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 progress 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.
Click on the categories below to see all the firsts for African Americans!
Business and Labor
African-American Firsts: Business and Labor
- Landowners: Anthony and Mary Johnson, 1640.
- Black-owned insurance company: The African Insurance
- Black Labor Union: American League of Colored
- Black-owned Bank: True Reformers Bank, 1889.
- 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 metropolitan newspaper: Robert Maynard and the
Oakland Tribune, 1983
- Billionaire: Robert Johnson, 2001, owner of Black Entertainment Television.
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: Pierre Caliste Landry, 1868.
- 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.
- Woman Head of Peace Corps: Carolyn L. Robertson Payton, 1964.
- 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
- Admitted to the Bar: Macon B. Allen, 1845.
- Woman admitted to the bar:Charlotte Ray, 1872.
- Elected municipal judge: Mifflin W. Gibbs, 1873
- Editor, Harvard Law Review: Charles Hamilton Houston, 1919.
- Federal Judge: William Henry Hastie, 1946.
- Woman federal judge: Constance Baker Motley, 1966.
- U.S. Supreme Court Justice: Thurgood Marshall, 1967.
- President of the American Bar Association: Dennis Archer, 2002.
African-American Firsts: Diplomacy
- U.S. ambassador: Ebenezer D. Bassett, 1869.
- Nobel Peace Prize winner: Ralph J. Bunche, 1950.
- Woman U.S. ambassador:Patricia Harris, 1965.
- U.S. Representative to the UN: Andrew Young, 1977.
African-American Firsts: Scholarship
- 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.Ds: Georgiana Simpson, Sadie Tanner Mossell and Eva Beatrice Dykes, 1921.
- Ivy League University president: Ruth Simmons, 2001.
- First National PTA president: Otha Edward Thornton, Jr., 2013.
Medicine and Health
African-American Firsts: Medicine
- 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.
- 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.
- Implantation of heart defibrillator: Levi Watkins, Jr., 1980.
- President of the American Medical Association: Lonnie Bristow, 1995.
African-American Firsts: Religion
- Oldest continuously operating black church in the U.S: Mt. Pisgah A.M.E. 1754
- Oldest black Baptist Church in the U.S: First Baptist Church, 1756
- First Official A.M.E. Church in the U.S: Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, 1794
- 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: 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.
- Oldest African American golf club in the US: The Shady Rest Golf and Country Club, 1921.
- 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.
- First predominantly black basketball team to win an NCAA championship: The Texas Western Miners, 1966
- 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
- Female Olympic gold medalist (Winter games): Vonetta Flowers, 2002.
- Male Olympic gold medalist (Winter games; individual): Shani Davis, 2006.
- Female Licensed Nascar Driver: Tia Norfleet, 2016.
African-American Firsts: Art and Literature
- 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: Music and Dance
- Published musical composition: Francis Johnson, 1817.
- Theatrical company: The African Company, 1821.
- Nationally recognized dance performer: William Henry Lane (Master Juba), 1845.
- Member of the New York City Opera: Todd Duncan, 1945.
- Member of the Metropolitan Opera Company: Marian Anderson, 1955.
- Male Grammy Award winner: Count Basie, 1958.
- Woman Grammy Award winner: Ella Fitzgerald, 1958.
- Principal dancer in a major dance company: Arthur Mitchell, 1959, New York City Ballet.
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
- Radio broadcaster: Jack L. Cooper, 1925.
- Black-owned radio station: WERD, purchased by Jesse B. Blayton, Sr., 1949.
- Network television show host: Nat King Cole, 1956.
- Network news correspondent: Malvin Goode, 1962.
- Star of a network television show: Bill Cosby, 1965.
- Black-owned television station: WGPR-TV, 1975
- First Evening New Anchor: Max Robinson, 1978.
- Woman television show host: Oprah Winfrey, 1986.
African-American Firsts: Military
- 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.
African-American Firsts: Science
- Patent holder: Thomas L. Jennings, 1821.
- Woman patent holder: Judy Reed, 1884.
- Member of the National Academy of Sciences: David Harold Blackwell, 1965.
- Astronaut: Robert H. Lawrence, Jr., 1967.
- Astronaut to travel in space: Guion Bluford, 1983.
- Head of the National Science Foundation: Walter E. Massey, 1990.
- Woman astronaut: Mae Jemison, 1992.
- Space Shuttle Commander: Frederick D. Gregory, 1998.
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.