Skip to: Navigation | Content | Sidebar | Footer

50 African Americans Who Forever Changed Academia

Black History Month is celebrated every February as a time to recognize and honor African-Americans who made great contributions to some aspect of life in this country. Major figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks are often honored, but many lesser-known men and women made impacts on society by working through the channels of academia, breaking barriers for future African-Americans, or creating opportunities for children that they never had before. Here are 50 of those men and women to remember this February.

Contemporary Standouts

  1. Cornell West: West is redefining what it means to be a professor. As a political activist going back to the '70s, he continues to encourage his colleagues to lead by example by participating in civic discourse and protesting unjust policies.
  2. Bobby Austin: Austin serves as the head of the Village Foundation, an organization he founded in 1997 to engage young African-American men in society, through events like Give a Boy a Book Day.
  3. Michael Carter: In 1971, Carter's parents founded V.E. Carter Development Center for children. Carter later worked there teaching the African language Swahili to children.
  4. Robert Hill: In a long career of researching African-American life, Hill's greatest contribution to academia was his book The Strengths of Black Families, and its follow-up 25 years later, which fought negative stereotypes of blacks.
  5. Joe Louis Clark: Clark changed the way many people think of disciplining in schools. The former drill sergeant's tough style captured national attention when it was chronicled in the movie Lean On Me.
  6. Ramona Edelin: With her direction, the National Urban Coalition started the "Say Yes to A Youngster's Future" program to provide educational help to black teachers and youth in America, eventually teaming with the Department of Education.
  7. Nathan Hare: The first university Black Studies program in the country was directed by Hare, and when his administration attempted to cut the program by half, he protested with students for five months.
  8. Katherine Butler Jones: The Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunities was the brainchild of Jones, and it still works to educate black youth in Boston.
  9. Aaron Lloyd Dixon: Dixon's contribution to academia came in the form of a program called Free Breakfast for School Children, which he helped launch as the founding member of Seattle's Black Panther chapter.
  10. Carlotta Walls LaNier: After the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education, the Little Rock Nine students braved much harassment and integrated a high school in 1957. LaNier was the youngest member.
  11. Paul Hill: The author of Coming of Age, a book of research on young black men, Paul Hill created The National Rites of Passage Institute to train adults to mentor 10,000 kids.
  12. Willie Pearson: Congressional Fellow Willie Pearson has contributed many sociological studies to academia about blacks in the sciences, like Blacks, Education and American Science and The Role and Activities of American Graduate Schools in Recreating, Enrolling and Retaining United States Black and Hispanic Students.
  13. Maxine Smith: Working with the NAACP to desegregate Memphis schools in the early 1960s, Maxine Smith escorted the first black children to attend a desegregated schoolhouse in Memphis.
  14. Naomi Gray: After serving as the first-ever vice president of Planned Parenthood, Gray co-founded the African-American Education Leadership Group.

Famous Firsts

  1. Daniel Hale Williams: Williams founded the first interracial hospital in America in 1891. The hospital served as the first school for black nurses in the country.
  2. Mae C. Jemison: Jemison broke the barrier for black women to become astronauts, going to space in 1992 as part of the Endeavour crew.
  3. Charlotte Forten: The book Life on the Sea Islands was the story of Forten's time as the first black teacher at a famous mission in the Civil War, and she later worked for the Treasury Department recruiting black teachers.
  4. Kelly Miller: Miller was the country's first African-American grad student in mathematics. Later in life, as a prominent voice for civil rights in the early 1900s, he wrote articles in leading academic journals pushing for higher learning so that strong black leaders could be created.
  5. Alexander Crummell: The first school dedicated to African-American learning was the American Negro Academy, founded in 1897 by Alexander Crummell, a descendant of an African tribal chief.
  6. Dorothy Lavinia Brown: In a historic first, Dr. Brown became the first African-American female surgeon in the South in 1954, and was later the first black woman on the Tennessee Legislature.
  7. Fanny Jackson Coppin: The country's first female African-American principal, Fanny Jackson Coppin served for 37 years and instituted many improvements in education in Philadelphia and elsewhere.
  8. Patrick Francis Healy: In 1866, Healy became the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. in America. He was also the first to become a Jesuit priest and preside over a white college.
  9. Henry Ossian Flipper: Flipper changed the academic scene at West Point by being its first African-American graduate in 1877, and then the first commissioned officer.
  10. Alexander Twilight: The first African-American to receive a bachelor's degree in America, in 1836 Twilight also became the first black man elected to public office.
  11. David Levering Lewis: Much of our insight into the life of W.E.B. DuBois is due to the research of Lewis. Both parts of his biographies of the famous civil rights leader won two Pulitzer Prizes, a first for any ethnicity.
  12. John Wesley Gilbert: The first black archaeologist, Gilbert influenced academia by strongly encouraging blacks to record and publish their own histories.


  1. Ernest Everett Just: Just was an internationally recognized biologist who changed the way cells are studied and co-founded the Omega Psi Phi fraternity at Howard University, which would later create what is today known as Black History Month.
  2. Percy Julian: The production of cortisone drugs was due to the chemical synthesis research of Percy Julian, "Chicago's Man of the Year" in 1950.
  3. Inez Beverly Prosser: After becoming one of the first black women to receive a Ph.D., Inez Prosser went on to pioneer research in the field of educational psychology and the development of African-American students.
  4. James West: Where would academic presentations be without microphones? In 1962, West created a foil part that is now used in 90% of all microphones.
  5. Rick Kittles: With his pioneering work in genetics, Rick Kittles has contributed to academia by discovering ways to prevent prostate cancer in black men.
  6. Jeanne L. Noble: Noble greatly increased our knowledge of the educational experience of black women, authoring The Negro Woman's College Education. Three presidents named her to education commissions.
  7. Fannie C. Williams: Williams was a trailblazer in her nearly 60-year career as an educator. She was the driving force behind the passing of Child Health Day in 1928, and she instituted kindergarten and standardized testing for students long before Louisiana required it.
  8. Benjamin Banneker: Almost 100 years before the Department of Education was created, Banneker proposed in a critically-acclaimed almanac that a secretary be appointed with power "to establish and maintain free schools in every city, village, and township in the United States."
  9. Charles Henry Turner: One of the first African-Americans to earn a Ph.D. in America, Turner was the first person to prove insects can hear different pitches.
  10. Charles Drew: As a leading authority on blood plasma in the 1940s, Drew originated the concept of safely storing blood in "blood banks."
  11. Virginia Randolph: Randolph was synonymous with vocational training, with her distinctive educational style of involving parents,creativity, and common sense.


  1. Booker T. Washington: Probably the most famous black educator ever, Washington founded the teachers' college Tuskegee Institute for blacks in 1881 in Alabama, and was famous for teaching African-Americans to help themselves through education and hard work.
  2. Mary McLeod Bethune: This woman who believed blacks' greatest hope for the future lay with young black women founded a school for African-Americans in Florida and served on President Franklin D. Roosevelt's cabinet as an advisor about black issues.
  3. Hallie Quinn Brown: A lifelong educator and women's rights advocate, Hallie Quinn Brown founded a scholarship for women's education in the 1880s, helping inject women into academia.
  4. Daniel Payne: Payne founded the first place of higher learning for African-Americans in the U.S., and fought his entire life to prove blacks were perfectly capable of being equal citizens with whites.
  5. Nannie Helen Burroughs: Known for her famous speech entitled "How the Sisters Are Hindered from Helping," Burroughs founded the National Training School for Women and Girls in 1909.
  6. Esau Jenkins: In 1954, Jenkins co-founded the first Citizenship School in the South as a place for blacks to be taught to read so that they could vote.
  7. James Edward Shepard: The first state-supported liberal arts school for African-Americans was founded by Mr. Shepard in 1910.

Civil Rights Legends

  1. Septima Poinsette Clark: Often referred to as the "queen mother of the civil rights movement," Clark worked tirelessly to enable blacks to have the right to become principals and to increase literacy among African-Americans.
  2. Benjamin W. Arnett: In 1886, as a representative in the Ohio General Assembly, Arnett introduced legislation that provided for equal education opportunities for all children, regardless of race. The statutes were changed the next year.
  3. Gloria Blackwell: A teacher at Clark University in Atlanta for 20 years, Blackwell was instrumental in the fight to desegregate schools, filing and winning several lawsuits against discriminating organizations.
  4. Dorothy Height: A well-known civil rights activist for decades, Dorothy Height had the ear of President Eisenhower in urging him to desegregate schools. President Bush awarded her with a Congressional Gold Medal in 2004.
  5. Vernon E. Jordan, Jr.: When Charlayne Hunter tried to make her way through a crowd protesting desegregation at the University of Georgia in 1961, it was civil rights activist and lawyer Vernon E. Jordan who escorted her.
  6. Armand Lanusse: At a time when laws banned speech that could incite slave revolts, Lanusse's poetry was the first literary expression of blacks' right to freedom. He later organized a school for Afro-Creoles in New Orleans.