Before Barack Obama, Hiram Revels and Shirley Chisholm helped govern the nation. William Wells Brown wrote a novel before Toni Morrison. Phillis Wheatley published poems before Langston Hughes. And Oscar Micheaux made films before Spike Lee and Ava DuVernay. Even Jackie Robinson had a predecessor, Moses Fleetwood Walker.
Today’s celebrations of accomplishments by African Americans sometimes eclipse milestones from the past. Given the obstacles of segregation laws and lingering prejudices, the achievements of these individuals are remarkable.
Guion S. Bluford: First African American to Travel in Space
In 1983 as a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Challenger, Bluford traveled in space for the first time. He was also the first African American to return to space by completing three more NASA missions, compiling 688 hours in space by the time of his retirement in 1993. He was awarded fourteen honorary doctorate degrees and was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame in 1997 and the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2010.
William Wells Brown: First African American to Publish a Novel
Born a slave around 1814 near Lexington, Kentucky, he served several masters in Missouri. In 1834 he escaped and adopted the name of a Quaker, Wells Brown, who assisted him when he was a runaway. His novel, Clotel, or, the President’s Daughter (1853) is a fictionalized account of the lives and struggles of Thomas Jefferson’s black daughters and granddaughters. With the publication of his travelogue, a play, and a compilation of antislavery songs, he is considered the most prolific black literary figure of the mid-nineteenth century.
Ralph Bunche: First African American to Win Nobel Peace Prize
After negotiating the 1949 Armistice Agreements between Israel and four Arab states, in 1950, Bunche became the first African American and person of color to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. He excelled at getting both parties to sit with each other and find ways to compromise. A believer in the power of negotiation and diplomacy over battle, his most personally satisfying work was to oversee the dispatch of thousands of non-fighting neutral troops in the 1956 Suez conflict. He joined Martin Luther King, Jr. for the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March. He helped to found the United Nations.
Shirley Chisholm: First African American U.S. Congresswoman
Elected in 1968 to represent New York State, Chisholm served for seven terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. She helped establish the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Women’s Caucus. In 1972 she ran for the Democratic nomination for the presidency, becoming the first major-party African American candidate to do so. The nomination went to George McGovern who, lost to Richard Nixon.
Ella Fitzgerald: First African American to Win a Grammy Award
At the very first Grammy Awards in 1958, Ella Fitzgerald was presented with her first two Grammys: Best Jazz Performance as Soloist and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. She would go on to win 13 Grammys in total.
Mae Jemison: First African American Woman in Space
On Sept. 12, 1992, aboard the space shuttle Endeavor, Mae Jemison and six other astronauts completed 126 orbits around the Earth. A mission specialist, she was a co-investigator of two bone cell research experiments. Throughout her only space voyage, Jemison logged 190 hours, 30 minutes, and 23 seconds in space.
Hattie McDaniel: First African American Academy Award Winner
In 1940, at the 12th Academy Awards, the Oscar for Actress in a Supporting Role was presented to Hattie McDaniel for her role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind. The 46-year-old actress was the only black woman in the room. With the ceremony held at the segregated Ambassador Hotel, producer David O. Selznick had to petition for McDaniel to be allowed into the hotel’s Cocoanut Grove nightclub. While her costars sat together, McDaniel was seated at a separate table with her date. It would take nearly a quarter-century before another black actor received an Oscar when Sidney Poitier won as Best Actor for Lilies of the Field.
Oscar Micheaux: First African American Film Producer
Born near Metropolis, Illinois in 1884, this son of former slaves shined shoes as a child, worked as a railway porter, and later successfully homesteaded a farm in an all-white area of South Dakota. In 1919 he wrote, directed, and produced the silent motion picture The Homesteader, based on his novel. The Exile, his first feature film with sound, also contained autobiographical elements, depicting a central character who leaves Chicago to buy and operate a ranch in South Dakota. Micheaux was the first African American to produce a film to be shown in “white” movie theaters.
Hiram Revels: First African American Senator
Selected by the Mississippi State Congress in 1870 to fill a vacant seat in the U.S. Senate, opponents of Revels claimed he was ineligible because he wasn’t a U.S. citizen. The Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision of 1857 declared that African Americans were not U.S. citizens. Though the ratification of the 14th Amendment nullified that decision after the Civil War, opponents argued Revels did not yet meet the nine-year citizenship requirement to serve in Congress. Due to his mixed black and white ancestry, it was determined that he was a citizen. The appointment of Revels was quite significant given that his seat in the Senate previously belonged to Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy.
Georgia Ann Robinson: First African American Woman Police Officer, LAPD
In 1916, with a staff shortage due to men fighting in World War I, Robinson was recruited by the Los Angeles Police Department first as a volunteer and then three years later, at age 40, as a full-time police officer. Just weeks earlier, another African American woman, Cora I. Parchment, had been appointed as a police officer by the New York Police Department. Officer Robinson first worked as a jail matron and later on juvenile and homicide cases.
Bill Russell: First African American Coach in Pro Sports
In 1966, Bill Russell became the first African American coach in North American professional sports when he took over from Red Auerbach to coach the Boston Celtics. Russell is also one of the greatest basketball players ever, winning 11 championships, 5 MVP awards, and making 12 All-Star appearances in his 13-year career as center for the Celtics. In 2011 Russell was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.
William Grant Still: First African American to Conduct a Major Symphony Orchestra
Conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in 1936 was just one of this prolific composer and arranger’s numerous firsts as an African American. He was the first to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra and the first to conduct an orchestra in the deep south. He was the first to have an opera, Troubled Island, produced by a major company and he was the first to have an opera broadcast on television: A Bayou Legend, posthumously in 1981 on PBS.
Moses Fleetwood “Fleet” Walker: First African American to Play Major League Baseball
In 1884, more than a half-century before Jackie Robinson entered Major League Baseball, “Fleet” made his major league debut as a catcher with the Toldeo Blue Stockings of the American Association. Born at a way station along the Underground Railroad in 1857, college-educated Walker seemed to have the right character to handle the challenge. However, in addition to abuse from fans, the press, and opposing players, some of the worst treatment came from segregationist teammates. A pitcher on his team refused to look at his signals and threw whatever pitches he wanted. Finally, the Toledo Manager received a letter threatening that 75 men would mob Walker if he were put into games in Richmond, Virginia. Three weeks before traveling to Richmond, Walker became injured and was released from the team. Violence was averted, but Walker’s baseball career was over.
Phillis Wheatley: First African-American to Publish a Book of Poetry
Seized from Senegal/Gambia, West Africa, when she was about seven years old, Phillis Wheatley was purchased to be a domestic by the wife of a prominent Boston tailor in August 1761. The Wheatley family taught her to read and write, and she wrote her first published poem at the age of 13. In 1773 she became the first African American and one of the first women to publish a book of poetry in the colonies.
Richard Wright: Author of Native Son, First Book by an African American Writer Selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club
Born in Roxie, Mississippi in 1908, the grandson of slaves, Richard Wright was raised in a sharecropper’s house. He started school late because he didn’t have presentable clothes to wear. In 1925 while working in Memphis, to gain access to books, he forged notes in order to use a white coworker's library card. Wright was among the first African American writers to protest white treatment of blacks, notably in his novel, Native Son. Black Boy chronicles the poverty of his childhood, his experience of white prejudice and violence against blacks, and his emerging interest in literature. After World War II, Wright settled in Paris as a permanent expatriate.