The picture shows a 6-year-old Ruby Bridges escorted by U.S. Marshal Charles Burks as she integrated William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. She became the first African-American child to attend an all-white public elementary school in the American South.
Ruby’s parents were torn about whether to let her attend the all-white school, a few blocks from their home. Her father resisted, fearing for his daughter’s safety; her mother, however, wanted Ruby to have the educational opportunities that her parents had been denied. Ruby and her mother were escorted by four federal marshals to the school every day that year. She walked past crowds screaming vicious slurs at her. Ruby ate lunch alone and sometimes played with her teacher at recess, but she never missed a day of school that year.
Ruby graduated from a desegregated high school, became a travel agent, married and had four sons. Ruby later wrote about her early experiences in two books and received the Carter G. Woodson Book Award. A lifelong activist for racial equality, in 1999, Ruby established The Ruby Bridges Foundation to promote tolerance and create change through education.
4th Colored Infantry
At the beginning of the Civil War, African Americans rushed to join the Union army, but were turned away. But with the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation, Union recruitment of African American men became legal. Segregation remained in place, however, as all-black units, headed primarily by white officers, were formed.
The 28 men in this picture are from Company E, 4th United States Colored Infantry. They were one of the detachments assigned to guard the Washington, D.C. during the American Civil War. Here they are photographed with their rifles at Fort Lincoln on November 17th, 1865. Black soldiers had to overcome numerous obstacles in order to serve their country. With every engagement they fought in, African-Americans time and again displayed courage under fire and won glory on the field of battle. The United States Colored Troops were a watershed in American history, and one of the first major strides toward equal civil rights
Born Araminta Ross, later adopting her mother’s name, Harriet Tubman was born a slave and raised on Maryland’s Eastern Shore where the lines between slavery and freedom were often blurred. She escaped to freedom in the North in 1849 to become the most famous “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. Tubman risked her life to lead hundreds of family members and other slaves from the plantation system to freedom. A leading abolitionist before the American Civil War, Tubman also helped the Union Army during the war, working as a spy among other roles. After the Civil War ended, Tubman dedicated her life to helping impoverished former slaves and the elderly.
Madam C. J. Walker
Madam C. J. Walker holds the title of “the first black woman millionaire in America” for her successful line of hair care products. Born Sarah Breedlove, she was widowed by age of 20 and took work as a laundress. After seeking treatment for hair loss, she developed the “Walker system” and sold her homemade products directly to black women. A talent for self-promotion helped build a booming enterprise, and she spent lavishly on luxurious homes. Walker also funded scholarships for women at the Tuskegee Institute and donated large sums to the NAACP, the black YMCA and dozens of other charities.
The Tuskegee Airmen were the first black military aviators in the U.S. Army. Trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama, they flew more than 15,000 individual sorties in Europe and North Africa during World War II. The Tuskegee Airmen were dedicated, determined young men who enlisted to become America’s first black military airmen, at a time when there were many people who thought that black men lacked intelligence, skill, courage, and patriotism. They came from every section of the country. Each one possessed a strong personal desire to serve the United States of America to the best of his ability. Their impressive performance earned them more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, and helped encourage the eventual integration of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Louis Armstrong was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. An all-star virtuoso, he came to prominence in the 1920s, influencing countless musicians with both his daring trumpet style and unique vocals. Armstrong’s charismatic stage presence impressed not only the jazz world but all of popular music.
Armstrong had a difficult childhood and was obligated to leave school in the fifth grade to begin working. He was the first African American jazz musician to write an autobiography, which was one of Armstrong’s many firsts. He was also the first African American to get featured billing in a Hollywood film and the first African American entertainer to host a national radio show.
He didn’t speak out publicly on Civil Rights until he saw the Little Rock Central High School integration crisis. The whole situation infuriated Armstrong so much that he broke his silence on the issue of civil rights. He told a reporter that: “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell.” Armstrong’s words made headlines, and he was criticized by both black and white public figures. This moment is now revered as one of the most brave and definitive in Armstrong’s life.
By refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus in 1955, black seamstress Rosa Parks helped initiate the civil rights movement in the United States. The leaders of the local black community organized a bus boycott that began the day Parks was convicted of violating the segregation laws. Over the next half-century, Parks became a nationally recognized symbol of dignity and strength in the struggle to end entrenched racial segregation.
“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired,” wrote Parks in her autobiography, “but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically… No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
Little Rock Nine
Nine black students had to be escorted by federal troops through an angry mob of white people as they walked toward the doors of an all-white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, for their first full day of classes. The nine brave black students were Melba Pattillo Beals, Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Thelma Mothershed, Terrence Roberts and Jefferson Thomas. This group of African American high-school students challenged racial segregation in the public schools of Little Rock, Arkansas.
During the summer of 1957, the Litte Rock Nine enrolled at Little Rock Central High School, which until then had been all white. The students’ effort to enroll was supported by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, which had declared segregated schooling to be unconstitutional.
The image of peaceful, brave high-school students making their way through an angry, white, violent mob in order to get the same quality of education as white students became a defining image of the civil-rights era.
Guitarist, singer, and songwriter Jimi Hendrix delighted audiences in the 1960s with his outrageous electric guitar playing skills and his experimental sound.
Al, his dad, said that when Jimi was first starting off with his band doing small gigs, he would sit in the whites only section in protest against segregation and would often get arrested. When he became famous, he donated money to the NAACP and to Rev. Martin Luther King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Race mattered more to Hendrix than most people realize, critics and biographers say: He was hurt by black radio’s refusal to play his music; he experienced stinging racism during his time as an R&B sideman and star; and some of his most famous songs were profoundly shaped by his experiences as a black man in America.
Shirley Chisholm became the first African-American congresswoman in 1968. Four years later, she became the first major-party black candidate to make a bid for the U.S. presidency. Throughout her political career, Chisholm fought for education opportunities and social justice. Chisholm left Congress in 1983 to teach. In announcing her bid, Chisholm said: “I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman and I am equally proud of that. I am the candidate of the people, and my presence before you now symbolizes a new era in American political history.” Of her legacy, Chisholm said, “I want to be remembered as a woman … who dared to be a catalyst of change.”
Guion S. Bluford
As a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle ‘Challenger’ in 1983, Guion “Guy” Bluford is a former NASA astronaut who was the first African-American to fly into space. He flew four shuttle missions.
Bluford’s first flight — STS-8 aboard Challenger — soared into space on a rainy August morning in 1983. Thirty years later, Bluford joked he was surprised anyone bothered to show up given the terrible weather.
“I felt an awesome responsibility, and I took the responsibility very seriously, of being a role model and opening another door to black Americans, but the important thing is not that I am black, but that I did a good job as a scientist and an astronaut.”
“You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.”
Frederick Douglass was a prominent American abolitionist, author and orator. Born a slave, Douglass escaped at age 20 and went on to become a world-renowned anti-slavery activist. His three autobiographies are considered important works of the slave narrative tradition as well as classics of American autobiography. In thousands of speeches and editorials, he levied a powerful indictment against slavery and racism, provided an indomitable voice of hope for his people, embraced antislavery politics and preached his own brand of American ideals.
In 1845, Douglass, with the encouragement of Garrison and Wendell Phillips, another prominent abolitionist, published his celebrated Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. The work was an instant success. Critics charged that it was so well-written that it could never have been composed by a black man.
Jesse Owens was an American track-and-field athlete who won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. His long jump world record stood for 25 years.
Owens’ athletic career began in high school, when he won three track and field events at the National Interscholastic Championships. Two years later, while competing for Ohio State University, he equaled one world record and broke three others before qualifying and competing in the 1936 Olympics. His four Olympic victories were a blow to Adolf Hitler’s intention to use the Games to demonstrate Aryan superiority.
Owens later engaged in boys’-guidance activities, made goodwill visits to Asia for the U.S. Department of State, and served as secretary of the Illinois State Athletic Commission.
Martin Luther King Jr.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Martin Luther King Jr. was a social activist and Baptist minister who played a key role in the American civil rights movement. King sought equality and human rights for African Americans, the economically disadvantaged and all victims of injustice through peaceful protest. He was the driving force behind watershed events such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the 1963 March on Washington, which helped bring about landmark legislations. At the age of thirty-five, Martin Luther King, Jr., was the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize. When notified of his selection, he announced that he would turn over the prize money of $54,123 to the furtherance of the civil rights movement.