The journey of finding out one’s heritage can be an exciting and riveting one. Of course, it has its fair share of surprises and bumps but still electrifying nonetheless. However, very little is talked about when it comes to black history. Specifically, the history of African American heroes and their contribution to civilization. Well, you’re in luck. In this guide, we are going to look at 10 great African American heroes who broke color barriers to leave a legacy and impact the world as we know it. While we’ve selected 10 of the most famous people, there are many other heroes we could’ve included that deserve respect all year ’round, and not just during Black History Month.
Martin Robison Delany
Born in May 1812, Martin Robison was a popular abolitionist, journalist, soldier, and writer known for being the first activist of the black American civil rights. He was also a campaigner and one of the earliest African Americans to encourage a return to Africa.
Robison was born in Charles Town now known as West Virginia but was later taken to Pennsylvania together with his siblings by his mother in 1822 to avoid the enslavement and persecution that had started catching up with Charles Town. 11 long years later, Robison began an apprenticeship with a Pittsburgh physician and soon after opened a medical practice in leeching and cupping.
However, while this might have seemed like the peak of his life, he later joined abolitionist leader Fredrick Douglass in 1843 to produce and promote the North Star in New York and eventually joined Harvard in 1850 to finish his medical education. Sadly, less than two weeks later he was dismissed because of petitions to the school from white students.
Two years later, he published “The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the colored people of the United States” which centered on inequality as in regards to blacks and detailed the solution to be the emigration of African Americans back to Africa. In protest to the oppressive condition in the United States, Robison also went as far as moving to Canada in 1856 where he continued his medical practice. But as fate would have it, he returned to the United States between 1861 and 1865 after the civil war began to help recruit troops for the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers.
After the war, Robison tried politics but failed and so he returned to Ohio in 1880 to practice medicine and help earn money to feed and school his children before his demise in January 24th, 1885.
Andre Cailoux was a decorated black businessman and Union Army soldier who died during the American Civil War in 1863. He was born in Louisiana in 1825 in a slave plantation owned by Joseph Duvernay where he lived all his life. Like most other black folks, he was owned by members of the Duvernay family until he was about 21 years of age where his petition for manumission was granted.
In 1847, he met the love of his life Felicie Coulon, got married and had four children born free. They lived a mostly quiet life where he earned his living as a cigar maker. However, he later learned and became fluent in French and English and became a well-respected member of New Orleans.
When the civil war began, he offered his service to the government as was required of every free person of color. However, shortly after Union General Benjamin Butler took the reigns, he needed troops and he turned to the native guards who offered their service during the Civil War and that’s how Andre joined the Union and became the first company to carry the banner for the 1st Regiment.
In May 27th, 1863, due to a poorly coordinated attack on Confederate positions, Andre and 100 of his men suffered heavy casualties. However, Andre, unlike his company, did not live to see the impact his heroism had on the future.
If you look up Robert Smalls, you’ll probably only catch that he was just any other African American who escaped to freedom. However, there’s much more to Robert Smalls than the great escape.
Born in 1839 to Lydia Polite, Robert Smalls lived with his mother as the property of Ashdale plantation owner John McKee. Since his mother was a housekeeper in the plantation, Robert grew up playing with both black and white children of the McKee plantation. Luckily, for him, the plantation owner’s son, Henry McKee (who was suspected to be his father), had a liking for him and treated him favorably.
However, at the age of 9 or 10, his mother sent him to the plantation where she had worked as a child. But instead of learning all about slavery as his mother had intended, he instead came back more determined to break free from slavery. A few years later at about the age of 18, he met a woman who captured his heart but he couldn’t marry her because she was enslaved. However, he still got permission to marry her later on. But there was only one problem, at the back of his mind he knew that one day their children would be sold to another plantation. So he knew he had to break free from the hold of slavery.
In May 1862, while he was out transporting Confederate supplies, he got a chance to pilot the ship and as anyone would do, he stopped to pick up his wife and kids along the way. There were risks, yes, but he was determined to be free and sure enough, by the crack of dawn, they had arrived at the Union territory.
They were free at last.
But that’s not all. From then on, he became a ship pilot for the Union and was commissioned as a second lieutenant where he fought about 17 battles during his service. After the war, he served in South Carlina’s House of Representatives and later in Senate where he made real impact seeking initiatives that could make the African Americans lives better.
Caroline Le Count
Caroline was a young black American school teacher who defied all odds to make a change and leave a legacy. She was one of five students to graduate from the Institute for Colored Youth where she had been an exemplary student outscoring even the boys in the class.
Soon enough, she was named principal of a Philadelphia public school and made history as the second African American female to be a principal of a public school.
However, other than simply being a principal, Caroline was also an ardent activist for equal rights. As such, she joined other women in the Civil War campaign where their primary goal of was civil disobedience aimed at abolishing the segregation practice that encouraged the separation of the blacks from the whites. In addition, they also helped men who were involved in civil rights activism especially in as far as nursing their wounds was concerned.
However, soon enough, because of her continued defiance, Caroline and the rest of the women in the group were forcefully denied the opportunity to use streetcars for transport. As you can imagine, this didn’t go too well with the activists and so after protesting about it for a while and building up the pressure, the rules governing access were revised. So now both African Americans and white folks could access the street cars easily.
You might recognize the name Henry Johnson in one way or another as the soldier who beat a German assault in combat while wounded. But first, a little background into his life.
Henry Johnson was born in Winston North Carolina on July 15th, 1892 where he lived till his early teens when he moved to Albany to work as a redcap porter. However, on June 5th, 1917, he joined the all-black New York National Guard 15th Infantry Regiment which was later redesignated as the 369th Infantry Regiment.
Charles David Jr.
Charles David Jr., an African American hero who showed his valor at Pearl Harbor, was born on June 20th 1917 in New York. However, when the shocking attack on Pearl Harbor occurred on December 7th 1941 and it became evident that the country was going to become involved in World War II, he enlisted in the US Coast Guard. He would have entered the military but at the time, African Americans were limited in terms of what kinds of jobs they could do. So he basically had to work his way up from the bottom. And work he did. Soon enough he moved from being a member of the kitchen staff to fully active serviceman in the Coast Guard by late 1942. In 1943, he became part of a convoy that was escorting a troop transport and two merchant marine ships to an Army Command base in Greenland.
However, on the way there, they got into an accident and the ship began sinking almost instantly. So the Coast Guards had to start a rescue routine. Once the rescue operations were complete, they continued on their journey but while in the base hospital in Greenland, David contracted pneumonia and died within 50 days.
Dorie was an American Messman in the Navy born on October 12th, 1919 in Waco, Texas. You might be wondering why he was named Doris but its actually because the midwife who birthed him was convinced that he would be a baby girl instead.
But far from that. Dorie or Doris was the third of four sons and like his brothers, Dorie liked helping around the house with pretty much anything including doing laundry and cooking. However, other than just being a hard worker both at home and on the farm, he was also a diligent student and was even a fullback on the football team.
However, at the age of 17, when he was forced to attend the eighth grade again, he opted to drop out of school instead and ventured into a world that he knew nothing about. But he didn’t just slack around. He instead enrolled for a correspondence course in taxidermy and completed it and then later applied to join the civilian conservation corps but of course wasn’t accepted.
Having been rejected he opted to continue working in his father farm until he was enlisted in the United States Navy on September 16th, 1939. It didn’t take him much time before he was trained and consequently promoted to mess attendant which was huge at the time. After training, he was assigned to the ammunition ship Pyro and later transferred to the battleship, West Virginia. While in the battleship West Virginia, he started boxing and became the heavyweight and was therefore promoted to mess attendant second class. On December 7, 1941, he discovered that a torpedo had destroyed an aircraft battery. He rushed to the Times Square and reported himself for duty to assist with moving the ship’s captain. However, he found himself caught up in an ammunition job instead where he helped fight the enemy. But soon enough a thick oily smoke had already started generating so they had to move the captain quick. But before they could get far, the Japanese fired two bombs towards them.
Now Miller definitely had to help with the casualties. He helped move the sailors through the oily water and saved the lives of a number of people who were to be goners.
After this incident, Miller was transferred to the heavy cruiser Indianapolis. But he didn’t just go empty handed, he received commendations among them the Distinguished Service Cross and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for being one of the few African American heroes who made a difference.
However, right after a training in Hawaii, his ship was struck by a Japanese torpedo again but this time Miller was not among the survivors. However, he would go down in history as one of the great World War II heroes in African American history.
Claudette Colvin was born in Montgomery Alabama on September 5th, 1939. She is known for plenty of heroic acts. However, the most notable heroic act yet was when she refused to give up her seat on a bus in segregated Montgomery. Sure she was arrested but you could say it catapulted her to becoming a pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement which we all remember her for.
In fact, people believe that Claudette’s bus protest action gave rise to the boycott movements which catapulted a change later on. She might have died as a teenager, but one thing’s for sure, she was one of the few female African American heroes that lived.
Malcolm was born on May 19th, 1925 to Louise Norton Little in Omaha. But unlike the other black African American heroes in this list, its certainly no surprise that Malcolm made the hero list as his father, Earl Little was an outspoken Baptist minister and a great supporter of Marcus Garvey- the Black Nationalist leader. And as they say, like father like son. It didn’t take Malcolm long before he himself became a human rights activist. And a courageous one at that who endlessly advocated for the rights of blacks.
Martin Luther King Jr.
No doubt you’ve heard of Martin Luther King Jr. before. MLK was a famous American Baptist minister and activist who became an iconic spokesperson for equality until his demise in 1968. Though his life was cut short, he has gone on to become one of the most famous black American heroes of all time.
Martin was born on January 15th 1929 to Alberta Williams and Martin Luther King in Atlanta. He was a middle child between his younger brother A.D king and older sister Christine King and was mostly a good child but he suffered from depression for most of his life because he and his white friend were separated as kids and as a result, he ended up resenting white folks altogether.
But as luck would have it, he, later on, fell in love with a white woman. It could have worked probably if King was living in the 21st century but back then, interracial marriages caused a lot of havoc and problems for the couple. And since the whole marriage affair hurt his mother’s feeling so much, he decided to break off the engagement altogether.
Was he heartbroken? Certainly! But he did later find a wonderful woman in Coretta Scott, got married and had four beautiful children. Shortly after, at the age of 25, King received an invitation to be a Pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Alabama. But being the born activist he was, he later became an African American hero who stood for social justice.
Black History Heroes FAQs
Who are African American heroes?
African American heroes are African Americans who fought for equality in the American social and political system and sacrificed themselves to raise the social, cultural and economic status of African Americans.
Who are some of the most famous African American heroes?
There are plenty of African Americans who made a mark in history for their bravery in fighting for equal rights. However, the most notable yet are:
Martin Robison Delany
Caroline Le Count
Charles David Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr.
Who are African Americans?
Black Americans are an ethnic group of Americans with partial or total ancestry from Africa.
Who are some of the famous African American heroines?
The conversation surrounding African American heroes who made a mark in history often centers around men. However, there were women who had a hand in the struggle also. These include:
Caroline Le Count
Wrapping it up
And there you have it, folks! A list of the men and women that made history and impacted the world. These people gave themselves to fighting the good fight so that African Americans could also have a place in the world. Of course, there are many unsung African American heroes who have done amazing work but these ten are some of the most important.