Notable Black Americans who helped change the world

Black History Month

ByMelissa Guillaume WPVI logo
Wednesday, February 7, 2024
Making 'herstory': Meet Philly's first Black female K9 sergeant
Making 'herstory': Meet Philadelphia's first Black female K9 sergeant

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- From activists to entertainers to record-breaking athletes to a postal worker, 6abc shines a spotlight on the contributions of 29 influential African Americans in Philadelphia and beyond as we celebrate Black History Month.

Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander | Writer | 1898-1989

A native Philadelphian, Alexander was the first Black woman to receive a Ph.D. in economics in the United States, the first Black woman student to graduate with a law degree from Penn Law School, and the first African-American woman to practice law in Pennsylvania. Alexander's work and views are recorded in speeches kept in the Penn archives. The Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander University of Pennsylvania Partnership School ("Penn Alexander") in West Philly is named after her.

Richard Allen | Minister | 1760-1831

A minister, educator and writer, this Philadelphia native founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first independent Black denomination in the United States. He opened the first AME church in Philly in 1794. Born into slavery, he bought his freedom in the 1780s and joined St. George's Church. Because of seating restrictions placed on Blacks to be confined to the gallery, he left to form his own church. In 1787 he turned an old Blacksmith shop into the first church for Blacks in the United States.

Maya Angelou received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from former President Barack Obama in 2010.
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Maya Angelou | Poet | 1928-2014

Angelou was an American poet, singer, memoirist, and civil rights activist with a colorful and troubling past highlighted in her most famous autobiography, "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings". She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and is credited with a list of plays, movies and television shows spanning over 50 years. Her works have been considered a defense and celebration of Black culture.

Arthur Ashe | Tennis Player | 1943-1993

Ashe's resume includes three Grand Slam titles and the title of the first Black player selected to the United States Davis Cup team and the only Black man ever to win the singles title at Wimbledon, the US Open, and the Australian Open. In July 1979, Ashe suffered a heart attack while holding a tennis clinic in New York. His high profile drew attention to his condition, specifically to the hereditary aspect of heart disease. In 1992, Ashe was diagnosed with HIV; he and his doctors believed he contracted the virus from blood transfusions he received during his second heart surgery. After Ashe went public with his illness, he founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS, working to raise awareness about the disease and advocated teaching safe sex education. On June 20, 1993, Ashe was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton.

James Baldwin | American novelist | 1924-1987

Baldwin was an American novelist, playwright and activist, most notably known for "Notes of a Native Son", "The Fire Next Time" and "The Devil Find's Work". One of his novels, If Beale Street Could Talk, was adapted into an Academy Award-winning dramatic film in 2018.

"It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have."

U.S. Deputy Marshals escort Ruby Bridges from William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, La.
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Ruby Bridges | Civil Rights Activist | 1954-present

At age 6, Bridges embarked on a historic walk to school as the first African American student to integrate the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana. She ate lunch alone and sometimes played with her teacher at recess, but she never missed a day of school that year. In 1999, she established The Ruby Bridges Foundation to promote tolerance and create change through education. In 2000, she was made an honorary deputy marshal in a ceremony in Washington, DC.

Quinta Brunson | Actress | 1989-Present

Born in Philly and a graduate of Temple University, Quinta Brunson is the creator, executive producer, co-writer and star of ABC's hit comedy series, "Abbott Elementary". Her mother was a public school educator and the inspiration behind the character Barbara Howard, played by Sheryl Lee Ralph. She says her love of watching comedy as a child with her family is why she created the show as a way to bring families of all generations back together. Quinta, whose namesake is because she is the fifth child in her family, became a fan favorite for her hit Instagram series "Girl Who Has Never Been on a Nice Date." She later began to produce and act in content for Buzzfeed which brought in over 1 billion views. She is now the first Black woman to be nominated three times in the comedy category, winning an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series and the first in 40 years to win Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. She has been named one of Times 100 Most Influential people and joined a plethora of artists who wrote an open letter to President Biden calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

Kobe Bryant | NBA star, humanitarian| 1978-2020

Drafted right out of Lower Merion High School at the age of 17, Bryant won five titles as one of the marquee players in the Los Angeles Lakers franchise. He was a member of the gold medal-winning U.S. men's basketball teams at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and the 2012 London Olympic Games. In 2015 Bryant wrote the poem "Dear Basketball," which served as the basis for a short film of the same name he narrated. The work won an Academy Award for best animated short film. A vocal advocate for the homeless Bryant and his wife, Vanessa started the Kobe and Vanessa Bryant Family Foundation aimed to reduce the number of homeless in Los Angeles. Bryant, his daughter Gigi, and seven other passengers died in a helicopter crash in late January.

Kobe Bryant inspired a generation of basketball players worldwide with sublime skills and an unquenchable competitive fire.

Octavius V. Catto | Civil Rights Activist | 1839-1871

Known as one of the most influential civil rights' activists in Philadelphia during the 19th century, Catto fought for the abolition of slavery and the implementation of civil rights for all. He was prominent in the actions that successfully desegregated Philadelphia's public trolleys and played a major role in the ratification of the 15th amendment, baring voter discrimination on the basis of race. Catto was only 32 when he was shot and killed outside of his home on South Street in1871, the first Election Day that African Americans were allowed to vote. In 2017, a monument to Catto was unveiled at Philadelphia's City Hall.

Mama Cax | Model | 1989-2019

Haitian-American model and activist Cacsmy Brutus, affectionately known as Mama Cax, was born in Brooklyn, NY. She was diagnosed with bone cancer at the early age of 14. She underwent a hip replacement procedure which had complications, leading to the amputation of her right leg at 15. She advocated consistently for people with disabilities in the modeling industry, proudly displaying her prosthetic leg on the runaway for top designers, leading to a show-stopping appearance in Rihanna's Savage x Fenty show in 2019. A few months later, she admitted herself to a hospital in the U.K. with abdominal pains, for which she was sent home with antibiotics. Becoming severely ill just days later, she was rushed to the hospital where multiple blood clots were discovered, which ultimately caused her death. She was just 30 years old.

Pinky Cole | Entrepreneur /Restaurateur | 1987-

Swiftly becoming a household, provocative name, Pinky Cole, CEO and founder of the popular and widely adorned Slutty Vegan franchise, has made a name for herself as one of Atlanta's up-and-coming restaurateurs. The Baltimore native, Clark Atlanta graduate and proud member of Delta Sigma Theta, Inc, has combined her passion for vegan junk food with her desire to provide a healthier lifestyle to underserved Black communities and business knowledge to become a powerhouse in the vegan world, a space where Black women aren't the first that come to mind. She has gone on to open six more locations after the Atlanta location in 2018, with plans to open 10 more by the end of 2023. She is widely known for gifting an LLC to every 2022 Clark Atlanta graduate and paying tuition for 30 seniors three years prior. Her successes also include The Pinky Cole Foundation, which focuses on gifting financial support and enhancing education for children of color, chique, upscale restaurant lounge, Bar Vegan and two books, the most recent release titled, "Eat Plants, B*tch: 91 Vegan Meals That Will Blow Your Meat Lovin' Mind."

"Slutty Vegan, to my mind, is someone who eats vegan but enjoys junk food...I knew the name would be a great hook to help people to reimagine food."-Pinky.

Bessie Coleman | Civil Aviator | 1892-1926

Coleman was the first Black woman to fly an airplane. When American flying schools denied her entrance due to her race, she taught herself French and moved to France, earning her license from Caudron Brother's School in just seven months. She specialized in stunt flying and performing aerial tricks. Reading stories of World War I pilots sparked her interest in aviation.

Claudette Colvin | Civil Rights Pioneer | 1939-present

Colvin was arrested at the age of 15 for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman, nine months before Rosa Parks' more famous protest. Because of her age, the NAACP chose not to use her case to challenge segregation laws. Despite a number of personal challenges, Colvin became one of the four plaintiffs in the Browder v. Gayle case. The decision in the 1956 case ruled that Montgomery's segregated bus system was unconstitutional.

Medgar Evers | Civil Rights Activist | 1925-1963

Evers was an American civil rights activist in Mississippi, the state's field secretary for the NAACP, and a World War II veteran serving in the United States Army. After graduating from college with a BA in business administration, he worked to overturn segregation at the University of Mississippi after Brown v. Board ruled public school segregation was unconstitutional. Evers was assassinated by a white supremacist in 1963, inspiring numerous civil rights protests which sprouted countless works of art, music and film. Because of his veteran status, he was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

Mary Fields | Mail carrier |1832-1914

Known as "Stagecoach Mary", Fields was the first African-American to work for the U.S. postal service. Born a slave, she was freed when slavery was outlawed in 1865. At age 63, Fields was hired as a mail carrier because she was the fastest applicant to hitch a team of six horses. She never missed a day, and her reliability earned her the nickname "Stagecoach". If the snow was too deep for her horses, Fields delivered the mail on snowshoes, carrying the sacks on her shoulders.

Rudolph Fisher | Physician | 1897-1934

Fisher was an African-American physician, radiologist, novelist, short story writer, dramatist, musician, and orator. In addition to publishing scientific articles, he had a love of music. He played piano, wrote musical scores and toured with Paul Robeson, playing jazz. He wrote multiple short stories, two novels and contributed his articles to the NAACP all before his death at the age of 37.

James Forten | Abolitionist |1766-1842

Forten was an African-American abolitionist and wealthy businessman in Philadelphia. Born free in the city, he became a sailmaker after the American Revolutionary War. Following an apprenticeship, he became the foreman and bought the sail loft when his boss retired. Based on equipment he developed, he established a highly profitable business on the busy waterfront of the Delaware River, in what's now Penn's Landing. Having become well-established, in his 40s Forten devoted both time and money to working for the national abolition of slavery and gaining civil rights for Blacks. By the 1830s, his was one of the most powerful African-American voices in the city.

This first-of-its-kind eatery offers an inventive take on the traditional cheesesteak and signature cocktails that pair with the Philly favorite.

Robert Guillaume | Actor | 1927-2017

Robert was raised by his grandmother in the segregated south but moved to New York to escape racial injustice. There, he performed in theatre for 19 years, gaining momentum and a Tony nomination for his portrayal of Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls. In 1976, he landed his infamous role as Benson on Soap which won him an Emmy and his spin-off, Benson for which he won another Emmy. He returned to the stage in 1990, playing the role of the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera at the infamous Ahmanson Theatre. He voiced one of Disney's most beloved animated characters, Rafiki, and can still be heard as the narrator for the animated series, Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales For Every Child.

A Los Angeles woman became the youngest inaugural poet when she performed an original poem at President Joe Biden's swearing-in ceremony.

Amanda Gorman |Poet, Activist| 1998

An American poet and activist, Gorman made history as the youngest poet to read at a presidential inauguration in United States history, when her poem, "The Hills We Climb" catapulted her into international stardom. Raised by a single mother in Los Angeles, Gorman overcame speech and vocal impediments, crediting this challenge for her growth as a reader and writer. Known for writing work that focuses on oppression, race, feminism, marginalization and the complexities of the African Diaspora, she was inspired by Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai to become a youth delegate for the UN in 2013. In 2014, she was chosen youth poet laureate of Los Angeles and not a year later, published her first poetry book "The One for Whom Food is Not Enough". In 2017, while at Harvard College, she became recognized as the first National Youth Laureate and was awarded the OZY Genius Award.

Francis Harper | poet | 1825-1911 (died in Philadelphia)

Born free in Baltimore, Harper was an abolitionist, suffragist, poet, teacher, public speaker, and writer. She helped slaves make their way along the Underground Railroad to Canada. In 1894, she co-founded the National Associated of Colored Women, an organization dedicated to highlighting extraordinary efforts and progress made by Black women. She served as vice president.

Langston Hughes was instrumental figure in the Harlem Renaissance and jazz poetry.
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Langston Hughes | Poet | 1902-1967

Hughes was an American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist. Born in Missouri, he moved to New York at an early age becoming one of the earliest innovators of a new art form, jazz poetry. In the early 1920's, his first book of poetry was published and he wrote an in-depth weekly column for The Chicago Defender, highlighting the civil rights movement. His ashes are interred beneath a floor medallion in the middle of the foyer in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, the entrance to an auditorium named for him.

Zora Neale Hurston | American author | 1891-1960

Hurston became an American author, anthropologist, and filmmaker but as a child she was unable to attend school after her father stopped paying her school fees. In 1917 she opted to attend a public school but had to lie about her age in order to qualify for a free education. She studied hoodoo, the American version of voodoo, and found her way to Hollywood by working as a story consultant. One of her most notable works, Their Eyes Were Watching God was turned into a film in 2005.

Nipsey Hussle | Rapper, entrepreneur | 1985-2019

Born Ermias Joseph Asghedom, Hussle, was an American activist, entrepreneur, and Grammy Award winning rapper. Raised in South Central, he joined gangs to survive before eventually attaining success in the music industry. Hussle focused on "giving solutions and inspiration" to young Black men like him, denouncing gun violence through his music, influence and community work, while speaking openly about his experiences with gang culture. Hussle was shot and killed a day before he was to meet with LAPD officials to address gang violence in South Los Angeles.

If you stop and look around near the intersection of Grand and Ellita Avenues, a brightly-colored mural of Grammy-nominated rapper Nipsey Hussle is sure to catch your eye.

Harriet Jacobs | Writer | 1813-1897

Born a slave, her mother died when she was 6. She moved in with her late mother's slave owner who taught her to sew and read. In 1842 she got a chance to escape to Philadelphia, aided by activists of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee. She took it and worked as a nanny in New York. Her former owners hunted for her until her freedom was finally bought in 1852. She secretly began to write an autobiography which was published in the U.S. in 1860 and England in 1861. She lived the rest of her life as an abolitionist, dedicated to helping escaped slaves and eventually freedmen.

Cecil B. Moore | Lawyer |1915-1979

Moore was a Philadelphia lawyer and civil rights activist who led the fight to and successfully integrate Girard College. He served as a marine in WWII and after his honorary discharge, he moved to Philadelphia to study law at Temple University. He quickly earned a reputation as a no-nonsense lawyer who fought on behalf of his mostly poor, African-American clients concentrated in North Philadelphia. From 1963 to 1967, he served as president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP and served on the Philadelphia City Council. Moore is cited as a pivotal figure in the fields of social justice and race relations. He has an entire neighborhood named after him in the North Philadelphia area.

Sheryl Lee Ralph | Actress | 1956-Present

Sheryl Lee Ralph is an American actress, producer and activist known for her role as Barbara on the Emmy winning series, "Abbott Elementary". She became the first Black woman in 35 years to win in the Outstanding Supporting Actress category and has received a Tony nomination for her moving performance as Deena in "Dreamgirls". As the proud daughter of a prominent Jamaican college professor and fashion designer, she spent her childhood years living on the east coast and in Jamaica. You often hear her speak Patois-a creole dialect spoken primarily in Jamaica, as the doting stepmom Dee on "Moesha". Fans of the "Sister Act" franchise, will be thrilled to see her return in the 3rd installment. Her loss of numerous friends to AIDS led to the creation of DIVA foundation, a non-profit driven by five foundational pillars: Health Awareness, Women and Girls, LGBTQ+, Social Justice & Racial Equity, and Food & Housing Insecurity.

Bayard Rustin | Civil Rights Activist | 1912-1987 (Born in West Chester, PA)

Bayard Rustin was an American leader in social movements for civil rights, socialism, nonviolence, and gay rights. He was a key adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. Rustin has local ties as he was born in West Chester and attended Cheney University of Pennsylvania, a Historically Black College. A gay man, he adopted his partner to protect their rights and legacy.

Nina Simone | Musician | 1933-2003

Born Eunice Waymon in Troy North Carolina, Simone was an American singer, songwriter, musician, arranger, and civil rights activist. Her music crossed all genres from classical, jazz, blues and folk to R&B, gospel, and pop. She learned to play the piano as a toddler and played in church where her father was a preacher. She would cross tracks to the white side of town to study classical piano with a German teacher and was later accepted into The Juilliard School. She went on to record more than 40 albums and in 2003 just days before her death, the Curtis Institute awarded her an honorary degree.

When Nikole Hannah-Jones noticed the absence of her ancestors in American history, it inspired her to tell the full story of America.

Amy Sherald |Painter| 1973

Sherald is an American painter who focuses on African American images and uses grisaille to illustrate skin tones. She is known for painting the official portrait of former First Lady, Michelle Obama. Recently, her piece "The Bathers" (2015) sold at auction for $4,265,000, blowing past the presale estimate of just under $200,000.

Big Mama Thornton | Singer | 1926-1984

Thornton is best known for her gutsy 1952 R&B recording of "Hound Dog," later covered by Elvis Presley, and her original song "Ball and Chain," made famous by Janis Joplin. Affectionately called "Big Mama" for both her size and her powerful voice, she grew up singing in church and eventually caught the ear of an Atlanta music promoter while cleaning and subbing for the regular singer at a saloon. An openly gay woman, she joined the Hot Harlem Revue and danced and sang her way through the southeastern United States. She played at the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theatre and continued performing sporadically into the late 70's.

Sojourner Truth | Abolitionist |1797-1883

Truth was born into slavery but escaped with her infant daughter to freedom in 1826. She then sued and won the return of her 5-year-old son who was illegally sold into slavery. In 1851, Truth began a lecture tour that included a women's rights conference where she delivered her famous "Ain't I a Woman?" speech, challenging prevailing notions of racial and gender inferiority and inequality. She collected thousands of signatures petitioning to provide former slaves with land.

Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest had the honor of interviewing legendary actress Cicely Tyson the day before her death at age 96.

Cicely Tyson |Actor| 1924-2021

Cicely Tyson, born in 1924 Harlem to religious, Caribbean immigrants, is considered one of the most groundbreaking actresses of our time. She was the first Black actress to win an Emmy Award and the second to be nominated for an Academy Award. Her mother, strict and protective, kept her in church, where she met her soon-to-be husband, the reverend's son. Her career began in modeling, quickly rising to the top of the industry, appearing in both Vogue and Harper's Bazaar and later graced the covers of Ebony, Essence and Jet.

Denmark Vesey | Carpenter | 1767-1822

Vesey was born a slave but won a lottery which allowed him to purchase his freedom. Unable to buy his wife and children their freedom, he became active in the church. In 1816, he became one of the founders of an independent African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and recruited more 1,800 members to become the second largest "Bethel Circuit" church in the country after Mother Bethel in Philadelphia. In 1822, Vesey was alleged to be the leader of a planned slave revolt. He and five others were rapidly found guilty and executed.

Muddy Waters | Singer | 1913-1983

An American blues singer-songwriter and musician who is often lauded as the "father of modern Chicago blues", Waters grew up on a plantation in Mississippi and by the age of 17 was playing the guitar and the harmonica. In 1941, he moved to Chicago to become a full-time musician, working in a factory by day and performing at night. In 1958, he toured in England, reviving the interest of Blues and introducing the sound of the electric slide guitar playing there. His performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960 was recorded and released as his first live album, At Newport 1960. In 1972, he won his first Grammy Award for "They Call Me Muddy Waters", and another in 1975 for "The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album".

Phillis Wheatley| Poet |1753-1784

Born in West Africa and sold into slavery, she learned to read and write by the age of 9 and became the first African American woman to publish a book of poetry. In addition to having to prove she had indeed written the poetry, no one in America would publish her work. She was forced to go to England where the pieces were published in London in 1773. Years later, she sent one of her poems to George Washington who requested and received a meeting with her at his headquarters in Cambridge in 1776.

Serena Williams is arguably the greatest women's tennis player of all time, with 73 singles titles and an overall record of 831-142.
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Serena Jameka Williams |Tennis Player |1981-present

Williams emerged straight outta the streets of Compton to become the world's No. 1 player. She has won 23 major singles titles, the most by any man or woman in the Open Era. The Women's Tennis Association ranked her world No. 1 in singles on eight separate occasions between 2002 and 2017. She has competed at three Olympics and won four gold medals.

A former kindergarten teacher created his own set of flashcards after wanting his students to see themselves reflected in a more positive light.