8 Pioneers to Celebrate During Black History Month

Countless Black pioneers have transformed Black life in America. Learn more about their lives and contributions to Black history and culture.

portrait of Ciera Graham, Ph.D.
by Ciera Graham, Ph.D.

Updated February 15, 2022

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8 Pioneers to Celebrate During Black History Month

February is Black History Month, which is a great time to honor and recognize the accomplishments of Black pioneers. Black people have made — and continue to make — a significant impact on American history and culture, even in the midst of systemic racism, a culture of anti-Blackness, and exclusion. While we cannot highlight every Black pioneer, here are eight people who have made an important impact on Black history.

W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963)

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E. B. Du Bois was a writer, historian, scholar-activist, and one of the founding fathers of sociology. In his academic work, he often wrote on race and the plight of Black Americans. He was the first Black American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University, and he eventually went on to become a university professor.

Du Bois was also one of the founding members of the National Association of the Advancement for Colored People (NAACP). Du Bois coined the phrase "double consciousness," a term used to describe how Black people navigate two opposing worlds — one Black and one white. The concept is now used often in sociological and psychological literature.

Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

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Writer Maya Angelou was a pioneer in both Black and American literature. She was an acclaimed poet, storyteller, autobiographer, and Hollywood's first Black woman director.

As a civil rights activist, she worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Angelou's most famous work, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" written in 1969, chronicles her childhood and her experience with racism, sexual abuse, and violence. In 2010, Angelou was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the highest civilian honor in the U.S. — by President Barack Obama.

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)

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Sojourner Truth was an African American abolitionist and women's rights activist. Truth was a charismatic speaker who challenged prevailing notions about women's and African Americans' inferiority at the time. She was also a fearless advocate for women's suffrage. She assisted in helping enslaved people escape to freedom, find jobs, and establish new lives in free states before the Civil War. Her autobiography, "The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave," chronicles her life in slavery and her later work for abolition and women's suffrage.

Tamika Mallory (1980-Present)

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Tamika Mallory is a passionate social activist who has built an impressive career as a champion for racial justice and gender inequality. She spearheaded the 2017 Women's March and has been a huge proponent of the Black Lives Matter movement. Mallory later co-founded the organization Until Freedom. Until Freedom is an intersectional social justice organization that seeks to rectify systemic racial injustice. This organization is specifically devoted to advocating for criminal justice reform and police accountability.

Constance Baker Motley (1921-2005)

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Constance Baker Motley was a leading political pioneer with an impressive legal career focused on racial and social justice. After graduating from Columbia Law School, she became an attorney and worked to desegregate Southern schools, buses, and diners. In 1964, she became the first Black woman ever elected to the New York state senate.

She was also the first African American woman appointed to the federal judiciary, the first woman attorney of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the first Black woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court.

Gordon Parks (1912-2006)

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Gordon Parks made a massive impact on the arts and film industry. He was a self-taught photographer, writer, composer, and filmmaker. Despite the overt racism of the 1940s, Parks began working for Vogue and Life magazines as a photographer. During the civil rights movement, Gordon's photojournalism became well known.

Gordon was also Hollywood's first major Black director. He is perhaps best known for directing "Shaft," one of the most successful movies of 1971 and one of the first blaxploitation films. The American Society of Magazine Photographers named him Photographer of the Year in 1960, and he won the Congress of Racial Equality Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000.

Ruby Bridges (1954-Present)

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Ruby Bridges is a civil rights activist. She was also a pivotal figure during the civil rights movement. When the Brown v. Board of Education ruling passed in 1954, Ruby became the first Black child to attend an all-white school, William Frantz Elementary in Louisiana.

Bridges was escorted by four federal marshals to school while enduring racial slurs, insults, and exclusion by teachers, staff, and students. Despite ongoing discrimination, Bridges continued to attend class and did not miss a single day of school. A year after Bridges began attending William Frantz Elementary School, Louisiana decided to desegregate all schools in the state. Bridges continues to live a life devoted to civil rights activism, racial justice, and the eradication of discrimination in educational settings.

Bayard Rustin (1912-1987)

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Bayard Rustin was a socialist, civil rights activist, and gay rights activist. But he is probably best known for his role as a key advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Bayard helped shape MLK's philosophy on nonviolent resistance and taught him about civil disobedience. He assisted King in organizing the Montgomery bus boycott. Bayard was also a central organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where King delivered his iconic "I Have A Dream" speech.

As a gay man, Bayard mostly worked behind the scenes during the civil rights movement due to prejudice. However, later in his life, he began advocating more openly for gay rights.

Black History Month is a critical time to recognize the significant role Black pioneers have played in shaping both Black and American history. These pioneers helped advance racial and social justice. They also made significant contributions to film, arts, politics, and more. While Black people still experience persistent racial discrimination today, the impact of these pioneers in helping move the needle forward towards racial justice is undeniable.

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