BLACK HISTORY LITTLE KNOWN FACTS
Check out 124 little known facts in Black History Fact #1
As a child Muhammad Ali was refused an autograph by his boxing idol, Sugar Ray Robinson. When Ali became a prizefighter, he vowed never to deny an autograph request, which he honored throughout his career.
Allensworth is the first all-black Californian township, founded and financed by African Americans. Created by Lieutenant Colonel Allen Allensworth in 1908, the town was built with the intention of establishing a self-sufficient city where African Americans could live their lives free of racial prejudice.
Jazz, an African–American musical form born out of the blues, ragtime and marching bands, originated in Louisiana during the turn of the 19th century. The word “jazz” is a slang term that at one point referred to a sexual act.
During the 1930s, painter Charles Alston founded the 306 group, which convened in his studio space and provided support and apprenticeship for African-American artists, including Langston Hughes; sculptor Augusta Savage; and mixed-media visionary Romare Bearden.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on friend Maya Angelou’s birthday, on April 5, 1968. Angelou stopped celebrating her birthday for years afterward, and sent flowers to King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, for more than 30 years, until Coretta’s death in 2006.
Louis Armstrong learned how to play the cornet while living at the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys.
After a long career as an actress and singer, Pearl Baileyearned a bachelor’s degree in theology from Georgetown University in 1985.
After African-American performer Josephine Bakerexpatriated to France, she famously smuggled military intelligence to French allies during World War II. She did this by pinning secrets inside her dress, as well as hiding them in her sheet music.
Scientist and mathematician Benjamin Banneker is credited with helping to design the blueprints for Washington, D.C.
Before he was a renowned artist, Romare Bearden was also a talented baseball player. He was recruited by the Philadelphia Athletics on the pretext that he would agree to pass as white. He turned down the offer, instead choosing to work on his art.
Though he is of Caribbean ancestry and had a trailblazing smash with his 1956 album Calypso, Harry Belafonte was actually born in the United States. The internationally renowned entertainment icon and human rights activist is from Harlem, New York.
Musician and activist Harry Belafonte originally devised the idea for “We Are the World,” a single that he hoped would help raise money for famine relief in Africa. The song was a huge success, going multi-platinum and bringing in millions of dollars.
Before becoming a professional musician, Chuck Berrystudied to be a hairdresser.
Chuck Berry‘s famous “duck walk” dance originated in 1956, when Berry attempted to hide wrinkles in his trousers by shaking them out with his now-signature body movements.
The parents of actress Halle Berry chose their daughter’s name from Halle’s Department Store, a local landmark in her birthplace of Cleveland, Ohio.
In 1938, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt challenged the segregation rules at the Southern Conference on Human Welfare in Birmingham, Alabama, so she could sit next to African-American educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune. Roosevelt would come to refer to Bethune as “her closest friend in her age group.”
Legendary singer James Brown performed in front of a televised audience in Boston the day after Martin Luther King Jr.was assassinated. Brown is often given credit for preventing further riots with the performance.
Chester Arthur “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett was one of the world’s most important blues singers, songwriters and musicians, influencing popular rock acts like the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. Howlin’ Wolf maintained financial success throughout his life, held a stable marriage and worked for charitable causes in his Chicago community.
Female science fiction author Octavia Butler was dyslexic. Despite her disorder, she went on to win Hugo and Nebula awards for her writing, as well as a “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation.
When African-American neurosurgeon Ben Carson was a child, his mother required him to read two library books a week and give her written reports, even though she was barely literate. She would then take the papers and pretend to carefully review them, placing a checkmark at the top of the page to show her approval. The assignments inspired Carson’s eventual love of reading and learning.
Politician, educator and Brooklyn native Shirley Chisholm survived three assassination attempts during her campaign for the 1972 Democratic nomination to the U.S. presidency.
Rap artist Chuck D graduated from Adelphi University, where he studied graphic design.
Dr. Mayme A. Clayton, a Los Angeles librarian and historian, amassed an extensive and valuable collection of black Americana now found in a museum that houses an estimated 3.5 million items. The collection includes works from a wide range of luminaries, including Countee Cullen, Marcus Garvey, Zora Neale Hurston and Lena Horne.
Before lawyer Johnnie Cochran achieved nationwide fame for his role in the O.J. Simpson trial, actor Denzel Washington interviewed Cochran as part of his research for the award-winning film Philadelphia(1993).
Record sales from musician and singer Nat King Cole contributed so greatly to Capitol Records’ success during the 1950s that its headquarters became known as “the house that Nat built.”
The Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco, California, uses jazz musician John Coltrane’s music and philosophy as sources for religious discovery.
Actor and comedian Bill Cosby is also an avid musician. The jazz drummer served as master of ceremonies for the Los Angeles Playboy Jazz Festival for many years, stepping down in 2012.
Paul Cuffee, a philanthropist, ship captain and devout Quaker who supported a return to Africa for black citizens, transported 38 free African Americans to Sierra Leone in 1815. He also founded one of the first American integrated schools in 1797.
Tice Davids, a runaway slave from Kentucky, may have been the inspiration for the first usage of the term “Underground Railroad,” though the origins of the term are shrouded in mystery. According to reports, after Davids swam across the Ohio River, his “owner” was unable to find him. He allegedly told the local paper that if Davids had escaped, he must have traveled on “an underground railroad.” Davids is thought to have made his way to Ripley, Ohio.
At a time when universities did not typically offer financial assistance to black athletes, African-American football star Ernie Davis was offered more than 50 scholarships.
Thomas Andrew Dorsey, considered the “Father of Gospel Music,” was known for his fusion of sacred words and secular rhythms. His most famous composition, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” was recorded by the likes of Elvis Presley and Mahalia Jackson.
Before he wrote the acclaimed novel Invisible Man,Ralph Ellison served as a cook in the Merchant Marines during World War II.
Shortly before his mysterious disappearance in 1934, Wallace D. Fard founded the Nation of Islam.
Ella Fitzgerald, known for having a remarkable three-octave range, got her start at the Apollo Theater.
After friend and musical partner Tammi Terrell died of a brain tumor, a grieving Marvin Gaye recorded his future hit single “What’s Goin’ On,” having Detroit Lions’ athletes Lem Barney and Mel Farr lay down vocals for the song’s intro. Gaye later met with Lions’ coach Joe Schmidt to propose the idea of playing for the team, which Schmidt turned down.
As a young girl in Harlem, Althea Gibson was a local table tennis champion. Her skills were eventually noticed by musician Buddy Walker, who invited her to play tennis on local courts.
Nancy Green, who was formerly enslaved, was employed in the 1890s to promote the Aunt Jemima brand by demonstrating the pancake mix at expositions and fairs. She was a popular attraction because of her friendly personality, storytelling skills and warmth. Green signed a lifetime contract with the pancake company, and her image was used for packaging and ads.
Famed guitarist Jimi Hendrix was known by close friends and family members simply as “Buster.”
Josiah Henson fled slavery in Maryland in 1830 and later founded a settlement in Ontario, Canada, for other black citizens who had escaped. His autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself (1849), is believed to have been Harriet Beecher Stowe’s inspiration for the main character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
African-American Matthew Henson accompanied Robert Edwin Peary on the first successful U.S. expedition to the North Pole, reaching their destination on April 6, 1909. In 2000, Henson was posthumously awarded the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal.
“Strange Fruit,” the song about black lynching in the south made famous by blues singer Billie Holiday, was originally a poem written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx, New York.
The father of renowned scribe Langston Hughesdiscouraged his son from writing, wanting him to take up a more “practical” vocation.
Jesse Jackson successfully negotiated the release of Lieutenant Robert O. Goodman Jr., an African-American pilot who had been shot down over Syria and taken hostage in 1983.
The “King of Pop,” Michael Jackson, co-wrote the single “We Are the World” with Motown legend Lionel Richie. The track became one of the best-selling singles of all time, earning millions of dollars donated to famine relief in Africa.
Abolitionist Harriet Ann Jacobs published Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in 1861 under the pseudonym Linda Brent. The book chronicles the hardships and sexual abuse she experienced as a woman growing up in slavery. Jacobs fled slavery in 1835 by hiding in a crawlspace in her grandmother’s attic for seven years before traveling to Philadelphia by boat, and eventually to New York.
Rapper Jay-Z reportedly developed his stage name as a reference to New York’s J/Z subway lines, which have a stop in his Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, neighborhood.
The popular clothing line FUBU stands for “For Us, By Us.” It was originally created by designer Daymond John along with three other friends, and was supported by fellow Queens native LL Cool J.
Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion, patented a wrench in 1922.
After the success of Negro Digest, publisher John H. Johnson decided to create a magazine to showcase black achievement while also looking at current issues affecting African Americans. The first issue of his publication, Ebony, sold out in a matter of hours.
The theme song for the groundbreaking African-American sitcom Sanford and Sonswas composed by music great Quincy Jones.
Before he became an NBA legend, Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team.
Chaka Kahn, dubbed the “Queen of Funk Soul,” is also well known for singing the theme song to the public television’s popular educational program Reading Rainbow.
Alicia Keys was accepted into Columbia University on a full scholarship, but decided to pursue a full-time music career instead.
In her early life, Coretta Scott King was as well known for her singing and violin playing as she was for her civil rights activism. The young soprano won a fellowship to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, the city where she met future husband Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. was stabbed by a woman in 1958 while attending a book signing at Blumstein’s department store in Harlem, New York. The following year, King and his wife visited India to meet Mahatma Gandhi, whose philosophies of nonviolence greatly influenced King’s work.
In 1967, chemist and scholar Robert H. Lawrence Jr. became the first black man to be trained as an astronaut. Sadly, Lawrence died in a jet crash during flight training and never made it into space.
Heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis helped to end segregation in the U.S. armed forces while serving in the Army during World War II.
Nat “Deadwood Dick” Love, a renowned and skilled cowboy, wrote his autobiographical work The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as Deadwood Dick, published in 1907.
African-American fashion designer Ann Lowe designed the wedding dress of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the bride of future President John F. Kennedy.
Jazz pianist and composer Alice McLeod married pioneering saxophonist John Coltrane in 1965. She played with his band and appeared on his later recordings.
Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall said that he was punished for misbehavior in school by being forced to recite the Constitution, ultimately memorizing it.
Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was a classmate of jazz vocalist Cab Calloway, Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes and future Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah during their studies at Lincoln University.
Buffalo Soldiers— a name given by Native-American plainsmen—were the all-black regiments created in the U.S. Army beginning in 1866. These soldiers received second-class treatment and were often given the worst military assignments, but had a lowest desertion rate than their white counterparts. More than 20 Buffalo Soldiers received the Medal of Honor for their service. The oldest living Buffalo Soldier, Sergeant Mark Matthews, died at the age of 111 in 2005, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
The Loew’s Grand Theatre on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, Georgia, was selected to air the premiere of the film Gone with the Wind in 1939. All of the film’s black actors, including future Academy Award winner Hattie McDaniel, were barred from attending.
George Monroe and William Robinson are thought to be two of the first African Americans to work as Pony Express riders.
Pony Express rider George Monroe was also a highly skilled stagecoach driver for U.S. presidents Ulysses S. Grant, James Garfield and Rutherford B. Hayes. Monroe, who was known as “Knight of the Sierras,” frequently navigated passengers through the curving Wanona Trail in the Yosemite Valley. As a result, Monroe Meadows in Yosemite National Park is named after him.
Garrett Morgan, inventor of the three-way traffic signal, also became the first African American to own a car in Cleveland, Ohio.
Jockey Isaac Burns Murphy was the first to win three Kentucky Derbies and the only racer to win the Kentucky Derby, the Kentucky Oaks and the Clark Handicap within the same year. He was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in 1956.
For a time during his youth, future U.S. President Barack Obama used the moniker “Barry.”
Barack Obama has won two Grammy Awards. He was first honored in 2005 for the audio version of his memoir, Dreams from My Father (best spoken word album), and received his second Grammy (in the same category) in 2007 for his political work ,The Audacity of Hope.
In 1881, Sophia B. Packard and Harriet E. Giles founded what would become the first college for black women in the United States. The school was named Spelman College after Laura Spelman Rockefeller and her parents, who were abolitionists. Laura was also the wife of John D. Rockefeller, who made a significant donation to the school.
Legendary baseball player Satchel Paige would travel as many as 30,000 miles a year to pitch as a free agent, to locales that included Cuba and the Dominican Republic. In 1971, Paige also became the first African-American pitcher to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Bill Pickett, a renowned rodeo performer, was inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1971, the first African American to receive the honor. He was also recognized by the U.S. Postal service as one of the 20 “Legends of the West” in a series of stamps.
Since 1997, actor and director Sidney Poitier has served as non-resident Bahamian ambassador to Japan.
In addition to her career in Washington, D.C.,Condoleezza Rice is an accomplished pianist who has accompanied cellist Yo-Yo Ma, played with soul singerAretha Franklin and performed for Queen Elizabeth II.
A serious student, Condoleezza Rice entered the University of Denver at the age of 15 and earned her Ph.D. by age 26.
At the very peak of his fame, rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Little Richardconcluded that his music was the Devil’s work and subsequently became a traveling preacher, focusing on gospel tunes. When the Beatles revived several of his songs in 1964, Little Richard returned to the rock stage.
An heirloom tomato variety originating in Russia is named after actor, athlete and civil rights activist Paul Robeson, who enjoyed and spoke highly of Russian culture.
Performer Paul Robeson was conversant in many different languages.
Before Branch Rickey offered future Hall-of-Famer Jackie Robinson the contract that integrated professional baseball, he personally tested Robinson’s reactions to the racial slurs and insults he knew the player would endure.
After retiring from baseball, Hall-of-Famer Jackie Robinson helped establish the African American-owned and -controlled Freedom Bank.
In 1944 in Fort Hood, Texas, future baseball legend Jackie Robinson, who was serving as a lieutenant for the U.S. Army at the time, refused to give up his seat and move to the back of a bus when ordered to by the driver. Robinson dealt with racial slurs and was court-martialed, but was ultimately acquitted. His excellent reputation, combined with the united efforts of friends, the NAACP and various black newspapers, shed public light on the injustice. Robinson requested to be discharged soon afterward.
Before becoming a professional baseball player, Jackie Robinson played football for the Honolulu Bears.
Ray Charles Robinson, a musical genius and pioneer in blending gospel and the blues, shortened his name to Ray Charles to prevent confusion with the great boxerSugar Ray Robinson. Ray Charles began losing his sight at an early age and was completely blind by the time he was 7, but never relied upon a cane or guide dog. He was one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at its inaugural ceremony in 1986.
Reverend Al Sharpton preached his first sermon at the age of 4, and later toured with world-famous gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.
Joseph “Run” Simmons of Run-D.M.C. is the brother of hip-hop promoter and mogul Russell Simmons.
Upon her death in 2003, singer Nina Simone’s ashes were spread across the continent of Africa, per her last request.
African-American tap dancer Howard Sims was known as the “Sandman” because he often sprinkled sand onstage at the Apollo Theater to amplify his steps. Sims was an acclaimed dancer and footwork master whose students included Muhammad Ali, Gregory Hines and Ben Vereen.
Mamie Smith is considered to be the first African-American female artist to make a blues record with vocals—”Crazy Blues,” released in 1920, sold 1 million copies in half a year.
Olympic medal-winning athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith made headlines around the world by raising their black-gloved fists at the 1968 award ceremony. Both athletes wore black socks and no shoes on the podium to represent black poverty in America.
Walker Smith Jr. became known as Sugar Ray Robinson when, as an under-aged boxer, he used fellow boxer Ray Robinson’s Amateur Athletic Union card to fight in a show. Smith won a Golden Glove featherweight title in 1939 under the assumed name and continued using it thereafter, with the additional “Sugar” coming from a reporter.
Considered one of the greatest boxers of all time, Sugar Ray Robinson held the world welterweight title from 1946 to 1951, and by 1958, he had become the first boxer to win a divisional world championship five times.
In the 1920s and ’30s, multi-instrumentalist Valaida Snow captivated audiences with her effervescent singing and jazz trumpet playing. Her abilities earned her the nicknames “Queen of the Trumpet” and “Little Louis,” in reference to the style of musician Louis Armstrong.
John Baxter Taylor, the first African American to win an Olympic gold medal, also held a degree in veterinary medicine from the University of Pennsylvania.
African-American Olympic figure skating medalist Debi Thomas attended Stanford University and later studied medicine at Northwestern University, becoming an orthopedic surgeon.
In addition to being a millionaire entrepreneur, Madame C.J. Walker was a civil rights activist. In 1917, she was part of a delegation that traveled to the White House to petition President Woodrow Wilson to make lynching a federal crime.
Muddy Waters, known for his infusion of the electric guitar into the Delta country genre, is considered the “Father of Chicago Blues.” Waters influenced some of the most popular rock acts, including the Bluesbreakers and the Rolling Stones, who named themselves after his popular 1950 song, “Rollin’ Stone.”
Rapper Kanye West’s father, Ray West—a former Black Panther—was one of the first black photojournalists at theAtlanta Journal-Constitution, receiving accolades for his work.
The mother of rapper and producer Kanye West was an English professor before switching careers to serve as her son’s manager.
Phillis Wheatley became the first published African-American poet in 1774 with her collection Poems on Various Subjects, a work of distinction that looked to many literary classical traditions.
Before Forest Whitaker was a film star, he was accepted into the music conservatory at the University of Southern California to study opera as a tenor.
Jesse Ernest Wilkins Jr., a physicist, mathematician and engineer, earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Chicago in 1942, at age 19.
The “Dee” in actor Billy Dee Williams’s name is short for his middle name, “December.”
Cathay Williams was the first and only known female Buffalo Soldier. Williams was born into slavery and worked for the Union army during the Civil War. She posed as a man and enlisted as William Cathay in the 38th infantry in 1866, and was given a medical discharge in 1868.
NFL player John Williams won the Super Bowl as part of the Baltimore Colts before he eventually quit the league to become a dentist.
Renowned African-American architect Paul R. Williams mastered the art of rendering drawings upside-down so that his clients would see the drawings right side up. Williams’s style became associated with California glamour, beauty and naturalism, and he joined the American Institute of Architects in 1923.
Because he worked during the height of segregation, most of the homes designed by African-American architect Paul R. Williams had deeds that barred blacks from buying them.
Musician Stevie Wonder recorded the cries of his newborn daughter, Aisha Morris, for his popular song, “Isn’t She Lovely?”
In 1926, Carter Godwin Woodson established Negro History Week, which later became Black History Month. The month of February was chosen in honor ofFrederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, who were both born in that month.
Explorers Lewis and Clark were accompanied by York, an African American enslaved by Clark, when they made their 1804 expedition from Missouri to Oregon. York was an invaluable member of the expedition, connecting with the Native American communities they encountered. He is considered the first African-American man to cross what would become U.S. territory.
The Selma to Montgomery marches marked the peak of the voting rights movement in Selma, Alabama. Of the three marches, only the last made it all the way to the capital of Montgomery, Alabama, which paved the way for 1965’s Voting Right Act. The path is now a U.S. National Historic Trail.
Wilberforce University is one of the first historically African-American institutions of higher learning. Located in Wilberforce, Ohio, and named after British abolitionist William Wilberforce, the school’s notable graduates include famed composer William Grant Still and James H. McGee, the first African-American mayor of Dayton, Ohio.
Owned by African-American designer, entrepreneur and television personality Daymond John, the popular FUBU clothing line has won various awards, including an Advertising Age award, an NAACP award, the Pratt Institute Award, the EssenceAchievement Award, the Asper Award for social entrepreneurship and a citation of honor from the Queens Borough President.
According to the American Community Survey, in 2005, there were 2.4 million black military veterans in the United States—the highest of any minority group.
In the 1800s, Philadelphia was known as the “Black Capital of Anti–Slavery” because of its strong abolitionist presence, which included groups like the Philadelphia Anti–Slavery Society.