Firsts in African-American History – February is Black History month in America and a time to celebrate incredible “firsts” accomplished by African Americans. For too long racism has attempted to prevent African American citizens from getting ahead– starting with the institution of slavery to Jim Crow segregation laws to residual sentiments.
Despite this, the following people were able to overcome the odds and pave the way for future generations.
Firsts in African-American History
Let’s take a look at some African-American firsts that shouldn’t be taught just in the month of February, but rather, all year long.
First African-American + U.S. House of Representatives
Joseph H. Rainey – Born in to slavery on a rice plantation, Rainey was freed during the Civil War. He first owned a barbershop and before becoming politically active and landing a seat in the House of Representatives in 1870. He represented the Committee of Freedmen Affairs and fought for African-American and Native American rights.
+First African-American + United States Senate
Hiram Rhodes Revels became the first African-American to get a seat in the United States Senate in 1870.
First African-American to win Wimbledon
Althea Gibson was an incredible athlete who became the first African-American to win Wimbledon in 1957. Althea Gibson + Ladies Professional Golf Association Tour – she proved to also be an excellent golfer. According to Venus Williams, Gibson’s success paved the way for future female African-American athletes: “I have all the opportunities today because of people like Althea”.
+First African-American billionaire
Robert L. Johnson became the first African-American billionaire in 2001. The BET + Viacom + $3 billion is the deal that officially put him at this status. He is the founder of BET and the first African-American owner of an NBA franchise when he purchased the Charlotte bobcats.
The first African American cardiac surgeon
Daniel Hale Williams became the first black heart surgeon in 1893. Today he is recognized by the Daniel Hale Williams Award + Feinberg School of Medicine and Northwestern has also devoted part of their school in his honor: Dr. Daniel Hale Williams Auditorium and Atrium.
First African-American to run for U.S. President
George Edwin Taylor ran for president against Teddy Roosevelt in 1904 and lost, but he did make incredible strides for African Americans.
First African-American world heavyweight champion
Jack Johnson was a boxer best known for the “Fight of the Century” + James Jeffries v. Jack Johnson. He became the first black world heavyweight champion in 1908. Later, Jack Johnson went on to own Club Deluxe and the Cotton Club.
First African-American Academy Award winner
Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar in 1939 for her performance in Gone With The Wine. Later, Howard University lost Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar! Hattie McDaniel’s win is controversial as some people believe it propagates stereotypes. There is a recent rumor that Mo’nique will play Hattie McDaniel in a biopic, but it has yet to be confirmed.
First African-American major league player
Jackie Robinson became the first African-American baseball player in 1947. With all the media coverage, it was arguably one of the biggest visible breakthroughs for race relations in America. Later Jackie Robinson became the Chock Full O’Nuts Vice President.
First African-American woman to win Olympic gold
Alice Coachman became the first African American woman to win an Olympic gold medal for the high jump. Alice Coachman was known for her barefoot high jump, an unusual (but apparently effective!) spectacle.
+First African-American to win Pulitzer Poetry Prize
Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African-American to win the Pulitzer prize in poetry in 1950 for her book Annie Allen.
First African-American Nobel Peace Prize winner
Ralph Bunche was part of the “black cabinet” for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He also worked extensively in the CIA, the United Nations, and his work with the Arab-Israeli conflict earned him a Nobel Peace prize.
First African-American Male Grammy Award winner
Count Basie earned a Grammy in 1958 for Best Performance by a Dance Band and Best Jazz Performance.
First African-American Female Grammy Winner
The first female Grammy was in the same year (1958) by the extraordinary Ella Fitzgerald.
First African-American + Best Actor Academy Award
Sidney Poitier was the first African American actor to win an Oscar in 1963 for his performance in the film Lilies of the Field.
First African-American Comic Super Hero
The Falcon was the first mainstream African-American comic super hero who made his debut in 1969.
First African-American Model on the Cover of American Vogue
In 1974 Beverly Johnson became the first African American model to grace the cover of the iconic fashion magazine Vogue.
First woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Aretha Franklin became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. (Why this was so late, I’m not sure of!)
First African-American quarter-back to win a Super Bowl
Doug Williams, quarterback, became the first African American to score the winning touchdown of a Super Bowl in 1988.
+First African-American + Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Colin Powell became the first Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1989. He continued his political career well into the 2000’s and now is a motivational speaker.
+First African-American Female Astronaut
Dr. Mae Jemison became the first African-American female astronaut in 1992 when she was sent to space for her bone cell research experiment.
First African-American woman + Poet Laureate of the United States
Rita Dove was the first African-American woman to become Poet Laureate of the United States in 1993, but at this time had already earned a Pulitzer Prize for her work.
As you can see, there are dozens of incredible African-Americans whose world-changing accomplishments entitle them to be household names. Instead, they are learned about once a year during Black History month. This really bothers me– I feel like there is so much history that gets compartmentalized when it should be mainstream. The history that’s taught in schools right now is pretty white-washed– it should be more inclusive of all people– not just straight, white men.
Related: Women’s Firsts
Firsts in African-American History