CNN Black History Month

A legacy of black talent

Each day during Black History Month, CNN Interactive will profile one man or woman who has made a lasting contribution, ranging from literature, music and the arts to science and technology.

February 27

Marian Anderson


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 words."

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 Masked Ball."

February 26

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 Services.

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.

February 25

Alexander Sergeyvich Pushkin


Alexander Sergeyvich Pushkin, a great Russian poet, was the great-grandson of Abraham Hannibal, an African who was a special friend of Peter the Great.

As a child, Pushkin displayed a talent for writing poetry. In 1818, he was appointed to Russia's ministry of foreign affairs. By day, he worked for the government; at night, he wrote poetry. Pushkin eventually became Russia's poet laureate.

Political freedom was the subject of two of his most famous poems, "Noel" and "Ode to Freedom," which criticized the government. As a result, Pushkin was banished into exile, during which he continued to write and became the first Russian to earn a living as a poet.

In 1824, he received a pardon from Alexander the First on the condition that his future writings would not provoke political unrest. Pushkin agreed. Thereafter, he wrote two novels, "The Captive of the Caucasus" and "The Captain's Daughter."

A continuous theme throughout his works was his obvious pride in his African heritage. He left unfinished a tribute novel, "The Moor of Peter the Great," in honor of his grandfather. At the age of 38, Pushkin died in a duel over the woman he married.

February 24

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 black general.

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 lieutenant general.

February 23

Josephine Baker


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 entertainers.

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.

February 22

Joseph Lee


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.

February 21

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."

February 20

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.

February 19

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.

February 18

The Black Mongols of China

1st century

Asia's first major encounter with black Mongols occurred around the first century. They converged on India, conquering all of the northwest sector, which is now the nation of Pakistan.

In China they were called the "yeuh-chih." India referred to them as the "kusanas." Now known as the "black huns," they traveled as much as ninety miles per day. When they invaded Eastern Europe, they were called the "black tartars."

James Brunson, an authority on the black racial presence in China, said, "These blacks referred to themselves as 'kara khitai' and would later take possession of the Steppe region, north of the Black Sea."

February 17

Biddy Mason


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.

February 16

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 to America.

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.

February 15

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.

February 14

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.'

February 13

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.

February 12

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.

February 11

Elijah McCoy


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 sprinkler.

February 10

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.

February 9

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.

February 8

Edmonia Lewis

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".

February 7

Alexandre Dumas


Born in 1802, Dumas had a Haitian father and a French mother. He was born with the surname de la Palleterie, but adopted his mother's maiden name after being estranged from his father.

The French novelist and playwright had early success in his career with dramas, such as "Henri III et sa cour" (1839) and "Christine" (1830). He later turned to historical novels, including his famous "The Three Musketeers" (1844) and "The Count of Monte Cristo" (1844). Dumas was considered a romantic and it is said that his lifestyle was reflected in many of his writings. Long after his death, his works remain literary classics.

February 6

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.

February 5

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.

February 4

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.

February 3

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.

February 2

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.

February 1

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.



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