February is African American History Month, celebrating the rich contributions African Americans have made in government, politics, science, art and American history. Millions of African Americans have stood up for freedom, protected our nation in uniform, built businesses, made breakthrough discoveries, and left this country a better place than they found it.
Among the most famous African Americans in our country’s history is President Barack Obama. But there were many “famous firsts” before him who served in Congress, the courts, and the military whose names you may not know.
Check out these six African American pioneers who became firsts in their field:
- Joseph Rainey was a force to be reckoned with. Born into slavery, Rainey became the first African American to serve in the House of Representatives when he was elected in 1870. He served five terms representing South Carolina during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War.
- The same year Joseph Rainey was elected to the House, the first African-American senator was elected in Mississippi. Hiram Revels would go on to serve just one year in the Senate, but his election had great significance as Mississippi prepared to rejoin the union.
- Not so long ago, Colin Powell was a household name. He broke down barrier after barrier during his long career as a soldier and diplomat. He served as the first African-American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and then as secretary of state. Condoleezza Rice followed Powell as the first African-American woman to serve as national security adviser and secretary of state.
- Thurgood Marshall dramatically changed law and politics during his career, even before joining the highest court. He argued Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court in 1954, which began the process of ending legal segregation in public schools. In 1967, he became the first African American on the Supreme Court.
- Benjamin O. Davis Sr. volunteered for the Spanish-American War in 1898. He served for decades in the U.S. Army, earning a Bronze Star and Distinguished Service Medal. In 1940 he became a brigadier general, the first African-American general in Army history. His legacy lived on through his son, who became a general in the U.S. Air Force.
- The first African American to receive a Medal of Honor was William H. Carney, a Union soldier in the Civil War. Carney gave up his dream being a minister to join the army. His actions above and beyond the call of duty with the immortal 54th Massachusetts Regiment earned him — nearly 40 years after the 54th‘s attack on Fort Wagner — the most prestigious honor a service member can receive.
These men and women laid the groundwork for millions of others to take part in their government, serve in the military, and advocate for freedom. Take some time this month to learn about other influential African Americans who have turned the tide of history in the United States!