Everybody knows about famous African-American firsts like Martin Luther King and Barack Obama. But did you know about the amazing feats of these lesser-known black pioneers?
Booker T. Washington (1856-1915)
Booker T. Washington was a man of many firsts. He was the first African-American to be invited to the White House, by President Theodore Roosevelt. He was also the first African-American to be depicted on a postage stamp. For much of his career, Washington was the director of the Tuskegee Institute, a teaching college for African-Americans, but he gained much of his fame from his eloquent and impassioned push for racial equality.
Jack Johnson (1878-1946)
Jack Johnson was the first black boxer to be world heavyweight boxing champion. A dominating fighter, Johnson held the title for seven years, even as he was the target of persistent, unrelenting racism, which often found its form in boxing promoters' search for a "great white hope" to dethrone him. Johnson has recently garnered renewed attention thanks to Ken Burns's 2005 documentary, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, based on the book by Geoffrey C. Ward.
Hattie McDaniel (1895-1952)
Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American performer to win an Oscar. She won the award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind (1939).
In other major acting categories, Sydney Poitier was the first black performer to win the award for Best Actor (for Lilies of the Field, 1963), while Louis Gossett Jr. was the first to win Best Supporting Actor (for An Officer and a Gentleman, 1982). The first African-American performer to win Best Actress was Halle Berry, for her role in 2001's Monster's Ball.
Vivien Thomas (1910-1985)
Vivien Thomas was a pioneer in the development of heart surgery to treat blue baby syndrome in newborns. Thomas worked as the assistant to Dr. Alfred Blalock, who is credited with the technique that now bears his name. Yet in recent years, Thomas's contributions have gained wider recognition, thanks in part to a made-for-TV movie in which Thomas was played by Mos Def.
Buck O'Neil (1911-2006)
Buck O'Neil is a true baseball legend. After a distinguished playing career with the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues, O'Neil went on to become a scout for the Chicago Cubs. In 1962 he became the first black coach in Major League Baseball, also for the Cubs. O'Neil died in 2006, and today is honored with the red-colored "Buck O'Neil legacy seat," located behind home plate in Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium.
Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000)
Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize, for her collection of poetry titled Annie Allen. Brooks was also named Poet Laureate of the state of Illinois in 1968, and in 1985 became the Poet Laureate of the United States (which, at the time, was called "The Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress").
Vernon Baker (1919-)
It's rare for any soldier to be awarded the Medal of Honor, but not a single black soldier received the citation during World War II. In 1993, the United States Army commissioned a study that concluded that 10 African-American soldiers had indeed earned the honor, due to their gallantry on the battlefield. Of the 10, only Lieutenant Vernon Baker was still living when President Clinton awarded the medals in 1996.
Bill Russell (1934-)
Bill Russell was already a pro sports legend after leading the Boston Celtics to a championship in 1957, and then again every year from 1959 through 1966. For the 1966-67 season, Russell took the reins of the team as player-coach - the first black coach in the history of the NBA. Russell won two more championships as a coach, retiring with an unprecedented 11 championships.
Ben Carson (1951-)
Ben Carson is a neurosurgeon whose accomplishments are almost too many to list. One of his most notable achievements was to separate a pair of conjoined twins who were attached at the head. In 2008, Carson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bush. In 2009 he was portrayed by Cuba Gooding Jr. in a made-for-TV movie called Gifted Hands.