A legacy of black talent
CNN Interactive profiles some of the many African-Americans who have made a lasting contribution in the arts and sciences.
Known as the contralto of the century, Marian Anderson was
born in Philadelphia on February 27, 1902. Young Marian
displayed her gifted voice in her church choir. She sang all
parts: soprano, alto, tenor and bass. When she made her
debut in New York on December 31, 1935, a reviewer described
her performance as "music-making that was too deep for
In spite of her undeniable talent, certain groups were not
willing to accept a black performer into their realm. In
1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution banned her
from singing in Washington's Constitution Hall, which they
owned. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the group
in response and sponsored an Easter morning concert at the
Lincoln Memorial. Marian Anderson gave one of her most
memorable performances to a crowd of 75,000 people.
The Metropolitan Opera in New York never had a black singer
perform in any of its productions until January 17, 1955.
Anderson made history with her performance in Verdi's "A
Patricia Roberts Harris
Patricia R. Harris was the first black woman to serve in a
president's cabinet and the first to serve as secretary of
two cabinet posts. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed
Harris as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. In
1979, she was appointed as Secretary of Health and Human
Harris earned a law degree with honors from George Washington
University in 1960, and was then admitted to practice before
the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1961, she became associate dean
of students at Howard University School of Law. In 1963, she
was given full professorship and in 1969 became the dean of
the law school.
Benjamin O. Davis Jr.
Born in Washington, Benjamin O. Davis Jr. was an army brat
whose father set him a challenging example. The elder Davis
became a brigadier general in 1940, the U.S. Army's first
The younger Davis paralleled his father's illustrious career.
He graduated from West Point in 1936 and began his military
career at Fort Benning in Georgia. In 1942, he joined the
Army Air Corps and took command of the 99th Fighter Squadron,
the famous "Tuskegee airmen," as a lieutenant colonel.
Davis, known for his dignified manner and eloquent speech,
became the first black brigadier general in the history of
the U.S. Air Force in 1954. In 1965, he rose to the rank of
Entertainer Josephine Baker has been considered one of the
most colorful performers of all time. Her temptress style,
daring costumes and dramatic flair made her world famous.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Baker moved to Paris at age 18
to dance with La Revue Negre (The Black Review). Soon, she
gained top billing and became one of France's most beloved
In 1936, Baker returned to the United States to appear in the
Ziegfeld Follies. She was not well received, however,
because she was black. The following year, she returned to
Paris and became a French citizen.
When Hitler's troops occupied France during World War II,
Baker joined the French resistance. Her loyal, brave service
earned her the French Legion Medal of Honor.
Baker had a great love for animals and orphaned children.
She purchased a 300-acre castle in the French countryside,
where she lived with her husband, a host of exotic animals
and 14 adopted children of various ethnic backgrounds. She
called her family "the rainbow project."
In 1951, Madame Baker made another visit to the U.S., this
time to perform to rave reviews. She took a personal stand
against racism by refusing to perform wherever black patrons
were barred. Nearly 60 years old, Baker joined Martin Luther
King Jr. in the 1963 march on Washington. Nine years later,
she died in Paris.
Near the turn of the century, many modern bakeries turned out
hundreds of bread loaves, but the handmade process was labor
intensive. Enter Joseph Lee. Lee was a master cook and
restaurateur who invented a bread-making machine that
revolutionized the entire baking industry.
His machine did more than just mix the ingredients, it
kneaded the dough, making it lighter and more hygienic than
the bare hands of a baker. It decreased the cost of making
bread while increasing bread production. Only two or three
workers were needed to operate the machine, which could
produce hundreds of loaves daily. By hand, it could take
nearly a dozen bakers to make the same number of loaves each
day. Lee patented his bread-making machine in 1902.
He also invented a machine to reuse and recycle old bread.
His bread crumbling machine was patented in 1895. It soon
became an essential item in every first class hotel kitchen
and restaurant. The crumbs were used to make such
delectables as croquettes, batter for cakes, puddings and
dressing for poultry.
Dr. Susan McKinney Steward
Dr. Susan McKinney Steward was the first black woman to
formally enter the medical profession with recognizable
success. Highly motivated and determined, she overcame two
major obstacles, being black and female.
In 1870, she graduated from the New York Medical School for
Women and Children as class valedictorian. The focus of her
work was the practice of homeopathy, as defined by Webster's
New Dictionary as "a system of curing disease by drugs in
very small doses, which produce in healthy person, symptoms
like those of the disease."
James Augustine Healy
In 1865, James Augustine Healy became the first black Roman
Catholic bishop in the United States. He was one of five
children born to Michael and Mary Eliza Healy. Michael Healy
was an Irish indentured servant; Mary Eliza was a black
former slave. Their children were born in Georgia and by
state law, could be sold into slavery.
Once, when times were hard on the Healy farm, a group of
white farmers suggested Michael Healy sell the children as
slaves. Healy ran the men off his property with dogs. He and
his wife then dedicated themselves to providing the best
educational opportunities for their children.
With their son's appointment, it seems the efforts of Michael
and Eliza Healy were well rewarded.
Patrick Francis Healy
A younger brother of Bishop James Healy, Patrick was the
nation's first black to earn a Ph.D. He and the rest of his
five siblings contributed greatly to the world through their
service as religious and civic leaders.
Throughout his lifetime Healy received numerous medals
and commendations. He was the 29th president of the
prestigeous Georgetown University from 1873-1882.
As a tribute to his outstanding leadership during his tenure,
Georgetown erected the Healy Building. It housed the
administration center, a classrom and a dormitory.
In 1851, 32-year-old slave Biddy Mason moved to California
with her master, his family and her three young daughters.
Biddy's master made the move to California to pursue a better
life for his family. Little did he know, Biddy had dreams for
her family, too.
They settled in the San Bernardino valley. One year before
their arrival, California outlawed slavery. Biddy's master
could not afford to lose his slaves, so he tried to move
again, this time to Texas, where slavery was still legal.
Biddy stood up for her right to liberty and sued him in a
California court. The court ruled in her favor and she won
freedom for herself and her family. Later, she got a job in
Los Angeles as a practical nurse making $2.50 per day. She
lived frugally and managed to accumulate a nest egg of
$250,000. With that money, she began to purchase real estate
-- land that is today considered some of the most valuable
in Los Angeles. In short order, she amassed a fortune.
Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable
Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable founded the city of Chicago.
DuSable was born around 1745 in Haiti to a white French
sea captain and a black former slave. After his mother died,
he went to France with his father to be educated. Later he
worked as a seaman on his father's boats. At 20, he sailed
Soon, DuSable settled in Illinois and became a fur trader. He
married an American Indian woman and developed a very
successful business. When traveling from Canada, where he
trapped furs, DuSable would stop at a place the Indians
called Eschikcago or "place of smelly waters." In
1779, DuSable decided this would be a great place to build a
trading post. Many white men had tried it before, but they
found a great deal of resistance from the Indians. DuSable,
though, did not have that problem. In fact, he was adopted
into his wife's clan. Soon, his successful trading post
developed into the settlement now known as Chicago.
Madame C.J. Walker
Madame C.J. Walker (born Sarah Breedlove) was America's first black millionaire
businesswoman. She achieved her success by inventing a new hair care process and marketing a line of cosmetics for black women. In 1905, Walker invented and
patented a straightening comb which, when heated and used with her patented
pomade, transformed many women's hair into a shining, smooth mane. In 1906, she
married Charles J. Walker, and was known thereafter as Madame C.J. Walker. She
dubbed her hair straightening process the "Walker method." The popularity of
her products grew so rapidly that she soon established a manufacturing company
that occupied an entire Denver city block.
Madame Walker's company employed more than 3,000 people. Before the advent of the "Avon Lady" and Mary Kay representatives, she trained young women to sell her products door to door. Her agents were required to sign contracts binding them to a strict hygienic regimen; later, these standards would be incorporated into Colorado's state cosmetology laws.
Daniel Hale Williams
It was a hot summer night in 1893. A deliveryman named John Cornish was rushed
to the emergency room. Stabbed in the heart in a bar-room brawl, Cornish was
brought to Chicago's Provident Hospital and to Dr. Daniel Hale Williams.
With Cornish's life in jeopardy, Williams decided to open the chest and
operate. He repaired the torn tissue in the heart and completed the operation.
Williams made history that night as the first doctor to successfully perform open-heart surgery. Cornish went on to live another 20 years.
Even before this landmark event, Williams was highly regarded as a brilliant surgeon. When he died in 1931, part of his obituary read: ' ... Many found him willing and ready to serve, without pay, in the cause of humanity.'
Garrett A. Morgan
Thousands of soldiers on World War I battlefields owed their
lives to Morgan, who invented the gas mask. In 1916, just four years after he invented the mask as a safety device for
firemen, Morgan himself used one to help rescue men trapped
by a gas explosion in a tunnel being constructed under Lake
Erie. The city of Cleveland, Ohio, presented him with a gold
medal in honor of his heroic efforts.
Orderly downtown streets came courtesy of Morgan as well.
The native of tiny Paris, Kentucky, invented the automatic
traffic signal, which helped improve urban traffic safety.
Mary Church Terrell
Mary Church Terrell was a lecturer, a women's rights activist and the first president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). Born in Memphis, Tennessee, to former slaves who had become wealthy through investing in real estate, Terrell was among the first black women to have a college education. She graduated from Oberlin College in 1884 with a degree in classical languages.
A champion of women's rights throughout her life, Terrell gave her support to Susan B. Anthony and became a powerful force in the women's suffrage movement.
A master of languages, Terrell represented black women in the American delegation to the International Congress of Women in Berlin. Of all the U.S. delegates, she was the only one to deliver her address in fluent German and French.
In 1919, she received international recognition at the International Peace Congress in Zurich, where she spoke of the condition of black America.
Elijah McCoy invented a locomotive lubricator that allowed
workers to keep machines in full operation while they were
being oiled. Before McCoy's invention, the entire mechanical
system would have to be shut off and lubricated by hand.
With his machine in such demand, inferior imitations started
creeping into the market. However, manufacturers refused to
accept any substitute. They wanted the "real McCoy" -- a
phrase that has come to describe quality of workmanship.
McCoy received over 50 patents in his lifetime. Some of his
inventions have become staples of daily living. Among his
more familiar ones are the ironing board and the lawn
Dr. Mae C. Jemison
On September 12, 1992, Dr. Mae C. Jemison became the first
female African-American astronaut to blast off into space.
As a crew member aboard the space shuttle Endeavour, she was
the mission's acting science specialist. Jemison had dreamed
of becoming an astronaut ever since she was a child living in
Chicago. Jemison also is a chemical engineer, physician,
and a teacher.
Lewis Howard Latimer
Lewis Latimer didn't make the light bulb, he made it better.
As a pioneer in the electric lighting industry, he was the
only black member of Thomas Edison's team of inventors. By
creating a carbon filament for Edison's newly invented
electric light bulb, Latimer solved two major design flaws:
the bulb didn't last very long and it had a tendency to
shatter when it got too hot. Edison may have invented the
bulb in 1879, but it was Latimer's carbon filament that made
it practical for everyday use.
They called her "Wildfire." Edmonia Lewis was a gifted young
woman who gained critical acclaim as a sculptor. She was
born to a Chippewa mother and an African father in 1845. She
grew up in Albany, New York, with her mother's family. Even
as a child, Lewis displayed a talent for art. Soon after she
started being tutored by a local sculptor, Lewis' works began
receiving praise. Her most noteworthy sculptures include
busts of Abraham Lincoln, John Brown and Col. Robert Gould
Shaw, the leader of the all-black Civil War regiment who is
portrayed in the movie "Glory".
Maggie Lena Walker
In 1903, Maggie Lena Walker became chairwoman of the board
for the newly founded St. Luke Bank and Trust. That made
Walker the nation's first female bank president. She was
said to have a "golden touch," and helped the black community
in many ways. She organized and served as president of the
St. Luke Educational Fund, which helped black children get an
education; was national director of the NAACP; and was
appointed by several Virginia governors to various posts.
William Grant Still
In 1936, William Grant Still became the first black to
conduct a professional symphony orchestra in the United
States. He conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.
As America's first African-American classical composer, Still
also was the first black to write a symphony or to conduct a
radio orchestra. His varied compositions were marked by
simple harmonies and orchestration and the use of jazz, blues
and other folk idioms.
Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield
Dubbed "the black swan," Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield gained
worldwide acclaim as a brilliant vocalist. Her 27-note range
was hailed as astonishing. She gained her nickname for her
moving and emotional performances during the era just before
the Civil War.
Dr. Charles Richard Drew
Millions of people are indebted to the medical research of
Dr. Charles Drew. As a world-renowned surgeon, medical
scientist and educator, Drew was a medical pioneer by finding
a way to preserve blood. He created the first blood bank and
developed a way to efficiently store blood plasma.
Ida B. Wells
An early black activist, Wells was perhaps the most famous
black female journalist of her time. Born to slave parents
in Holy Springs, Mississippi, in 1862, Wells was orphaned 14
years later by a yellow fever epidemic.
As part-owner and editor of Memphis Free Speech from 1891 to
1892, Wells launched an anti-lynching crusade before a mob of
protesters forced her to flee Memphis.
Later, she was a correspondent for a several newspapers,
including the Memphis Watchman, Detroit Plain Dealer and the
Indianapolis World. She also co-founded the NAACP.
Dr. Carter G. Woodson
In 1915, Dr. Carter G. Woodson founded the Association for
the Study of Negro Life and History. Woodson started the
Journal of Negro History in 1916. Shortly afterward, the
historian and educator began pushing for a "Negro History
Week" to explore the contributions of African Americans. His
dream was fulfilled in 1926. Woodson chose the second week
of February because that's when two people whom he felt had
significantly affected the lives of African Americans were
born: Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. The week
evolved into Black History Month in 1976.