The 50 Most Important Figures in Black American History; Experts List Men and Women Who Made Indispensable Contributions

By Bennett, Lerone, Jr. | Ebony, February 1989 | Go to article overview

The 50 Most Important Figures in Black American History; Experts List Men and Women Who Made Indispensable Contributions


Bennett, Lerone, Jr., Ebony


SOME of the names command instant recognition. Others on the list may not be widely known but are legendary figures to specialists in the field.

Some died at the height of their fame. Others died in obscurity. All, however, have been nominated for immortality by a select panel of nationally known scholars who were asked to submit the names of 40 Black immortals who made, in their judgment, indispensable contributions to Black America. The key criterion suggested was an individual who transcended his or her field and made an essential contribution to the development of Black America by contributing an idea, invention or program or by organizing and/or leading a pivotal organization and movement. Living persons were excluded.

The names mentioned most often on the separate lists appear on the following pages. There were several tie votes and the list was rounded off at fifty.

Four persons-Mary MeLeod Bethune, Frederick Douglass, W E. B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King jr.

were named by all respondents. Eight historical figures received between 14 and 17 votes: Ida B. WellsBarnett, Marcus Garvey, Langston Hughes, A. Philip Randolph, 14; Carter G. Woodson, 15,- Malcolm X, Paul Robeson and Booker T. Washington, 16. Asterisks indicate individuals who received nine or more votes.

As might have been expected, the list of 39 min and 11 women is dominated by activists and civil rights leaders-23 of the 50.

The list includes nine ministers, eight writers, four athletes, three scientists, three musicians, two surgeons one actor-singer, one politician, and one practicing lawyer. Two Whites received votes - john Brown and William Lloyd Garrison.

FREDERICK DOUGLASS

( 1817-1895) Abolitionist, editor, author, lecturer and the major Black leader of 19th century is often called "The Father of the Civil Rights Movement."

W.E.B. DU BOIS

(1868-1963) Civil rights leader, editor, scholar was co-founder of the NAACP and the chief organizer of the First PanAfrican Congress of 1919. MARY MCLEOD BETHUNE

(1875-1955) College president, civil rights leader, adviser to presidents was the first Black woman to receive a major U.S. government appointment. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.

(1929-1968) Civil rights leader, minister and nonviolent activist led the Montgomery Bus Boycott and was major leader of the Freedom Movement.

ROBERT S. ABBOTT

(1870-1940) Chicago Defender editor and publisher established a new type of journalism and vigorously supported the Great Migration to Northern cities.

RICHARD ALLEN'

(1760-1831) Minister and protest leader sometimes called The Father of the Negro.' First Black bishop was president of first national Negro convention.

LOUIS ARMSTRONG

(1900-1971) Bandleader, entertainer and the first great jazz soloist to achieve worldwide fame and influence as a trumpet player and symbol of a new music.

ELLA BAKER

(1903-1986) Civil rights leader played key leadership role in SCLC and organized the Shaw University conference that led to the founding of SNCC.

JAMES BALOWIN

(1924-1987) Writer and lecturer helped define the Freedom Movement of the 60s with The Fire Next Time and other books and statements.

BENJAMIN BANNEKER

(1736-1806) Astronomer and mathematician helped survey the Federal Territory that became the District of Columbia and published annual almanacs. IDA B. WELLS-BARNETT'

(1862-1931) Editor, civil rights leader, and women's rights advocate was a co-founder of the NAACP and "began the anti-lynching crusade" in America.

RALPH J. BUNCHE*

(1904-1971) Political scientist was first Black to win a Nobel Prize. He received the peace prize in 1950 for negotiating an end to Arab-Israeli conflict. GEORGE WASHINGTON

CARVER* 1861?-1943) Agricultural researcher developed hundreds of products from the peanut and sweet potato.

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