Black History Month is a time to learn about and celebrate all of the African-American men who have made contributions to society. America is lucky to have had so many people contribute to its greatness as these black men have.
Start your Black History Month education off right by reading about six black men who have made their mark on history:
1. Clarence Thomas (b. 1948) is an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. After attending serminary in the late ’60s, Thomas received his juris doctorate in 1974 from Yale Law School. His early legal career took him to the office of Missouri’s attorney general, the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and private practice.
He first stepped into judicial robes in 1990 as a Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. After only a year in that position, President Bush nominated him to his current position. As a Supreme Court associate justice, Thomas has voted in ways to minimize government’s interference in the lives of its citizenry. During his first 10 years on the bench, Thomas noted in opinions that a defendant’s background is irrelevant to his crime and that not everyone of a certain races has the same politics. His decisions have helped break down barriers and preconceived notions of other judges, bringing light to the fact that all people are different and yet should be treated the same.
2. Frederick Douglass (b. 1817, d. 1895) was a slave who escaped that oppressive life to become an abolitionist speaker and the first black man to hold a high rank in the U.S. government. Douglass fled a Maryland plantation for the North in 1838. He got married, changed his name and moved to New Bedford, Mass., where he became outspoken in his abolitionist views.
As he became more popular as a speaker, Douglass’s speeches began appearing in print. He used the money he was paid for his lectures to head the Rochester station of the Underground Railroad and to help fugitive slaves start their new lives. In 1847, Douglass published the North Star, a four-page paper produced in Rochester that had an anti-slavery and pro-women’s right bent. The paper was printed weekly until 1863.
3. Benjamin Banneker (b. 1731, d. 1806) was the first black scientist. For most of his life, Banneker was a tobacco farmer in Maryland with a love of learning. Although his formal education was short, he enjoyed reading and taught himself astronomy at age 58. Banneker soon was able to determine future solar and lunar eclipses, which he wrote about for five years in an annual “Benjamin Banneker’s Almanac.”
Banneker had a key eye for how machines worked. He once drew the inside of a watch and recreated it from wood. The clock kept accurate time for more than 40 years. Near the end of his life, he was one of the first people to survey the “Federal District,” now called Washington, D.C. He also began to write Thomas Jefferson to urge him to end slavery.
4. George Washington Carver (b. 1860, d. 1943) was a famous agricultural scientist whose work led to the discovery of more than 300 products that could be made from peanuts. After a tumultuous childhood that involved being kidnapped for ransom, Carver graduted from high school and was the first black man to enroll at Simpson College in Iowa. He later received a master’s of science in agricultural science in 1896, which he put to good use teaching Southern farmers how to rotate crops so that their soil would remain nutrient-rich and usable for generations to come.
However, the farmers he was trying to who he was marketing his ideas did not think the other crops he suggested were as profitable as cotton. Carver eventually convinced them that sweet potatoes, peas and peanuts were versatile products that could be widely used. In 1923, the scientist won the Springarm Award. The coveted honor is bestowed upon worthy black people by the National Association for Colored People.
5. Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong (b. 1900, d. 1971) was a great American jazz musician. The New Orleans-born Armstrong first learned to play cornet at a reform school. As a teenager, he spent time in clubs listening to jazz musicians. One of them gave him a cornet, which he treasured and played as often as possible. For two years, he played it in bars in the Storyville neighborhood. Two years later, he spread his wings and joined a St. Louis band. He jumped around various bands for years, even playing for his wife’s band for a time.
In 1925, Armstrong made the first recording of his music under his own name, and he started gaining popularity and his own orchestra. He recorded his first international hit, his version of “Hello Dolly,” in 1963, and followed it with the widely adored “What a Wonderful World” five years later. Over the years, Armstrong faced racism as his popularity rose, but he handled it with grace and kept his stellar career moving in the right direction.
6. Bill Cosby (b. 1937) is a gifted entertainer who was the first black man to star in a major television show. However, the start of his life wasn’t so funny. Cosby was born in Philadelphia to a poor couple in the projects. He showed great promise academically, but was distracted by sports. After four years in the Navy, he got a GED and enrolled at Temple University.
During his sophomore year, Cosby started telling jokes at a coffeehouse called the Cellar. The low-paying job got him bigger opportunities until he finally got an agent in 1962. Not long after, he started recording comedy albums and doing comedy tours in Las Vegas, San Francisco and Chicago. Cosby’s career in TV started in 1962 as an undercover CIA agent on “I Spy.” Four years later, he had his own show — “The Bill Cosby Show.” However, the show floundered, and his career hit a rough patch. After two decades of hard times on TV, he finally hit the airwaves again in his famous “The Cosby Show.” The show ran from 1984 to 1992, and was considered a major hit that portrayed African Americans in a completely different light.
Cosby still is active as a comedian and as an outspoken critic of negative portrayals of black people on television shows. He was honored again in 2002 as a receipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Staff, Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas. African Americans.
Staff, Clarence Thomas. Supreme Court History.
Staff, Frederick Douglass Index. African Americans.
Staff, Frederick Douglass. PBS.
Staff, Benjamin Banneker. African Americans.
Staff, Benjamin Banneker’s life. Progress.
Staff, George Washington Carver. African Americans.
Staff, About George Washington Carver. Iowa State University Library.
Staff, Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong. African Americans.
Staff, Presidential Medal of Freedom Receipient Bill Cosby. Medal of Freedom.