20 Inspiring Leaders to Learn About During Black History Month

This is a great way to help kids celebrate diversity and human rights!

Maya Brown-Zimmerman February 11, 2016

Ours was a multicultural home even before adoption: I am Latina, and my husband is proud of his Italian heritage. Last spring, we adopted a baby girl who is part African American. Being able to see your race reflected in the community around you and in positions of power and leadership is particularly important for children who have been transracially adopted. February is Black History Month, and it’s a great time to educate your family about black leaders that you may not have been aware of before. It was difficult to keep this slideshow to only 20 people! I tried to focus on historical figures who are less-frequently discussed and current innovators that our children can look to as mentors.

Tell me in the comments who some of your favorite leaders are!

Ava DuVernay
1. Ava DuVernay

Ava Duvernay (1972 - ) is an award-winning director and screenwriter who got her start in journalism and public relations. She made her debut as a director in 2008, and in 2012, became the first African American woman to win the Best Director prize at the Sundance Film Festival. She is perhaps best known for directing Selma, which brought her the distinction of being the first African American female director to be nominated for a Golden Globe award, and the first to have her film nominated for an Oscar for best picture.

Charles Hamilton Houston
2. Charles Hamilton Houston

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Charles Houston (1895-1950) is known as “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow.” He was a lawyer who served as Dean of the Howard University law school. After stepping down from his post, he became litigation director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In that position, he argued case after case dealing with segregation, proving that “separate but equal” was inherently unequal. Brown v. Board of Education was settled after Houston’s death, but it was his work in the two decades prior that led to that decision.

Daniel Hale Williams
3. Daniel Hale Williams

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams (1856 - 1931) was a pioneer in surgery. When he graduated medical school, black doctors were not allowed to practice where he lived. So, Dr. Williams started Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses. It served the African American population and was the first hospital with an interracial staff. He was the second surgeon to successfully perform open-heart surgery. He also co-founded the National Medical Association. This was a professional organization that allowed for black membership, as the American Medical Association did not.

Harry Belefonte
4. Harry Belefonte

Photo Credit: Denis Makarenko / Shutterstock.com

Harry Belafonte (1927 - ) is a performer and civil rights activist. A high school dropout with a turbulent childhood, Belafonte started singing in jazz clubs and taking acting courses after being discharged from the Navy. He’s known as the “King of Calypso” and his best-known song is “The Banana Boat Song.” He won an award for his role in the movie Kansas City. But just as illustrious as his performing career is Belafonte’s involvement in civil rights advocacy. He was a good friend of Martin Luther King, Jr’s and helped to fund various civil rights movement activities and organizations during that time period. In later years, he served as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, has been involved in anti-apartheid work in Africa, and currently serves as an ACLU celebrity ambassador for juvenile justice issues.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett
5. Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Best known as Ida B. Wells (1862 - 1931), she was an early civil rights activist. After being moved to the smoking car on a train from the first class seat she’d paid for to make room for a white passenger, Wells sued the train company and won (though the verdict was later overturned). This started her career in journalism, during which she wrote about civil rights issues. After the murder of friends, she began to investigate lynchings and wrote many articles decrying them. Her anti-lynching work, as well as her involvement in the suffragette movement, had implications in both America and Britain.

John H. Johnson
6. John H. Johnson

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Johnson (1918 - 2005) was a publisher and businessman. He is best known for starting Ebony, a magazine that focuses on African American celebrities, issues, and which is now an online-only magazine.

Langston Hughes
7. Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes (1902 - 1967) was an author and playwright. He was a leader of the Harlem Renaissance and one of the first to write jazz poetry. He published both poetry and short stories focused on the black working class and race relations. Later, Hughes wrote plays and a popular column for the Chicago Defender. Some of his writings include The Weary Blues, Not Without Laughter, and The Poetry of the Negro.

Mae Jemison
9. Mae Jemison

A physician and an astronaut, Jemison (1956 - ) was the first African American woman to go to space. She always had a love for the sciences and balanced that with the desire to be a dancer. She graduated high school early and entered Stanford University at just 16 years old. Jemison majored in engineering and has spoken about the racism she encountered in college. She went on to medical school and became a general practitioner. In 1983 she applied to NASA and was eventually accepted as an astronaut. In 1992, the doctor was a mission specialist on flight STS-47. After leaving NASA, Jemison became a college professor and speaker.

Bonus fact: She was the first actual astronaut to appear on Star Trek.

Marian Wright Edelman
10. Marian Wright Edelman

Marian Wright Edelman (1939 - ) is a fierce advocate for children. She was the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar, worked for the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund, and helped start the Poor People’s Campaign, which was in part organized by Martin Luther King, Jr. She founded the Children’s Defense Fund in 1973 and used that to petition Congress to support adoption, change the foster care system, and aid children in need, whether in poverty or disability. Her motto is "If you don’t like the way the world is, you have an obligation to change it. Just do it one step at a time."

Mary McLeod Bethune
11. Mary McLeod Bethune

Mary McLeod Bethune (1875 - 1955) was an educator. From a young age, she realized that literacy separated blacks from whites. As an adult, she founded the Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls. She helped register black voters in the South and started the National Council for Negro Women to improve the lives of African American women. Bethune served as a member of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Black Cabinet. Later she was president of the Bethune-Cookman School, making her one of the few female college presidents in the world at that time.

Maya Angelou
12. Maya Angelou

Born Marguerite Annie Johnson (1928 - 2014), Maya Angelou was one of the most famous poets and authors of our time. She wrote numerous books, including Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She read her poem, "On the Pulse of Morning” for President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration. In addition to her prolific writing, she worked alongside both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X in the civil rights movement. A popular quote of hers is “All my work, my life, everything I do is about survival, not just bare, awful, plodding survival, but survival with grace and faith. While one may encounter many defeats, one must not be defeated.”

Misty Copeland
13. Misty Copeland

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A ballerina, Copeland (1982 - ) became the first black woman to be named principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre company. She had a complicated, turbulent home life, moving frequently, enduring abuse, and at one point living with her dance teacher. Copland quickly garnered recognition and awards for her dance, even though she didn’t begin ballet until the age of 13. In addition to her recognition for her position as principal dancer, Copeland was named of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2015, and has authored two books.

Neil deGrasse Tyson
14. Neil deGrasse Tyson

Photo Credit: Helga Esteb / Shutterstock.com

Neil deGrasse Tyson (1958 - ) is a popular scientist. He earned his PhD in astrophysics from Columbia University in 1991. He is passionate about helping the public understand science, in particular the fields of astronomy and cosmology. Tyson was one of the first scientists to suggest de-classifying Pluto as a planet. He is perhaps most well-known as a host and narrator of various television shows, including "NOVA", "Star Talk", and the award winning "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.”

Ruby Dee
15. Ruby Dee

Born Ruby Ann Wallace (1922 - 2014), she was an accomplished actress, writer, poet, journalist, and civil rights activist. Dee was the MC for the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom" in 1963, and received the National Civil Rights Museum's "Lifetime Achievement Freedom Award” in 2005. On the acting front, she was well-known for her more political roles, such as in "Gone Are The Days", "The Incident", and "A Raisin In The Sun" (stage and film versions). She won numerous awards, including a Grammy, Emmy, and SAG award, and was nominated for an Oscar.

Shonda Rhimes
16. Shonda Rhimes

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Shonda Rhimes (1970 - ) is a television screenwriter, director, and producer. She’s most well known for creating Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, and producing How to Get Away with Murder. All of Rhimes’s shows feature rich lead roles for people of color. In 2007, she was named one of Time magazine’s 100 People Who Help Shape the World.

Spike Lee
17. Spike Lee

Photo Credit: Denis Makarenko / Shutterstock.com

Born Shelton Jackson Lee (1956 - ), Spike Lee is a prolific director, producer, and actor. His films explore race relations, crime and poverty in the city, and politics. Most recently, he has spoken out about the lack of racial diversity in the Academy Award nominations and lack of opportunity for people of color in the film industry. He has won various awards, though never an Oscar. In 2015 he was given an Honorary Academy Award. Some of Lee’s most notable films include “Do the Right Thing,” “Love and Basketball,” and “4 Little Girls.”

Thurgood Marshall
18. Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall (1908 - 1993) was the first African American Supreme Court Justice. He attended law school at Howard University, while Charles Hamilton Houston was Dean, and continued his mentor’s work by trying segregation cases, most notably Brown v. Board of Education. That struck down “separate but equal” in regards to public education.

Toni Morrison
19. Toni Morrison

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Born Chloe Ardelia Wofford, Toni Morrison (1931 - ) is an award-winning author. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her book, Beloved, a story of slaves escaped to Ohio and the ghosts (literal and figurative) left behind. In 1993, She won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Other books of hers include Song of Solomon and Sula. In 1996, Morrison was selected to give the "Jefferson Lecture,” the U.S. Government's greatest humanities honor. Today, she is a professor emeritus at Princeton University.

Viola Davis
20. Viola Davis

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Viola Davis (1965 - ) is an award-winning actress. She has won Tony and SAG
awards, but most notably, she was the first black actress to win the Emmy for Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series for her role as Annalise Keating in the ABC drama How To Get Away With Murder. Davis is outspoken about racial issues in television and film. In her Emmy acceptance speech, she said, “In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me, over that line. But I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line.’That was Harriet Tubman in the 1800s. And let me tell you something: The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”

Wangari Maathai
21. Wangari Maathai

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Wangari Maathai (1940 - 2011) was an environmental activist. Born in Kenya, she attended college in the United States before earning her PhD back in Kenya. She established the "Green Belt Movement", a grassroots organization which supports and encourages women to plant trees, combat desertifcation and deforestation, and promote environmental conservation. She supported democratic reform in Kenya and founded the "Mazingira Green Party of Kenya" political party, later being elected to Parliament. In 2004, Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize for her "contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.”

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Maya Brown-Zimmerman

Maya Brown-Zimmerman is a mother of three, both biologically and through adoption. She has been blogging since before it was cool, and is passionate about everything from open and ethical adoption to special needs advocacy and patient-physician communication. In her spare time (ha!) she's on the board of directors for a medical nonprofit and enjoys medical and crime dramas. You can read more from her on her blog, Musings of a Marfan Mom.

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