Black History Month is an ideal moment to read biographies of some of the most influential and important—yet often overlooked—black Americans, men and women who helped shape modern society but aren’t on the short list of people regularly name-checked each February. Here are 10 excellent biographies of important black Americans that will help expand your understanding of American history.
Wright’s 1946 memoir Black Boy remains one of the most visceral reading experiences in modern literature. Recounting his childhood in the south, dominated by strict, religious women and unreliable, violent men, as well as his adult years in Chicago, Black Boy is an urgent reminder that while race relations and racism are part of the black experience in this country, they are only one component of that experience. Many of the more shocking passages in Wright’s writing were excised when originally published, and only now is the full extent of his passion and genius becoming clear, making his memoir an incredible opportunity for anyone seeking to know what it was really like to be black in America in the era before the civil rights movement.
The first black Justice of the Supreme Court, Marshall established himself as one of the best legal minds in American history long before ascending to the highest court in the country in 1967. Though he’s a deservedly famous black American, few know the larger story of the man who was born the grandson of a slave and had a hand in much of the legal battle against segregation, and whose refreshingly blunt legal philosophy was summed up in this quote: “You do what you think is right and let the law catch up.”
Satchel Paige was one of the greatest pitchers the game of baseball ever saw, but spent the first 24 years of his brilliant career in the Negro Leagues before the integration of major league baseball. When that day finally came, Paige became the oldest rookie in MLB history at the age of 41 and pitched five years in the majors, not counting a stunt game he pitched in 1965 at the age of 58. Paige was a master, an athlete who literally had every known pitch in his repertoire and who invented the famous “Hesitation” windup that made him almost unhittable. Paige’s one professional regret was that he didn’t get to pitch to Babe Ruth—a matchup any baseball fan wishes had happened, but which was impossible because of the racial divide of the times.
Frederick Douglass may be remembered as a figure in your school history books, but he was a fascinating and courageous man, an escaped slave who worked publicly to see the institution abolished and served as a stark corrective to his era’s belief that African Americans were not the intellectual equals of their oppressors. Few in American history have achieved as much as Douglass, despite the deeply ingrained racism and legal barriers he faced in his lifetime.
Harriet Tubman was born into slavery, escaped, personally worked to rescue dozens of families via the Underground Railroad, and during the Civil War was a spy for the Union. There are few people in general whose life stories deserved to be explored more than Tubman’s—a woman who, upon escaping slavery, immediately returned in order to rescue her family. Anyone that brave deserves to be remembered, and a life like hers offers valuable lessons to us all.
Ida B. Wells
Wells doesn’t get name-checked often in mainstream channels, but she was one of the most important activists in American history, a journalist who documented the practice of lynching, proving in a series of articles that it was used as a way of punishing black people for competing against whites or attempting to assert their rights, and not as a mode of punishing criminals as many whites claimed. Wells also worked tireless for woman’s rights and suffrage, and her impact on American society cannot be overstated—her life deserves everyone’s attention.
Adam Clayton Powell
The first black American elected from New York to the U.S. House of Representatives (representing Harlem), and just the fourth in the country’s history, Powell served for more than three decades during a time when black Americans were kept out of politics in many areas of the country. One of the key figures who helped usher in civil rights legislation in the 1960s, Powell remains one of the most influential politicians in American history.
Robeson is remembered today as an outstanding artist, singer, athlete, and actor who broke through barriers during his lifetime. But he was also a thoughtful man who developed a complicated philosophy on a wide range of matters, from politics to economics, all infused with a strong sense of morality that transcended the issues of the moment. Robeson deserves to be remembered for more than just his brilliant performances.
Fannie Lou Hamer
Hamer was born the youngest of 20 children to a poor family in Mississippi, and was given an involuntary hysterectomy by a white doctor following a mandate by the state to reduce the black population. It’s no coincidence her activism bloomed shortly thereafter, and Hamer became one of the most prominent voices organizing for equal rights—activism for which she was nearly beaten to death by police in 1963. Her fierce life can be summed up with her quote engraved on her tombstone: “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Carter G. Woodson
One of the first academics to formally study Black History, Woodson isn’t often mentioned in general discussions—but considering he launched what is widely considered the inspiration for and precursor of Black History Month in 1926, he should be. Without Woodson’s work much of black history might have been lost or overlooked, and his life of commitment and achievement still serves as an inspiration.