Black History Month is a time for celebrating the legacy of icons and pioneers who paved the way for all of us. From scientists, scholars, doctors, professors, lawyers, inventors, entertainers, athletes, and more, the impact of Black people is far-reaching and undeniable.
We’ve pioneered so much across so many fields, and many times, we don’t get recognition for our contributions.
Here’s a look at a few firsts and trailblazers who are sometimes overlooked and unrecognized for their achievements. There are so many names we don't know but whose shoulders on which we stand.
As the saying goes, “I am because you are.” Thank you.
First Black woman to receive a college degree. Stanton earned a literary degree from Oberlin College in Ohio in 1850. She went on to teach in Columbus, Ohio and, eventually Georgia and Mississippi with the Freedmen's Bureau.
Inventor of potato chips. George Speck is credited with inventing potato chips in 1853 while working as a cook at Moon’s Lake House in Saratoga, New York. He went on to open his own restaurant in 1860 and served elite clientele including William and Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Henry Hilton.
Nathan “Uncle Nearest” Green
Inventor of Tennessee Whiskey. Known as Uncle Nearest, Green is credited with teaching others the craft of making whiskey, a practice that is still used today. Green’s skills were unmatched in the whiskey making process, though he didn’t receive the widespread recognition as those who he taught. His legacy, however, was revived after Fawn Weaver launched Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey in 2017.
First Black author to win the Pulitzer Prize. Brooks is a lauded poet and writer who won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for her work Annie Allen. She was also the first Black woman to serve as a poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. Her work captured life during the 1960s, including the Civil Rights Movement and the nation's economic changes at the time.
First Black woman to win an Olympic Gold Medal. Born in 1923, Coachman grew up in Albany, Georgia where she ran on dirt roads and homemade hurdles. Coachman attended Tuskegee University in Alabama in 1939 at the age of 16. In 1946, she transferred to Albany State College in her hometown, when she won national championship titles for the 50- and 100- meter races. Because of World War II, the Olympic games were cancelled. In 1948, however, she dominated the games and became the first Black woman in the world to win a gold medal at the Olympics.
Photography extraordinaire. Parks was the first Black staff member at LIFE magazine. He went on to produce images for Vogue and other publications, and is responsible for capturing Black life from the 1940s to the early 2000s. He was also the first Black director of a major film production, Shaft, which helped frame the 1970s era of Black movies. In 1999, Parks told LIFE, “I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs. I knew at that point I had to have a camera.”
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler
First Black woman doctor in the United States. Dr. Crumpler was born in 1831. She worked as a nurse for eight years after attending the West-Newton English and Classical School in Massachusetts. She went on to apply to the New England Female Medical College in 1860, and became the first Black female doctor in the country. She went on to work as a physician for the Freedmen's Bureau in Virginia and later practice in Boston’s Black neighborhood at the time, Beacon Hill. She also authored a book entitled, A Book Of Medical Discourses in Two Parts.
First Black and Native American woman licensed pilot. Born in 1892 in Texas, Bessie Coleman was one of 12 children. She picked cotton alongside her mother to pay for her studies at what is now Langston University, but left after a semester due to an inability to pay. Coleman persisted, however, moving to Chicago with her brothers and working as a manicurist in a beauty salon while they served in the military overseas during World War I. When they returned, they told Bessie how France let women learn how to fly. Bessie wanted to do the same so she took French classes at night in order to write her applications to aviation schools in France. She was accepted at the Caudron Brother’s School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France. On June 15, 1921, Bessie Coleman received her pilot’s license and went on to tour the world, performing tricks, and giving speeches, refusing to do so anywhere that upheld segregation. She tragically died in 1926 during a test flight. Renown journalist and activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett gave the eulogy at her funeral. Her accomplishments and trailblazing contributions were honored in 1995 with a stamp from the US Postal Service. In 1977, Black female pilots came together to establish the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club.
Credited with bringing the practice of inoculation to the United States. There isn’t a lot of information about Onesimus, but researchers believe he was born in the late seventeenth century on the continent of Africa. Onesimus lived in Boston and, in 1706, convinced Puritan church minister Cotton Mather to try a long-practiced tradition of inoculation in which a small amount of material from an infected person is scratched into the skin of an uninfected person so that the uninfected person can build immunity.
The US was experiencing a smallpox outbreak in 1721, and Min. Mather convinced Dr. Zabdiel Boylston to try it out. The experiment worked, and Onesimus’ practice was used to protect soldiers during the Revolutionary War and beyond.