Little Known Important Black Americans

Chicago In 1779

Chicago History Museum / Getty Images

The term "little known Black Americans" can refer to all the people who have made contributions to America and to civilization, but whose names are not as well-known as many others or not known at all. For instance, we hear about Martin Luther King Jr., George Washington Carver, Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, and many other famous Black Americans, but what have you heard about Edward Bouchet, or Bessie Coleman, or Matthew Alexander Henson?

Black Americans have been making contributions to America from the start, but like countless other Americans whose achievements have altered and enriched our lives, these Black Americans remain relatively unknown. It's important, though, to point out their contributions because too often people don't realize that Black Americans have been making contributions to our country from its inception. In many cases, what they accomplished they managed to do against all odds, in spite of overwhelming obstacles. These people are an inspiration to everyone who finds themselves in circumstances that seem impossible to overcome.

Early Contributions by Enslaved People

In 1607, English settlers arrived in what would later become Virginia and founded a settlement they named Jamestown. In 1619, a Dutch ship arrived in Jamestown and traded enslaved people for food. Many of these enslaved people later were freemen with their own land, contributing to the success of the colony. We do know some of their names, like Anthony Johnson, and it's a pretty interesting story.

But African people were involved in more than settling Jamestown. Some were part of the early explorations of the New World. For example, Estevanico, an enslaved person from Morocco, was part of a group who had been asked by the Mexican Viceroy in 1536 to go on an expedition into the territories that are now Arizona and New Mexico. He went ahead of the group's leader and was the first non-Native person to set foot in those lands.

Crispus Attucks

While most Black people originally arrived in America primarily as enslaved people, many were free by the time the Revolutionary War was fought. One of these was Crispus Attucks, the son of an enslaved person. Most of them, though, like so many who fought in that war, remain relatively nameless to us. But anyone who thinks that it was only White people who chose to fight for the principle of individual freedom might want to take a look at the Forgotten Patriots Project from the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution). They have documented the names of thousands of African Americans, Indigenous people, and those of mixed heritage who fought against the British for freedom.

Like Attucks, there are a number of other Black Americans you may not have heard of but who are, nevertheless, worthy of mention and remembrance.

George Washington Carver (1864–1943)

Carver is a well-known African American. Who isn't aware of his work with peanuts? He's on this list, though, because of one of his contributions that we don't often hear about: The Tuskegee Institute Movable School. Carver established this school to introduce modern agricultural techniques and tools to farmers in Alabama. Movable schools are now used around the world.

Edward Bouchet (1852–1918)

Bouchet was the son of a formerly enslaved person who had moved to New Haven, Connecticut. Only three schools there accepted Black students at the time, so Bouchet's educational opportunities were limited. However, he managed to get admitted to Yale and became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. and the sixth American of any race to earn one in physics. Although segregation prevented him from attaining the kind of position he should have been able to get with his outstanding credentials (sixth in his graduating class), he taught for 26 years at the Institute for Colored Youth, serving as an inspiration to generations of young Black people.

Jean Baptiste Point du Sable (1745?–1818)

DuSable was a Black man from Haiti who is credited with founding Chicago. His father was a Frenchman in Haiti and his mother was an enslaved African person. It's not clear how he arrived in New Orleans from Haiti, but once he did, he traveled from there to what is now modern-day Peoria, Illinois. Although he was not the first to pass through the area, he was the first to establish a permanent settlement, where he lived for at least 20 years. He set up a trading post on the Chicago River, where it meets Lake Michigan, and became a wealthy man with a reputation as a man of good character and "sound business acumen."

Matthew Alexander Henson (1866–1955)

Henson was the son of free-born tenant farmers, but his early life was difficult. He started his life as an explorer at the age of 11 when he ran away from an abusive home. In 1891, Henson went with Robert Peary on the first of several trips to Greenland. Peary was determined to find the geographic North Pole. In 1909, Peary and Henson went on what was to be their final trip, the one on which they reached the North Pole. Henson was actually the first to set foot on the North Pole, but when the two returned home, it was Peary who received all the credit. Because he was Black, Henson was virtually ignored.

Bessie Coleman (1892–1926)

Bessie Coleman was one of 13 children born to an Indigenous father and an African American mother. They lived in Texas and faced the kinds of difficulties many Black Americans faced at the time, including segregation and disenfranchisement. Bessie worked hard in her childhood, picking cotton and helping her mother with the laundry she took in. But Bessie didn't let any of it stop her. She educated herself and managed to graduate from high school. After seeing some newsreels on aviation, Bessie became interested in becoming a pilot, but no U.S flight schools would accept her because she was a Black person and because she was female. Undeterred, she saved enough money to go to France where she heard women could be pilots. In 1921, she became the first Black woman in the world to earn a pilot's license.

Lewis Latimer (1848–1928)

Latimer was the son of self-liberated individuals who had settled in Chelsea, Massachusetts. After serving in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War, Latimer got a job as an office boy in a patent office. Because of his ability to draw, he became a draftsman, eventually getting promoted to be the head draftsman. Although he has a large number of inventions to his name, including a safety elevator, perhaps his greatest achievement is his work on the electric light bulb. We can thank him for the success of Edison's lightbulb, which originally had a lifespan of just a few days. It was Latimer who found a way to create a filament system that prevented the carbon in the filament from breaking, thereby extending the life of the lightbulb. Thanks to Latimer, lightbulbs became cheaper and more efficient, which made it possible for them to be installed in homes and on the ​streets. Latimer was the only Black American on Edison's elite team of inventors.

Exceptional Talents

What we love about the biographies of these people is that not only did they have exceptional talent, but they did not allow the circumstances of their birth to determine who they were or what they could accomplish. That is certainly a lesson for all of us.

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Bainbridge, Carol. "Little Known Important Black Americans." ThoughtCo, Apr. 6, 2021, Bainbridge, Carol. (2021, April 6). Little Known Important Black Americans. Retrieved from Bainbridge, Carol. "Little Known Important Black Americans." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).