Famous African Americans Who Shaped American History

famous african american heroes

African Americans have paved the course of American history in many incredible ways. Read on to learn about some famous African Americans who have shaped this country.

This Black History Month, we celebrate the accomplishments of many African American heroes whose contributions impact all parts of society! Many had difficult beginnings but overcame unbelievable odds to make a difference. Here are a few great leaders, thinkers, and revolutionaries.

Who Are Some Famous African Americans of the 19th Century?

Harriet Tubman

Considered to be the first African American woman to serve in the military, Harriet Tubman served as a scout, spy, guerrilla soldier, and nurse for the Union Army during the Civil War. As a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, she helped transport over three hundred former slaves to freedom. Her nickname “The Moses of Her People” endured as her legacy, since she led many to freedom.  She is remembered to have never been caught and “never lost a passenger.” The new movie Harriet depicts her life.

Frederick Douglass

One of the most prominent human rights leaders of the 19th century, this former slave became one of the most dynamic voices in the abolitionist movement. His oratory and written prowess captivated the nation, convincing many to support the abolition of slavery. Though he lived decades prior to the Civil War, his voice helped shape the nation.

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), former slave and abolitionist broke whites’ stereotypes about African Americans in the decades prior to the U.S. Civil War. His literary and oratorical excellence, and his dignified bearing, converted many to support the abolition of slavery in the United States. 1855 portrait.

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler broke ground in the medical and professional world as the first African American woman physician. Her 1883 book A Book of Medical Discourses was one of the first medical books written by an African American.

Bessie Coleman

As a pioneer Aviatrix, she was the first licensed civilian African American pilot in the world. Throughout the United States, she did parachute jumping, barnstorming, and giving lectures. Fortunately, her efforts were not in vain, as she was able to raise money for an African American flying school.

Bessie Coleman

Who Are Some Famous African American Civil Rights Leaders?

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It’s almost impossible to hear the words “I Have a Dream” without thinking back on Dr. King’s famous speech of August 28, 1963. His non-violent approach to civil rights separated him from other leaders of the time, like Malcolm X. His 1955 non-violent Montgomery Bus Boycott eventually led to the Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate public buses. Between 1957 and 1968, King traveled over six million miles and spoke over twenty-five hundred times. His “Letter from Birmingham Jail” set the tone for the civil rights movement, defending a nonviolent approach to combatting racism. We remember his achievements and celebrate  Martin Luther King, Jr. Day January 20th this year.

Rosa Parks

Despite her small stature, Rosa Parks remains a dominant figure in the civil rights movement. She refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus, and history has never been the same. Many Americans consider Rosa Parks to be the mother of the modern-day civil rights movement in America.

W.E.B Du Bois

As an American sociologist, journalist, historian, and author, he was one of the most dynamic forces of justice in the American civil rights movement. In addition to his co-founding the NAACP, he was the director and research editor of the organization’s magazine, The Crisis. In this role, he held a great deal of influence among middle-class blacks and progressive whites who protested black inequality. His opposition to Booker T. Washington’s “accommodation” approach to racial equality was clear in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk. DuBois believed that positive change would only come about through protest and agitation, and spent his life dedicated to that cause.

Daisy Bates

Although Daisy Bates experienced a painful childhood, she didn’t let that keep her from making a difference. This civil rights activist, journalist, publisher, and lecturer from Arkansas played a pivotal part in school integration. As an active member of the NAACP, she advocated immediate school integration during the 1950s. She even personally drove black children to white public schools, only to be turned away at the doors. In the face of threats, legal action, and violence, she guided and supported the efforts of the Little Rock Nine.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett

This dynamic journalist, educator, and co-founder of the NAACP founded the National Association of Colored Women’s Club and stood up for issues of women’s suffrage and civil rights. In the face of opposition, Wells-Barnett counted, investigated, and reported lynchings in America like no one had before. Her commitment to investigative journalism as it related to African American injustice made her a force of nature in the Civil Rights Movement into the 20th century.

William H. Hastie

William H. Hastie was a significant legal presence during the 20th Century. In March 1937, President Roosevelt appointed Hastie as judge of the Federal District Court of the Virgin Islands, making him the first African American federal judge. Nine years later, President Harry Truman appointed Hastie as Governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Eventually, Hastie would go on to hold the highest judicial position held by an African American in 1950 as judge of the Third United States Circuit Court of Appeals.

Thurgood Marshall

A student of Hastie, Thurgood Marshall achieved greatness as the first black Supreme Court judge in the United States. Even though he was born into an era of legal segregation, he was able to use the court system to champion equality for African Americans.

Who Are Some Famous African American Athletes?

Jackie Robinson

Robinson broke down barriers as the first African American player of the 20th century to take the field in major league baseball. While he chose Robinson for his talent and athleticism, he also admired for his calm demeanor. This would be needed in the face of opposition to his presence on a previously all-white team. At the end of his first season, the league named him Rookie of the Year. Just two years later, the National League named him MVP when he led the league hitting a .342 average, 37 steals, and a 124 RBI. All major league baseball teams celebrate April 15 as “Jackie Robinson Day” in honor of one of baseball’s true legends.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee

Track legend Jackie Joyner-Kersee is considered to be one of the greatest female athletes of all time. She broke the world record as the first to score more than 7,000 points in the heptathlon at the 1986 Goodwill Games in Moscow. Incredibly,  she broke the heptathlete record for the fourth time at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. At the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, she made American history as the first athlete to win the heptathlon in consecutive Olympics.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Although he retired from the NBA over twenty years ago, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar continues to be the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. A six-time NBA champion and the only six-time MVP, Abdul-Jabbar remains one of the greatest basketball players of all time.

Serena Williams

Arguably the greatest tennis player of all time, Serena’s powerful athleticism, fierce tenacity, and powerful style of play revolutionized women’s tennis. With 23 Grand Slam Titles, Williams has claimed more titles than any other woman or man. While some debate if she’s the greatest of all time, she and her sister Venus are definitely the greatest tennis-playing sisters ever.

Who Are Some Famous African American Artists?


Many consider Jay-Z to be one of the most influential forces in the music industry, due to his passion, drive, and business acumen. In addition to being a rapper, songwriter, entrepreneur, and producer, Jay-Z is the husband of the equally talented Beyonce. In 2017, the Songwriters Hall of Fame inducted him as the first rapper in its history. Two years later, Forbes named Jay-Z as the first billionaire rap artist. Although he’s been a musical icon since the 1990s, his career doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon.

Maya Angelou

Although Maya Angelou had a difficult childhood, she used her experience to create her dynamic memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Not only was this book the first nonfiction bestseller written by an African American woman, but it also cemented her as a literary star. Her best-known poetry collection titled Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die earned a nomination for a Pulitzer Prize. In 1972, Angelou broke artistic and social ground with her drama Georgia, Georgia, the first screenplay produced by an African American woman.

Jacob Lawrence

Despite his humble beginnings in Harlem, Jacob Lawrence became one of the most highly-acclaimed painters of the 20th century. His self-developed style of modernism incorporates a flat, realistic style to express his reality.  His Migration Series in 1941 debuted at Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery, making him the first African American artist to display works there.

Langston Hughes

The Harlem Renaissance saw a blossoming of black artistic, intellectual, and literary culture in American cities. This movement especially thrived in Harlem, New York in the 1920s with writers like Langston Hughes. His poetry, novels, essays, and stories gave a candid picture of the joys and hardships of working-class black people. Due to his popularity, he was the first black American to earn his entire living from writing and lectures.

Edmonia Lewis

Despite the challenges she encountered as being an African American and Native American woman, Edmonia Lewis achieved national accolades as a sculptor in the fine arts realm. Rather than viewing her background as a setback, she used it to create beautiful works of art. This especially comes out in her biblical sculptures.

The Importance of Black History

This list of famous African American heroes certainly isn’t exhaustive, as many more have shaped the course of America in greater ways than the history books tell. Celebrating the black Americans of our past and present helps us understand our nation’s culture, achievements, and roots. Which of these heroes inspires you the most? Share in the comments! Or talk about it with friends and family on FamilyApp.

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