Not too long ago, as we see in movies and read in history books, African Americans didn’t stand a chance for professions such as lawyers, architects, doctors, politicians, photographers and not even small business owners. While the lives of African Americans have improved considerably in the United States decade after decade, they remain underrepresented in almost all mediums, with the confinement of Black History Month as a source of compromise. The shortest month of the year is insufficient, so here is a list with the names and stories of 5 famous African Americans who became heroes through their work.
1. Bessie Coleman
In an era when being a black or female meant your life is going to be much more difficult from the get-go, Bessie Coleman was two for two and was part Cherokee, as well. Born in 1892 as the tenth of thirteen children of sharecroppers, she had to walk for four miles on foot to her segregated, one-room school. After hearing stories from pilots returning from World War I while working as a manicurist, she decided to become a civil aviator, but was unable to do so in the United States due to her race and gender. Determined, she travelled to France where, in 1921, she became the first black woman to earn an aviation pilot’s license and the first American, among both males and females. to hold an international license. She cemented her place as one of the most inspirational and famous African Americans of the air, despite dying only 5 years later, like so many other pioneers, during a flight accident.
2. W. E. B. Du Bois
Born less than three years after the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States, Du Bois lived for 95 years, having died just one day before one of the most famous civil rights activists Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. All of his adult life was spent in a constant struggle to improve the lives of people of colour. He became the first African American to earn a doctorate from Harvard, going on to become a professor of history, sociology and economics, and in 1909 he was one of the leaders and cofounders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). While his main activism was against lynching, Jim Crow laws and discrimination, which were widespread through much of his life, he also militated for Asian and African men, women and kids in their struggle against imperialism and was a proponent of Pan-Africanism as a way of ending European colonialism.
3. bell hooks
Born in 1952 Kentucky, bell hooks attended her early education in racially segregated schools and was the subject of abuse when making the transition to an integrated one. Despite adversity from teachers and others, she continued her education with great determination and today is one of the most important educators and writers in the field of gender studies and beyond. Using a postmodern perspective, hooks’ writing focuses on the interconnectivity of race, capitalism and gender and is by far one of the most cited feminist authors/ scientists among the most famous African Americans in academia.
4. Don Thompson – CEO of McDonald’s
When Don Thompson became the first black Chief Executive Officer of McDonald’s in 2012, the media rushed to find out more about him and what they found made for a great story. Thompson grew up near the Cabrini-Green housing project in Chicago, one of the most notoriously violent areas of the cities. A bright student who started sixth grade at the age of 10, Thompson fled the area while in high-school due to increasing gang violence and went to live with relatives in Indianapolis, following up with a bachelor’s from Purdue University. Thompson was with McDonald’s for 22 years at the time of his appointment, first joining in the electrical engineers’ department and, despite climbing the corporate ladder quickly, in 1994, while taking a managing position in the Operations department, he chose to spend six months to learn the inner workings of a McDonald’s restaurant. Starting from fry cook in a South Chicago restaurant, he was one of the entrepreneurs who moved up to the top of the business. Today he lives in Oak Brooks, Illinois, just a few miles from where he was born.
5. Sojourner Truth
After being born in slavery in 1797, Isabella Baumfree managed to escape, along with her infant daughter in 1806. Subsequently she went to court to recover her son and became the first black woman to win such a case against a white male. She took the name of Sojourner Truth in 1843 when she felt the need to travel and help other slaves through the abolitionist movement, becoming one of the most famous African American women of her time. While on the road, she also gave what was to become the most famous of her speeches, “Ain’t I a Woman?” which exposed gender inequalities.