5 Black American Heroes You Should Know


Cyrene Puno

From left to right: Robert Smalls, Jane Bolin, Claudette Colvin, Shirley Chisholm, Alvin Ailey

With Black History Month well underway, the triumphs and contributions of African Americans throughout our country’s history have been rightfully highlighted in the media and in our classrooms alike. However, in the past, the celebration has tended to focus primarily on those individuals whose names are familiar to most Americans, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman.

While the immense contributions of such pioneers should not go unnoticed, the names of many lesser-known Black history heroes are often overlooked. For decades, so much African American history has been absent from curriculums, leaving a gap in our understanding of these heroes and their contributions to civil rights, social culture, politics, and more.

During this Black History Month, La Puma seeks to shed light on 5 unsung Black American heroes who you should know, if you don’t already.

1. Claudette Colvin (1939- )
9 months before Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, then 15-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat to a white person and move to the back of the bus. Colvin was then arrested, making her the 1st woman to challenge the law in this way and be detained for her resistance.

2. Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005)
In 1969, Shirley Chisholm became the first African American woman elected to Congress, representing New York’s 12th District until 1972. She also became the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, campaigning with the slogan “Unbought and Unbossed” in 1972. While our government has grown increasingly diverse in recent years, particularly with the recent inauguration of Vice President Kamala Harris, Chisholm was a trailblazer for women of color in politics.

3. Jane Bolin (1908-2007)
In 1939, Jane Bolin became the 1st Black female judge in the United States, after she because the 1st Black woman to graduate from Yale Law School in 1931. As a pioneer in law, she worked with private employers to hire individuals based on skill as opposed to discriminating against applicants on the basis of race.

4. Robert Smalls (1839-1915)
Robert Smalls was a slave on a Confederate transport ship. He led an uprising that freed the people being held on board, subsequently sailing north to freedom. It was this mutiny that led Abraham Lincoln to reconsider allowing African Americans to serve as soldiers in the Civil War despite widespread opposition. Later, Smalls went on to serve in the United States Congress.

5. Alvin Ailey (1931-1989)
Alvin Ailey was an acclaimed dancer and choreographer most well known for his impact on modern dance. In 1958, Ailey was inspired to start the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, a multiracial dance company that provided a platform for Black dancers to perform and tour the world. He was inspired by his desire to create works that were different from traditional ballets of the time and to reflect his vision of equality.