She was the Jackie Robinson of tennis
Long before Venus and Serena Williams, another tall, young Black woman shook up the staid world of tennis with her powerful serve and brilliant play.
She was Althea Gibson, and tennis had long been a segregated sport when her skill and strength broke the color barrier in the 1950s.
Gibson’s path to tennis stardom was unusual. She grew up in Harlem, on a block where – as luck would have it – New York City police blocked traffic so the neighborhood kids could play sports.
There she learned paddle tennis, and took to the sport so quickly she won a citywide tournament at age 12.
Recognizing her talent, neighbors raised funds to help pay for tennis lessons, and a career was born.
Gibson began winning local and regional tournaments, but was barred from national events because of her race. In 1950, though, after intense lobbying, she became the first African American to compete in the US National Championships – the precursor to the US Open.
In 1956, Gibson became the first Black player to win a Grand Slam tournament, the French Championships. The next year she was the first Black champion in the 80-year history of Wimbledon, receiving the trophy from Queen Elizabeth II.
By the time Gibson retired from tennis, she had won 11 Grand Slam titles and was the world’s top-ranked female player.
At age 37, she took up professional golf, becoming the first Black player on the LPGA tour. Racism followed her. Many country clubs refused to let her compete, fans taunted her with slurs and she was sometimes forced to change clothes in her car. But her success in two sports dominated by Whites inspired generations of Black athletes.
“I always wanted to be somebody,” Gibson once said. “If I made it, it’s half because I was game enough to take a lot of punishment along the way and half because there were a lot of people who cared enough to help me.”
—Nicole Chavez, CNNPhoto: Bettman Archive/Getty Images
He organized the 1963 March on Washington
An openly gay Black man during the Jim Crow era, Rustin was arrested for having sex with men at a time when homosexuality was widely considered a form of mental illness. He served more than two years in federal prison for refusing to fight in World War II because of his pacifist Quaker beliefs.
But it was Rustin’s connection with King that became perhaps the high-water mark of his life.
After King became nationally known for leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Rustin — inspired by the teachings of Gandhi — traveled to King’s home in 1956 to convince him to adopt nonviolence as a protest tactic and a way of life. Rustin’s words were a revelation to King, who had armed bodyguards in his home.
The following year, Rustin helped King found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
King was pressured to drop Rustin from his inner circle of advisors because of his sexual orientation, but he refused to abandon him. King said no one could replace Rustin. Although Rustin sometimes had to keep a low public profile during the civil rights movement, he became more outspoken about his sexuality later in life and and has been hailed a hero by LGBQT activists.
Rustin’s crowning achievement was organizing the March on Washington, which brought more than 200,000 peaceful protesters of different races and religions to the nation’s capital in August 1963. The event, culminating in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, was a rousing success. Organizing the gathering was a staggering logistical feat, but Rustin pulled it off in less than two months.
—John Blake, CNNPhoto: Patrick A. Burns/New York Times Co./Getty Images
Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander
She became an inspiration to Black women lawyers
To say that Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander shattered multiple glass ceilings is an understatement.
The Philadelphia native was the first Black person in the nation to earn a Ph.D. in economics in 1921. Three years later, she earned a law degree and went on to become the first Black woman to pass the Pennsylvania bar and practice law in the state.
Alexander accomplished all this while often facing bitter acts of racial prejudice. As a first-year undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, she was told she couldn’t check books out of the school library. A dean at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law lobbied against her being selected to join the university’s law review. She persevered and made law review anyway.
Even US presidents took notice. In 1947, President Harry Truman named her to his Committee on Civil Rights, whose report became a blueprint for the civil rights movement. Some 30 years later, President Jimmy Carter appointed her chair of the White House Conference on Aging, which sought to address the social and economic needs of the elderly.
By the time of her death at 91, Alexander had been awarded seven honorary degrees and had taken her rightful place as a revered champion of equal rights for all.
—Simret Aklilu, CNNPhoto: Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images
The scholar whose words inspired Martin Luther King Jr.
He was a shy man who didn’t lead marches or give dramatic speeches. But Howard Thurman was a spiritual genius who transformed history.
Thurman was a pastor and professor and mystic whose groundbreaking book, “Jesus and the Disinherited,” was a condemnation of a form of Christianity which Thurman said was far too often “on the side of the strong and the powerful against the weak and oppressed.”
The book revolutionized the traditional portrait of Jesus and had a profound influence on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s faith and activism.
Born in Florida during the “nadir” of race relations in post-Civil War America, Thurman graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he was a classmate of “Daddy King,” the father of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
His impact on the younger King would be profound.
Thurman was the first African American pastor to travel to India and meet Mohandas Gandhi. And he was one of the first pastors to inspire King to merge Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance with the civil rights movement. Thurman’s concepts about nonviolence and Jesus are peppered through King’s writings.
Thurman, though, didn’t fit the image of a fiery, silver-tongued Black preacher. He punctuated his sermons with long silences and enigmatic phrases such as “the sound of the genuine.” Before “interfaith dialogue” became common, Thurman also worshiped with people of other faiths and warned about the dangers of religious fundamentalism.
Thurman’s life was proof that all sorts of people could become influential leaders in the civil rights movement.
—John Blake, CNNPhoto: Mark Kauffman/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images
Her fierce poetry celebrated Black women
“Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.”
That’s how Audre Lorde famously introduced herself.
Her career as a teacher and a writer spanned decades and though she died almost 30 years ago, much of the work she left behind is still cherished and quoted today.
Born to immigrant parents from Grenada, Lorde was raised in Manhattan and published her first poem while still in high school. She served as a librarian in New York public schools before her first book of poetry was published in 1968.
In her work, she called out racism and homophobia and chronicled her own emotional and physical battle with breast cancer. Her writing also humanized Black women in a way that was rare for her time.
As a Black queer woman, Lorde sometimes questioned her place in academic circles dominated by White men. She also battled with feminists she saw as focusing primarily on the experiences of White middle-class women while overlooking women of color.
Although she faced criticism from conservatives such as Sen. Jesse Helms over her subject matter, her work was widely lauded for its power.
In her later years, she founded a small press to publish the work of Black feminists and served as the state poet laureate of New York.
In an anthology of Lorde’s poetry and prose published last year, writer Roxane Gay put it like this: “Her work is something far more than something pretty to parrot … She made herself, and all black women, gloriously visible.”
—Leah Asmelash, CNNPhoto: Robert Alexander / Getty Images
She risked her life to rally activists in the Deep South
She played a major role in three of the biggest groups of the civil rights movement, but Ella Baker somehow still remains largely unknown outside activist circles.
Baker grew up in North Carolina, where her grandmother’s stories about life under slavery inspired her passion for social justice.
As an adult, she became an organizer within the NAACP and helped co-found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led. She also helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
For her efforts, Baker has been called the “mother of the civil rights movement.”
Baker was best known not as a frontline leader but a mentor to some of the biggest leaders in the movement. She taught volunteers that the movement couldn’t depend solely on charismatic leaders and empowered them to become activists in their own community.
This is the approach that guided SNCC when it embarked on its Freedom Summer voter registration drive in Mississippi in 1964. Baker often risked her life going into small Southern towns to organize.
“The major job,” she once said, “was getting people to understand that they had something within their power that they could use.”
Baker had reason to distrust charismatic leaders. Many of the biggest leaders of the civil rights movement came from a Black church tradition where women were expected to be submissive.
Nobody ever accused the strong-willed Baker of taking a back seat to anyone.
Her relationship with King is still a matter of debate. King had trouble with assertive women like Baker, historians say, and she eventually left the SCLC.
She still made her mark. Many of the biggest civil rights leaders credit Baker, not King, as their inspiration. SNCC activists called her “Fundi,” a Swahili word for a person who teaches a skill to the next generation.
—John Blake, CNNPhoto: Jack Harris / Associated Press
His photos chronicled the African American experience
For much of the mid-1900s, it seemed like the world learned about Black America through the eyes of Gordon Parks.
His creative endeavors were astoundingly versatile. Parks performed as a jazz pianist, composed musical scores, wrote 15 books and co-founded Essence magazine.
He adapted his novel “The Learning Tree” into a 1969 film, becoming the first African American to direct a movie for a major studio, and later directed “Shaft,” a hit film that spawned the Blaxploitation genre.
But he reached his artistic peak as a photographer, and his intimate photos of African American life are his most enduring legacy.
After buying a camera from a pawn shop at 25, Parks began snapping away. His images of life on Chicago’s South Side in the early 1940s won him a job documenting rural poverty for the federal government.
Parks’ photos evoked the humanity of his subjects, inspiring empathy and activism. A 1948 photo essay about a Harlem gang leader landed him a gig as Life magazine’s first Black staff photographer.
In the decades that followed, Parks traveled the country capturing iconic images of the segregated South, the civil rights movement and such figures as Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. His images now grace the permanent collections of major art museums.
Parks famously called the camera his “weapon of choice,” a tool to fight poverty, racism and other societal ills. As he once put it to an interviewer, “I pointed my camera at people mostly who needed someone to say something for them.”
—Harmeet Kaur, CNNPhoto: Everett/Shutterstock
Daisy Gatson Bates
She helped the Little Rock Nine integrate a high school
When the Little Rock Nine walked into Central High School in 1957, the entire country was watching.
Many saw a mob of jeering White students surrounding a lone Black girl whose eyes were shielded by sunglasses. A photo of that moment became one of the most iconic images of the civil rights movement.
What Americans didn’t see, though, was the woman who organized those Black students: Daisy Gatson Bates.
Then president of the Arkansas NAACP, Bates planned the strategy for desegregation in the state. She selected the nine students, driving them to the school and protecting them from crowds.
After President Eisenhower intervened, the students were allowed to enroll – a major victory for desegregation efforts across the South. And that’s only part of Bates’ legacy.
She was born in a tiny town in southern Arkansas. Her childhood was marred by tragedy when her mother was sexually assaulted and killed by three White men. Her father later abandoned her, leaving young Daisy to be raised by family friends.
As an adult, Bates moved with her husband to Little Rock, where they founded their own newspaper, The Arkansas State Press, which covered the civil rights movement. She eventually helped plan the NAACP’s strategy for desegregating schools, leading to her involvement with the Little Rock Nine.
In the 1960s, Bates moved to Washington D.C., where she worked for the Democratic National Committee and for anti-poverty projects in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration. Her memory lives on with Daisy Gatson Bates Day, a state holiday celebrated in Arkansas each February.
—Leah Asmelash, CNNPhoto: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
He was the first Black coach in the NFL
The son of a boxer, Fritz Pollard had grit in his veins.
At 5 feet, 9 inches and 165 pounds, he was small for football. But that didn’t stop him from bulldozing barriers on and off the field.
Pollard attended Brown University, where he majored in chemistry and played halfback on the football team. He was the school’s first Black player and led Brown to the 1916 Rose Bowl, although porters refused to serve him on the team’s train trip to California.
After serving in the Army during World War I, he joined the Akron Pros of the American Professional Football Association, which later became the NFL. He was one of only two Black players in the new league.
Fans taunted him with racial slurs, and opposing players tried to maim him. But Pollard, a swift and elusive runner, often had the last laugh.
“I didn’t get mad at them and want to fight them,” he once said. “I would just look at them and grin, and in the next minute run for an 80-yard touchdown.”
In 1921, while he was still a player, the team also named him its coach – the first African American head coach in league history.
Over the next seven years, Pollard coached four different teams and founded a Chicago football team of all-African American players. Later, he launched a newspaper and ran a successful investment firm. Pollard was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005.
—Amir Vera, CNNPhoto: Pro Football Hall Of Fame/NFL/AP
He said ‘the Revolution Will Not Be Televised’
Gil Scott-Heron was a New York City poet, activist, musician, social critic and spoken-word performer whose songs in the ‘70s helped lay the foundation for rap music.
Whether you realize it or not, you’ve probably come across one of his poetic turns of phrase.
Some have called Scott-Heron the “godfather of rap,” though he was always reluctant to embrace that title. Still, the imprint he left on the genre – and music, more broadly – is unmistakable.
His work has been sampled, referenced or reinterpreted by Common, Drake, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Jamie xx, LCD Soundsystem and Public Enemy, just to name a few.
A darling of the cultural left wing, Scott-Heron never achieved mainstream popularity. But years after his death, his social and political commentary still figures in pop culture and protest movements around the world.
His 1970 spoken-word piece “Whitey on the Moon,” in which he criticized US government for making massive investments in the space race while neglecting its African American citizens, was featured in the 2018 film “First Man” and in HBO’s recent series “Lovecraft Country.”
But he’s perhaps best known for “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” a poem about the disconnect between TV consumerism and demonstrations in the streets. The slogan continues to inspire social justice activists today.
—Harmeet Kaur, CNNPhoto: Ian Dickson / Shutterstock
Marsha P. Johnson
She fought for gay and transgender rights
The late Marsha P. Johnson is celebrated today as a veteran of the Stonewall Inn protests, a pioneering transgender activist and a pivotal figure in the gay liberation movement. Monuments to her life are planned in New York City and her hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey.
During her lifetime, though, she wasn’t always treated with the same dignity.
When police raided the New York gay bar known as the Stonewall Inn in 1969, Johnson was said to be among the first to resist them. The next year, she marched in the city’s first Gay Pride demonstration.
But Johnson still struggled for full acceptance in the wider gay community, which often excluded transgender people.
The term “transgender” wasn’t widely used then, and Johnson referred to herself as gay, a transvestite and a drag queen. She sported flowers in her hair, and told people the P in her name stood for “Pay It No Mind” – a retort she leveled against questions about her gender.
Her activism made her a minor celebrity among the artists and outcasts of Lower Manhattan. Andy Warhol took Polaroids of her for a series he did on drag queens.
Frequently homeless herself, Johnson and fellow trans activist Sylvia Rivera opened a shelter for LGBTQ youth. She also was outspoken in advocating for sex workers and people with HIV/AIDS.
In 1992, Johnson’s body was found floating in the Hudson River. Police initially ruled her death a suicide but later agreed to reopen the case. It remains open to this day.
—Harmeet Kaur, CNNPhoto: Diana Davies-NYPL/Reuters
The first Black woman judge in the US
Jane Bolin made history over and over.
She was the first Black woman to graduate from Yale Law School. The first Black woman to join the New York City Bar Association. The nation’s first Black female judge.
The daughter of an influential lawyer, Bolin grew up admiring her father’s leather-bound books while recoiling at photos of lynchings in the NAACP magazine.
Wanting a career in social justice, she graduated from Wellesley and Yale Law School and went into private practice in New York City.
In 1939, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia appointed her a family court judge. As the first Black female judge in the country, she made national headlines.
For the compassionate Bolin, the job was a good fit. She didn’t wear judicial robes in court to make children feel more at ease and committed herself to seeking equal treatment for all who appeared before her, regardless of their economic or ethnic background.
In an interview after becoming a judge, Bolin said she hoped to show “a broad sympathy for human suffering.”
She served on the bench for 40 years. Before her death at age 98, she looked back at her lifetime of shattering glass ceilings.
“Everyone else makes a fuss about it, but I didn’t think about it, and I still don’t,” she said in 1993. “I wasn’t concerned about (being) first, second or last. My work was my primary concern.”
—Faith Karimi, CNNPhoto: Bill Wallace/NY Daily News via Getty Images
Frederick McKinley Jones
He pioneered the modern refrigeration system
Frederick McKinley Jones was orphaned by age 8 and raised by a Catholic priest before he dropped out of high school.
That didn’t stop him from pursuing his calling as an inventor whose work changed the world.
A curious youth with a passion for tinkering with machines and mechanical devices, he worked as an auto mechanic and taught himself electronics. After serving in World War I, he returned to his Minnesota town and built a transmitter for its new radio station.
This caught the attention of a businessman, Joseph Numero, who offered Jones a job developing sound equipment for the fledgling movie industry.
On a hot summer night in 1937, Jones was driving when an idea struck him: What if he could invent a portable cooling system that would allow trucks to better transport perishable food?
In 1940, he patented a refrigeration system for vehicles, a concept that suddenly opened a global market for fresh produce and changed the definition of seasonal foods. He and Numero parlayed his invention into a successful company, Thermo King, which is still thriving today.
It also helped open new frontiers in medicine because hospitals could get shipments of blood and vaccines.
Before his death, Jones earned more than 60 patents, including one for a portable X-ray machine. In 1991, long after his death, he became the first African American to receive the National Medal of Technology.
—Faith Karimi, CNNPhoto: Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images
The first Black anchor of a network newscast
A trailblazer in broadcasting and journalism, Max Robinson in 1978 became the first Black person to anchor the nightly network news.
But his road to the anchor’s chair wasn’t easy.
Robinson got his start in 1959 when he was hired to read the news at a station in Portsmouth, Virginia. His face was hidden behind a graphic that read, “NEWS.” One day he told the cameraman to remove the slide.
“I thought it would be good for all my folks and friends to see me rather than this dumb news sign up there,” Robinson once told an interviewer. He was fired the next day.
Robinson’s profile began to rise after he moved to Washington, where he worked as a TV reporter and later co-anchored the evening news at the city’s most popular station – the first Black anchor in a major US city.
He drew raves for his smooth delivery and rapport with the camera. ABC News noticed, moved him to Chicago and named him one of three co-anchors on “World News Tonight,” which also featured Frank Reynolds in Washington and Peter Jennings in London.
Later in his career, Robinson became increasingly outspoken about racism and the portrayal of African Americans in the media. He also sought to mentor young Black broadcasters and was one of the 44 founders of the National Association of Black Journalists.
—Amir Vera, CNNPhoto: ABC/Getty Images
The first Black woman to become a pilot
Born to sharecroppers in a small Texas town, Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman became interested in flying while living in Chicago, where stories about the exploits of World War I pilots piqued her interest.
But flight schools in the US wouldn’t let her in because of her race and gender.
Undeterred, Coleman learned French, moved to Paris and enrolled in a prestigious aviation school, where in 1921 she became the first Black woman to earn a pilot’s license.
Back in the US, Coleman began performing on the barnstorming circuit, earning cheers for her daring loops, acrobatic figure-eights and other aerial stunts. Fans called her “Queen Bess” and “Brave Bessie.”
Coleman dreamed of opening a flight school for African Americans, but her vision never got a chance to take off.
On April 30, 1926, she was practicing for a May Day celebration in Jacksonville, Florida, when her plane, piloted by her mechanic, flipped during a dive. Coleman wasn’t wearing a seatbelt and plunged to her death. She was only 34.
But her brief career inspired other Black pilots to earn their wings, and in 1995 the Postal Service issued a stamp in her honor.
—Leah Asmelash, CNNPhoto: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Fannie Lou Hamer
She riveted viewers at the DNC
Most of the civil rights movement’s leaders were Black male preachers with impressive degrees and big churches. Fannie Lou Hamer was a poor, uneducated Black woman who showed that a person didn’t need fancy credentials to inspire others.
She was so charismatic that even the President of the United States took notice.
Hamer was the youngest of 20 children born to a sharecropping family in Mississippi. She had a powerful speaking and gospel singing voice, and when activists launched voter registration drives in the mid-1960s, they recruited her to help out.
She paid a price for her activism. Hamer was fired from her job for attempting to register to vote. She was beaten, arrested and subjected to constant death threats.
Yet seasoned civil rights workers were impressed with her courage. Hamer even co-founded a new political party in Mississippi as part of her work to desegregate the state’s Democratic Party.
Hamer spoke at the 1964 Democratic Convention about the brutal conditions Blacks faced while trying to vote in Mississippi. Her televised testimony was so riveting that President Lyndon B. Johnson forced the networks to break away by calling a last-minute press conference. Johnson was afraid Hamer’s eloquence would alienate Southern Democrats who supported segregation.
“I guess if I’d had any sense, I’da been a little scared,” Hamer said later about that night.
“But what was the point of being scared?” she added. “The only thing the whites could do was kill me, and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember.”
—Alaa Elassar, CNNPhoto: William J. Smith / Associated Press
One of Broadway’s most acclaimed Othellos
Paul Robeson was a true Renaissance man – an athlete, actor, author, lawyer, singer and activist whose talent was undeniable and whose outspokenness almost killed his career.
An All-American football star at Rutgers University, where he was class valedictorian, Robeson earned a law degree at Columbia and worked for a New York City law firm until he quit in protest over its racism.
In the 1920s, he turned to the theater, where his commanding presence landed him lead roles in Eugene O’Neill’s “All God’s Chillun Got Wings” and “The Emperor Jones.” He later sang “Ol’ Man River,” which became his signature tune, in stage and film productions of “Show Boat.”
Robeson performed songs in at least 25 different languages and became one of the most famous concert singers of his time, developing a large following in Europe.
He was perhaps best known for performing the title role in Shakespeare’s “Othello,” which he reprised several times. One production in 1943-44, co-starring Uta Hagen and Jose Ferrer, became the longest-running Shakespeare play in Broadway history.
Robeson also became a controversial figure for using his celebrity to advance human rights causes around the world. His push for social justice clashed with the repressive climate of the 1950s, and he was blacklisted. He stopped performing, his passport was revoked and his songs disappeared from the radio for years.
“The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery,” Robeson once said. “I have made my choice. I had no alternative.”
—Alaa Elassar, CNNPhoto: Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Constance Baker Motley
The first Black woman to argue before the Supreme Court
Constance Baker Motley graduated from her Connecticut high school with honors, but her parents, immigrants from the Caribbean, couldn’t afford to pay for college. So Motley, a youth activist who spoke at community events, made her own good fortune.
A philanthropist heard one of her speeches and was so impressed he paid for her to attend NYU and Columbia Law School. And a brilliant legal career was born.
Motley became the lead trial attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and began arguing desegregation and fair housing cases across the country. The person at the NAACP who hired her? Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
Motley wrote the legal brief for the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case, which struck down racial segregation in American public schools. Soon she herself was arguing before the Supreme Court – the first Black woman to do so.
Over the years she successfully represented Martin Luther King Jr., Freedom Riders, lunch-counter protesters and the Birmingham Children Marchers. She won nine of the 10 cases that she argued before the high court.
Motley maintained her composure even as some judges turned their backs when she spoke.
“I rejected any notion that my race or sex would bar my success in life,” Motley wrote in her memoir, “Equal Justice Under Law.”
After leaving the NAACP, Motley continued her trailblazing path, becoming the first Black woman to serve in the New York state Senate and later the first Black woman federal judge. Vice President Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor, has cited her as an inspiration.
—Nicole Chavez, CNNPhoto: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
Charles Richard Drew
The father of the blood bank
Anyone who has ever had a blood transfusion owes a debt to Charles Richard Drew, whose immense contributions to the medical field made him one of the most important scientists of the 20th century.
Drew helped develop America’s first large-scale blood banking program in the 1940s, earning him accolades as “the father of the blood bank.”
Drew won a sports scholarship for football and track and field at Amherst College, where a biology professor piqued his interest in medicine. At the time, racial segregation limited the options for medical training for African Americans, leading Drew to attend med school at McGill University in Montréal.
He then became the first Black student to earn a medical doctorate from Columbia University, where his interest in the science of blood transfusions led to groundbreaking work separating plasma from blood. This made it possible to store blood for a week – a huge breakthrough for doctors treating wounded soldiers in World War II.
In 1940, Drew led an effort to transport desperately needed blood and plasma to Great Britain, then under attack by Germany. The program saved countless lives and became a model for a Red Cross pilot program to mass-produce dried plasma.
Ironically, the Red Cross at first excluded Black people from donating blood, making Drew ineligible to participate. That policy was later changed, but the Red Cross segregated blood donations by race, which Drew criticized as “unscientific and insulting.”
Drew also pioneered the bloodmobile — a refrigerated truck that collected, stored and transported blood donations to where they were needed.
After the war he taught medicine at Howard University and its hospital, where he fought to break down racial barriers for Black physicians.
—Sydney Walton, CNNPhoto: Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images
Eunice Hunton Carter
She brought down a fabled Mafia boss
Eunice Hunton Carter was a social worker and prosecutor whose investigative work in New York City in the 1930s led to what was then the largest prosecution of organized crime in US history.
When notorious mob boss Charles “Lucky” Luciano met his downfall, the credit went to the young prosecutor Thomas Dewey, who eventually ran for president.
But it was Carter, an assistant district attorney on his team, who laid the foundation for the case.
Carter was born in Atlanta, the granddaughter of enslaved people. In 1932, she became the first Black woman to graduate from Fordham Law School – at a time when few lawyers were Black or women, let alone Black women.
By then Carter was already married to a dentist and had a son, but she had no interest in being a society mom.
She soon became the first African American woman in New York state to serve as assistant district attorney. As the only woman on Dewey’s team, which had been assembled to fight organized crime, she was relegated to mostly prosecuting crimes against women, such as prostitution.
But while doing so, she discovered that brothels in New York were controlled by Luciano’s mob, which received a share of their earnings in exchange for legal representation. Her painstaking investigative skills built the case against Luciano and led to his conviction in 1936.
Later Carter went into private practice and on to a litany of other accomplishments, including a committee chair at the United Nations.
—Harmeet Kaur, CNNPhoto: Gordon Coster/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images
They called him the ‘black Babe Ruth’
Although racism and fate kept him from the major leagues, Josh Gibson was one of the most dominant sluggers in baseball history.
The former Negro Leagues star is credited with hitting almost 800 home runs over his 17-year career and was such a fearsome hitter that many fans called him the “black Babe Ruth.” Some who saw both play even called Ruth the “white Josh Gibson.”
Because of incomplete statistics, many of Gibson’s legendary feats – like hitting a ball 580 feet at Yankee Stadium – are just that, the stuff of legends.
Even his origin story is larger than life. He was reportedly a spectator at a Homestead Grays game in Pittsburgh in 1930 when the catcher hurt his hand. Gibson, already a semi-pro player, was invited to come down from the stands and replace him.
He never looked back. Gibson ultimately became the second-highest-paid player in the Negro Leagues behind another legend, Satchel Paige.
“You look for his weakness and while you’re lookin’ for it, he’s liable to hit 45 home runs,” Paige once famously said of Gibson. Renowned player and coach Buck O’Neil called him “the best hitter that I’ve ever seen.”
Unfortunately, Gibson never got a chance to play in the majors. He died of a stroke at 35 in 1947, less than three months before Jackie Robinson made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke baseball’s color barrier.
—Amir Vera, CNNPhoto: Associated Press
A jazz composer who redefined big band music
Elegant, swinging, exuberant – it’s hard to find one word to describe the lush music of Gerald Wilson, one of the most important bandleaders in the history of jazz. Wilson never got the attention of big band arrangers like Duke Ellington, but he was also a major innovator in jazz music.
A slim, enthusiastic man known for his personal kindness, Wilson practically danced when he directed his orchestra. A lover of many musical styles, he incorporated everything from blues, Basie and Bartok in his arrangements.
While many big-band recordings sound dated today, Wilson’s music still sounds cutting-edge. One critic noted that Wilson’s influence was so wide that “even if you had never heard of him, you were often hearing him.”
Born in Shelby, Mississippi, Wilson learned piano from his mother. He started as a trumpet player, moved to Los Angeles and eventually became a composer-arranger, working with everyone from Ellington and Count Basie to Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald.
At one point, when his career was thriving, Wilson stepped away from commercial success to study classical masters such as Stravinsky and Bartok.
Wilson is best known for his recordings on the Pacific Jazz label, which redefined big band music. One critic said Wilson’s Pacific Jazz music was full of “gorgeous nuances, and an elegance that hasn’t been equaled since that time.”
His arrangements were archived by the Library of Congress and in 1990, the National Endowment for the Arts honored him with a Jazz Masters Award. When he died at 96, one musician said Wilson’s energy always made him seem like he was the youngest person in the room.
—John Blake, CNNPhoto: Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Amelia Boynton Robinson
Her beating helped galvanize the civil rights movement
She lay sprawled unconscious in the road, beaten and gassed by Alabama state troopers. A White officer with a billy club stood over her.
The woman was Amelia Boynton Robinson, and a famous photo of that shocking moment helped galvanize the civil rights movement. It was taken during the “Bloody Sunday” march at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965.
That attack by White officers against peaceful Black demonstrators horrified the nation and led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. It also revealed the toughness of Robinson, dubbed “the matriarch of the voting rights movement.”
“I wasn’t looking for notoriety,” Robinson later said. “But if that’s what it took, I didn’t care how many licks I got. It just made me even more determined to fight for our cause.”
Robinson had been fighting for Black voting rights long before Selma. As far back as the 1930s, she was registering Black voters in Alabama – a brave undertaking that could have cost Robinson her life in the Jim Crow South. In 1964, she became the first African American woman to run for Congress in Alabama.
President Obama honored her half a century later when he clutched her hand – she was frail by then, and in a wheelchair – as they crossed the Selma bridge in March 2015 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Robinson died five months later at age 104.
“She was as strong, as hopeful, and as indomitable of spirit — as quintessentially American — as I’m sure she was that day 50 years ago,” Obama said at her death. “To honor the legacy of an American hero like Amelia Boynton requires only that we follow her example — that all of us fight to protect everyone’s right to vote.”
—Faith Karimi, CNNPhoto: Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press
James Armistead Lafayette
He spied on the British army as a double agent
James Armistead’s life would make a great movie.
Under Lafayette, the French general who helped the American colonists fight for their freedom, he infiltrated the British army as a spy near the end of the Revolutionary War.
He once reported to Benedict Arnold, the traitorous colonist who betrayed his troops to fight for the British. And he provided crucial intelligence that helped defeat the British and end the war.
Armistead was a slave in Virginia in 1781 when he got permission from his owner, who helped supply the Continental Army, to join the war effort. Lafayette dispatched him as a spy, posing as a runaway slave, and he joined British forces in Virginia who valued his knowledge of the local terrain.
Once he’d gained their trust, Armistead moved back and forth between the two armies’ camps, feeding false information to the British while secretly documenting their strategies and relaying them to Lafayette.
His most crucial intel detailed British general Charles Cornwallis’ plans to move thousands of troops from Portsmouth to Yorktown. Armed with this knowledge, Lafayette alerted George Washington, and they set up a blockade around Yorktown which led to Cornwallis’ surrender.
Virginia lawmakers, after lobbying by Lafayette, granted Armistead his freedom in 1787. His owner, William Armistead, was paid £250.
Armistead married, raised a family and spent the rest of his life as a free man on his own Virginia farm. He added Lafayette to his name as a token of gratitude to the French general.*Some sources list his birth year as 1760 and his death year as 1832.
—Faith Karimi, CNNPhoto: Corbis via Getty Images
A fearless cyclist who set world records
Cycling is viewed mostly as a White sport. But one of the fastest men ever to race on two wheels was Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor, an American who dominated sprint cycling in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
A hugely gifted rider, Taylor won the first amateur race he entered, at 14. He turned professional four years later and continued winning races, most of them sprints around oval tracks at Madison Square Garden and other arenas in the eastern US.
Soon Taylor was competing in races across Europe and Australia, becoming the second Black athlete to win a world championship in any sport.
He did all this while battling bitter racial prejudice – often from White cyclists who refused to compete against him or tried to harm him during races. One rival, after losing to Taylor in Boston, attacked him and choked him unconscious.
“In most of my races I not only struggled for victory but also for my very life and limb,” Taylor wrote in his autobiography.
But this didn’t stop him from setting world records, drawing huge crowds and becoming perhaps the first Black celebrity athlete.
—Brandon Griggs, CNNPhoto: Library of Congress / Getty Images
She spent her life fighting sexism and racism
Dorothy Height was often the only woman in the room. She made it her life’s work to change that, fighting battles against both sexism and racism to become, as President Obama called her, the “godmother” of the civil rights movement.
Height felt the sting of racism at an early age. She was accepted to New York’s Barnard College in 1929 but learned there wasn’t a spot for her because the school had already filled its quota of two Black students per year.
Instead she enrolled at NYU and earned a master’s in educational psychology. This led to a career as a social worker in New York and Washington, where she helped lead the YWCA and the United Christian Youth Movement.
In 1958, Height became president of the National Council of Negro Women, a position she held for more than 40 years. In that role she fought tirelessly for desegregation, affordable housing, criminal justice reform and other causes.
By the 1960s, Height had become one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s key advisers. Historians say that as an organizer of the March on Washington, she was the only woman activist on the speakers’ platform during King’s “I Have a Dream’’ speech.
Historians say her contributions to the civil rights movement were overlooked at the time because of her sex. But by the time of her death in 2010, Height had taken her place among the movement’s towering figures.
“She was truly a pioneer, and she must be remembered as one of those brave and courageous souls that never gave up,” Rep. John Lewis once said. “She was a feminist and a major spokesperson for the rights of women long before there was a women’s movement.”
—Nicole Chavez, CNNPhoto: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
His inventions made the world safer
The son of two former slaves, Garrett Morgan had little more than a grade-school education.
But that didn’t stop the Ohio man from becoming an inventor with a rare gift for designing machines that saved people’s lives – including an early version of the traffic light.
As a teenager Morgan got a job repairing sewing machines, which led him to his first invention – a revamped sewing machine – and his first entrepreneurial venture: his own repair business.
Soon he was inventing other products, including a hair-straightener for African Americans. In 1916, he patented a “safety hood,” a personal breathing device that protected miners and firefighters from smoke and harmful gases. It became the precursor of the gas masks used by soldiers during WWI.
To avoid racist resistance to his product, Morgan hired a white actor to pose as the inventor while he wore the hood during presentations to potential buyers.
Later, after witnessing a car and buggy crash, Morgan was inspired to create a traffic light that had three signals: “stop,” “go,” and “stop in all directions,” to allow pedestrians to safely cross the street.
It also had a warning light – now today’s yellow light – to warn drivers they would soon have to stop. His traffic light was patented in 1923 and Morgan eventually sold its design for $40,000 to General Electric.
His legacy can be seen today at intersections across the country and the world.
—Alaa Elassar, CNNPhoto: Associated Press