Freedom of Thought

5 Black H⁠i⁠s⁠t⁠or⁠i⁠cal F⁠i⁠gures You Should Know

By: Gabriel Nadales / February 1, 2023

Gabriel Nadales

National Director, Our America

Freedom of Thought

February 1, 2023

This month, we remember and celebrate Black History.

American history is replete with great men who have sacrificed their lives in the pursuit of equality and opportunity for all. Each February, during Black History Month, Americans look back at the contributions Black Americans have had in shaping our country.

Without a doubt, Black American history is American history. So here are 5 Black historical figures you should know:

  1. Crispus Attucks

    Crispus Attucks may not be a household name, but his importance to the American Revolution is unquestionable. Crispus was an American sailor and whaler born around 1723 in Farmington, Massachusetts. 

    Not many people know this, but Crispus Attucks, a Black American, was the first person killed in the Boston Massacre of 1770. Crispus Attucks’ death inspired countless patriots to fight for freedom against the tyrannical British.

  2. Frederick Douglass

    Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818 somewhere in Maryland. Early in life, Douglass saw the connection between literacy and freedom, but as a slave, he was prevented from getting a formal education. Determined, Douglass taught himself to read and a few years later escaped slavery by traveling to New York with the help of a free Black woman named Anna Murray, who he later married.

    After later moving to Massachusetts, Douglass became a passionate abolitionist and challenged Americans to live up to the ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence and extend the rights of equality to Black men. 

    During the Civil War, he recruited Black Americans to fight for the Union. Frederick Douglass also met with President Abraham Lincoln to advocate for Black Americans, and after the Civil War, Douglass was instrumental in securing support for the 15th Amendment which granted Black Americans the right to vote.

  3. Robert Smalls

    Born into slavery in Beaufort, South Carolina, Robert Smalls, freed himself, his family, and his friends for colleagues by commandeering a Confederate transport ship. 

    Robert was enslaved to the Confederate ship during the Civil War. One night, when the confederate crew members went ashore, Smalls and the enslaved crewmembers commandeered the ship to pick up their families and sail to freedom in the North. Smalls had to navigate through Confederate waters, but he was able to give the proper signals to prevent other Confederate forces from attacking the ship. 

    Once in the Union, Smalls served as a pilot in various ships in the fight against the Confederacy until he was named captain of the very ship he stole from the Confederacy. Smalls battled the South until the end of the war. After the war, Robert Smalls served 5 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives until 1887.

  4. Booker T. Washington

    Booker T. Washington was born a slave in 1856 in Franklin County, Virginia but received his freedom when slavery was abolished in 1863. From an early age, Washington had many jobs but by age 9 he began attending classes from an educated Black man who came to his town.

    Washington wanted to learn from the educator but his family depended on his salary to survive, so he continued working while he learned to read and write. When he turned 16, Washington traveled to the Hampton Institute where he put himself through college by becoming a janitor for the Institute.

    In his 20’s, he opened his own school. As one of the last Black leaders born into slavery, he became an advocate for interracial relations.

    Unlike other civil rights leaders who fought for equality directly, Washington believed that self-advancement was the key to achieving respect and equality from White people.

    His tactics helped him become a close ally and advisor to two presidents, President Teddy Roosevelt and President William Howard Taft. In fact, Teddy Roosevelt invited Washington to his presidential inauguration, becoming the first Black invitee to the event.

  5. Salem Poor

    Salem Poor was an American Revolutionary Hero if there ever was one. Born into slavery in the 1740s, Poor purchased his freedom for the modern equivalent of around $6,000 and eventually enlisted in General George Washington’s Continental Army fighting in pivotal battles against the British military, such as the Battle of Bunker Hill in Massachusetts on June 17, 1775.

    Poor had performed so admirably that the commanding officers present at Bunker Hill petitioned General George Washington that he be commended for his admirable leadership during the battle. And yet, Salem Poor was just one of roughly 5,000 Black Americans who fought in the American Revolution.

Black Americans have a long history in the United States, many dedicating their lives to fight for the equality and freedom we all cherish. By exploring the heroes of Black history, we have the opportunity to honor their sacrifices.