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Black excellence spotlight: 10 past and present pioneers who changed the world

Quizlet in EducationNews · Posted by Jose  February 3, 2021

February is Black History Month, and here at Quizlet, we’re looking at the past, present and future of achievement in the Black community.

The history of Black History Month

The origins of Black History Month date back more than a century.

In 1915, historian Carter G. Woodson and minister Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, which aimed to amplify the achievements of Black Americans. Eleven year later, the group started National Negro History Week to be celebrated the second week of February. The association is still around today, though now it is called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH).

The evolution of Negro History Week into Black History Month was a grassroots affair which began on college campuses. The month-long celebration became official in 1976, when President Gerald Ford gave it federal recognition.

Today we’re discussing 10 prominent figures in Black history. Learning about them can teach us where we’ve been and where we’re going.

John Lewis (1940-2020)

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Photo Credit: Gary Wayne Gilbert

Growing up in an Alabama sharecropping family, John Lewis was motivated by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks’ protests. He went on to study at the American Baptist Theological Institute and Fisk University, and soon, Lewis marched with his heroes.

At school, Lewis was actively involved in multiple non-violent protests against racial inequality, including the Freedom Riders. Lewis helped organize and spoke at the March on Washington. However, he secured his place in history when he led the March on Selma. Lewis was no stranger to being arrested for his activism, but the brutal violence he and others suffered at the hands of police on “Bloody Sunday” increased the pressure that passed the Voting Rights Act.

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Lewis (far right) at Selma; Photo Credit: Steve Schapiro

In 1981 Lewis was elected to the Atlanta City Council, and five years later, he joined the U.S. House of Representatives, an office he held until his death. Lewis’ final essay in The New York Times crystallized his legacy. He wrote:

“In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.”

Marva Collins (1936-2015)

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Photo Credit: Chicago Sun Times

No one understood the value of education better than Marva Collins. After being barred from a secretarial career because of her race, Collins turned to teaching. She immediately recognized the Chicago public school system’s racially and economically driven inequalities and rose to the challenge. Collins held her students to higher standards and helped them develop new learning techniques.

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Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune

Eventually, Collins launched the Daniel Hale Williams Westside Preparatory School in 1975. There, she helped “unteachable” students reach their full potential. She stepped into the national spotlight with a 60 Minutes feature, and President Reagan considered naming her his new Secretary of Education. Collins, however, shunned a political career, preferring the individual impact she could have on her students. She shared her teaching philosophy in her 1982 book, Marva Collins’ Way, and was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2004.
Gladys West (b. 1930)

Gladys West (b. 1930)

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Photo Credit: US Air Force

Although she was born in rural Virginia, Gladys West dreamed beyond her small community. West’s family did not have enough money to send her to college, but she graduated first in her class and received a full scholarship to Virginia State University. West studied mathematics, eventually earning both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in the subject, and in 1956, she became one of four African Americans working at the Naval Proving Ground.

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Photo Credit: BBC News

West conducted ground-breaking research in the calculation of satellite orbits and radar altimetry. She developed distance calculation algorithms to account for all of the Earth’s variations. Eventually, West was the first person to create an accurate mathematical model of the planet, and her work became the basis for modern GPS technology.

West later pivoted to another passion, public service, and she eventually earned a PhD in Public Administration. She has devoted herself to mentoring the next generation of STEM professionals and regularly speaks at elementary schools.

Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993)

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Photo Credit: National Archives

Thurgood Marshall developed a passion for law by accident. After pulling a prank, his principal made him read the US Constitution, and he loved it. Marshall eventually applied to the University of Maryland Law School, which rejected him due to his race. Instead, Marshall earned his degree from Howard University in 1933, launching a groundbreaking career.

Marshall reached national prominence in 1954 when he successfully argued the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka before the Supreme Court. This landmark decision declared racial segregation in schools unconstitional. Marshall’s masterful oral arguments are still analyzed in law schools.

In 1967, President Johnson nominated Marshall to the Supreme Court, making him the first African American to sit on the nation’s highest bench. Marshall used his position to champion the rights of minorities and oppose the death penalty. As the Supreme Court became more conservative throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Marshall earned the nickname of the “Great Dissenter” for consistently championing liberal values. The NAACP continues Marshall’s work through the Thurgood Marshall Institute.

Mae C. Jemison (1956-)

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Photo Credit: AP Images

Mae Jemison grew up idolizing Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek. After graduating from Stanford University with degrees in Chemical Engineering and African and African American Studies, Jemison entered medical school at Cornell. She traveled the world to Cuba, Thailand, and Africa to provide medical help to vulnerable populations and developed fluency in Russian, Japanese, and Swahili.

Having seen so much of Earth, Jemison was ready to explore further, and she applied to NASA’s astronaut program. In 1992, Jemison joined the space shuttle Endeavor’s crew and became the first African American woman in space.

Since leaving NASA, Jemison inspires the astronauts of tomorrow. She founded the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, created an international space camp for teenagers, The Earth We Share, and was a professor-at-Large at Cornell. Jemison currently spearheads the 100 Year Starship project and serves on multiple boards.

Kizzmekia Corbett (1986-)

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Photo Credit: American Society for Microbiology

As the leader of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine development team, Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett is one of the world’s leading young viral immunologists. She received training in the University of Maryland’s rigorous Meyerhoff Scholar Program, which supports women and minorities in science. Corbett’s team was the first to successfully identify COVID-19’s spike protein, which Moderna’s M-RNA vaccine uses to train the immune system. Corbett and her team developed a historic, lifesaving vaccine in record time, making her a hero of the coronavirus pandemic.

Corbett will use her newfound spotlight to encourage others. As she told ABC News, “I felt like it was necessary to be seen and to not be a hidden figure... because [of] the level of visibility that it would have to younger scientists and also to people of color who have often worked behind the scenes.”

Kamala Harris (1964-)

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Photo Credit: Noah Berger/AFP Getty Images

As the first female, first Black, and first South Asian Vice President, Kamala Harris is truly a trailblazer; however, she was already making history before President Biden chose her as his running mate.

Inspired by her activist parents, Harris pursued a legal career. She worked her way up from the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office to become California’s Attorney General. As a lawyer, Harris’ priorities included child sexual assault cases, recidivism among drug offenders, environmental legislation, the Affordable Care Act, and marriage equality.

In 2017, Harris was elected to the United States Senate, where she worked to address institutional racism and climate change. Although her national political career had just begun, Harris already stood out. Her strong bid for the Democratic presidential nomination ultimately earned her historic place on Biden’s ticket.

Harris is just beginning her journey as Vice President, but she values her mother’s words: “You may be the first to do many things, but make sure you are not the last.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson (1958-)

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Photo Credit: Andrew H. Walker/Variety

Neil deGrasse Tyson discovered astronomy on a childhood visit to Hayden Planetarium. After completing multiple advanced degrees in physics, astronomy, and astrophysics, he eventually made his way back to work at the planetarium where it all began.

Tyson first rose to national prominence in the 1980s with his question-and-answer column in StarDate. As his fame grew, Tyson shared his passion for astronomy through books, television appearances, and his own radio show. He even voiced Neil deBuck Weasel in 2016’s Ice Age: Collision Course and was named People’s “Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive” in 2000.

As a scientist and a household name, Tyson utilizes his platform to educate the American public. He has been honored with NASA’s Distinguished Public Service Medal, and an asteroid was named after him: 13123 Tyson.

Colin Kaepernick (1987-)

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Photo Credit: Jose Sanchez/AP Images

Colin Kaepernick’s activism gained him national attention beyond his professional football career. In 2016, he began kneeling during the National Anthem to protest the ongoing police brutality faced by the African American community. As he told NFL Media, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”

Kaepernick’s protests sparked a movement throughout the NFL and other sports. Although his team expressed support for Kaepernick’s freedom of speech, the 49ers released him at the end of the 2016 season, and he is currently an unsigned free agent.

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Photo Credit: Austin McAfee/Getty Images

Kaepernick uses his platform to fight racial injustice. He founded Know Your Rights Camp, which promotes minority education, and he regularly donates to charity. Kaepernick has received many honors, including the W.E.B. DuBois Medal and the Len Eshmont. Kaepernick’s career in activism is just beginning, and he is certainly someone to watch.

Mellody Hobson (1969-)

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Photo Credit: Ariel Investments

Mellody Hobson experienced financial instability firsthand as a child. After being evicted from apartment after apartment, Hobson cultivated an interest in finance to protect herself. For her undergraduate studies, Hobson attended Princeton, where she met John Rogers, the founder of Ariel Investments. An African American-owned investment company, Ariel Investments serves that historically overlooked financial demographic. Hobson completed a summer internship with Ariel and pursued a successful career with the company after graduation. In 2019, she was named Co-CEO.

Hobson’s extraordinary business empire expands beyond Ariel Investments. She is on the board for many successful companies, including Starbucks and Estée Lauder, and she is the director of JPMorgan Chase. Her numerous philanthropic efforts address the arts and education.

Hobson credits her success to her infatigable work ethic; she even worked on her wedding day. Her business style is also marked by individualism, listening skills, and (occasionally brutal) honesty. A trailblazing mogul, Hobson is shaping the future of business.
These leaders have made great strides for the world, but there’s more work to be done! Let’s take inspiration from their amazing stories to build a brighter and more equitable future.