Black History Month honors the contributions of African Americans to U.S. history. Among the prominent figures are Madam C.J. Walker, who was the first U.S. woman to become a self-made millionaire; George Washington Carver, who derived nearly 300 products from the peanut; Rosa Parks, who sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott and galvanized the civil rights movement; and Shirley Chisholm, who was the first African American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Read on for more Black history facts.
Origins of Black History Month, NAACP
Black History Month: The celebration of Black History Month began as “Negro History Week,” which was created in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, a noted African American historian, scholar, educator and publisher. It became a month-long celebration in 1976. The month of February was chosen to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.
NAACP: Spurred by growing racial violence in the early 20th century, and particularly by 1908 race riots in Springfield, Illinois, a group of African American leaders joined together to form a new permanent civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). February 12, 1909, was chosen because it was the centennial anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln.
Famous Lawyers, Activists, Scientists and Politicians
First Lawyer: John Mercer Langston was the first Black man to become a lawyer when he passed the bar in Ohio in 1854. When he was elected to the post of Town Clerk for Brownhelm, Ohio, in 1855 Langston became one of the first African Americans ever elected to public office in America. John Mercer Langston was also the great-uncle of Langston Hughes, famed poet of the Harlem Renaissance.
Famous Protestors and Activists: While Rosa Parks is credited with helping to spark the civil rights movement when she refused to give up her public bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955—inspiring the Montgomery Bus Boycott—the lesser-known Claudette Colvin was arrested nine months prior for not giving up her bus seat to white passengers.
Supreme Court Justice: Thurgood Marshall was the first African American ever appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. He was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson and served on the court from 1967 to 1991.
Eminent Scientist: George Washington Carver developed 300 derivative products from peanuts among them cheese, milk, coffee, flour, ink, dyes, plastics, wood stains, soap, linoleum, medicinal oils and cosmetics.
First Woman Representative: Shirley Chisholm was the first African American woman elected to the House of Representatives. She was elected in 1968 and represented the state of New York. She broke ground again four years later in 1972 when she was the first major party African American candidate and the first female candidate for president of the United States.
Famous Black Athletes
Heavyweight Champ: Jack Johnson became the first African American man to hold the World Heavyweight Champion boxing title in 1908. He held onto the belt until 1915.
First Professional Black Baseball Player: On April 5, 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play Major League Baseball when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. He led the league in stolen bases that season and was named Rookie of the Year.
First Black Athlete to Compete in International Tennis: Althea Gibson became the first African American to compete in a pro-world tennis tour and in 1956, the first African American woman to win a Grand Slam title. Overall, Gibson garnered 11 Grand Slam wins, including six singles titles. Next, Gibson turned to professional golf and made more history by becoming the first African American competitor on the women’s pro golf tour in the 1960s.
First Black Millionaire, Billionaire and Oscar Winner
Self-Made Millionaire: Madam C.J. Walker was born on a cotton plantation in Louisiana and became wealthy after inventing a line of African American hair care products. She established Madame C.J. Walker Laboratories and was also known for her philanthropy.
Oscar Winner: In 1940, Hattie McDaniel was the first African American performer to win an Academy Award—the film industry’s highest honor—for her portrayal of a loyal slave governess in Gone With the Wind.
First Black Billionaire: Before Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan joined the billionaire’s club, Robert Johnson became the first African American billionaire when he sold the cable station he founded, Black Entertainment Television (BET) in 2001.
First Black President, Black Vice President, Population Growth
First Black President: In 2008, Barack Obama became the first Black president of the United States.
First Black Vice President: In January 2021, Kamala Harris became the first woman of African or Asian descent to become vice president. Harris's mother immigrated to the United States from India and her father immigrated from Jamaica.
Population Growth: The Black population of the United States in 1870 was 4.8 million. In 2020, the U.S. Census found there were 46.9 million Black residents in the United States—and the number of people identifying with more than one race increased by more than 276 percent since the 2010 census.