Forgotten African-American Icons

This past month was Black History Month and we reflected on the historical contributions of African-Americans in our nation’s history. Many reflected on the iconic work of Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglass. The purpose of this discussion, however will reflect on some of the forgotten or seemingly lesser well known and explored figures. We will then conclude our discussion with some notable figures presently influencing society and those with a bright future and on the path to significant influence.

Booker T. Washington

            Booker T. Washington is a classic American success story– born into slavery in Antebellum Virginia in 1856, but through personal study and persistence rose to become one of the greatest minds of the late 19th- early 20th centuries. Once freed from bondage, Washington walked over 500 miles to reach the Hampton Institute, one of the few black high schools established at the time. After graduating, he returned home, albeit briefly, to teach elementary school before being asked to return to the Hampton Institute in 1880 as a teacher. A year into his tenure at Hampton he was nominated to head a new school in Tuskegee, Alabama.

This new institute was simply dubbed “The Tuskegee Institute” and its growth would be Washington’s life work. Contrary to contemporary public schools, the Tuskegee Institute taught farming and skilled trades in addition to training new teachers. Similarly, to Frederick Douglass, this type of economic teaching would lead Washington to the conclusion that hard work and economic merit would be the key to unlocking civil rights for African-Americans. However, he split with Douglass in the opinion that blacks should be granted immediate equality. Washington argued that blacks must prove their value to the American economy by focusing on education, hard work and material gain.

            This vision of economics as a bridge to civil and political rights was accepted by many white Americans including prominent businessmen such as Andrew Carnegie, who would go on to fund the Tuskegee Institute and Washington-associated newspapers. Washington became the most important African-American leader in that time, consulted in matters of political appointments and funding apportionment to black schools and charities.

            Washington was well aware of the racial tensions still permeating through society and did his best to raise awareness on the issues, making fiery speeches denouncing segregation and lynching, often to all-white audiences. Sadly, although taking a hard stand on these issues, Washington was overall unsuccessful in his lifetime at breaking down the racial barriers of the South. He did, however, lay the groundwork for future civil rights movements and icons such as Martin Luther King Jr. to accomplish the goals set forth in this era. 

Robert Smalls

            Robert Smalls was born into slavery and encountered tremendous adversity in his life. He eventually became a Civil War Hero and later a notable Congressman from South Carolina. During the Civil War, Smalls was compelled into the service of the Confederates. Later, he conducted a bold escape and hijacked a Confederate ship in Charleston Harbor that he was assigned to and turned it over to the Union army when he reached their blockade outside of the harbor. He would fight the remainder of the war in the Union army and become an icon in courage for African-Americans.

            In other public forums, he was an outspoken leader in the desegregation movement. He was also elected to the U.S. Congress from South Carolina. During his congressional career he fought for racial integration.

Hiram Revels

Hiram Revels was the first African-American to serve in the U.S. Congress and served as a U.S. senator from Mississippi from 1870-1871. While serving in the senate, he was often classified as a moderate Republican. He strongly advocated against the legal segregation of African-Americans and whites in educational settings. Another signature position was his support for amnesty for Confederate war veterans if they proved their loyalty to the nation. He was willing to work with those of diverse views if it meant moving towards unity to heal a wounded nation.

Prior to serving in the U.S. Senate, Revels was a member of the Mississippi state senate and a Methodist preacher and helped organize churches. He also worked to found schools.  During the Civil War he served as a chaplain in some of the African-American regiments and helped recruit troops to serve in the Union army. Although born free, he sought to educate the enslaved prior to the war and actively remain involved in education following the Civil War. Hiram Revels was a great American and hero in the African-American community. His accomplishments should be recognized and studied in schools today as he was one of the most prominent figures during the Civil War and Reconstruction era.

Modern Day

Daniel Cameron

Daniel Cameron, a former Louisville football player and staffer to Senator Mitch McConnell was elected as the first African-American Attorney General of Kentucky in 2019. He is considered a rising star on the national scene. He already has gotten off to a good start and has led in being a part of national litigation advocating for pro-life laws to go into effect.

John James

John James is a West Point grad and served in the Iraq War. After working as a successful businessman, he ran for the U.S. Senate in Michigan, narrowly losing to Democrat incumbent Debbie Stabenow. He was the closest a Republican came to defeating a Democratic senate candidate in 20 years. He is running again for a U.S. Senate seat in 2020 against Democrat Gary Peters. James is looking to become the first African-American senator in Michigan’s history. With his foreign policy savvy and strong communication skills, he was a finalist for the UN Ambassadorship position. He is considered another rising star in the national political scene.


Overall, African-American leadership has become an integral part of our nation’s history. Our country has been blessed with several African-American leaders that fought through adversity facing them in society to reach influential positions and help shape American policy. There are many well-known figures studied in schools and that have become prevalently focused on in American society, however, there are many others that seem to have been passed over when reflecting on historical significance. It is encouraged that we look to explore these forgotten ones and the leadership that they brought to this nation. It is also helpful to take a watchful eye into the future with promising and aspiring leaders that are bound to one day make a difference and continue to inspire Americans everywhere.


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