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The Black History Lessons You Never Got in School

In Black households across the United States and abroad, children are taught about notable, exceptional, Black history-makers who look like us. That education, though, doesn’t always transfer to the school system, even during Black History Month. Oftentimes, the contributions that Black people have made to society as a whole are whittled down to a few key figures—typically activists, athletes, and entertainers. While Black contributions to activism, sports, and entertainment have been nothing short of significant, there are still so many names and stories that go unknown. We’re scientists. We’re professionals. We’re in the tech world. In every sector, in every industry, you will find us. And we’re proud of it.

All year long, Youth To The People is celebrating Black history and Black futures, but for this Black History Month in particular, we’re highlighting the incredible contributions that Black people have made in sectors like technology, science, art, fashion, politics, and, of course, beauty. Made possible by YTTP’s Diversity + Inclusivity Committee, what began as an educational opportunity for our internal team has snowballed into a community-wide affair—complete with weekly education on Black history, an end-of-month trivia game, and prizes galore.

Our team rallied together to make this happen and to make it beautiful, and our hope is that this month-long project will continue to inspire our community to seek knowledge and understanding about the major—and oftentimes unrecognized—contributions that Black people have made to society. Tune into our Instagram stories every Monday for more education, and keep an eye out for our trivia game at the end of the month!

Krystin, Lauren, + Janine, YTTP’s Diversity + Inclusivity Committee Leaders


BEAUTY + ENTERTAINMENT

The first Black woman millionaire in America, Madam CJ Walker (1867-1919) built her empire selling homemade hair care for Black women. Born in 1867 to parents who had been enslaved, Walker is celebrated as a self-made millionaire who used her fortune for good—donating to organizations like the NAACP + the Black YMCA and funding womens’ scholarships at the Tuskegee Institute.

In 1958, dancer, director, choreographer, and activist Alvin Ailey (1931-1989) founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and its affiliate Ailey School to nurture Black artists and express the Black experience through dance. Blending together theatre, modern dance, ballet, and jazz, Ailey’s choreography is fueled with hope and places a spotlight on Black life in America.

You name it, Debbie Allen (b. 1950) has done it—acting, dancing, choreography, singing, songwriting, directing, producing. From acting in + choreographing the television series Fame to directing A Different World, to serving on the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, Allen’s all-around talent has won her multiple awards + accolades. In 2001, she opened the Debbie Allen Dance Academy.

Celebrated as the most influential makeup artist in the world, beauty innovator Pat McGrath (b. 1970) has spent over 25 years working with fashion + beauty’s biggest brands—creating her own, Pat McGrath Labs, in 2015. McGrath has developed cosmetics for Giorgio Armani, led creative design for Proctor & Gamble, and joined British Vogue as Beauty Editor-at-Large. In 2021, the Queen of England named McGrath a Dame of the British Empire for her service in fashion, beauty, + diversity.

 

SCIENCE + THE ARTS

Mathematician, astronomer, inventor, and writer Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806) is known for accurately predicting the 1789 solar eclipse and surveying the land, construction, and layout that would become Washington, D.C. Largely self-educated, Banneker authored several almanacs—including information on farming, medicines, medical treatment, tides, and astronomy.

Dubbed the mother of modern heating, Alice H. Parker (1895-1920) is an inventor most known for her patented system of using natural gas for central heating. Her unique design, patented in 1919, was the first time natural gas had been used to fuel a central heating system, rather than coal or wood. 

Meet Dr. Shirley Jackson (b. 1946), the first African American woman to earn her doctorate degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The inventor of the technology that made things like caller ID and call waiting possible, Dr. Jackson has been the recipient of 53 honorary degrees, along with the National Medal of Science—which she was awarded in 2015 by President Obama for her work in science and engineering.

Trailblazing fashion designer Ann Lowe (1898-1981) was born into clothing design, building years of experience working alongside her mother and grandmother at their dressmaking business in Clayton, Alabama. After taking over the family business at 16, Lowe headed to New York to study design. A highly sought-after couturier, Lowe was the brains behind the dresses for Jacqueline Bouvier and her bridal party for Bouvier’s wedding to John F. Kennedy.

 

SOCIAL + POLITICAL JUSTICE

Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) was a civil rights advocate, investigative journalist, and a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Active in the pursuit of justice for Black people, Wells led an antilynching campaign in the 1890s, helped found the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, published several written works, and actively organized Black women in her area surrounding causes from antilynching to the suffrage movement.

Pioneering educator Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) was a prominent civil + women’s rights leader. As an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bethune used her government position to advocate for Black people in America. She’s the founder of Bethune-Cookman College and in 1940, Bethune became vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons.

Alicia Garza (b. 1981) is a civil rights activist, writer, and co-founder of Black Lives Matter—which she created alongside Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi in 2013. She launched the Black Futures Lab in 2018, which engages advocate organizations to put forth policies that strengthen Black communities. Fortune Magazine named Garza one of their 40 Under 40 in 2020.

Artist and activist Patrisse Cullors (b. 1984) co-founded Black Lives Matter along with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi. A longtime activist—from joining the Bus Riders Union as a teen in the San Fernando Valley to being a board member of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights—Cullors launched her own production company in collaboration with Warner Bros. Television and was named to BBC’s 100 Women in 2020.

Alongside Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi (b. 1984)—a human rights activist, writer, strategist, and community organizer—co-founded Black Lives Matter. The former Executive Director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, Tometi was named an influential person by outlets like Forbes, Marie Claire, and Cosmopolitan, has been the recipient of the Sydney Peace Prize and an honorary Ph.D., and is featured in the Smithsonian’s National Museum for African History and Culture.

You might remember when Congresswoman Maxine Waters’s (b. 1938) phrase—”reclaiming my time!”—went viral after a heated exchange with the U.S. treasury secretary. Considered one of the most powerful women in American politics, Congresswoman Waters has represented California’s 43rd congressional district since 1991—and for her past 15 terms, she’s fearlessly advocated for women, children, and the poor. She’s the first woman and the first Black person to chair the House of Financial Services Committee.

 

MORE LESSONS TO LEARN:

The first-known Black master distiller, Nathan “Nearest” Green (1820-1890) is credited with teaching Jack Daniel—of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey—the distilling techniques the brand is known for, though Green’s contributions were not acknowledged until 2017.

Abolitionist, suffragist, and writer Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911) was one of the first published Black women writers in the United States, releasing her first poetry book at 20 years old.

A 19th century inventor, Elijah McCoy (1844-1929) is credited with over 50 patents including the lubrication of steam engines, the portable ironing board, and the lawn sprinkler.

The first Black woman to receive a patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Sarah Elisabeth Goode (1855-1905) was an inventor, entrepreneur, and carpenter who created the folding cabinet bed.

Charlotta Bass (1874-1969) was an educator, newspaper publisher-editor, and civil rights activist who was the first Black woman to run for Vice President.

Nicknamed Bojangles, Bill Robinson (1878-1949) was a tap dancer, actor, and singer who was the best known and most highly paid Black American entertainer in the first half of the 20th century.

Richard Bowie Spikes (1878-1963) was an inventor who created the beer tap, the turn signal, and a safety braking system for vehicles.

Hattie McDaniel (1893-1952) was the first Black actress to win an Oscar for her role in Gone With The Wind, and has not one, but two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her contributions to radio and film.

World-renowned contralto Marian Anderson (1897-1993) was known for singing a variety of music, from opera to spirituals, and became the first Black person to perform at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, the Kennedy Center Honors, the National Medal of Arts, and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Zelda Wynn Valdes (1905-2001) was a fashion designer and costumer who is credited with creating the original Playboy Bunny costume.

American-born French entertainer and civil rights activist Josephine Baker (1906-1975) was the first Black woman to be the star of a major motion picture.

Groundbreaking lawyer and civil rights activist Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993) was the first Black person appointed to the Supreme Court, where he served as an Associate Justice from 1967-1991.

During the 33 years she spent as a mathematician and computer at NASA, Katherine Johnson (1918-2020) and her calculations were critical to the success of the first crewed spaceflights.

Appointed co-chair of the National Women’s Committee for Civil Rights by John F. Kennedy, Patricia Roberts Harris (1924-1985) was the first Black woman to serve the U.S. as an ambassador, the first Black dean of a law school, and the first Black woman to serve within a presidential cabinet.

Politician, educator, and author Shirley Chisolm (1924-2004), who ran for president in 1972, was the first Black woman elected to Congress, the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, and the first Black candidate to win a major party nomination for U.S. President.

You might recognize Emmy Award-winning singer, actress, dancer Eartha Kitt (1927-2008) from her Broadway career, her 1953 hit, Santa Baby, or as the voice of Yzma in The Emperor’s New Groove.

Coretta Scott King (1927-2006) was an influential civil rights activist who established the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.

Called the King of Soul, Sam Cooke (1931-1964) was a singer, songwriter, composer, and producer.

Lawyer, educator, and civil rights leader Barbara Jordan (1936-1996) was the first Black person elected to the Texas Senate after the Reconstruction era and the first Southern Black woman in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Television show host and producer Don Cornelius (1936-2012) was the creator of Soul Train, which brought Black culture, musicians, and dancers to TV.

Activist Diane Nash (b. 1938) led and strategized the student wing of the Civil Rights Movement, becoming one of the most highly-esteemed student leaders and organizers.

Best known for the 26 years he spent as an award-winning correspondent on 60 Minutes, journalist Ed Bradley (1941-2006) was the first Black White House correspondent for CBS News.

Considered a pioneer of laser cataract surgery, ophthalmologist Dr. Patricia Bath (1942-2019) invented the Laserphaco Probe and was the first Black woman doctor to be the recipient of a medical patent.

Gregory Hines (1946-2003) was a dancer, actor, choreographer, and singer who revitalized tap dancing and starred in over forty films.

Carol Moseley Braun (b. 1947) is a diplomat, politician, and lawyer who was the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Senate, the first Black U.S. senator from the Democratic Party, the first woman to defeat an incumbent U.S. Senator, and the first woman senator from Illinois.

Grace Jones (b. 1948) has been an icon in the beauty and entertainment industries—appearing on the covers of Vogue and Elle, working with esteemed fashion houses like Yves Saint Laurent, and inspiring generations of artists.

Lisa Price (b. 1962) is the founder of Carol’s Daughter—one of the first Black-owned brands with its own flagship store.

Mae C. Jemison (b. 1956) is an engineer, physician, and former astronaut who was the first Black woman in space.

Loretta Lynch (b. 1959) is a lawyer who, from 2015-2017, served as Attorney General of the United States, making her the first Black woman to do so.

Kamala Harris (b. 1964) is the first woman, first Black woman, first South Asian woman, and first woman of color elected Vice President of the United States.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama (b. 1964) is an attorney and author from the South Side of Chicago, Illinois and a graduate of both Princeton University and Harvard Law School—making her the most highly-educated First Lady in American history. 

The premier makeup artist for Black actresses, models, and singers, Sam Fine (b. 1969) quite literally wrote the book on beauty and makeup, and it’s called Fine Beauty: Beauty Basics and Beyond for African-American Women.

Before he became Editor-in-Chief of British Vogue, Edward Enniful (b. 1972) was named Fashion Editor at i-D at just 18—then Fashion Director at 19—making him the youngest-ever editor at a major fashion magazine.

George Floyd (1973-2020) was a father, artist, and mentor in his community who was killed by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, drawing worldwide attention to the existing Black Lives Matter movement.

Activist Tarana Burke (b. 1973) is the founder of the #MeToo movement.

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (b. 1974) is an advocate and policy-maker who, in 2018, was the first Black woman elected to represent Massachusetts in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

Award-winning actor and playwright Chadwick Boseman (1976-2020) starred in everything from historical films like 42 and Marshall to Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Black Panther.

Fashion designer, entrepreneur, and DJ Virgil Abloh (b. 1980) is the Artistic Director of the Louis Vuitton menswear collection and the CEO and founder of Off-White, a Milan-based fashion label.

Breonna Taylor (1993-2020) was an emergency room technician and practicing registered nurse in Louisville, Kentucky with dreams of becoming a nurse, who was killed by police in her sleep—leading the Louisville Metro Council to unanimously vote to ban no-knock warrants in legislation titled Breonna’s Law.

Los Angeles-born, Harvard-educated poet Amanda Gorman (b. 1998)  was the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate and the youngest poet to perform at a presidential inauguration.

Cosmetic chemist Balanda Attis is L’Oreal’s Women of Color Lab Manager, where she’s dedicated to creating fitting foundation shades for women of color.

In search of the homemade hair care she once created alongside her grandmother, Nancy Twine founded Briogeo Hair Care out of a studio apartment in New York’s East Village.