Black History Month illustration

Profiles in perseverance

You may not know their names. But these courageous Black Americans changed history.

Published February 1, 2021

Every Black History Month, we tend to celebrate the same cast of historic figures. They are the civil rights leaders and abolitionists whose faces we see plastered on calendars and postage stamps. They resurface each February when the nation commemorates African Americans who have transformed America.

They deserve all their accolades. But this month we are focusing instead on 28 seminal Black figures – one for each day of February – who don’t often make the history books.

Each transformed America in a profound way. Many don’t fit the conventional definition of a hero. Some were foul-tempered, weighed down by personal demons, and misunderstood by their contemporaries.

One was a mystic, another was a spy who posed as a slave, and another was a brilliant but troubled poet dubbed the “Godfather of Rap.” Few were household names. All of them were pioneers.

It’s time for these American heroes to get their due.

February 2

Dorothy Height

1912-2010

Dorothy Height

She spent her life fighting sexism and racism

Dorothy Height was often the only woman in the room. She made it her life’s work to change that, fighting battles against both sexism and racism to become, as President Obama called her, the “godmother” of the civil rights movement.

Height felt the sting of racism at an early age. She was accepted to New York’s Barnard College in 1929 but learned there wasn’t a spot for her because the school had already filled its quota of two Black students per year.

Instead she enrolled at NYU and earned a master’s in educational psychology. This led to a career as a social worker in New York and Washington, where she helped lead the YWCA and the United Christian Youth Movement.

In 1958, Height became president of the National Council of Negro Women, a position she held for more than 40 years. In that role she fought tirelessly for desegregation, affordable housing, criminal justice reform and other causes.

By the 1960s, Height had become one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s key advisers. Historians say that as an organizer of the March on Washington, she was the only woman activist on the speakers’ platform during King’s “I Have a Dream’’ speech.

Historians say her contributions to the civil rights movement were overlooked at the time because of her sex. But by the time of her death in 2010, Height had taken her place among the movement’s towering figures.

“She was truly a pioneer, and she must be remembered as one of those brave and courageous souls that never gave up,” Rep. John Lewis once said. “She was a feminist and a major spokesperson for the rights of women long before there was a women’s movement.”

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February 1

Garrett Morgan

1877-1963

Garrett Morgan

His inventions made the world safer

The son of two former slaves, Garrett Morgan had little more than a grade-school education.

But that didn’t stop the Ohio man from becoming an inventor with a rare gift for designing machines that saved people’s lives – including an early version of the traffic light.

As a teenager Morgan got a job repairing sewing machines, which led him to his first invention – a revamped sewing machine – and his first entrepreneurial venture: his own repair business.

Soon he was inventing other products, including a hair-straightener for African Americans. In 1916, he patented a “safety hood,” a personal breathing device that protected miners and firefighters from smoke and harmful gases. It became the precursor of the gas masks used by soldiers during WWI.

To avoid racist resistance to his product, Morgan hired a white actor to pose as the inventor while he wore the hood during presentations to potential buyers.

Later, after witnessing a car and buggy crash, Morgan was inspired to create a traffic light that had three signals: “stop,” “go,” and “stop in all directions,” to allow pedestrians to safely cross the street.

It also had a warning light – now today’s yellow light – to warn drivers they would soon have to stop. His traffic light was patented in 1923 and Morgan eventually sold its design for $40,000 to General Electric.

His legacy can be seen today at intersections across the country and the world.

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Credits

Editor: Brandon Griggs

Editorial oversight: Saeed Ahmed and John Blake

Contributors: Simret Aklilu, Leah Asmelash, John Blake, Nicole Chavez, Alaa Elassar, Faith Karimi, Harmeet Kaur, Amir Vera and Sydney Walton

Photo editor: Clint Alwahab

Design and development: Priya Krishnakumar, Alberto Mier and Ivory Sherman