Influential Black Figures By Davida Agyako-Wiredu

Katherine G. Johnson, mathematician and NASA scientist, showed academic promise very early in her life. Graduating eighth grade at the age of ten, her academic career seemed finished since there were no high schools for African Americans in her town during the 30s. However, her family moved 120 miles from where they previously lived to give Johnson the fulfilling high school education she deserved. After graduating summa cum laude from West Virginia State College, and becoming one of three students to desegregate her graduate school, she went on to apply for a job at National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (now known as NASA). Her job entailed performing and checking calculations for technological developments; however, she showed a bold personality and intense curiosity that challenged her superiors. She performed outstanding work for the historic 1969 Apollo 11 trip, and helped bring Apollo 13 back to earth safely. Johnson continued to serve as a key member of the NASA team, helping to develop its Space Shuttle program and Earth Resources Satellite. She retired in 1986. If you would like to know more about her, I recommend watching the award-winning movie Hidden Figures.

Everyone knows Martin Luther King Jr., but fewer know the story of his coworker, Jesse Jackson. In high school, Jackson was class president and later attended The University of College on a football scholarship. He then transferred to the predominantly black Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina in Greensboro and received a B.A. in Sociology in 1964. After that, he was ordained a Baptist minister in 1968. While he was an undergraduate, Jackson was a Civil Rights Activist with Martin Luther King Jr.  In 1965, he traveled to Selma, Alabama, to participate in peaceful protests with MLK. Soon, he became a worker in  King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was an organization dedicated to desegregating southern cities. Some years after King was assassinated, Jackson founded the National Rainbow Coalition, which advocated for equal rights for African Americans, women, and others that were treated unfairly. In the 1980s Jackson became a leading national spokesman and advocate for African Americans. In 1983, he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination and placed third. Jackson’s increasing influence within the Democratic Party ensured that African American issues were an important part of the party’s platform. 

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Maya Angelou led a prominent life as an author, poet, historian, songwriter, playwright, dancer, stage and screen producer, director, performer, singer, and civil rights activist. Some of her books are The Heart Of A Woman, Letter To My Daughter, and Gather Together In My Name, but her most famous book is I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, which was nominated for and won multiple awards. After her difficult and sad childhood, which caused her to become mute, she moved to New York City in 1954 and regained her voice. Angelou found encouragement for her literary talents at the Harlem Writers’ Guild. Around the same time, Angelou landed a featured role in a State Department-sponsored production of George Gershwin’s folk opera Porgy and Bess, and with this troupe she toured 22 countries in Europe and Africa. In 1959, at the request of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Angelou was appointed the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Throughout all this, she still continued her writing career. From 1961 to 1962 she was associate editor of The Arab Observer in Cairo, Egypt, the only English-language news weekly in the Middle East, and from 1964 to 1966 she was feature editor of the African Review in Accra, Ghana. The first black woman director in Hollywood, Angelou wrote, produced, directed, and starred in productions for stage, film, and television. She was nominated for a Tony award twice, once for her Broadway debut in Look Away (1973), and again for her performance in Roots (1977). She passed away in 2014, yet her legacy will live on forever.

Duke Ellington grew up in Washington, D.C., in a stable family that allowed him to pursue his musical interests early on in life. He began playing piano at age seven, studying art during high school, and was awarded a scholarship to the Pratt Institute. He began to perform professionally at age 17 in New York City. He soon moved there, led a 7-member band in broadway nightclubs that eventually grew to 14 members.  He selected members for his band based on their exceptional talent and uniqueness. His band remained with him through the 30s. They were the first black band to appear in films and on the radio, and go on tour in Europe through the late 30s. At the time, Black Americans on television were portrayed as lowly laborers, household help, or as racist caricatures. Ellington went out of his way to look the part of a debonair, elite conductor, complete with dapper suits and slicked back hair. When Ellington’s band was invited to play in big Hollywood films, his presentation meant everything. He disproved stereotypes and broke barriers with his elegant appearance. Ellington was a real musical revolutionary.

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