The Many Eras of Black History

Black history is American history and because of that it’s important we recognize the strength and achievements of African Americans in our country.

For this Black History Month, Think Together highlights the many impactful accomplishments that continue to shape Black History and lead towards a more just future. It’s vital to always continue learning beyond this month and expand our knowledge to keep changing the odds for all.

Learn below about some of the most monumental moments and individuals that broke racial barriers.

First Black Major League Baseball Player

Jackie Robinson makes history, when he signs with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and is the first African American player to join a Major League Baseball team. African American players were restricted by “color barriers” which limited them to the Negro league, teams only for non-white players. His addition to the Dodgers was met with many racist remarks, but besides that Robinson went on to be the first Black player to win the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1949, followed by many more achievements. Robinson later retired in 1955, not making the move to Los Angeles when the Dodgers moved in 1958.

Ralph Bunche: First African American to Win Nobel Peace Prize

After negotiating the 1949 Armistice Agreements in the middle east, in 1950, Ralph Bunche became the first African American and person of color to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Bunche was a believer in the power of negotiation and diplomacy over battle, his most personally satisfying work was to oversee the dispatch of thousands of non-fighting neutral troops in the 1956 Suez conflict. He also helped establish the United Nations. 

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka

The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka led the way into the civil rights movement when Oliver Brown filed a class-action lawsuit against the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, in 1951. It was brought on when Brown’s daughter, Linda Brown, was denied admittance to Topeka’s elementary schools, which were heavily segregated at the time.

The case desegregated U.S. schools, although much resistance was met by the South. A test of this landmark case was when nine Black students attended a formerly all-white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, in September 1957. They were met with angry mobs of some 1,000 white protestors. To address the discourse, President Eisenhower sent a large guard of troops to escort the students two days later. The students became known as the “Little Rock Nine.”

Black Scientist Amplifies the Sound of the Future

In 1962, African American scientist James West along with fellow scientist Gerhard M. Sessler finished developing the electret microphone, a low-cost, compact microphone that didn’t require a battery. Just five years later, the microphone was in mass production and today is used in just about any device you could think of. West’s and Sessler’s creation can be found in televisions, baby monitors, computers, cellphones, hearing aids, and so many more. West later joined John Hopkins University as a research professor in the engineering department.

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall

Distinguished civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall is nominated by President Lyndon B. Johnson to be the first African American justice to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States in 1967. Marshall had already made his mark in American law, having won 29 of the 32 cases he argued before the Supreme Court. His most notable work being the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), which ruled school segregation unconstitutional. He served as the chief of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, at the time of the case.

“Unbought and Unbossed” Shirley Chisolm

In 1972, Shirley Chisolm became the first African American to campaign for a presidential nomination and the first woman to seek the Democratic nomination, her campaign slogan was “Unbought and Unbossed”. It wasn’t the first time though that Shirley made history as she was no stranger to breaking down racial barriers and glass ceilings. In 1968, she was the first Black U.S. Congresswoman in history as a Representative of her New York district. Despite not winning the presidential election, Shirley served seven terms in the House of Representatives before retiring in 1983.

Honoring The Past Through Stamps

The United States Postal Service honored abolitionist and Civil War veteran, Harriet Tubman with her own postage stamp in 1978, making her the first African American woman to receive that honor. Harriet Tubman was a vital “conductor” of the Underground Railroad in the mid-19th century by leading intelligence operations. She was enslaved, escaped, and freed before she “conducted”, it’s believed she personally led 70 slaves to freedom, including her own family.

Hip Hop Against the World

Dubbed as the “Golden Age of Hip Hop,” the influential music genre began to influence mainstream culture around 1986 and carrying on into the ‘90s. This era became a form of Black expression and voice for overcoming racial barriers. Some big artists that grew their platform during this time was Tupac, N.W.A., Biggie Smalls, Wu-Tan Clan, and so many more. It was time for artists to experiment with new sounds, styles, and fashion while also leveraging the era to take about political issues.

Honoring the “Queen of Soul”

Rhythm and blues artist, Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul”, was the first female artist to ever be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. Franklin was an icon within the music and Black community, for her ability to sing passionate and soulful songs. In 1968, she was the first to win the Grammy for best rhythm & blues solo vocal performance, for her iconic song “Respect”. In 2015, she moved then President Barack Obama to tears when she sang her rendition of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”.

The Beauty of Ebony

African American businessman and publisher, John H. Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996. He is the founder of the magazine “Ebony” which is the first Black oriented magazine in the U.S. and is the longest running magazine publication to solely feature the Black community. “Ebony” was created in 1945 and sold 25,000 copies its first issue, but in 2005 it had reached ten million readers. The magazine published achievements and the daily lives of the Black community, both the good and bad.

Breaking Barriers in Tennis

During the 1999, U.S. Open, Serena Williams won the U.S. Open Women’s Singles Tennis Championship, the first African American woman to win since Althea Gibson in 1958. Williams has since become one of the most known tennis players around the globe, along with her sister Venus, who’s also a tennis player. She’s revolutionized tennis and has made many great accomplishments like winning 23 Grand Slam singles titles, which is more than any other woman or man during the open era.

Y2K Historic Political & Military Appointments

In the early 2000’s, Black Americans witnessed a surge in political and military influence with historic appointments like Colin Powell to Secretary of State, the first African American to hold that position. He was immediately followed by Condoleezza Rice in 2005, who is the first African American woman to hold that same position.

Around the same time, Edith Peterson Mitchell, MD, became the first African American woman in the Missouri National Guard to be promoted to Brigadier General and the first woman physician to achieve that rank in Air Force history. She was awarded many accolades for her military service, including the Legion of Merit. In 2008, Barack Obama broke barriers when he was elected as the first African American president. By 2020, America celebrated the election of Kamala Harris as the first Black, South Asian, and woman vice president in the United States.

Winning Gold at the Olympics

In the 2012 Summer Olympics Games, gymnast Gabby Douglas competed alongside the U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team. She also competed in the individual all-around event, where she won the gold medal, becoming the first African American to win that title. The U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team also took home the gold. It was the first gold medal to be won by an American women’s gymnastics team since 1996.

Tony Thurmond launches the Black Student Achievement Taskforce

In 2019, Tony Thurmond was sworn in as the twenty-eighth California State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Superintendent Thurmond launched the Black Student Achievement Taskforce to call out the effects that systemic and institutional racism have had on Black students in California. He sponsored legislation to increase funding to lowest performing students, banned suspensions and expulsions in preschools, and secured $90 million for suspensions and chronic absenteeism programming.

Princeton University’s first Black Valedictorian

Nicholas Johnson was announced in 2020, as Princeton University’s first Black valedictorian in the school’s 275-year history. He studied operations research and financial engineering during his time at Princeton. Since his graduation, Nicholas has been working on getting his Ph.D. in operations research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Being the first Black valedictorian in Princeton’s history feels incredibly empowering, in particular given the university’s historical beginnings and its ties to the institution of slavery. Princeton’s first nine presidents were themselves slave owners, as were many of the institution’s professors during those early years,” shared Nicholas. “The fact that today we have a Black valedictorian goes to show how much work has been done, but also how much work still needs to be done.”

Harvard University’s First Black Male Student Body President

The outstanding accomplishments for the Black community continued in 2020, when Noah Harris, a junior from Hattiesburg, Mississippi became the first Black man elected to serve as Harvard’s student body president in the school’s 384-year history. When asked about the Black leaders he feels paved the way for him, Harris points to Fentrice Driskell, who was the first Black woman to serve as Harvard’s student body president and currently serves in the Florida House of Representatives. He also credits W.E.B. Du Bois, part founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), as a someone he looks up to.

“Du Bois was the first Black individual to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard. Of course, he is one of the most amazing leaders in Black political thought in history. And so to have him literally paved the way for people like me is pretty special,” says Harris.

Georgia’s First Black Senator and Black Media Powerhouse

In Jan 2021, Reverend Raphael Warnock defeated incumbent Senator Kelly Loeffler in a contentious and highly publicized runoff election. His victory created a path for Democrats to gain control of the Senate and made Warnock the state of Georgia’s first Black senator as well as the first Black Democrat Senator from the South since the Reconstruction Era.

The same year, Rashida Jones was appointed as president at MSNBC, making her the first Black executive to lead a major television news network. Her promotion was regarded as the first major executive appointment made by NBCUniversal News Group Chairman Cesar Conde.

“Her promotion is bigger than our industry, it’s the kind of story Black and Brown children everywhere need to see, so they can know what’s possible,” said Taylor Locke.

First Black Astronaut to Live and Work on the ISS

Astronaut Victor Glover arrived at the International Space Station in November of 2022, and he settled in for a six-month stay, becoming the first Black astronaut to live and work on the International Space Station (ISS) for an extended period of time. NASA has sent over 300 astronauts into space, but out all of those only 14 have been Black Americans. Glover holds three master’s degrees, all ranging in different science engineering fields.

Black Women Paving the Way Today

Major milestones continue to be made by the Black community in recent years. In 2023, Jennifer Leigh McClellan made history for being the first Black woman to represent Virginia in Congress. She was sworn in as the U.S. representative for Virginia’s 4th congressional district. The former Virginia state senator is the great-great-grandchild of enslaved African Americans.

“I stand on the shoulders of my parents, grandparents, and great grandparents, recognizing that in a lot of ways I am fighting the same fights that they did,” McClellan said. “And I stand here to ensure that my children and yours don’t have to fight those same fights.”

The same year in the music industry, renowned African American music artist, Beyoncé, made history when she broke the record for most Grammy’s won at the 2023 award show. She took home four Grammys that night, all for her Renaissance album, which put her at 32 overall Grammy wins.

Learning about different milestones in diverse histories is important for not just the growing minds of students, but also anyone willing to learn. At Think Together, we strive to provide an open space where anyone is welcome and can expand their knowledge beyond the barriers. Continue learning with Think Together beyond this month and help create a brighter future for all!

Explore the links below to learn more and read previous Think Together Black History Month blogs.