Black history is rich with stories of celebrated pioneers who have made their mark on the world. Athletes, artists, scholars, changemakers… all who helped make America what it is today. Over time, these heroes become icons to new generations, but the same stories are often told. What follows is a list of little-known facts that provide new ways of thinking about these famous pioneers.
Dancer, singer and activist Josephine Baker was a spy during WWII.
After moving to France in the 1920s, Baker took Europe by storm. Known as "Black Venus," "Black Pearl" and "Creole Goddess," she was famous for her seminude dancing and danse sauvage, becoming one of the most popular entertainers in France. Officially adopting France as her homeland in 1937, she would dedicate herself to the French Resistance during WWII. The beautiful Baker in her revealing costumes had the perfect disguise, German and foreign officials never realized she was listening closely for information to pass on to the Resistance.
Taking advantage of her travels as she entertained troops in Africa and the Middle East, Baker began carrying secret messages to the head of Deuxième Bureau, France's military intelligence in Paris. Often traveling with large quantities of sheet music which carried secret messages written in invisible ink, customs officials never thought to take a closer look. Easily passing by star struck officials in enemy territory, she would smuggle out secret photos of German military installations by pinning them to her underwear. She rose to the rank of lieutenant in the Free French Air Force eventually receiving the Medal of Resistance and becoming the first American woman to be awarded the Croix de Guerre. When she died in 1975, she became the first American woman in history to be buried in France with military honors.
Image: Josephine Baker, 1926 (Public Domain)
History books teach us that Rosa Parks was a quiet, modest woman who spontaneously sparked a civil rights movement, but some consider her a radical human rights activist.
In 1944, Parks was working at the NAACP Montgomery branch and was their best investigator and organizer. Responsible for collecting Black women’s testimonies about sexual violence and other hostile experiences, Parks organized the community to protect and defend these women against sexual assault.
Years later, Parks worked with the Black Power movement attending the Black Political Convention in Gary, the Black Power conference in Philadelphia, and visiting the Black Panther school in Oakland, California. Focused on issues of reparations, Black history, police brutality, freedom for Black political prisoners, economic justice, and independent Black political power, Parks spoke at the Poor People’s Campaign and helped organize support for Black political prisoners.
Her activism was not confined to the United States. In the 1980s, she protested apartheid and joined a picket outside the South African embassy; she also opposed U.S. policy in Central America. She was still protesting in 2001 when she joined other activists calling for nonviolence after 9/11.
Image: Rosa Parks’ booking photo upon being arrested on December 1, 1955.
Legendary boxer Joe Louis was a revolutionary out of the ring.
When it comes to civil rights leaders, Joe Louis is usually not top of mind. The son of sharecroppers in rural Alabama, Louis would go on to become the longest reigning heavyweight champion of the world. The first African American to achieve mainstream popularity during a time when discrimination, segregation and lynchings were part of everyday life, Louis’ quiet efforts influenced the entire nation.
Dominating the world of heavyweight boxing from 1937 to 1949, the Brown Bomber followed a strict code in order to discourage negative racial stereotyping. Known as the “Seven Commandments,” they were intended to carefully shape his media image. Taking those commandments even further, he refused to have his photograph taken with watermelon and in other racist situations. Consistently working to cultivate a reputation of respect and dignity, he effected social change and propelled the civil rights cause forward – even if that wasn’t his intention.
Years later, Louis was criticized for not speaking out on the subject of civil rights. Having become a symbol of African American power during a time when the community felt powerless, the next generation wanted him to help advance the cause. Not considering himself a spokesman, the quiet and seemingly passive man’s hero-status began to fade. As journalist Red Smith put it, “If heroes are supposed to take firm public stands on issues of the day, then who will cheer a reticent man who preferred to keep quiet around reporters?"
Image: Joe Louis, 1941, Library of Congress, Van Vechten Collection
Jackie Robinson broke many barriers off the baseball field.
Growing up as the only Black family on their block in California during the 1920s, Robinson learned about prejudice at an early age. Best known for breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier by taking the field in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers and ending more than 50 years of segregation was only the beginning.
Robinson stood up defiantly against discrimination for his entire life. Inspired by the changes he had seen in baseball, he was determined to do the same in other areas of American life. In 1950, he became one of Hollywood’s first leading Black men when he starred in a movie based on his life story. When he retired from baseball in 1956, Robinson took a job at Chock Full o’ Nuts and became the first Black vice president of a major American corporation. From there he joined the NAACP, becoming the chairman of the Freedom Fund drive which would eventually raise more than a million dollars. Never compromising his moral principles, he actively worked to advance civil rights. Robinson was tireless in his efforts, participating in marches and protests, and corresponding with Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon.
In the 1960s, Robinson helped found and direct the Freedom National Bank in Harlem. Robinson wanted Black business owners and minorities to have an opportunity to receive loans they likely wouldn’t acquire at white operated banks. While the bank would eventually close, it was the first Black-owned bank in New York and one of the largest minority banks in the nation.
How much do you know about Jackie Robinson? Test your knowledge with a quiz: Jackie Robinson Beyond Baseball.
Image Courtesy National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, NY.
One of the most famous ministers in history, Martin Luther King Jr. almost didn’t go to seminary.
A gifted student attending segregated public schools in Georgia, Martin Luther King Jr. was admitted to Morehouse College at age 15. Originally studying medicine and law, King had doubts about following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, both Baptist ministers. Eventually deciding that the Bible had “many profound truths which one cannot escape,” he entered Pennsylvania’s Crozer Theological Seminary in 1948. In that first year, the man who would become one of the greatest speakers in American history received a “C” in public speaking. Widely considered a gifted orator from an early age, the professor’s reasoning behind the “C” remains a mystery. When Martin Luther King Jr. graduated from seminary, he was the valedictorian of his class, student body president, and had straight “As.”
Dr. King’s skills as both a public speaker and minister helped him become one of America’s most well-known leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Eschewing violence, King used the power of words to organize nonviolent resistance in his effort to achieve the dream of equality. In the 11-year period between 1957 and 1968, he had delivered more than 2,500 speeches, traveled more than six million miles and wrote five books, in addition to numerous articles. He was the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize at age 35. Learn more about Martin Luther King, Jr.
Image: Martin Luther King Jr., 1964, Library of Congress Trikosko, Marion S., photographer
Bayard Rustin is best remembered for his work with Martin Luther King Jr. and for racial equality, but he was also a major contributor to the gay rights movement.
Responsible for bringing Gandhi’s protest techniques to the Civil Rights Movement, he advised Martin Luther King Jr. and helped build his reputation as an international symbol of peace and nonviolence. In Rustin’s pursuit for peace, equality, and human rights, he was threatened, beaten, arrested, imprisoned, and lost jobs in leadership positions because he was an openly gay man.
Never trying to hide who he was in a time when it was unpopular and, at times, unsafe to do so, Rustin knew that the next fight for civil rights would be that of the gay community. Later in his life, he spoke openly about how anti-gay prejudice had affected his life’s work, worked publicly advocating for the gay community, and testified on behalf of New York City’s gay rights bill. In the 1980s, Rustin worked to bring the AIDs crisis to the attention of the NAACP, predicting that “Twenty-five, 30 years ago, the barometer of human rights in the United States were Black people. That is no longer true. The barometer for judging the character of people in regard to human rights is now those who consider themselves gay, homosexual, lesbian.”
Image: Bayard Rustin, 1963, Library of Congress
Most people know Harriet Tubman as a famous abolitionist, but she was also a feminist, a nurse, and even a spy.
Born into slavery in the 1820s, Tubman successfully escaped to freedom in her 20s and she did it alone. She became famous for leading hundreds to freedom on the Underground Railroad, but that was only the beginning.
Working for the Union Army during the Civil War as a cook, nurse, scout, and spy, Tubman was the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war. Acting as a guide during the Combahee River Raid, Tubman helped liberate more than 700 slaves in South Carolina.
The end of the Civil War didn’t put a stop to her activism, Tubman turned her energy to women’s rights. Particularly interested in the rights of African American women, she worked closely with Susan B. Anthony and leaders in the women’s rights movement to further the cause. Tubman toured the country giving speeches about her experiences as a female slave and a liberator of those in bondage. A popular public speaker who never learned to read or write, Tubman was the guest presenter of the first meeting of the National Association of Colored Women. Harriet Tubman died in 1913, seven years before women won the right to vote. Visit 10 Interesting Facts about Harriet Tubman.
Booker T. Washington was secretly “The Great Advocator.”
While labeled “The Great Accommodator” late in his career for his conservative philosophy on race relations, Booker T. Washington supported more “radical” civil rights ideologies privately.
Born a slave in 1856, Washington would ultimately leave home at the age of 16, walking 500 miles to Hampton Normal Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University) in Virginia to put himself through school. He went on to become one of the foremost African American leaders in the late 1800s. Shortly after he was recommended to run the new “colored” school in Alabama in 1881 (now known as Tuskegee University), Washington began establishing his reputation as “The Great Accommodator” as he assured people that the program would not threaten white supremacy or cause economic competition.
By the turn of the 20th century, Washington was being publically criticized by activists like W.E.B. Du Bois for his accommodating philosophy on race relations. New African American leaders were pushing for full and equal rights while Washington advocated compromise and the acceptance of disenfranchisement and social segregation. The continuing systematic exclusion of Blacks in America led Washington to lose most of his influence as he kept silent, but behind the scenes Washington was working to support the cause for equal rights. While never speaking out publicly in order to retain his position among whites, he secretly donated his own money and quietly raised funds to challenge unfair labor contracts, disenfranchisement and segregation. This paradox in his behavior has led scholars to wonder: Who was the real Booker T. Washington?
Image: Booker T Washington, 1905, Library of Congress, Harris & Ewing
Lesser known for his efforts around education, few know that Malcom X was self-taught.
An outstanding student in junior high school, Malcolm X dropped out of school at 15 after being told there was no point in a Black child pursuing education. His transformation around education came while he was in prison when his extreme frustration over trying to write a letter to Elijah Mohammed prompted his “homemade education” to begin. Hindered by his reading ability, he painstakingly began copying every entry from a dictionary and then reading his work aloud. Fascinated with the knowledge he was gaining, he went on to finish copying the entire dictionary. In his mind, it was a sort of encyclopedia introducing him to people, places and things he was not aware of. It was the first step in his homemade education and from that point on his quest for knowledge was insatiable.
Malcolm X read everything he could get his hands including books on history, the history of Black civilization, Gandhi’s struggle in India, African colonization, and China’s Opium Wars. He read about philosophy, religion and slavery. At one time he commented, “I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened to me. I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life.” Malcolm X never stopped wanting to learn. Shortly before his death, he said that one of his regrets was not having a formal education and he would like to go back to school and earn a degree.
Image: Malcolm X, 1964, Library of Congress, Herman Hiller, NYWT&S Staff Photographer
Many people are surprised to learn that the talented author of Kindred and the Xenogenesis trilogy (“Dawn, “Adulthood Rites,” and “Imago”) was diagnosed with dyslexia as a child.
The self-described “outsider” embraced all that made her different and infused it into her writing. When she became frustrated by the lack of people she could identify with, she created her own… through science fiction!
Thriving in a genre traditionally dominated by white males, Octavia Butler would go on to take the science fiction world by storm, winning Hugo and Nebula awards and the MacArthur “genius grant.” Her evocative novels featuring race, sex, power and humanity are highly praised and attract audiences beyond the genre.
Image: Butler at book signing, released by Nikolas Coukouma.