8 Black Pioneers

8 Black Pioneers You Should Know

When people think of Black pioneers, civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks typically come to mind. Generally, names of abolitionists such as Harriet Tubman and Fredrick Douglass also come to the surface. Some people choose not to travel that far back in time, and they bring up Barack Obama as the front-runner. While these are very significant names in Black history, they aren’t the only noteworthy ones. There is an abundance of Black pioneers who deserve just as much recognition, but for now let’s take a glimpse at eight influential folks you should know.


1.            William Edward Burghardt Dubois

William Edward Burghardt Dubois, better known as W.E.B. Dubois, was a well-known American educator1, sociologist, historian, author, editor and activist from Great Barrington, Massachusetts. He was one of the country’s most crucial Black intellectuals during his era. Not only was he the first Black man to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University, but he also played a significant role as a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.2


2.            Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, also known as “The Father of Modern South Africa”, was the country’s president from 1994 to 1999. Prior to his presidency, he played an instrumental role in peacefully tearing down South Africa’s oppressive government and destroyed the Apartheid regime, which laid the foundation for democracy. His philanthropic duties led him to eventually become the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.3


3.            Shirley Chisholm

Shirley Chisholm of Brooklyn, New York, was truly a catalyst for change. She was the first Black woman to be elected to Congress. From 1969 to 1983, she represented New York’s 12th District, and in 1972, she was the first Black woman to campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. She was beset by racist and sexist opposition and unfortunately failed to win her party’s nomination, but her credentials and her charisma won the attention of many. After her loss, Chisholm went on to serve another 11 years in Congress.4


4.            Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson was an American mathematician from West Virginia who graduated from college at the age of 18. In 1953, Johnson was hired by NASA and later asked to participate in trajectory analysis for their first human spaceflight in 1961 – Alan Shepard's Freedom 7 mission. The following year, Johnson and two fellow Black mathematicians, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, vigorously calculated mathematical data that was essential to the orbital mission of John Glenn. After helping John Glenn successfully orbit the Earth, Johnson calculated the trajectories of Neil Armstrong’s historic Apollo 11 mission to the moon in 1969. She would go on to have a longstanding career at NASA.5


5.            Madam C.J. Walker

Madam C.J. Walker of Delta, Louisiana was a philanthropic entrepreneur and the first Black woman to become a millionaire in America. In the early 1900s, she made her fortune from a homemade line of hair care products, specifically catering to Black women’s various hair textures. Walker was a self-made businesswoman who built her empire by exuberantly promoting her products and employing Black women to assist her in selling merchandise. She used her fortune to fund scholarships for women at Tuskegee Institute and donated portions of her wealth to multiple distinguished Black charities, such as the NAACP.6


6.            Garrett Morgan

Garrett Morgan of Paris, Kentucky was a trailblazer among American inventors, referring to himself as the “Black Edison"7 Morgan patented many inventions, but his most popular invention was the original three-signal traffic light in 1923. After witnessing a severe motor vehicle accident in Cleveland, Ohio, he noticed the immense danger of the “Stop & Go” traffic light. Therefore, he created a new kind of traffic signal, one that would alert drivers to slow down before coming to a complete stop. His analytical invention has saved countless lives.8


7.            Mary Beatrice Kenner

Mary Beatrice Kenner is an American inventor who designed many household and personal items, but her most popular invention changed women’s health forever. She invented an adjustable sanitary belt, which included a built-in moisture-proof pouch. In 1956, she was able to save enough money to purchase her first patent. However, Sonn-Nap-Pack, the company that first showed interest in her sanitary belt, rejected it after discovering that she was a Black woman. Her patent for the sanitary belt was prohibited for thirty years, but it served as a predecessor for the modern-day sanitary napkin.9


8.            Robert Nesta Marley

Robert Nesta Marley, better known as Bob Marley, was a humanitarian from Saint Ann, Jamaica. In addition to making an international breakthrough and globally popularizing reggae music in 1975, Marley was well-known for taking on multiple community projects at a time. He used his wealth to invest in schools and infrastructure in his homeland, and he provided thousands of people with employment, food security and housing. Long after his passing, the nonprofit organizations that he established have continued to benefit the citizens of his country.10



[1] Kates, Ariel. “W.E.B. Du Bois Makes - and Teaches - History at the New School, September 27, 1948.” Village Preservation, 18 May 2020, https://www.villagepreservation.org/2017/09/26/w-e-b-du-bois-makes-and-teaches-history-at-the-new-school-september-27-1948/.

[2] “W.E.B. Du Bois.” NAACP, 11 May 2021, https://naacp.org/find-resources/history-explained/civil-rights-leaders/web-du-bois.” 

[3] Biographical. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2023. Sun. 10 Feb 2023. <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1993/mandela/biographical/.

[4] “Shirley Chisholm for President.” National Museum of African American History and Culture, 30 Sept. 2016, https://nmaahc.si.edu/shirley-chisholm-president.

[5] Loff, Sarah. “Katherine Johnson Biography.” NASA, NASA, 22 Nov. 2016, https://www.nasa.gov/content/katherine-johnson-biography.

[6] Madam C. J. Walker - History. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/madame-c-j-walker.

[7] DeLuca, Leo. “Black Inventor Garrett Morgan Saved Countless Lives with Gas Mask and Improved Traffic Lights.” Scientific American, Scientific American, 25 Feb. 2021, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/black-inventor-garrett-morgan-saved-countless-lives-with-gas-mask-and-improved-traffic-lights/.

[8]   Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, https://www.biography.com/inventors/garrett-morgan.

[9] “Mary Kenner, Inventor.” African American Registry, 5 Feb. 2023, https://aaregistry.org/story/mary-kenner-inventor-born/. 

[10] “Bob Marley Official Site - Life & Legacy - Charity.” Bob Marley, 5 Mar. 2020, https://www.bobmarley.com/charity/.