Black History Makers We Don't Hear About During Black History Month
A look back at America's Black NASCAR, opera and country music pioneers
Though people have begun to debate the relevance of Black History Month in an age in which our country has a black president, most people are willing to acknowledge that there are plenty of people--black and white--who are unfamiliar with many of our country's most impressive history makers of color. Each February, we honor some of them, but have you ever noticed that we tend to honor many of the same ones year after year? Harriet Tubman is without question one of America's greatest black female heroines, and George Washington Carver was one of our most important inventors, but most of us have been hearing about them and their extraordinary contributions since we were children. So as we celebrate the conclusion of Black History Month we want to tribute to some black history makers who fewer may know. Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments section below.
Gen. Benjamin Davis (1877-1970): In 1940 Davis became the first black general in the U.S. Army. His son, Benjamin Davis, Jr. later became the first black general of the U.S. Airforce and was the Commander of the Tuskeegee Airmen.
Vivien Thomas (1910-1985): In 1944 while working as a surgical technician at Johns Hopkins, Thomas perfected a surgical procedure to successfully treat "blue baby syndrome." The procedure has been credited with saving countless lives. Though Thomas received virtually no recognition at the time (the procedure was ultimately named for the white doctor Thomas trained to perform it) Thomas was awarded an honorary doctorate by Johns Hopkins in 1976 and his life became the basis of an award-winning HBO film in 2004.
Juanita Hall (1901-1968): In 1950 Hall became the first black person to win theatre's highest honor, a Tony Award for her performance in the musical "South Pacific." (Known for her ambiguous racial appearance it was one of many roles in which Hall portrayed a character who was not African-American.)
Barbara Smith Conrad (1940-the present): In 1957 after becoming one of the first black students to integrate the University of Texas at Austin, the music major also became the first African-American to be cast in a leading role in a performance there. The Texas legislature forced her removal from the production, and the ensuing controversy garnered her national support from the Civil Rights Movement and high profile activists and entertainers like Harry Belafonte. Conrad went on to have a successful career as an opera singer at the Met and other premier institutions around the world. She was the subject of a documentary "When I Rise" in 2010 and was honored by the Texas legislature in 2009. The University of Texas eventually designated her a Distinguished Alumni.
Wendell Scott (1921-1990): In 1963 Scott became the first African-American to win the Grand National/Winston Cup Series, making him the first black driver to breakthrough on the NASCAR circuit.
Uriah Jones (1924-2000): Jones became the first African-American to win a national championship in the historically white and affluent world of fencing in 1971.
Guion "Guy" Bluford (1942-the present): After earning a PhD. in aerospace engineering, with a minor in physics, as well as an MBA and also undergoing pilot training at Williams Airforce Base, in 1983 Bluford became the first African-American astronaut in space.
Debi Thomas (1967-the present): In 1988 Thomas became the first African-American to earn an Olympic medal for figure skating when she won a bronze medal.
Charlie Pride (1938- the present): In 1993 Pride, one of the few black performers to find success in country music, became the first black member of the Grand Ole Opry, one of country music's highest honors.
Vonetta Flowers (1973-the present): In 2002 Flowers became the first African-American to win a gold medal in the Winter Olympics when she and her partner Jill Bakken won the bobsledding event.
Vernice Armour (1973- the present): A former Captain in the U.S. Marines, during the 2003 American invasion of Iraq Armour became America's first African-American female combat pilot.