Black History Month is a time to reflect and celebrate the history, culture, and strength of Black Americans as well as their countless contributions to this country. There are many “firsts” that Black people and communities are still achieving daily. We want to uplift and magnify the historic and notable accomplishments of influential Black individuals.
As we come together to reflect and celebrate this February, we are highlighting some influential Black changemakers throughout history.
Fannie Lou Hamer
Fannie Lou Hamer was a political activist, community organizer, celebrated orator, co-founder of the Freedom Democratic Party, and co-organizer of Freedom Summer. Originally from Mississippi, Hamer was one of the most influential voices of the civil and voting rights movements. Later, she became a leader in creating better economic opportunities for Black Americans by setting up multiple organizations, providing childcare and other necessary family services.
bell hooks, aka Gloria Jean Watkins
Better known by her pen name bell hooks, Gloria Jean Watkins was an author and social activist and a Distinguished Professor in Residence at Berea College. hooks is best known for her writings on race, feminism, and class. The focus of hooks’ writing was to explore the intersectionality of race, capitalism, and gender, and what she described as their ability to produce and perpetuate systems of oppression and class domination. She published around 40 books, including works that ranged from essays and poetry to children’s books, as well as numerous scholarly articles. Watkins also appeared in documentary films and participated in public lectures. Her work addressed love, race, class, gender, art, history, sexuality, mass media, and feminism.
Audre Lorde (born Audrey Geraldine Lorde)
Audre Lorde was a writer, womanist, radical feminist, professor, and civil rights activist. She self-described as a “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” who “dedicated both her life and her creative talent to confronting and addressing injustices of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia.” As a poet, she is well known for technical mastery and emotional expression, as well as her poems that express anger and outrage at civil and social injustices she observed throughout her life. As a spoken word artist, her delivery has been called powerful, melodic, and intense by the Poetry Foundation. Lorde’s poems and prose largely deal with issues related to civil rights, feminism, lesbianism, illness and disability, and the exploration of her identity as a Black woman.
Octavius V. Catto
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, barring voter discrimination on the basis of race. Catto was only 32 years old when he was shot and killed outside of his home on South Street in 1871 on the first Election Day that African Americans were allowed to vote. In 2017, a monument to Catto was unveiled at Philadelphia’s City Hall.
Medgar 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.
James Forten was a slavery 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 is 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 Black people. By the 1830s, he was one of the most powerful Black voices in the city.
Born free in Baltimore, Francis 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 and served as Vice President on the National Association of Colored Women, an organization dedicated to highlighting extraordinary efforts and progress made by Black women.