5 influential Black Americans we don’t talk about enough

Martin Luther King Jr. Rosa Parks. Malcom X. Frederick Douglas. Harriet Tubman. When we think of Black History Month, these are some of the names that come to mind. We’ve learned about these figures in school, in studying slavery and the civil rights movement, yet there are so many Black Americans who didn’t make it into our textbooks despite their incredible contributions to American society. So, while abolitionists and civil rights activists should be celebrated, so, too, should the Black Americans who have influenced American sports, business, science, education, and the Arts.

This year’s theme for Black History Month is “African Americans and the Arts.” In a podcast interview with Dr. Pius Kamau, Dr. Vern Howard, chairman of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Colorado Holiday Commission, notes how art covers everything from paintings and music to theater and filmography to dance and even sports. In speaking on music she states, “Music has no race color or creed. Music is the one medium that will bring people together regardless… because they can find their own beauty and purpose in a particular song.” Howard specifically speaks to the contributions of Whitney Houston and Ray Charles to American music, highlighting the fact that Houston’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Charles’ rendition of “America the Beautiful,” are the “top two number one songs that talk about this very country.”

But music isn’t the only major area in which Black culture has influenced America. Howard goes on to say that sports too, can be considered as art. As an example, Howard highlights gymnast Simone Biles and how her manipulation of the balance beam and the ways she twists and turns is art because it’s beautiful.

In celebration of Black History Month this year, we’d like to recognize five Black artists and athletes who’ve helped shape history, yet don’t get enough credit for doing so.

Charley Pride

American singer, guitarist, and professional baseball player Charley Pride was born in 1934 in Sledge, Mississippi, and is best known for his contributions as country music’s first Black superstar. As an African American in country music, Pride faced a lot of prejudice and racism, to the extent that RCA records kept his race a secret until Pride was officially signed to the record label. From that point, RCA continued to keep the secret from country radio DJs until 1966 when Pride’s third single made the Top Ten on country music charts. Pride, who believed that talent could prevail against racism, did not respond to discrimination. He stayed focused on his career, achieved 29 number one country hits and in 1971, became CMA’s Entertainer of the Year. In 1993 he was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry and is, to this day, one of two African American members of the organization, with the other being Darius Rucker who was inducted in 2012. Seven years after his Grand Ole Opry induction, Pride was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.



Althea Gibson

Born in 1927, Althea Gibson was an African American tennis player who later became referred to as the “Jackie Robinson of tennis.” Having developed her skills playing paddle tennis on the streets of Harlem, her neighbors and friends recognized her talent at a young age and raised money to pay for Gibson’s tennis lessons. She continued to excel in the sport and began winning local and regional tournaments. Due to her race however, she was prohibited from competing on a national level until 1950, when after ATA officials and retired tennis champion Alice Marble lobbied for Gibson to play in the US National Championships, she became the first African American to do so. From there, she became the first Black tennis player to win a Grand Slam tournament in 1956 and then achieved victory in 1957 as the first Black Wimbledon champion. She ended her tennis career with 11 Grand Slam titles and was ranked the number one female player in the world. Gibson then began her career in golf and became the first Black athlete on the LPGA tour.



Major Taylor

Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor, born in 1878, was a professional cyclist who became the first African American to achieve world champion status in cycling. He was also the second African American to win a world championship in any sport. Having worked in bicycle shops in his youth, Taylor began racing at a young age and turned professional in 1896 at the age of 18. He focused on short distances, for which he set world records in 1898 and 1899, winning the one-mile sprint event at the 1899 ICA Track Cycling World Championships. Through his perseverance and victories in a white sport, Taylor become a role model for Black athletes, as he challenged racism and discrimination both on and off the track. 



Fritz Pollard

Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard, born in 1894, was an American football player and coach who changed American football forever. Not only was he the first African American to play for Brown University, but his contributions helped lead Brown to victory in the 1916 Rose Bowl. Following his college career, Pollard coached football for Lincoln University from 1918-1920 and played for many professional football teams in the following years including the Akron Pros. He led the team to the NFL championship in 1920 and became co-head coach in 1921, making him the first African American to coach for the National Football League (NFL). Throughout his career, Pollard made his mark not only as a star football player and incredible coach, but as an advocate for integration in professional football. He was the second African American to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954 and in 2005, many years after his death, Pollard was inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame.



Gordon Parks

Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks was born in 1912 and is best known for his contributions to photography, music, poetry, and film. In a 50-year career, Parks performed as a jazz pianist, composed music, founded Essence magazine, wrote 15 books, and became the first African American to direct a Hollywood film. His photography and documentation of African American lives threatened by oppression, racism, and poverty. He aimed to shed light on his subjects’ humanity through his camera lens, and as a result, his work generated empathy and inspired activism among his viewers. According to an article from CNN, “A 1948 photo essay about a Harlem gang leader landed [Parks] a gig as Life magazine’s first Black staff photographer.” In famously referring to his camera as his “weapon of choice,” Parks deemed photography as his way to combat social injustices, noting he pointed his camera at “people mostly who needed someone to say something for them.”