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Notable African American Firsts

  • (1640) Anthony and Mary Johnson : Antonio “Anthony” Johnson arrived in America in 1621 aboard the ship James.  He worked on a tobacco plantation in Virginia.  In 1622, the plantation was attacked by Native Americans who killed over fifty people.  Only five survived, including Anthony.  That same year, Mary had arrived on the ship Margrett and John.   Anthony and Mary obtained their freedom from servitude and moved to the Atlantic coast of Virginia where in 1640 they bought a small estate, becoming the first African Americans to own land.  By 1651, the couple owned 250 acres and raised livestock.  The Johnson’s became slave owners, and in 1653 a great fire destroyed their plantation.  Seven years later, they moved with their children to Maryland where they leased a farm.
  • (1641) Matthias de Sousa : Matthias de Sousa was an indentured servant who worked for Father Andrew White (a Catholic priest).  Matthias was brought to America on the ship “The Arc” and is recorded in historical documents as having been mulatto.  In 1638 he was freed from indentured servitude but continued to work for the priests.  He was also a trader and commanded a small boat to travel and trade with the Native Americans, trading goods with them for food and furs.  He was elected into the Maryland General Assembly in 1641 and served until 1642.  He was the only black person to serve in the colonial legislature of Maryland. And as such, was the first African American to sit on any legislative body that would become the United States.
  • (1821) Thomas L. Jennings : Thomas L. Jennings was born free in New York in 1791.  As a young man he worked as a tailor and owned his own dry cleaning business, where he developed the process of dry-scouring.  Although slaves were not legally permitted to own inventions at the time (as anything they produced was property of their owner), Thomas was a free man.  And in 1821, he became the first African American to receive a U.S. Patent on an invention.
  • (1836) Alexander Lucius Twilight : Alexander Lucius Twilight was the first African American to graduate from college.  He was the son of a white mother and a mixed-race father.  In his youth, he was an indentured servant on a farm, but went on to graduate from Middlebury College, then later was a school teacher in New York, and became headmaster of Orleans County Grammar School.  He was elected to the Vermont General Assembly in 1836. [It is debated that John Chavis was the first African American to graduate college in 1777.  However, Chavis attended a school of theology as well as an academy.  These institutions later became what is now Princeton University and Washington and Lee University.  But at the time of his attendance, the schools were not recognized as a college or university.]
  • (1837) James McCune Smith : James McCune Smith was born in New York in 1813 to a mother who had been a slave but purchased her own freedom.  As a child, James attended the African Free School of New York City.  After graduating, James attempted to enroll in several colleges but was denied admission to all of them because of his race.  But James persisted and raised money to attend college in Scotland, where he achieved both a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree, and in 1837 received a medical degree.  James then became the first African American to obtain a degree in medicine.  James completed his medical internship in France but then returned to New York City where he opened his own medical office and pharmacy.
  • (1869) Walter Moses Burton : When Walter Moses Burton was 21 years old, he had been brought to Texas as a slave, but was taught to read and write by his master Thomas Burton.  After the Civil War and being freed, Thomas sold Walter large plots of land in Fort Bend County, where he was later elected Sheriff and Tax Collector, making him the first black elected Sheriff in the United States.  In 1873, he ran for Texas Senate and won, serving seven years.
  • (1870) Hiram Rhoades Revels : Hiram Rhoades Revels was born in North Carolina, the son of free parents that were mixed African American and Native American.  In 1844, he moved to Indiana to attend Beech Grove Seminary.  In 1845, he attended the Darke County Seminary for Negroes in Ohio.  Hiram later traveled throughout the north and the south preaching to both free and enslaved African Americans.  Then from 1857-1858, he attended Knox College in Illinois.  Between 1863 to 1865, he served as a chaplain in the Union Army.  After the war, Hiram returned to traveling and preaching, but then settled in Mississippi to preside over a church, later becoming a city alderman.  In 1869, he ran for state senate as a Republican and won, becoming the first African American United States Senator.
  • (1900) Sgt. William H. Carney : William H. Carney was a member of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment in the Civil War, which was Massachusetts’ first all African-American regiment.  William fought in the battle at Fort Wagner.  During the battle, the flag-bearer was wounded, so William retrieved the flag from him and carried it himself.  William was wounded, but delivered the flag safely back to his regiment.  After the Civil War, William worked for the United States Postal Service.  And in 1900, he became the first African American to receive a Congressional Medal of Honor.  A monument in honor of the rescued flag (the Saint-Gaudens Monument) and the preserved flag are in Boston.
  • (1904) George Coleman Poage : George Coleman Poage was born in 1880 in Missouri, but grew up in Wisconsin.  He was an athlete in high school and ran track in college at the University of Wisconsin.  By his sophomore year of college, he was on the varsity track team.  George graduated in 1903 with a Bachelor’s Degree in History, but continued graduate studies and remained on the track team.  During his college career, he was a track champion and broke several records.  Despite racial tensions that surrounded the games, in 1904, George applied to compete in Missouri in the Olympics, when he became the first African American to win an Olympic medal, making third place in the 220 and 440 yard hurdles.
  • (1904) George Edwin Taylor : George Edwin Taylor was born in Arkansas to a free mother and a father that was a slave.  When he was still a toddler, he moved with his mother to Illinois.  His mother died when he was only 5 years old.  George then was on his own, but at 8 years old, found his way to Wisconsin on a paddleboat.  He was taken in by a black family there and later attended Wayland University.  He went on to work for local newspapers and became interested in politics.  He started his own newspaper called the Wisconsin Labor Advocate which focused on national politics.  He wrote increasingly about African American issues and his newspaper “folded” around 1887/1888.  In 1891, at about 34 years old, George moved to Iowa where he started the newspaper, the Negro Solicitor.  George then joined the first exclusively black national political party, the National Liberty Party, which met in Missouri in 1904.  The NLP had a candidate for President, but their candidate was thrown in jail so they encouraged George to take his place.  George then became the first full-blooded African American to run for President of the United States.  He lost the election and later moved to Florida where he worked as a newspaper editor and was a director for the local YMCA.
  • (1905) Robert Abbott : Robert Sengstacke Abbott was born in 1870 to parents who were former slaves.  Robert attended school at the Hampton Institute in Virginia and graduated from Chicago-Kent College of Law in Illinois in 1899.  In 1905, he began a newspaper called the Chicago Defender, which focused on racial issues and injustices.  Upon the Great Northern Migration, when millions of southern African Americans were moving from the south to the north (many of whom moved to Chicago), the newspaper was passed around and read aloud publicly.  By the 1920s, the newspaper was a huge success and Robert became one of the first African American millionaires.
  • (1940) Hattie McDaniel : Hattie McDaniel’s first performance was when she was in grade school in Colorado.  As a child, her father wouldn’t allow her to travel with him and her brothers with his own minstrel show.  But he allowed Hattie to perform locally in other shows.  When in high school, Hattie convinced her parents to allow her to quit school and travel to perform with her father’s show.  After her father retired, she began to travel and perform with an orchestra led by Professor George Morrison.  Hattie, however, also performed her own gigs and tried to make extra money wherever she could find work.  She took a job as a ladies room attendant at Club Madrid in Milwaukee, but then began performing there and later became one of their nightly featured performers.  A few of Hattie’s sibling were living in Hollywood, so Hattie decided to move there in 1931.  It was while in Hollywood that she landed the role as “Mammy” in Gone With the Wind.  And for this performance, in 1940, she became the first African American to win an Oscar.
  • (1947) Jackie Robinson : Jackie Robinson was born in 1919, growing up in Pasadena, California.  He was a star athlete through high school and college, attending UCLA.  Jackie played baseball, basketball, football, and ran track.  But he wasn’t able to complete his college degree, having to return home to care for his mother.  By 1941, however, Jackie was playing professional football for the LA Bulldogs.  But then he entered the United States Army to fight in World War II.  He was discharged in 1945, and in that same year was signed by the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers to play for the Montreal Royals.  Jackie played for the team as second baseman.  Then in 1947, he was invited to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first African American to play major league baseball.  Later, in 1962, Jackie also became the first African American to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
  • (1950) Ralph Johnson Bunche : Ralph Johnson Bunche was born in Detroit in 1904.  He received a P.h.D. from Harvard University in 1934 and taught political science at Howard University.  By 1941, Ralph was working as Chief Research Analyst in the Office of Strategic Services and in 1945 became a division head in the Department of State.  In 1946, he became the Director of the Trusteeship Division of the United Nations.  And in 1947, he became Principal Secretary of the UN Palestine Commission.  In 1950, Ralph became the first African American to win a Nobel Peace Prize for mediating the 1948 Arab-Israeli truce.
  • (1950) Gwendolyn Brooks : Gwendolyn Brooks was born in Kansas in 1917, but later moved to Chicago.  She received an Associates Degree in Literature from Wilson Junior College.  When in high school, Gwendolyn authored collections of poetry that were published in the Chicago Defender, and in 1945 she published her own poetry collections in her book entitled A Street in Bronzeville.  In 1949, Gwendolyn published Annie Allen, which led her to be the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1950.
  • (1957) Althea Gibson : Althea Gibson was born in 1927 in South Carolina to parents that were sharecroppers on a cotton farm.  When she was 3 years old, her family moved to Harlem.  Growing up there, Althea played paddle tennis on the street and in 1939, when she was only 12 years old, she won the New York City Women’s Paddle Tennis Championship.  In 1940, family friends and neighbors collected a fund to pay for Althea to join the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club.  And the next year, at age 14, she won the New York State Championship of the American Tennis Association.  In 1944 and 1945, while still a teen, she won the girl’s division of the American Tennis Association’s national championships.  By 1949, Althea was competing in United States Tennis Association tournaments and she won a scholarship to Florida A&M University.  In 1950, Althea competed in the U.S. Open in New York but lost.  The following year, she won the Caribbean Championship in Jamaica.  In 1955, Althea was sent on a tour of Asia by the U.S. State Department.  After the tour, she went on to win several competitions throughout Asia and Europe.  Then in 1956, she became the first African American to win the French Open.  And the following year, she became the first African American to win at Wimbledon, receiving a trophy from Queen Elizabeth.
  • (1958) Count Basie : Count Basie was born William Allen Basie in 1904 in New Jersey.  His mother taught him piano.  When he was a young man, he toured with vaudeville acts playing piano and organ, and also played for silent films.  In 1928, he joined a jazz band.  And in 1938, he was broadcast on the radio.  Basie’s band gained international recognition, and in 1943 they were hired to play in a New York hotel.  Basie’s band went on to tour in Europe and Japan.  His Count Basie Orchestra played with renowned musicians including Billie Holliday and Frank Sinatra.  In 1958, Basie became the first African American male Grammy award winner.
  • (1958) Ella Fitzgerald : Ella Fitzgerald was born in 1917 in Virginia, but grew up in poverty in Yonkers, New York.  At the age of 17, she sang in and won an amateur contest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.  She was then invited to join Chick Webb’s band and began performing at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem.  Ella’s first nation-wide musical hit was A-Tisket, A-Tasket in 1938.  Chick Webb died in 1939, and Ella continued to lead the band.  Ella became well-known for her musical talents and wrote and performed several hits.  In 1958 (the same year that Count Basie was the first African American male to win a Grammy), Ella became the first female African American Grammy award winner.  Ella went on to win a total of 13 Grammy’s and sold tens of millions of records.
  • (1967) Robert H. Lawrence, Jr. : Robert H. Lawrence, Jr. was born in Chicago in 1935.  He graduated from Englewood High School and later from Bradley University with a degree in chemistry.  While attending Bradley University, Robert was a member of the ROTC.  He became a U.S. Air Force pilot in 1956.  Robert was recognized by NASA for his research related to flight maneuvers and flight characteristics necessary for spacecraft to return to Earth from orbit.  In 1965, Robert earned his Ph.D. in Chemistry from Ohio State University.  Then in 1967, he was selected in the Manned Orbital Laboratory as the first African American to be selected as an astronaut for space travel.  Lawrence however never made it outer space.  He was killed only six months after being selected as an astronaut in a jet crash when he was flying as an instructor with a student pilot.
  • (1967) Thurgood Marshall : Thurgood Marshall was born in Maryland, the great-grandson of a slave.  His father was a railroad porter and his mother was an elementary school teacher.  He graduated from Frederick Douglass High School in 1925 and from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1930.  Thurgood was denied admission to the University of Maryland School of Law because of his race.  So he instead attended Howard University Law School and graduated in 1933.  Thurgood then became a lawyer for the NAACP, during which time he represented another young black student that was denied admission to the University of Maryland School of Law because of their race and won the case.  In 1954, Thurgood represented a group of black students, namely Linda Brown in the case known as Brown vs. Board of Education.  In this case, the prior Supreme Court ruling from 1896 known as Plessy vs. Ferguson (which declared “separate but equal” rules) was overturned and deemed unconstitutional.  In 1961, Thurgood was appointed by President John F. Kennedy to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.  And in 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him as the first African American Justice of the Supreme Court, where he served for the next 24 years.
  • (1983) Guion Stewart Bluford, Jr. : Guion Stewart Bluford was born and raised in Philadelphia.  In 1964, he graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a degree in aerospace engineering.  He later completed pilot training at Williams Air Force Base in Arizona.  Guion was then sent to Vietnam in 1967, where he flew 144 combat missions.  After the war, he became a flight instructor at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas.  He went on to complete a Master of Science degree in aerospace engineering in 1974, and also obtained his P.h.D. in 1978.  In 1978, Guion was selected for the NASA astronaut training program.  And in 1983, he became the first African American astronaut to launch into outer space.
  • (1984) Vanessa Williams : Vanessa Williams was born in New York in 1963.  Her parents were music teachers and she grew up learning to play instruments.  After graduating high school, Vanessa attended Syracuse University, majoring in theater.  While in college, she began competing in beauty pageants.  In 1983, Vanessa won the title of Miss Greater Syracuse, then later the title of Miss New York.  And in 1984, Vanessa became the first African American to win Miss America.
  • (2001) Robert Louis Johnson : Robert Louis Johnson was born in Mississippi in 1946.  His family later moved to Illinois where he attended the University of Illinois and earned a Bachelor of Arts in History.  Robert went on to obtain his Master of Public Administration from Princeton in New Jersey in 1972.  He then moved to Washington D.C. and worked his way up to the position of VP of Governmental Relations at the National Cable Television Association.  It was at the NCTA that Robert worked on developing programs that were targeted to African American viewers.  Robert went on to convince an investor to fund a project for a network geared toward a black audience, and in 1980, BET was born.  In the beginning, BET mostly aired old black films.  But Johnson began to incorporate promoting R&B and Hip-Hop artists in programming.  BET grew to be a full-time nationwide independent network, becoming a publicly traded company in 1991.  The growth of BET let Johnson to becoming the first African American billionaire.
  • (2001) Colin Powell : Colin Powell was born in the Bronx, New York to parents who were immigrants from Jamaica.  He attended public schools in South Bronx, and went on to attend college at City University of New York, where he also enrolled in ROTC.  After graduating, he made his career in the United States Army and served in Vietnam.  Later, Colin earned a Masters Degree from George Washington University.  By 1986, he was a Three-Star General and commanded a unit in Germany.  In 1987, under President Ronald Reagan, he was appointed National Security Advisor.  He then became the first African American promoted to Four-Star General.  In 1989, Colin was appointed by President George H.W. Bush as the first African American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  Colin retired from the military in 1993.  Eight years later, he returned to Washington and was appointed by President George W. Bush as the first African American Secretary of State, the position of which he held until 2005.
  • (2009) Barack Obama, Jr. : Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, the son of an African father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas.  When he was young, his mother remarried and was living in Indonesia, but left Barack to live with his grandparents in Hawaii where he attended a prestigious prep school.  He went on to attend college in California, later transferring to Columbia University in New York.  He then went to law school at Harvard University, graduating in 1992.  Barack then moved to Chicago where he met his future wife, Michelle Robinson, who was an attorney.  In 1994, Barack was elected to the Illinois State Senate.  In 2004, he was elected to the United States Senate.  In 2007, he announced his candidacy for President of the United States, going on to win the election and beginning his term in 2009.  It is disputed by many that Barack Obama, Jr. was not the first African American president of the United States.  Many before him had African ancestry.  However, he was the first African American President that “looks black” and identifies himself as black (can’t really be denied), was the first presidential candidate to ever utilize cell phone technology to promote his campaign, and also raised more money than any other candidate in American history.

 

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