From activists to entertainers to record-breaking athletes to a postal worker, we shine a spotlight on the contributions of 29 influential African Americans in Philadelphia and beyond as we celebrate Black History Month.
Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander | Writer | 1898-1989
A native Philadelphian, Alexander was the first black woman to receive a Ph.D. in economics in the United States, the first black woman student to graduate with a law degree from Penn Law School, and the first African-American woman to practice law in Pennsylvania. Alexander’s work and views are recorded in speeches kept in the Penn archives. The Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander University of Pennsylvania Partnership School (“Penn Alexander”) in West Philly is named after her.
Richard Allen | Minister | 1760-1831
A minister, educator and writer, this Philadelphia native founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first independent black denomination in the United States. He opened the first AME church in Philly in 1794. Born into slavery, he bought his freedom in the 1780s and joined St. George’s Church. Because of seating restrictions placed on blacks to be confined to the gallery, he left to form his own church. In 1787 he turned an old blacksmith shop into the first church for blacks in the United States.
Maya Angelou | Poet | 1928-2014
Angelou was an American poet, singer, memoirist, and civil rights activist with a colorful and troubling past highlighted in her most famous autobiography, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings”. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and is credited with a list of plays, movies and television shows spanning over 50 years. Her works have been considered a defense and celebration of black culture.
Arthur Ashe | Tennis Player | 1943-1993
Ashe’s resume includes three Grand Slam titles and the title of the first black player selected to the United States Davis Cup team and the only black man ever to win the singles title at Wimbledon, the US Open, and the Australian Open. In July 1979, Ashe suffered a heart attack while holding a tennis clinic in New York. His high profile drew attention to his condition, specifically to the hereditary aspect of heart disease. In 1992, Ashe was diagnosed with HIV; he and his doctors believed he contracted the virus from blood transfusions he received during his second heart surgery. After Ashe went public with his illness, he founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS, working to raise awareness about the disease and advocated teaching safe sex education. On June 20, 1993, Ashe was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton.
James Baldwin | American novelist | 1924-1987
Baldwin was an American novelist, playwright and activist, most notably known for “Notes of a Native Son”, “The Fire Next Time” and “The Devil Find’s Work”. One of his novels, If Beale Street Could Talk, was adapted into an Academy Award-winning dramatic film in 2018.
Ruby Bridges | Civil Rights Activist | 1954-present
At age 6, Bridges embarked on a historic walk to school as the first African American student to integrate the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana. She ate lunch alone and sometimes played with her teacher at recess, but she never missed a day of school that year. In 1999, she established The Ruby Bridges Foundation to promote tolerance and create change through education. In 2000, she was made an honorary deputy marshal in a ceremony in Washington, DC.
Kobe Bryant | NBA star, humanitarian| 1978-2020
Drafted right out of Lower Merion High School at the age of 17, Bryant won five titles as one of the marquee players in the Los Angeles Lakers franchise. He was a member of the gold medal-winning U.S. men’s basketball teams at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and the 2012 London Olympic Games. In 2015 Bryant wrote the poem “Dear Basketball,” which served as the basis for a short film of the same name he narrated. The work won an Academy Award for best animated short film. A vocal advocate for the homeless Bryant and his wife, Vanessa started the Kobe and Vanessa Bryant Family Foundation aimed to reduce the number of homeless in Los Angeles. Bryant, his daughter Gigi, and seven other passengers died in a helicopter crash in late January.
Octavius V. Catto | Civil Rights Activist | 1839-1871
Known as one of the most influential civil rights’ activists in Philadelphia during the 19th century, Catto fought for the abolition of slavery and the implementation of civil rights for all. He was prominent in the actions that successfully desegregated Philadelphia’s public trolleys and played a major role in the ratification of the 15th amendment, baring voter discrimination on the basis of race. Catto was only 32 when he was shot and killed outside of his home on South Street in1871, the first Election Day that African Americans were allowed to vote. In 2017, a monument to Catto was unveiled at Philadelphia’s City Hall.
Bessie Coleman | Civil Aviator | 1892-1926
Coleman was the first black woman to fly an airplane. When American flying schools denied her entrance due to her race, she taught herself French and moved to France, earning her license from Caudron Brother’s School in just seven months. She specialized in stunt flying and performing aerial tricks. Reading stories of World War I pilots sparked her interest in aviation.
Claudette Colvin | Civil Rights Pioneer | 1939-present
Colvin was arrested at the age of 15 for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman, nine months before Rosa Parks’ more famous protest. Because of her age, the NAACP chose not to use her case to challenge segregation laws. Despite a number of personal challenges, Colvin became one of the four plaintiffs in the Browder v. Gayle case. The decision in the 1956 case ruled that Montgomery’s segregated bus system was unconstitutional.
Medgar Evers | Civil Rights Activist | 1925-1963
Evers was an American civil rights activist in Mississippi, the state’s field secretary for the NAACP, and a World War II veteran serving in the United States Army. After graduating from college with a BA in business administration, he worked to overturn segregation at the University of Mississippi after Brown v. Board ruled public school segregation was unconstitutional. Evers was assassinated by a white supremacist in 1963, inspiring numerous civil rights protests which sprouted countless works of art, music and film. Because of his veteran status, he was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
Mary Fields | Mail carrier |1832-1914
Known as “Stagecoach Mary”, Fields was the first African-American to work for the U.S. postal service. Born a slave, she was freed when slavery was outlawed in 1865. At age 63, Fields was hired as a mail carrier because she was the fastest applicant to hitch a team of six horses. She never missed a day, and her reliability earned her the nickname “Stagecoach”. If the snow was too deep for her horses, Fields delivered the mail on snowshoes, carrying the sacks on her shoulders.
Rudolph Fisher | Physician | 1897-1934
Fisher was an African-American physician, radiologist, novelist, short story writer, dramatist, musician, and orator. In addition to publishing scientific articles, he had a love of music. He played piano, wrote musical scores and toured with Paul Robeson, playing jazz. He wrote multiple short stories, two novels and contributed his articles to the NAACP all before his death at the age of 37.
James Forten | Abolitionist |1766-1842
Forten was an African-American abolitionist and wealthy businessman in Philadelphia. Born free in the city, he became a sailmaker after the American Revolutionary War. Following an apprenticeship, he became the foreman and bought the sail loft when his boss retired. Based on equipment he developed, he established a highly profitable business on the busy waterfront of the Delaware River, in what’s now Penn’s Landing. Having become well established, in his 40s Forten devoted both time and money to working for the national abolition of slavery and gaining civil rights for blacks. By the 1830s, his was one of the most powerful African-American voices in the city.
Robert Guillaume | Actor | 1927-2017
Robert was raised by his grandmother in the segregated south but moved to New York to escape racial injustice. There, he performed in theatre for 19 years, gaining momentum and a Tony nomination for his portrayal of Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls. In 1976, he landed his infamous role as Benson on Soap which won him an Emmy and his spin-off, Benson for which he won another Emmy. He returned to the stage in 1990, playing the role of the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera at the infamous Ahmanson Theatre. He voiced one of Disney’s most beloved animated characters, Rafiki, and can still be heard as the narrator for the animated series, Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales For Every Child.
Francis Harper | poet | 1825-1911 (died in Philadelphia)
Born free in Baltimore, Harper was an abolitionist, suffragist, poet, teacher, public speaker, and writer. She helped slaves make their way along the Underground Railroad to Canada. In 1894, she co-founded the National Associated of Colored Women, an organization dedicated to highlighting extraordinary efforts and progress made by black women. She served as vice president.
Langston Hughes | Poet | 1902-1967
Hughes was an American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist. Born in Missouri, he moved to New York at an early age becoming one of the earliest innovators of a new art form, jazz poetry. In the early 1920’s, his first book of poetry was published and he wrote an in-depth weekly column for The Chicago Defender, highlighting the civil rights movement. His ashes are interred beneath a floor medallion in the middle of the foyer in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, the entrance to an auditorium named for him.
Zora Neale Hurston | American author | 1891-1960
Hurston became an American author, anthropologist, and filmmaker but as a child she was unable to attend school after her father stopped paying her school fees. In 1917 she opted to attend a public school but had to lie about her age in order to qualify for a free education. She studied hoodoo, the American version of voodoo, and found her way to Hollywood by working as a story consultant. One of her most notable works, Their Eyes Were Watching God was turned into a film in 2005.
Nipsey Hussle | Rapper, entrepreneur | 1985-2019
Born Ermias Joseph Asghedom, Hussle, was an American activist, entrepreneur, and Grammy Award winning rapper. Raised in South Central, he joined gangs to survive before eventually attaining success in the music industry. Hussle focused on “giving solutions and inspiration” to young black men like him, denouncing gun violence through his music, influence and community work, while speaking openly about his experiences with gang culture. Hussle was shot and killed a day before he was to meet with LAPD officials to address gang violence in South Los Angeles.
Harriet Jacobs | Writer | 1813-1897
Born a slave, her mother died when she was 6. She moved in with her late mother’s slave owner who taught her to sew and read. In 1842 she got a chance to escape to Philadelphia, aided by activists of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee. She took it and worked as a nanny in New York. Her former owners hunted for her until her freedom was finally bought in 1852. She secretly began to write an autobiography which was published in the U.S. in 1860 and England in 1861. She lived the rest of her life as an abolitionist, dedicated to helping escaped slaves and eventually freedmen.
Cecil B. Moore | Lawyer |1915-1979
Moore was a Philadelphia lawyer and civil rights activist who led the fight to and successfully integrate Girard College. He served as a marine in WWII and after his honorary discharge, he moved to Philadelphia to study law at Temple University. He quickly earned a reputation as a no-nonsense lawyer who fought on behalf of his mostly poor, African-American clients concentrated in North Philadelphia. From 1963 to 1967, he served as president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP and served on the Philadelphia City Council. Moore is cited as a pivotal figure in the fields of social justice and race relations. He has an entire neighborhood named after him in the North Philadelphia area.
Bayard Rustin | Civil Rights Activist | 1912-1987 (Born in West Chester, PA)
Bayard Rustin was an American leader in social movements for civil rights, socialism, nonviolence, and gay rights. He was a key adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. Rustin has local ties as he was born in West Chester and attended Cheney University of Pennsylvania, a historically black college. A gay man, he adopted his partner to protect their rights and legacy.
Nina Simone | Musician | 1933-2003
Born Eunice Waymon in Troy North Carolina, Simone was an American singer, songwriter, musician, arranger, and civil rights activist. Her music crossed all genres from classical, jazz, blues and folk to R&B, gospel, and pop. She learned to play the piano as a toddler and played in church where her father was a preacher. She would cross tracks to the white side of town to study classical piano with a German teacher and was later accepted into The Juilliard School. She went on to record more than 40 albums and in 2003 just days before her death, the Curtis Institute awarded her an honorary degree.
Big Mama Thornton | Singer | 1926-1984
Thornton is best known for her gutsy 1952 R&B recording of “Hound Dog,” later covered by Elvis Presley, and her original song “Ball and Chain,” made famous by Janis Joplin. Affectionately called “Big Mama” for both her size and her powerful voice, she grew up singing in church and eventually caught the ear of an Atlanta music promoter while cleaning and subbing for the regular singer at a saloon. An openly gay woman, she joined the Hot Harlem Revue and danced and sang her way through the southeastern United States. She played at the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theatre and continued performing sporadically into the late 70’s.
Sojourner Truth | Abolitionist |1797-1883
Truth was born into slavery but escaped with her infant daughter to freedom in 1826. She then sued and won the return of her 5-year-old son who was illegally sold into slavery. In 1851, Truth began a lecture tour that included a women’s rights conference where she delivered her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, challenging prevailing notions of racial and gender inferiority and inequality. She collected thousands of signatures petitioning to provide former slaves with land.
Denmark Vesey | Carpenter | 1767-1822
Vesey was born a slave but won a lottery which allowed him to purchase his freedom. Unable to buy his wife and children their freedom, he became active in the church. In 1816, he became one of the founders of an independent African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and recruited more 1,800 members to become the second largest “Bethel Circuit” church in the country after Mother Bethel in Philadelphia. In 1822, Vesey was alleged to be the leader of a planned slave revolt. He and five others were rapidly found guilty and executed.
Muddy Waters | Singer | 1913-1983
An American blues singer-songwriter and musician who is often lauded as the “father of modern Chicago blues”, Waters grew up on a plantation in Mississippi and by the age of 17 was playing the guitar and the harmonica. In 1941, he moved to Chicago to become a fulltime musician, working in a factory by day and performing at night. In 1958, he toured in England, reviving the interest of Blues and introducing the sound of the electric slide guitar playing there. His performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960 was recorded and released as his first live album, At Newport 1960. In 1972, he won his first Grammy Award for “They Call Me Muddy Waters”, and another in 1975 for “The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album”.
Phillis Wheatley| Poet |1753-1784
Born in West Africa and sold into slavery, she learned to read and write by the age of 9 and became the first African American woman to publish a book of poetry. In addition to having to prove she had indeed written the poetry, no one in America would publish her work. She was forced to go to England where the pieces were published in London in 1773. Years later, she sent one of her poems to George Washington who requested and received a meeting with her at his headquarters in Cambridge in 1776.
Serena Jameka Williams |Tennis Player |1981-present
Williams emerged straight outta the streets of Compton to become the world’s No. 1 player. She has won 23 major singles titles, the most by any man or woman in the Open Era. The Women’s Tennis Association ranked her world No. 1 in singles on eight separate occasions between 2002 and 2017. She has competed at three Olympics and won four gold medals.