10 Unsung Black Heroes You May Not Know

Your history books may have covered notable African-American trailblazers like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Harriet Tubman but Black history expands much further. So, we’ve put together a list of little-known but significant heroes in Black history. How many people have you heard of?

Claudette Colvin

Portrait of a smiling Claudette Colvin in a sweater and glasses

While many were taught that Rosa Parks was the first to famously refuse to give up a bus seat, nine months before her 1943 protest in Montgomery, Alabama, then fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to give her seat to a standing white woman after school. Colvin was forcibly removed from the bus and arrested, but would later go on to be one of the principal plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case Browder vs. Gayle, which declared bus segregation unconstitutional under the fourteenth amendment.

Bayard Rustin

Portrait of Bayard Rustin in a suit and glasses

Political activist Bayard Rustin was involved in politics from an early age – as a child, his family was involved in the local NAACP, and were friends with well-known Black political leaders like W.E.B. DuBois. A pacifist who practiced a philosophy of nonviolent resistance, Rustin went on to educate some of the Civil Rights Movement’s most well-known faces, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and also helped to organize some of the movement’s largest events, like the 1963 March on Washington, and a 1947 Freedom Ride.

Recy Taylor

Recy Taylor in a checkered blazer and black netted hat

Recy Taylor’s story, though unpleasant, served as one of the first foundations for racial activism. While returning home from church in 1944, Taylor was abducted and sexually assaulted by six white men, before being abandoned on a roadside. Her case, and its neglect by the Alabama government, soon brought the attention of the local African-American community and national NAACP. While Taylor’s case was dismissed twice in court, it is now considered a major step in the formation of the Civil Rights Movement.

George Washington Carver

Portrait of George Washington Carver sporting a suit

Despite being one of the most highly regarded scientists in American History, Carver’s contributions are today mostly unknown to the general public – a botanist and inventor, Carver was a leader in environmentalism and promoted the usage of alternative crops. His theories on how alternative crops (like peanuts and sweet potatoes) could be used to improve the quality of life of poor farmers were praised throughout the country, and he was even dubbed “Black Leonardo” by a 1941 issue of “Time” magazine.

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler

The cover of Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler's book titled "A Book of Medical Discourses In Two Parts"

Though no photos of Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler have survived, her legacy has lived long past her time. Not only was Dr. Lee Crumpler the first female African-American physician, but her work led her to publish “Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts” in 1883, which is widely regarded as one of the first medical texts written by an African American author. Dr. Lee Crumpler practiced throughout Boston and Virginia during her time as a physician and cared for freed slaves after the end of the Civil War.

Related: Celebrating Black History from Galveston to Houston

Fred Jones

Fred Jones looking up from reading a paper

Inventor Fred Jones’ contributions during his lifetime were momentous and can be felt to this day. A naturally gifted mechanic, Jones was self-taught, which helped him to invent a portable air-conditioning unit for trucks in 1938. This unit could be used to preserve perishable foods during transport, and the patents Jones were awarded for the product led to the formation of the Thermo King Corporation. His inventions were increasingly vital during WWII when they were used to transport blood and medicine to battlefields and hospitals.

Shirley Chisholm

A portrait of Shirley Chisholm

Shirley Chisholm was as determined as a politician as she was an educator – the first Black woman elected to Congress, Chisholm served as the director of a daycare center for many years before joining the US House of Representatives for New York. During her time as a representative, Chisholm helped to expand the food stamps program in New York and helped to found the Congressional Black Caucus. Chisholm also went on to run for the presidential bid in 1972, becoming the first African-American to be a major-party candidate.

William Hastie

A portrait of William Hastie in a suit

The first African American federal and appellate judge, William Hastie led a distinguished private law career before being appointed as to the United States District Court for the Virgin Islands by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937. Hastie worked for two years as a federal judge before becoming a law educator at Howard University School of Law, where he taught the soon-to-be-famous Thurgood Marshall. Hastie would later be appointed as an appellate judge by Harry Truman, and serve in appeals court for twenty-two years.

Amelia Boynton Robinson

A portrait of Amelia Boynton Robinson wearing pearl earrings and a pearl necklace

Activist Amelia Boynton Robinson started out small with her contributions to the Civil Rights Movement, before becoming one of the principal strategists in the multiple protests in Selma, Alabama. Firstly an educator, Boynton Robinson worked with her husband Samuel William Boynton to improve conditions for African-Americans in Selma. She later went on to work with Civil Rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis to coordinate the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, and remained a leader in local civil rights activism.

Matthew Henson

Matthew Henson wearing fur

Although history largely ignored Matthew Henson until the late 20th century, his contributions in the field of exploration have made him a significant name today. A gifted seaman, Henson spent many years as a cabin boy, where he learned principles of navigation and other vital knowledge to working as a crewman. Henson later went on to accompany Commander Robert E. Peary to his many expeditions to the Arctic, including the 1909 expedition where their team discovered the North Pole, and Henson planted the American flag.

Eager to educate yourself more on Black history? Check out titles like these in our Black America series!