civil Rights Movement.
A prominent civil rights activist and a leader in the fight for voting rights for African Americans. She co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and delivered a powerful testimony at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, which helped to bring attention to the struggle for racial justice in the United States.
A prominent LGBTQ+ rights activist and performer who is best known for her role in the Stonewall riots, she also was the MC and only drag king of the first racially integrated drag revue in North America. She was a trailblazer for gender non-conforming people and worked tirelessly to advocate for the rights and visibility of LGBTQ+ communities.
Co-founder of the Black Panther Party, an organization that advocated for self-defense and community empowerment for African Americans.
A transgender activist and one of the key figures in the Stonewall uprising. She played a crucial role in the early LGBTQ+ rights movement, and her activism and advocacy helped to raise awareness about the struggles faced by the LGBTQ+ community.
A physicist and academic who was the first African American woman to earn a PhD from MIT, and who later became the first woman and first African American to lead Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
A prominent LGBTQ+ rights activist and founder of the Black AIDS Institute, an organization dedicated to reducing the impact of HIV/AIDS on black communities. He has been a leader in promoting HIV/AIDS awareness, treatment, and prevention, and has worked tirelessly to address the social and economic factors that contribute to health disparities in black communities.
a trailblazing astronaut who became the first African American woman to travel to space. She has been an inspiration to countless young people, particularly girls and people of color, and has used her platform to advocate for science education and diversity in STEM fields.
An actress and activist, Henson has used her platform to advocate for mental health awareness, particularly in black communities, and has been a vocal advocate for gender and racial equality in Hollywood.
A filmmaker, director, and producer, DuVernay has directed and produced several films and TV shows that center on the experiences of black people, including “Selma” and “When They See Us.” She is also the first black woman to direct a film nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.
The founder of the Me Too movement, Burke has been a leading voice in the fight against sexual harassment and assault, particularly as it affects women of color.
A journalist, writer, and educator, Coates has been a leading voice on issues of race and representation in the US, and has written extensively on the legacy of slavery and racism in American society.
The first black principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, Copeland has broken down barriers in the world of classical ballet and has been a role model for young black girls interested in the arts.
A co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, Cullors has been a leading voice in the fight against police brutality and racial injustice in the US.
Author of “The Intersectional Environmentalist,” a term and movement that seeks to address the intersection of social and environmental justice issues. Through her work, Thomas has helped to raise awareness about the disproportionate impact of environmental degradation on marginalized communities and the need for a more inclusive and holistic approach to environmentalism. Follow her on IG @greengirlleah
You don’t have to wait till black history month to support these black owned businesses serving people and planet, show them some love all year ’round.
And for us white folks out there, if you are looking to deepen your journey and build a more just and sustainable world for tomorrow, we highly recommend checking out the White Awakening Survey and if you feel so moved, take the White Awakening course. We have members of our team that have worked through it and really took away a lot of value, definitely worth exploring. Remember its important to recognize and celebrate the contributions of black folks all year round, not just in the month of February.