Robert Smalls (April 5, 1839 – Feb. 23, 1915)
Robert Smalls was an African-American born into slavery in Beaufort, S.C., but during and after the American Civil War, he became a ship’s pilot, sea captain, and politician.
He freed himself, his crew and their families from slavery on May 13, 1862, when he led an uprising aboard a Confederate transport ship, the CSS Planter, in Charleston harbor, and sailed it north to freedom. His feat successfully helped persuade President Abraham Lincoln to accept African-American soldiers into the Union Army.
As a politician, Smalls authored state legislation that gave South Carolina the first free and compulsory public school system in the United States.
Madam Efunroye Tinubu (c.1805-1887)
Madam Tinubu was born in Yorubaland, an area in what is now known as Nigeria. She was a major political and business player, who campaigned against the influence of the British Empire over her people and for the elimination of slavery.
She became the first Iyalode of the Egba clan and is considered an important figure in Nigerian history because of her political significance as a powerful female aristocrat in West Africa. Iyalode (queen of ladies) is a title commonly bestowed on the most prominent and distinguished woman in a town.
After Tinubu, a former slave trader herself, realized the treatment of Africans enslaved in Europe and the Americas was far more inhumane than the way slavery was practiced in Africa, she became a scathing opponent of all forms of slavery and used her influence to try to eliminate the practice in her region.
The Soledad Brothers were three African-American prison inmates: George Jackson, co-founder of the Black Guerilla Family, and Fleeta Drumgo and John Clutchette. The three were falsely accused of beating a white prison guard and throwing him from a third-floor tier to his death at California’s Soledad Prison on Jan. 16, 1970. The murder occurred just a few days after another white guard shot and killed three Black inmates by firing from a tower into the courtyard during a racial fist fight.
The Soledad brothers had recently led a hunger strike to combat the abusive, inhumane practices that led to the death of several Black inmates, when they were indicted for the murder.
Opie G. Miller, the guard who shot the three Black inmates, was exonerated in a secret trial where none of the Black inmates who witnessed the shootings were permitted to testify.
Less than a year later and just three days before the opening of his trial, George Jackson was shot to death by a tower guard inside San Quentin Prison in an alleged escape attempt. Some people called it an assassination and “No Black person,” wrote James Baldwin, “will ever believe that George Jackson died the way they tell us he did.”
The two surviving Soledad Brothers, Clutchette and Drumgoole, were acquitted by a San Francisco jury.
Henry McNeal Turner (Feb. 1, 1834 – May 8, 1915)
Henry McNeal Turner was a minister, politician, and the first Southern bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Born free in South Carolina, he moved to Georgia after the American Civil War, where he pioneered in organizing new congregations for the independent Black denomination.
Angered by the Democrats’ regaining power and instituting Jim Crow laws in the late 19th-century South, Turner began to support Black nationalism and the emigration of Blacks to Africa.
He was the chief figure in the late 19th century to promote the movement, which expanded after World War I.
Martin Delany (May 6, 1812 – Jan. 24, 1885)
Martin Robison Delany was an African-American abolitionist, journalist, physician and writer. He was born free in Charles Town, W.Va. (then part of Virginia, a slave state). Delany was an outspoken Black nationalist, arguably the first; and is considered by some to be the grandfather of Black nationalism.
He was also one of the first three Blacks admitted to Harvard Medical School. Trained as an assistant and a physician, he treated patients during the cholera epidemics of 1833 and 1854 in Pittsburgh, when many doctors and residents fled the city.
Active in recruiting Blacks for the United States Colored Troops, he was commissioned as a major, the first African-American field officer in the United States Army during the American Civil War.
Miriam Makeba (March 4, 1932 – Nov. 9, 2008)
Miriam Makeba or “Mama Africa,” was a South African singer and civil rights activist, known for denouncing apartheid on the world stage and campaigning abroad for the end of the oppressive policy.
As a result of her activism, her South African passport was revoked in 1960 by the apartheid regime, and they banned her from returning to her country in 1963. However, the world came to Makeba’s aid and Guinea, Belgium and Ghana issued her international passports. She received passports from six other countries in her lifetime, and was granted honorary citizenship in 10 countries.
Despite the success that made her a star, she refused to wear makeup or curl her hair for performances, proudly wearing what came to be known internationally as the “Afro-look.”
Her fourth marriage to civil rights activist, Black Panther, and Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee leader Stokely Carmichael in 1968 caused controversy in the United States, and her record deals and tours were canceled. The couple then moved to Guinea, and as the apartheid system crumbled, she returned to South Africa for the first time in 1990.
Matthew Henson (Aug. 8, 1866 – March 9, 1955)
Born to sharecroppers on a farm in Nanjemoy, Md., Matthew Alexander Henson became the first African-American Arctic explorer, and is credited by many as the first man to reach the North Pole, in 1909.
Henson was an associate of the American explorer Robert Peary on seven voyages over a period of nearly 23 years. Henson served as a navigator and craftsman, traded with Inuit and learned their language. He was known as Peary’s “first man” when it came to tackling the arduous expeditions.
Benjamin Singleton (1809–1900)
Benjamin “Pap” Singleton was an American activist and businessman best known for his role in establishing African-American settlements in Kansas.
Held in slavery in Tennessee, Singleton escaped to freedom in 1846 and became a noted abolitionist, community leader and spokesman for African-American civil rights. He returned to Tennessee during the Union occupation in 1862, but soon concluded that Blacks would never achieve economic equality in the white-dominated South.
After the end of Reconstruction, Singleton organized the movement of thousands of Black colonists, known as Exodusters, to found settlements in Kansas. A prominent early voice for Black nationalism, he became involved in promoting and coordinating Black-owned businesses in Kansas, and developed an interest in the Back-to-Africa movement.
Claudette Colvin (born Sept. 5, 1939)
On March 2, 1955, a full nine months before Rosa Parks’ famous arrest, Claudette Colvin was dragged from a Montgomery bus by two police officers, arrested and taken to an adult jail to be booked. She was only 15 years old and was the first person to be arrested for defying bus segregation in Montgomery.
Her arrest and her story has long since been forgotten, but it provided the spark for the Black community in Montgomery that ultimately led to Parks’ actions, the bus boycott, and the Supreme Court ruling to end segregation on buses.
Noble Drew Ali (1886-1929)
Noble Drew Ali, who was born Timothy Drew of North Carolina, was the founder of the Moorish Science Temple of America in Newark, N.J., in 1923. Soon after there were branches in Pittsburgh, Detroit, and other major industrial cities of the Northeast.
Ali saw Black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey as the inspiration for his own efforts. He wanted to present to Black people a message of pride, self-determination, personal transformation and self-sufficiency. Ali also intended to provide African-Americans with a sense of identity in the West, and promote civic involvement.
His movement inspired other leaders such as Fard Muhammad and Elijah Muhammad, leading to the creation of the Nation of Islam.