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African American history is about much more than chronicling a series of "firsts." The time and place of a breakthrough reflects not only remarkable individual achievement but is itself an indication of the progress or lack of progress of black people in realizing the centuries-old intertwined goals of freedom, equality, and justice. Our 2014 Black History Month Observance examines the progreess toward those goals by acknowledging those who were the first in their fields of endeavor. We at BlackPast.org have assembled the following list which provides the names of the first African Americans in a variety of areas of achievement in government, law, diplomacy, the military, science and medicine, sports, literature, and other fields. Some of the names below like Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, Halle Berry, or Barack Obama will be known to most who read this list. Other names are less well known. Regardless of their fame, we applaud the efforts of all on this list as we encourage many, many others to follow in their footsteps.
African-American Firsts: Government
- Officeholder in colonial America: Matthias de Souza, 1641
State elected official: Alexander Lucius Twilight, 1836.
Municipal elected official: John Mercer Langston, 1855.
- County sheriff: Walter Burton, 1869.
- State Supreme Court Justice: Jonathan Jasper Wright, 1870.
- City mayor: Robert Wood, 1870.
- U.S. Representative: Joseph Rainey,1870.
- U.S. Senator (appointed): Hiram Revels, 1870.
- Governor (appointed): P.B.S. Pinchback, 1872.
- Person to run for the presidency: George Edwin Taylor, 1904.
- Woman legislator: Crystal Bird Fauset, 1938.
- U.S Senator (elected) Edward Brooke, 1966.
- U.S. cabinet member: Robert C. Weaver, 1966.
- Mayor of major city: Carl Stokes, 1967.
- Woman U.S. Representative: Shirley Chisholm, 1969.
- Woman cabinet officer: Patricia Harris, 1977.
- Governor (elected): L. Douglas Wilder, 1989.
- Woman mayor of a major U.S. city: Sharon Pratt Dixon Kelly, 1991.
- Woman U.S. Senator: Carol Mosely Braun, 1992.
- U.S. Secretary of State: Colin Powell, 2001.
- Woman Secretary of State: Condoleezza Rice, 2005.
- Major party nominee for President: Sen. Barack Obama, 2008.
- U.S. President: Barack Obama, 2009.
- Woman U.S. Attorney General: Loretta E. Lynch, 2015.
African-American Firsts: Law
African-American Firsts: Diplomacy
African-American Firsts: Military
African-American Firsts: Science and Medicine
- U.S Army unit to have black men comprise more than half of its troops: 1st Rhode Island Regiment, 1778.
- Commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy: Robert Smalls, 1863.
- Commissioned officer above the rank of Captain in the U.S. Army: Major Martin R. Delany, 1865.
- West Point graduate: Henry O. Flipper, 1877.
- Graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy: Wesley A. Brown, 1949.
- Congressional Medal of Honor winner: Sgt. William H. Carney, 1900.
- Combat pilot: Eugene Jacques Bullard, 1917.
- General: Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., 1940.
- Woman general: Hazel W. Johnson, 1979.
- Woman to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy: Janie L. Mines, 1980.
- Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: Colin Powell, 1989–1993.
- Woman Rear Admiral in the United States Navy: Lillian Fishburne, 1998.
- Patent holder: Thomas L. Jennings, 1821.
- Hospital dedicated to black patient care: The Georgia Infirmary, 1832.
- M.D. degree: James McCune Smith, 1837.
- M.D. degree from a U.S. Medical School: David Jones Peck, 1847.
- Woman to receive an M.D. degree: Rebecca Lee Crumpler, 1864.
Woman patent holder: Judy Reed, 1884.
Female Dental Surgeon: Ida Gray Nelson Rollins, 1890.
- Black-owned hospital: Provident Hospital founded by Daniel Hale Williams, 1891.
- Heart surgery pioneer: Daniel Hale Williams, 1893.
- Developer of the blood bank: Dr. Charles Drew, 1940.
Member of the National Academy of Sciences: David Harold Blackwell, 1965.
- Astronaut: Robert H. Lawrence, Jr., 1967.
- Implantation of heart defibrillator: Levi Watkins, Jr., 1980.
- Astronaut to travel in space: Guion Bluford, 1983.
- Head of the National Science Foundation: Walter E. Massey, 1990.
- Woman astronaut: Mae Jemison, 1992.
- President of the American Medical Association: Lonnie Bristow, 1995
- Space Shuttle Commander: Frederick D. Gregory, 1998.
African-American Firsts: Scholarship
African-American Firsts: Art and Literature
College graduate (B.A.): Alexander Lucius Twilight, 1823.
- Graduate of an Ivy League School: Theodore Sedgewick Wright, 1828
- College professor: Charles Lewis Reason, 1849.
- Woman to graduate from a college, Lucy Stanton, 1850.
- College president: Daniel A. Payne, 1856.
- Non-white public high school: Paul Lawrence Dunbar High, 1870.
- Ph.D.: Edward A. Bouchet, 1876. .
- Elected to Phi Beta Kappa, George Washington Henderson, 1877.
- Rhodes scholar: Alain L. Locke, 1907.
- Women Ph.D's: Georgiana Simpson, Sadie Tanner Mossell and Eva Beatrice Dykes, 1921.
- Ivy League University president: Ruth Simmons, 2001.
- Poet: Lucy Terry, 1746.
- Published autobiography: Briton Hammon, 1760.
Poet (published): Phillis Wheatley, 1773.
- Recognized artist: Joshua Johnston, 1790, portraiture.
- Woman's autobiography: Jarena Lee, 1831.
- Male Novelist: William Wells Brown, 1853.
- Woman novelist, Harriett Wilson, 1859.
- Recognized photographer: James Conway Farley, 1885
Pulitzer prize winner: Gwendolyn Brooks, 1950.
- Pulitzer prize winner in Drama: Charles Gordone, 1970
- Poet Laureate: Robert Hayden, 1976.
- Nobel Prize for Literature winner: Toni Morrison, 1993.
- Woman Poet Laureate: Rita Dove, 1993.
African-American Firsts: Newspapers and Other Print Media
African-American Firsts: Music and Dance
African-American Firsts: Film and Theater
- First African American film company: Lincoln Motion Picture Company, 1916.
- Film director: Oscar Micheaux, 1919.
- First Oscar winner: Hattie McDaniel, 1940.
- First Honorary Oscar: James Baskett, 1948.
- Tony Award Winner: Juanita Hall, 1950.
- Oscar, Best Actor: Sidney Poitier 1963.
- Director for a major Hollywood studio: Gordon Parks, 1969.
- Woman director for a major Hollywood Studio: Julie Dash, 1991.
- Oscar, Best Actress: Halle Berry, 2001.
- First President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (The Oscars): Cheryl Boone Isaacs, 2013.
African-American Firsts: Radio and Television
African-American Firsts: Sports
- Jockey to Win Kentucky Derby: Oliver Lewis, 1875.
- Professional baseball player: Moses Fleetwood Walker, 1884
- Professional Golfer: John Matthew Shippen, Jr., 1896.
- World cycling champion: Marshall W. "Major" Taylor, 1899.
- Olympic medalist (Summer games): George Poage, 1904.
- Olympic gold medalist (Summer games): John Baxter "Doc" Taylor, 1908.
- World Heavyweight boxing champion: Jack Johnson, 1908.
NFL football coach: Fritz Pollard, 1922–1937.
- Professional Race Car Driver, Rajo Jack De Soto, 1923
- Olympic gold medalist (Summer games; individual): DeHart Hubbard, 1924.
- Major league baseball player in the 20th Century: Jackie Robinson, 1947.
- Woman gold medalist (Summer games; individual): Alice Coachman, 1948.
- NFL quarterback: Willie Thrower, 1953.
- Wimbledon tennis champion: Althea Gibson, 1957.
- NHL hockey player: Willie O'Ree, 1958, Boston Bruins.
- NASCAR stock car driver to win a major race: Wendell Oliver Scott, 1963.
- Male tennis champion: Arthur Ashe, 1968.
- Professional Bowlers Association Champion: George Branham III, 1985
- Olympic medalist (Winter games): Debi Thomas, 1988.
- Golf champion: Tiger Woods, 1997.
- Chess Grandmaster: Maurice Ashley, 1999
- Olympic gold medalist (Winter games): Vonetta Flowers, 2002.
- Olympic gold medalist (Winter games; individual): Shani Davis, 2006.
African-American Firsts: Religion
Baptist Church:David George and the Silver Bluff Baptist Church, 1773.
- African Episcopal (AME) Church: Mother Bethel AME Church, 1794.
- Church-Sponsored African American College: Wilberforce University, 1856.
- Episcopal Church Bishop: James Theodore Holly, 1879
- Pentecostal Faith Revival: William J. Seymour and the Azusa Street Revival, 1906.
- National Black Catholic Fraternal Order: Knights of St. Peter Claver, 1909.
- Woman Bishop in the Episcopal (Anglican) Church: Barbara Harris, 1989.
- Woman Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church: Vashti Murphy McKenzie, 2000.
- President of the Southern Baptist Convention, Fred Luter, Jr., 2012
African-American Firsts: Business and Labor
- Landowners: Anthony and Mary Johnson, 1640.
- Black-owned insurance company: The African Insurance Company, 1810.
- Black Labor Union: American League of Colored Laborers, 1850.
Black-owned Bank: True Reformers Bank, 1889.
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- Black-owned resort: Highland Beach, Maryland, 1893.
- Millionaire: Robert Abbott, founder of the Chicago Defender in 1905.
- Automobile manufacturing company: C.R. Patterson & Sons, 1915.
- Record Company: Black Swan Records, 1921.
- Black-owned Youth Camp: Camp Atwater, 1921.
- Black-owned metropolitian newspaper: Robert Maynard and the Oakland Tribune, 1983
- Billionaire: Robert Johnson, 2001, owner of Black Entertainment Television.
Other African-American Firsts:
- Explorer, North Pole: Matthew Henson, 1909.
- First Secret Service Agent, Charles LeRoy Gittens, 1956.
Licensed Pilot: Bessie Coleman, 1921.
- Explorer, South Pole: George Gibbs, 1939–1941.
- Captain of an American Merchant Marine ship: Hugh Mulzac, 1942.
- Pilot for commercial airline: Perry Young, Jr., 1957.
- Flight Attendant: Ruth Carol Taylor, 1958.
- President of Girl Scouts, USA, Gloria Dean Randall Scott, 1975
- Woman commercial airline pilot: Jill Elaine Brown, 1978.
- Miss America: Vanessa Williams, 1984.
- Sail solo around the world: William Pinkney, 1990-1992
- Miss USA: Carole Ann-Marie Gist, 1990.
- President of the National League of Women Voters, Carolyn Jefferson-Jenkins, 1994.
- President of the National Parent-Teacher Association (PTA): Lois Jean White, 1995
- Flight around the world: Barrington Irving, 2007.
- Explorer, North Pole: Barbara Hillary, 2007.
Jessie Carney Smith, Black Firsts: 4,000 ground-Breaking and Pioneering Historical Events (Detroit, Visible Ink Press, 2003); Charles M. Christian, Black Saga: The African American Experience, A Chronology (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995); Factmonster.com, http://www.factmonster.com/spot/bhmfirsts.html
For a detailed chronology of African American history please consult the following BlackPast.org timelines:
African American history, 1601-1700
African American history, 1701-1800
African American history, 1801-1900
African American history, 1901-2000
African American history, 2001-