Feb 7th, 2018, 05:08 PM

Five Black People Who Shaped the World

By Lauren Williams
Image Credits: Pixbay/ Clker-Free-Vector-Images
Kicking off Black History Month with some figures you might not know about.

February is a special month for so many reasons- it's the month of love, the end of winter, and last but not least it's Black History Month. February is a whole month dedicated to the influence and impact that the black community has had on the world. The classic examples of black excellence are known by most, such as Martin Luther King, Sojourner Truth, and Rosa Parks. Unfortunately, the spotlight on black talent stop s there. Many contributions to society were made by black people that have not received the same recognition. Here are five game changers that deserve to be celebrated:

We all know Rosa Parks, a champion of the civil rights union often credited with starting the Montgomery bus boycotts, but the name Claudette Colvin is unrecognizable to most. When she was 15, Colvin refused to give up her seat on the bus- nine months earlier than Ms. Parks. She was arrested and convicted following her refusal to move. According to an article in the New York Times, Colvin's mother urged her to keep quiet about the incident and to "let Rosa be the one" to lead the boycott. Unfortunately, she didn't receive the same praise as Parks and was cast out by most of the civil rights leaders for becoming a single mother at 16. While Rosa Parks is clearly an important figure, she knew what she was doing. Parks was an activist, well studied on social change, and an adult that knew how to start a movement, while Claudette employed the same amount of strength to stand up for her civil rights at age 15. She was the first one to truly challenge the segregation law in court. She was one of the four women plaintiffs in Browder vs. Gayle, successfully turning over the bus segregation laws in Montgomery. 

Image Credit: Wikimedia/ Charles Henry Alston

People journey to the North Pole occasionally, but this young black explorer was one of the first to do it in 1909.  After a turbulent childhood, Matthew left home at just eleven years old. Eventually, he found himself working as a cabin boy on a ship where he traveled the world and learned about seamanship. Soon after his travels by ship, he met Robert Edwin Peary who was impressed with his credentials and hired him for an expedition to Nicaragua and eventually Greenland. Over the years he, along with Peary and a team, took many trips to Greenland learning about Arctic survival. Eventually, after multiple attempts to reach the North Pole, he and his team finally achieved their longtime goal. Despite there being a slight stigma among African Americans towards their lack of travel and exploration, Matthew Henson is an inspiration for those with adventurous spirits. 


While art has always been an important part of black culture, Edmodia Lewis was the first professional African American and Native American sculptor. Born in 1844 in New York, she used the abolitionist movement as inspiration in much of her art. Most of her youth remains a mystery, but she attended Oberlin College in Ohio where she was discovered as an artist. Faced with hardship, Lewis was forced to leave the university after she was falsely accused of poisoning two white students and was attacked by a mob. She soon ran away to Boston where she befriended two abolitionists who taught her how to sculpt. The bust that gave her fame was a bust of Colonel Robert Shaw, a Civil War hero. With the money that she earned from the piece, she was able to sail to Rome where she mastered working in marble and quickly became one of the most important sculptors of her time. Edmonia Lewis is a testament to the fact that great artists come from all different heritages and backgrounds. 

Image Credit: Wikimedia/ Roger Higgins

Before there was Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, there was Shirley Chisholm. A woman truly ahead of her time, Shirley Chisholm was the first African American congresswoman and the first African American to run for president. Additionally, she was the first woman to run for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. She was also the founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, which represents the black members of Congress. While the possibility of her winning was quite slim, her courage, intelligence, and confidence to run serve as a symbol for everyone who came after her. She paved a way for other political symbols that we know and love to be as successful as they are today. 

Although it may be hard to believe, Henrietta Lacks is immortal. She was born in Virginia in 1920 and ever since her cells have saved thousands of lives and are responsible for countless medical advancements. Lacks went to the doctor in 1951 with pain in her abdomen and was diagnosed with cervical cancer. During her radiation treatments, samples from her tumor were taken without her permission. These samples turned out to be much more durable than the average cell. They were formed into a line by Dr. George Otto Gey and created a strain that revolutionized the medical field. Her cells were even used to create the polio vaccine which is still used today. While her physical body died and was placed into an unmarked grave until 2010, society has Lacks to thank for her immortal cells that changed the way we think about disease today.