Some Familiar Names… and Some You May Not Yet Know 

As we celebrate Black History Month at FRCC, it’s important to look to our past—as well as to the future. In that vein, a colleague and I spent some time researching several Black Americans and their achievements.  

We encountered some very familiar names, but also found some that we didn’t know much about (or hadn’t heard of before). As a society, there is always more we can learn about our African American history—and, of course, we can and should do that year-round. 

As a step toward getting started, below we feature 10 great Black Americans and their remarkable accomplishments. The idea is to spark your interest, in hopes that you might be inspired to learn more on your own. We start with some historical names from the past—and work our way up to modern times. 

Alice Ball 

1892- 1916 

Alice Augusta Ball was born in Washington state in 1892 to a well-off family. Both of Ball’s parents were members of the African American community but were listed as ‘White’ on her birth certificate. It has been suggested this was an attempt to reduce the racism that their daughter would face. At school, Ball achieved top grades in the sciences. She went on to study Chemistry at the University of Washington and earned two bachelor’s degrees, one in pharmaceutical chemistry and the other in pharmacy. 

Ball was given a scholarship to study a master’s degree in chemistry at what is now the University of Hawaii. She graduated in 1915. During her time there, she studied the chemical properties of a plant species that has sedative properties. Because of her experience with plant chemistry, she was approached to study chaulmoogra oil as a treatment for leprosy. At the time, patients with leprosy had almost no chance of recovery and were sent to the Hawaiian island of Molokai, where they were expected to die. The best treatment was chaulmoogra oil, but it wasn’t very effective and was difficult to administer. 

At 23, Ball developed a method to prepare the oil and make it suitable for injection. Unfortunately, Ball died a year later, before she could publish her findings. The chemist Arthur L Dean stole her work and took credit for the method to prepare the oil, naming the process after himself. The oil was used to successfully treat leprosy for 20 years. 

In 1922, six years after Ball’s death, Hollman published a paper giving credit to Ball and calling the method she developed the “Ball Method.” In the 1970s, two professors at the University of Hawaii searched the archives to find Ball’s research but it wasn’t until 2000 that she finally gained the recognition she deserved. 

Jesse Owens 

1913 – 1980 

James “Jesse” Owens was born in 1913 in Oakville, Alabama. He grew into an excellent track and field athlete, setting three world records and tying another, all in less than an hour, at the 1935 Big Ten track meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan—a feat that has never been equaled and has been called “the greatest 45 minutes ever in sport.” 

A year later, Jesse competed in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany. This was a difficult Olympic year for nonwhite athletes. Adolf Hitler was rising to power in Germany. There was a lot of racism against Black people. Jesse won four gold medals and broke two Olympic records. He helped the U.S. dominate that year in the Olympics. Despite this, he did not receive the same homecoming as the white athletes. President Franklin D. Roosevelt failed to meet or congratulate him, as was customary. He was not properly recognized for his Olympic achievement until 1976. President Gerald Ford awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

He retired from amateur sports following the 1936 Olympics. He earned money by racing against horses and cars. He even played with the Harlem Globetrotters! Eventually, he started his own marketing business in Chicago. Jessie married and had three daughters. He died in 1980 from lung cancer. 

Ella Fitzgerald 

1917 – 1942 

Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born in Virginia on April 25th, 1917. Ella performed in concert halls all over the world and became known as the “First Lady of Jazz” and the “First Lady of Song.” She also appeared in films and recorded live concert albums, becoming one of the bestselling vocal recording jazz artists in history. She was the first woman to perform this type of music to a wide audience around the world. Ella was recognized and respected by a diverse audience, who loved her lyrics, vocal expression and wide range of notes. 

Ella was a particularly successful ballad singer and, throughout her career, was given many awards and titles. She won 13 Grammy Awards and sold over 40 million albums. She was also the first woman to achieve the prestigious Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. 

During Ella’s life, she faced discrimination because she was Black. Ella’s manager felt very strongly about civil rights and always demanded equal treatment for his musicians. Marilyn Monroe, a famous White actress, model and singer of the time, used her influence in a positive way to help Ella get the recognition that she deserved for her singing. Marilyn sat in the front row of the Mocambo Club each time Ella sang and brought with her a following of photographers from the press. Ella got so much attention that she never sang in small venues again.  

In 1993, Ella started The Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation to use her fame to help others—particularly young children and adults of all races, cultures and beliefs—to have better life opportunities. 

Malcolm X 

1925 – 1965 

Malcolm X was a famous leader during the American Civil Rights Movement. He was born May 19, 1925, in Nebraska. He was one of eight children in the Little family. His father was a civil rights activist and supported equal rights for African American people. Due to this, the family was continually threatened and had to move. His father was killed in 1931. 

Born as Malcolm Little, he eventually changed his name to Malcolm X. He said his original last name was the name White people had given him. Malcolm dropped out of school and later went to prison for stealing. He then became active in the Nation of Islam and became a leader in of the Black Rights Movement. At the time, the Nation of Islam taught that the White societies were trying to keep African American from economic and social success and empowerment. 

The National of Islam believed that they should form a separate nation from white Americans and that they should defend their rights, doing whatever it takes, including the use of violence to do so. 

After making a pilgrimage to Mecca, Malcolm X changed his methods of achieving civil rights for African Americans. He began to be more peaceful. He was quoted as saying that he had met “blond-haired, blue eyed-men I could call my brothers” and that he hoped for a new integration between Blacks and Whites and resigned as the leader of the Nation of Islam. 

Tragically, other members of the NOI didn’t like Malcolm’s change in beliefs and on February 15, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated by members of the Nation of Islam in New York City. 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

1929 – 1968 

Martin Luther King was a civil rights activist in the 1950s and 1960s. He was passionate for equal rights of all people including African Americans and led many protests aimed at and highlighting the division between White people and Black people. 

In 1963, Martin Luther King helped to organize the famous “March on Washington” where over a quarter of a million people wanted to show the need for civil rights and equality amongst all races. They wanted to stop the segregation between White and Black people in public places such as schools, buses, housing and employment. During this march, Martin Luther King gave, what is now known as his “I have a dream speech,” in which he talked about wanting a world where his children wouldn’t be judged by the color of their skin. 

During his work and protests for civil rights, Martin Luther King was arrested many times but he was also rewarded for his hard work by receiving a Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality. He was the 

youngest man, at the age of 35, to win this prestigious award. In 1968, at the age of 39, whilst standing on a balcony, Dr. King was shot dead by Thomas Earl Ray. His death brought outbreaks of racial violence and riots across the country. During his funeral, tens of thousands of people lined the streets to pay tribute to him. Before his death, Martin Luther King spoke of how he wanted to be remembered. “I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King tried to give his life serving others.” 

The Little Rock Nine 

In 1954, the civil rights movement gained momentum when the US Supreme Court made segregation illegal in public schools in the case of Brown v. Board of Education. In 1957, Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas asked for volunteers from all-Black high schools to attend the formerly segregated school. 

On September 3, 1957, nine Black students, known as the Little Rock Nine, arrived at Central High School to begin classes but were instead met by the Arkansas National Guard (on the order of Governor Orval Faubus) and a screaming, threatening mob. The Little Rock Nine tried again a couple of weeks later and made it inside, but had to be removed for their safety when violence ensued. 

Finally, President Dwight D. Eisenhower intervened and ordered federal troops to escort the Little Rock Nine to and from classes at Central High. Still, the students faced continual harassment and prejudice. Their efforts, however, brought much-needed attention to the issue of desegregation and fueled protests on both sides of the issue. 

Muhammad Ali 

1942- 2016 

Muhammad Ali was born on January 17th, 1942 in Kentucky. His birth name was Cassius Marcellus Clay Junior.  

Ali was an American boxer. During his professional career, he fought in 61 boxing matches and recorded 56 wins, 37 of which were knockouts. 

In 1964, a few days after becoming world champion, Cassius converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali.  

in 1967, Ali was called to join the Vietnam War through the draft. Many people believed that the draft was very unfair as most American soldiers drafted to Vietnam were from poor and working-class families. Men were able to delay or ask for exemption. Reasons for exemption included: being a college student, being employed in certain job roles, being married, being a father, or having a medical condition. 

Ali’s application for exemption from the draft due to being a conscientious objector was denied and he was arrested for draft evasion. Ali was fined $10,000, banned from boxing for three years, sentenced to five years in prison and had his passport taken. 

Ali did not serve time in prison because he was allowed bail while he appealed the decision in court. Although he did not go to prison, Ali suffered greatly for his decision not to enlist. HE was stripped of his World Heavyweight title and lost millions of dollars in earnings because he was banned from fighting. 

Ali returned to boxing in October 1970, and the US Supreme Court overturned his conviction in a unanimous decision in 1971. He regained his World Heavyweight title in 1974. 

Lonnie Johnson 

1949 – Present 

Lonnie George Johnson was born in Alabama in 1949. Johnson attended an all-Black high school. During his final year there, he built a one-meter tall, remote-controlled robot, which he called Linex. It was entered into a science fair in which Johnson was the only Black student to attend. At the time, the country was trying to end segregation in schools and many White people were protesting because they didn’t want their children to be exposed to Black children. This made it even more impressive that Linex won first place. 

Johnson won an Air Force scholarship and a math scholarship to Tuskegee University. He graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1973, followed by a master’s degree in nuclear engineering in 1975. Johnson joined the US Air Force and spent four years working on the stealth bomber program. In 1979, he moved to NASA, where he worked on a variety of projects, including developing the nuclear power source for the Galileo mission to Jupiter. 

Johnson is most famous for his invention of the Super Soaker, a powerful water gun, which he came up with when working on the heat pump in his bathroom at home. In 1991, sales of the Super Soaker generated $200 million. He then adapted the design to replace the water with toy projectiles, and the Nerf gun was born. Johnson holds more than 250 patents, most of which are for these toys. 

Johnson founded his own company in 1991 and has recently been working with other scientists to develop a method of transforming heat into electricity. It is hoped that this will make green energy more affordable. 

Simone Biles 

1997- Present 

Simone Biles was born in 1997 in Columbus, Ohio. In 2000, she moved to Spring, Texas. She and her sister lived with their grandparents, who later adopted them. Her natural talents were noticed during a day care field trip to a gymnastics center. The coaches observed her as she imitated the other gymnasts there. The coaches sent a letter home with her that day, requesting her to join. She was six years old when she started at the gym. Her abilities and talents quickly developed from there. 

Biles competed in the junior elite division of the American Classic at age 14. She won the vault and balance beam events. She finished third in the all-around. Two years later, she won gold for the all-around at the World Championships. She was the first female Black American to do this. Her accolades continued. In 2014, she won the U.S. and World titles in the all-around events. She often wows crowds with her signature move, “the Biles.” It is a double-flip with a half-twist performed during her floor routines. By 2015, she was the first woman to win three consecutive world all-around titles. She had a record amount of 10 gold medals from this international competition! 

Simone Biles earned a spot on the 2016 Olympic team. While competing in Rio, she helped her team win gold. Biles, along with swimmer Katie Ledecky, was the most-decorated female athlete of the 2016 Olympics. She came home with an amazing four gold medals and one bronze. Biles continues to train in her sport for her future athletic endeavors. 

Amanda Gorman 

1998 – Present 

Amanda Gorman was the featured poet invited to perform at the 2021 Presidential Inauguration. She is the youngest inaugural poet in history at only 22 years old. Her poem was titled “The Hill We Climb.” This poem acknowledged the challenges prevalent in the world. It also gave hope for the future and provided ways to obtain justice. 

Amanda grew up in Los Angeles, California, and was raised by a single mother. She has a twin sister, Gabrielle. Amanda has dealt with speech and auditory processing challenges throughout her life. Perhaps because of this, she turned to paper to communicate. She developed a love for poetry when she was in elementary school. 

Amanda attended Harvard University. She graduated with honors. She became the first National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017. Amanda is the author of several books. 

FRCC Director of Student Life Mindy Kinnaman assisted in writing and compiling the information for this post

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