American Masters Who Shaped Black History

In honor of Black History Month, American Masters looks at a selection of its archive to highlight artists and advocates who shaped America’s culture, changed the course of history, and took a stand in the Civil Rights Movement to create a lawful and just society for all. Browse the archive of American Masters for more.

1. August Wilson


Playwright August Wilson wrote ten seminal plays (“The Century Cycle”) chronicling each decade of the 20th-century African-American experience. Fences and The Piano Lesson both won Pulitzer Prices and Fences also won a Tony Award. Self-educated in Pittsburgh’s public library and streets, Wilson was influenced by the rising black consciousness of the 1960s and became a young, activist poet before turning to play writing. He founded the Black Horizon Theater in Pittsburgh and his collaboration with mentor-director Lloyd Richards led to nine original Broadway productions.

American Masters — August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand premieres Friday, February 20 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings) to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the playwright’s birth, the 10th anniversary of his death and Black History Month.

2. James Brown

James Brown Biography Timeline

black history james brown-thSoul music legend James Brown (1933 – 2006) embraced the Civil Rights Movement with the same energy and dynamism he devoted to his performances. In 1966, the song “Don’t Be a Drop-Out” urged black children not to neglect their education. In the same year, he flew down to Mississippi to visit the wounded civil rights activist James Meredith, shot during his “March Against Fear.” From 1965 onward, Brown often canceled his shows to perform benefit concerts for black political organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). In 1968, he initiated “Operation Black Pride,” and, dressing as Santa Claus, presented 3,000 certificates for free Christmas dinners in the poor black neighborhoods of New York City. He also started buying radio stations.

Learn more about James Brown, the subject of James Brown: Soul Survivor (2003).

3. Cab Calloway

Watch Tour Excerpt from Cab Calloway: Sketches

thumb-callowaySinger, dancer and bandleader Cab Calloway (1904 – 1997) led one of the most popular African-American big bands during the Harlem Renaissance and jazz and swing eras of the 1930s-40s. He was the star of The Cotton Club – where blacks could perform but not attend – and after breaking the color barrier with his “hi de ho” hit, Cab was one of the first black musicians to tour the segregationist South. In a film recording, Calloway gave fans a tour of historic Harlem Jazz clubs, including the places where the singers and band leaders and dancers went to get the best fried chicken.

Learn more about Cab Calloway and watch the full film, Cab Calloway: Sketches (2012).

4. Sam Cooke

Trailer Sam Cooke: Crossing Over

Narrated by Danny Glover, the film features archival footage and interviews with Cooke’s family and intimates including Muhammad Ali, Lou Rawls, James Brown, Smokey Robinson and more.

Sam Cooke (1931 – 1964) put the spirit of the Black church into popular music, creating a new American sound and setting into motion a chain of events that forever altered the course of popular music and race relations in America. With You Send Me in 1957, Cooke became the first African American artist to reach #1 on both the R&B and the pop charts.

Watch excerpts and a trailer for Sam Cooke: Crossing Over (2010).

5. Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald Biography Timeline

Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald

From her early days in Harlem to the upper stratosphere of international musical fame, Ella Fitzgerald (1917 – 1996) lived the quintessential American success story. Through 58 years of performing, 13 Grammys and more than 40 million records sold, she elevated swing, bebop, and ballads to their highest potential. She was, undeniably, the First Lady of Song. She received the National Medal of Honor in 1992.

Learn more about Ella Fitzgerald, subject of Ella Fitzgerald: Something to Live For (2005).

6. Jimi Hendrix

Trailer Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train A Comin’

Widely recognized as one of the most creative and influential musicians of the 20th century, Jimi Hendrix (1942 – 1970) pioneered the explosive possibilities of the electric guitar. Hendrix’s innovative style of combining fuzz, feedback and controlled distortion created a new musical form. Hendrix first gained fame in Great Britain with his group, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and began touring U.S. music festivals in 1967. His renegade version of “Star Spangled Banner” performed at Woodstock in 1969 stunned audiences and lives on as a statement of an era torn by the Vietnam War and the assassinations of revered Civil Rights leaders and politicians.

Watch full film and see outtakes from Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train A Comin’ (2013).

7. Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier Biography Timeline

Throughout the 1950s, Sidney Poitier (b. 1927) made some of the most important and controversial movies of the time. Addressing issues of racial equality abroad, he made Cry, The Beloved Country, about apartheid in South Africa. He later took on problems closer to home in Blackboard Jungle and especially The Defiant Ones, about two escaped prisoners who must overcome issues of race in their struggle for freedom. In 1964, Sidney Poitier became the first African American to win an Academy Award in the Best Actor category for Lilies of the Field (1963).

Learn more about Sidney Poitier, the subject of Sidney Poitier: One Bright Light (2000).

8. Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson Biography Timeline

Paul Robeson in 1942.

Paul Robeson in 1942.

Paul Robeson (1898 – 1976) was the epitome of the 20th-century Renaissance man. He was an exceptional athlete, actor, singer, cultural scholar, author, and political activist. His talents made him a revered man of his time, yet his radical political beliefs all but erased him from popular history. During the 1940s, Robeson’s black nationalist and anti-colonialist activities brought him to the attention of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Despite his contributions as an entertainer to the Allied forces during World War II, Robeson was singled out as a major threat to American democracy. Learn more about Paul Robeson.

9. Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Watch Trailer Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll

SRT-black-history-postThe year 2015 is the centennial of Sister Rosetta’s Tharpe. In 1938, gospel singer and guitar virtuoso Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915 – 1973) became a hit when she joined the cast of the fall 1938 Cotton Club Revue, which headlined Cab Calloway and the Nicholas Brothers dancers. During the 1940s-60s, she introduced the spiritual passion of her gospel music into the secular world of rock ’n’ roll, inspiring some of its greatest stars, including Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard. Learn more her music and watch the full film, Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll (2013).

10. Alice Walker

Outtake from Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth

When writer and activist Alice Walker (b. 1944) set out for Spelman College as a scholarship student, she rode a segregated bus to get there. Walker dedicated herself to the Civil Rights Movement from that point forward and would remain active in that movement, as well as the women’s movement, all while pursuing her poetry and writing that led her to become the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Literature.

Learn more about Walker and watch the full film, Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth (2014).

11. James Baldwin

Film Excerpt, “Writer, Teacher, Preacher” from James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket

Words — both written and spoken — were James Baldwin’s greatest gift to America and to people of all races all over the world. Baldwin (1924 – 1987) electrified readers with his insights about what it meant to be black in America. He preached brotherhood, not violence, with searing honesty; his truth was laced with pain and anger. But he never lost hope – and his clarion call for human equality, human progress, helped shape America’s history.

Watch the full film and outtakes from James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket (1989).

12. Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston Biography Timeline

Zora Neale Hurston (1938). Photo by Carl Van Vechten.

Zora Neale Hurston (1938). Photo by Carl Van Vechten.

The diverse accomplishments of anthropologist and author Zora Neale Hurston (1891 – 1960) include novels such as Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939) and anthropological research in the American South and Caribbean, which she documented on film and in books and articles. She wrote: “I have never liked stale phrases and bodyless courage. I have the nerve to walk my own way, however hard, in my search for reality, rather than climb upon the rattling wagon of wishful illusions.”