Black History Timeline: 1990–1999

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

The 1990s are a time of advances and setbacks for Black people: many men and women break new ground by being elected as majors of large cities, as members of Congress, and federal cabinet positions, as well as in leadership roles in medicine, sports, and academics. But when Rodney King is beaten by police in Los Angeles and riots erupt after the officers are acquitted, that is a signal that the continuing search for justice is still an ongoing concern. 

1990

August Wilson
August Wilson during the 10th Annual U.S. Comedy Arts Festival at St. Regis Hotel in Aspen, Colorado. Jeff Kravitz / FilmMagic, Inc.

March 2: Carole Ann-Marie Gist is the first Black person to win the Miss USA pageant. During her reign, Gist tells audiences what it was like growing up in a "single-parent home where she had a number of siblings and having to overcome numerous financial and social obstacles," notes the website Black Past. "She (describes) the family’s frequent moves in some of the roughest neighborhoods in inner-city Detroit."

May 1: Marcelite Jordan Harris becomes the first Black brigadier general. She is also the first woman to command a predominately male battalion. The Foundation for Women Warriors notes that Harris's career includes many firsts:

"...including being the first female aircraft maintenance officer, one of the first two female air officers commanding at the United States Air Force Academy, and the Air Force’s first female Director of Maintenance. She served as a White House social aide during the Carter administration. Her service medals and decorations include the Bronze Star, the Presidential Unit Citation, and the Vietnam Service Medal."

April 17: Playwright August Wilson wins a Pulitzer Prize for the play, "The Piano Lesson." This is actually Wilson's second Pulitzer in just three years. He was also awarded the prize for his play, "Fences," in 1987. His plays have and will continue to receive Tony nominations and wins as well as Drama Desk Awards.

November 6: Sharon Pratt Kelly becomes the first Black woman to lead a major city in the United States when she is elected mayor of Washington D.C. "She was also elected to serve as both the first African American and woman to serve as Treasurer of the Democratic National Committee from 1985 to 1989," notes the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics.

1991

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

January 14: Roland Burris takes office after being elected attorney general of Illinois (on November 6, 1990). Burris is the first Black person to hold this position. Burris is later named to succeed former Senator and then President-elect Barack Obama on December 31, 2008, becoming just the sixth Black person to serve in the United States Senate.

March 3: Rodney King is beaten by three officers. The brutality is captured on videotape and three officers are tried for their actions. King becomes a household name after the beating. The officers involved will later stand trial for their roles in the beating.

March: Walter E. Massey becomes the first Black person to lead the National Science Foundation. During his directorship of the NSF, Massey oversees the creation of a commission to "consider the future of NSF in the face of a changing world," the establishment of the Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences to support basic research on human behavior and social organizations, and the development of the advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, "which enabled scientists to record for the first time...the existence of gravitational waves as predicted 100 years earlier by Einstein's general theory of relativity," the NSF notes on its website.

April 10: The first Black mayor of Kansas City, Emanuel Cleaver II, is sworn in. He serves in the post for two terms. Cleaver is later is elected in 2005 to the U.S. House of Representatives from Missouri's 5th Congressional District and serves multiple terms. During his tenure in the House, Cleaver chairs the Congressional Black Caucus from 2011 to 2013.

July 15: Wellington Webb takes office as mayor of Denver. He is the first Black person to hold this position.

October 3: Willie W. Herenton becomes the first Black mayor of Memphis. He is reelected an unprecedented five consecutive terms. During his years in office, Herenton works to bridge the deep racial divide in Memphis.

October 23: Clarence Thomas is appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. As a member of the court, Thomas consistently takes political conservative positions in decisions dealing with executive power, free speech, the death penalty, and affirmative action. Thomas is unafraid of voicing his dissent with the majority, even when it is politically unpopular.

December 27: The first feature film by a Black woman, produced and directed by Julie Dash, has its general theatrical release. The film, "Daughters of the Dust," is a "(l)anguid look at the Gullah culture of the sea islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia where African folk-ways were maintained well into the 20th Century and was one of the last bastions of these mores in America," says IMDb.

1992

Mae Jemison
Mae Jemison is a doctor, an astronaut, a dancer and a businesswoman. NASA / Wikimedia Commons

April 29: The three officers tried in the beating of Rodney King are acquitted. As a result, there is a three-day riot throughout Los Angeles. In the end, more than 50 people are murdered, an estimated 2,000 injured and 8,000 arrested.

September 12–20: Mae Carol Jemison is the first African American woman in space, traveling on the space shuttle Endeavor. Jamison, one of the 15 candidates chosen from a field of about 2,000, later reflects on the mission, stating: "I realized I would feel comfortable anywhere in the universe because I belonged to and was a part of it, as much as any star, planet, asteroid, comet or nebula."

November 3: Carol Moseley Braun is the first Black woman elected to serve in the U.S. Senate. Braun represents the state of Illinois. “I cannot escape the fact that I come to the Senate as a symbol of hope and change,” Moseley-Braun says shortly after being sworn into office in 1993, according to the Office of Art & Archives of the U.S. House of Representatives. “Nor would I want to, because my presence in and of itself will change the U.S. Senate.”

June 9: William “Bill” Pinkney is the first African American to navigate a sailboat around the world when he finishes his 22-month journey on his boat, “Commitment.” Pinkney later pens a first-grade textbook, "Captain Bill Pinkney's Journey," which appears in more than 5,000 schools across the country, according to the HistoryMakers, a Chicago organization that is the Nation's largest African American Video Oral History Collection, which adds: "Pinkney was honored by senators, former President George Bush, and foreign dignitaries for his dedication to education and his numerous other accomplishments."

1993

Toni Morrison, 1979
Toni Morrison in 1979. Jack Mitchell / Getty Images

April 20: The first Black mayor of St. Louis, Freeman Robertson Bosley Jr., assumes office.

September 7: Jocelyn M. Elders is the first woman and first Black person to be appointed as the U.S. Surgeon General. Elders, who serves from 1993 to 1994 during the administration of President Bill Clinton, is also the first person in the state of Arkansas to become board certified in pediatric endocrinology, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

October 8: Toni Morrison wins the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature. Morrison is the first African American to hold such a distinction. Morrison, whose works include "Beloved," "The Bluest Eye," "Song of Solomon," "Jazz," and "Paradise," emphasizes Black women's experience in an unjust society and the search for cultural identity.

1994

November 12: Corey D. Flourney is elected as president of the Future Farmers of America Convention. “I figured if I had to pay $7.50 for dues, I might as well be active," Flourney, only 20, tells the Los Angeles Times upon being named president at the FFA convention, after his selection from a pool of 39 candidates after a grueling, months-long process that included interviews and tests. At the time, only 5% of the group's members are Black, the Times notes.

1995

A crowd of thousands of Black people march attendees raise fists and peace signs
Million Man March participants raise their hands in fists and peace signs at the historic 1995 gathering organized by Minister Louis Farrakhan.

Porter Gifford / Getty Images

June 12: Lonnie Bristow is appointed president of the American Medical Association and is the first Black person to hold the position. The website BlackPast observes that Bristow sees his election:

"...as highlighting the advances of African Americans in the medical field over the past 148 years of the AMA, including most of that period when Black doctors were not allowed to join the organization. African Americans were accepted for the first time in 1968."

June 6: Ron Kirk assumes office as mayor of Dallas. Kirk is the first Black person to hold such a position, after garnering 62 percent of the vote. Kirk goes on to serve as U.S. Trade Representative, under President Obama from 2009 to 2013.

October 17: The Million Man March is held. Organized by Minister Louis Farrakhan, the purpose of the march is to teach solidarity. Farrakhan is assisted in organizing this event by Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., who was the former executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Dr. Helene Doris Gayle is appointed director of the National Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Gayle is the first woman and Black person to hold this position.

1996

AARP

AARP

April 3: Ron Brown, commerce secretary, is killed in a plane crash in Eastern Europe. After Brown's death, President Clinton, under whose administration he served, establishes the Ron Brown Award for Corporate Leadership, which honors companies for outstanding achievement in employee and community relations.

April 9: The first Black person to win a Pulitzer Prize for Music is George Walker. Walker receives the award for the composition “Lilies for Soprano or Tenor and Orchestra.” NPR.org notes that Walker is a person of many firsts, in addition to the Pulitzer:

"In the year 1945 alone, he was the first African-American pianist to play a recital at New York's Town Hall, the first Black instrumentalist to play solo with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the first Black graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia."

November 5: Affirmative Action is abolished by California lawmakers through Proposition 209. It states that "the government and public institutions cannot discriminate against or grant preferential treatment to persons on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in public employment, public education, and public contracting," Ballotopedia explains. A quarter of a century later, in Nov. 2020, Proposition 16, an attempt to repeal Prop. 209, is on the ballot in California, but it is defeated with 57 percent voting against the proposition.

May: Margaret Dixon is appointed as president of the AARP. Jennie Chin Hansen, who also served as president of the organization formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons, says of Dixon:

"What a shining example Margaret has provided—as a compassionate trailblazer, a fierce advocate for the interests of people age 50+, and an eloquent ambassador for AARP to diverse communities around the country."

1997

Montreal Jazz Festival 2016 lineup highlights include Wynton Marsalis.
Wynton Marsalis performs on July 4, 2015 at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Aspen, Colorado. Riccardo S. Savi / Getty Images

July: Harvey Johnson, Jr. is the first Black mayor of Jackson, Mississippi.

October 25: The Million Woman March is held in Philadelphia. The event is "one of the largest gatherings of women globally," according to Ebony magazine, which also notes: "Although the focus (is) on the Black community, women from all backgrounds supported the rally."

December 6: Lee Patrick Brown is elected mayor of Houston—the first Black person to hold such a position. He is reelected twice to serve three terms—the maximum allowed—from 1998 to 2004.

April 7: Wynton Marsalis’ jazz composition “Blood on the Fields” wins a Pulitzer Prize in Music. It is the first jazz composition to receive the honor. The San Francisco Examiner says of the Black composer:

“Marsalis’ orchestral arrangements are magnificent. Duke Ellington’s shadings and themes come and go but Marsalis’ free use of dissonance, counter rhythms and polyphonics is way ahead of Ellington’s mid-century era.”

May 16: Black men exploited through the Tuskegee Syphilis Study receive a formal apology by President Bill Clinton. In remarks made to survivors gathered in the East Room of the White House, with the ceremony also broadcast to other survivors in Tuskegee, Clinton says:

"The American people are sorry — for the loss, for the years of hurt. You did nothing wrong, but you were grievously wronged. I apologize and I am sorry that this apology has been so long in coming."

April 13: When Tiger Woods wins the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia, he becomes the first Black person and youngest golfer to win the title at age 21 years, three months, and 14 days. Woods also later becomes the youngest-ever career grand slam winner in 2000, at age 25, when he won the British Open.

July 14: Historian John Hope Franklin is appointed by President Clinton to head One America in the 21st Century: The President's Initiative on Race.

1998

The National League of Women Voters elects its first Black president, Carolyn Jefferson-Jenkins. Jenkins notes of her historic first:

"As the only women of color to have served as national president in the League’s 100-year history (1998-2002), it is both my honor and obligation to make sure that the accomplishments of the women upon whose shoulders I stand are also celebrated. I challenge all organizations commemorating the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment and the centennial of the League of Women Voters of the United States to do the same."

1999

Serena Williams
Tennis pro Serena Williams is known for her fierce and aggressive game. Leonard Zhukovsky / Shutterstock

March 14: Maurice Ashley becomes the first Black chess grandmaster. He later becomes the first African American to be inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis in April 2016.

September 12: Serena Williams wins the U.S. Open Women’s Singles Tennis Championship at the U.S. Open. Williams is the first Black woman to reach such an achievement since Althea Gibson won in 1958.

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Lewis, Femi. "Black History Timeline: 1990–1999." ThoughtCo, Feb. 15, 2021, thoughtco.com/african-american-history-timeline-1990-1999-45447. Lewis, Femi. (2021, February 15). Black History Timeline: 1990–1999. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/african-american-history-timeline-1990-1999-45447 Lewis, Femi. "Black History Timeline: 1990–1999." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/african-american-history-timeline-1990-1999-45447 (accessed April 19, 2021).