Famous Black American Men and Women of the 20th Century

Illustration depicting museum exhibit featuring famous African American individuals and their contributions

ThoughtCo. / Melissa Ling

Black men and women made great contributions to American society throughout the 20th century, advancing civil rights as well as science, government, sports, and entertainment. Whether you are researching a topic for Black History Month or just want to learn more, this listing of famous African Americans will help you find people who truly achieved greatness.


Watch Now: 7 Famous African Americans of the 20th Century


Michael Jordan

Barry Gossage / NBAE / Getty Images

Nearly every professional and amateur sport has a Black star athlete. Some, like Olympic track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee, have set new records for athletic achievement. Others, like Jackie Robinson, also are remembered for courageously breaking longstanding racial barriers in their sport.

  • Hank Aaron
  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
  • Muhammad Ali
  • Arthur Ashe
  • Charles Barkley
  • Wilt Chamberlain
  • Althea Gibson
  • Reggie Jackson
  • Magic Johnson
  • Michael Jordan
  • Jackie Joyner-Kersee
  • Sugar Ray Leonard
  • Joe Louis
  • Jesse Owens
  • Jackie Robinson
  • Tiger Woods


Maya Angelou
Michael Brennan / Getty Images

No survey of 20th-century American literature would be complete without major contributions from Black writers. Books like Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" and "Beloved" by Toni Morrison are masterpieces of fiction, while Maya Angelou and Alex Haley have made major contributions to literature, poetry, autobiography, and pop culture.

Civil Rights Leaders and Activists

Martin Luther King Jr.
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Black Americans have advocated for civil rights since the earliest days of the United States. Leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X are two of the best-known civil rights leaders of the 20th century. Others, like Black journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett and scholar W.E.B. DuBois, paved the way with their own contributions in the century's first decades.


Sammy Davis Jr.
David Redfern / Redferns / Getty Images

Whether performing on stage, in films, or on TV, Black Americans entertained the United States throughout the 20th century. Some, like Sidney Poitier, challenged racial attitudes with his role in popular films like "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," while others, such as Oprah Winfrey, have become media moguls and cultural icons.

  • Josephine Baker
  • Halle Berry
  • Bill Cosby
  • Dorothy Dandridge
  • Sammy Davis, Jr.
  • Morgan Freeman
  • Gregory Hines
  • Lena Horne
  • James Earl Jones
  • Spike Lee
  • Eddie Murphy
  • Sidney Poitier
  • Richard Pryor
  • Will Smith
  • Denzel Washington
  • Oprah Winfrey

Inventors, Scientists, and Educators

Bessie Coleman was the first woman of African American descent to hold a pilot license.
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Innovations and advancements of Black scientists and educations transformed life in the 20th century. Charles Drew's work in blood transfusions, for example, saved thousands of lives during World War II and is still used in medicine today. And Booker T. Washington's pioneering work in agricultural research transformed farming.

Politicians, Lawyers, and Other Government Leaders

Colin Powell
Brooks Kraft / CORBIS / Corbis via Getty Images

Black Americans have served with distinction in all three branches of government, in the military, and in legal practice. Thurgood Marshall, a leading civil rights lawyer, ended up on the U.S. Supreme Court. Others, like Gen. Colin Powell, are notable political and military leaders.

Singers and Musicians

Billie Holiday was a legendary jazz singer, with a career spanning nearly thirty years.

Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

There would be no jazz music today were it not for the contributions of artists like Miles Davis or Louis Armstrong, who were instrumental in the evolution of this uniquely American music genre. But African Americans have been essential to all aspects of music, from opera singer Marian Anderson to pop icon Michael Jackson.

  • Marian Anderson
  • Louis Armstrong
  • Harry Belafonte
  • Chuck Berry
  • Ray Charles
  • Nat King Cole
  • Miles Davis
  • Duke Ellington
  • Aretha Franklin
  • Dizzy Gillespie
  • Jimi Hendrix
  • Billie Holiday
  • Michael Jackson
  • Robert Johnson
  • Diana Ross
  • Bessie Smith
  • Stevie Wonder
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Your Citation
Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Famous Black American Men and Women of the 20th Century." ThoughtCo, Sep. 9, 2021, thoughtco.com/famous-african-americans-in-20th-century-1779905. Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2021, September 9). Famous Black American Men and Women of the 20th Century. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/famous-african-americans-in-20th-century-1779905 Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Famous Black American Men and Women of the 20th Century." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/famous-african-americans-in-20th-century-1779905 (accessed June 9, 2023).