All MCPL branches will closed on May 30 for Memorial Day. Our Virtual Branch is available 24/7.

Back to top

Seven Hidden Figures from Black History


February 1, 2017

There is a very popular Oscar nominated movie currently in theaters called Hidden Figures, which recounts the true story of several African American female mathematicians (Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan) who were hugely important in the early days of the American space program. Despite their contributions, these women and their stories have remained mostly unknown by the general public. And they are not the only figures in black history who have been forgotten or ignored.

Whenever February comes around, the celebration of Black History Month has a tendency to focus on the same people over and over again. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman. All were incredibly important to the history of this country. However, they are far from the only African Americans that people should know about. There have been many more “hidden figures” in Black History that deserve to be remembered, and this is the perfect month to do it. Here are some individuals that you may not have heard of that have made tremendous contributions to America and should have some time in the spotlight:

Bayard Rustin (1912-1987). Everyone remembers the March on Washington. Sadly, few remember the man who was one of the primary organizers of the march. Bayard Rustin was a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement years before it started garnering the attention that it did. He instigated one of the first Freedom Rides back in 1947 and was one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). One of Martin Luther King, Jr’s most important advisors, Rustin has often been overlooked because he was an openly gay man at a time when it was considered unacceptable.

Robert Smalls (1839-1915). Civil War experts might know the name of Robert Smalls, but the average American doesn’t. Smalls was a slave on a Confederate transport ship when he led an uprising that freed the people being held onboard. They would subsequently sail north to freedom. This mutiny helped lead Abraham Lincoln to reconsider the use of African Americans as soldiers in the Civil War, something many were opposed to. Smalls would later go on to serve in the United States Congress.

Lewis Latimer (1848-1928). You know that Thomas Edison created one of the first light bulbs to work. But did you know that originally his bulbs would only last a few days? This was definitely not long enough to be practical. Enter Lewis Latimer, the son of escaped slaves and an inventor in his own right, who created a filament that extended the life of the bulb. This made the light bulb cheaper and more efficient, making it possible for them to be used on the streets and in the average person’s home.

Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977). A voting rights advocate, Fannie Lou Hamer was fired from her job for trying to register to vote and was nearly beaten to death by police. This did not stop her, however, from helping to organize Mississippi’s Freedom Summer. She also became vice-chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that attended the 1964 Democratic Convention in an attempt to challenge the all-white, anti-Civil Rights official delegation. Her speech to the credentials committee was carried to many parts of the country and led to more widespread support for the cause.

Bessie Coleman (1892-1926). One of 13 children born to sharecroppers in 1892, Bessie Coleman took an interest in flying after hearing the stories of pilots in WWI. Being both female and African American, she found it difficult to find anyone to train her in the US. This did not stop her, however. She simply went to France and trained there. She ultimately became the first African American woman to get both a national and international pilot’s license.

Annie Turnbo Malone (1869-1957). Many have heard about the famous business woman Madam C. J. Walker, but fewer remember the woman that she used to work for as an agent. Annie Turnbo Malone studied chemistry in school but was forced to leave because of illness. She took an avid interest in hair care and using her knowledge of chemistry created her own line of non-damaging hair care products for African American women. By the 1920s, she was a multi-millionaire and noted philanthropist.

Cathay Williams (1844-1892). Born right here in Missouri as a slave, Cathay Williams was pressed into service for the Union Army after they occupied Jefferson City in 1861. Working as a support person for the army ignited an interest in serving in the military herself. So in 1866, she enlisted as a man. She would go on to serve for nearly three years before an illness caused her gender to be revealed. Unfortunately, when she became sick later on in life and applied for a pension as a former soldier, her claim was denied despite her service.

Learning about history is something that a lot of people can find dull. This is especially true if the same stories and characters are talked about time and again. Discovering some of the many figures that lie hidden in history can make it much more interesting. Not every hero gets a frontpage headline and many remain in the shadows, but that does not lessen their contribution. This February, try reading up on the seven figures above and maybe search out even more. And always keep in mind that knowing black history is important for all Americans.

Pamela M.
Antioch Branch


You never know what you don’t know. I believe the only individual on your list whom I recognized was Bayard Rustin.
As a retired teacher, I’m always embarrassed and ashamed when I realized how little I know. It would be great if, during February, students had to find a fact a day about black history that they had not known.

From Sharyn Rothgarn (not verified)
Thu, 02/04/2021 - 08:11am

i think that black history is the gretsest historys in life.i been reading black history since i was a kid.this is all i wanted to say.thank yu goodbye.

From Kaleem (not verified)
Mon, 02/08/2021 - 01:24pm

Bessie coleman was the first African American female pilot .

From Daenicia Narayan (not verified)
Thu, 02/11/2021 - 09:50am

Bessie Coleman because to be the first African American to do something is Important to us in these days now .

From Ge'Mylah s.w (not verified)
Fri, 02/11/2022 - 08:32am

Rustin worked with A. Philip Randolph on the March on Washington Movement, in 1941, to press for an end to racial discrimination in employment. Rustin later organized Freedom Rides, and helped to organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to strengthen Martin Luther King Jr.'s leadership and teaching King about nonviolence; he later served as an organizer for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.[1] Rustin worked alongside Ella Baker, a co-director of the Crusade for Citizenship, in 1954; and before the Montgomery bus boycott, he helped organize a group, called "In Friendship", amongst Baker, George Lawrence, Stanley Levison of the American Jewish Congress, and some other labor leaders. "In Friendship" provided material and legal assistance to those being evicted from their tenant farms and households in Clarendon County, Yazoo, and other places.[2] Rustin became the head of the AFL–CIO's A. Philip Randolph Institute, which promoted the integration of formerly all-white unions, and promoted the unionization of African Americans. During the 1970s and 1980s, Rustin served on many humanitarian missions, such as aiding refugees from Communist Vietnam and Cambodia. At the time of his death in 1987, he was on a humanitarian mission in Haiti.

Rustin was a gay man, who had been arrested, early in his career, for engaging in public sex (in a parked car),[3] though he was posthumously pardoned. Due to criticism over his sexuality, he usually acted as an influential adviser behind the scenes to civil-rights leaders. In the 1980s, he became a public advocate on behalf of gay causes, speaking at events as an activist and supporter of human rights.[4]

Later in life, while still devoted to securing workers' rights, Rustin joined other union leaders in aligning with ideological neoconservatism, and (after his death) President Ronald Reagan praised him.[5][6][7] On November 20, 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidenti

From yiev (not verified)
Thu, 02/11/2021 - 10:40am

I need unkonwn black history people

From Jaz'Lynn (not verified)
Mon, 03/15/2021 - 02:14pm

theres no african names mentioned anywhere on net

From sifiso _dm (not verified)
Mon, 08/30/2021 - 07:12am

I'm saddened that these "Hiddens Figures" wasn't written in the history books as well. The ppl that wrote these books need 2 realize that there was others that paved the way for us as well. We need to encourage our children to look 4 other African Americans that contributed besides Rosa Parks, MLK.

From Joyce Currey (not verified)
Fri, 10/15/2021 - 06:02pm

I really love this reading I love my Black history month so thank you for making this we love you

From Sharmarke Ali (not verified)
Tue, 02/08/2022 - 07:00am

Annie Malone and the sweeping under the rug of black success that does not fit the ideological vision.
Now, no one wants to talk about her. Why wouldn't they want to? Because if you talk about her it knocks the props out from under the vision of why blacks are where they are. If it's all due to racism, how was this woman a former slave able to succeed?

From Irving Babbitt (not verified)
Sat, 02/12/2022 - 05:12pm

I am happy to learn about these people. Without him, we would be in the dark and going to buy lightbulbs 2 times every week!

From Jayce (not verified)
Wed, 02/16/2022 - 06:05pm

help me find a unknow person for black history

From Trinity Pickett (not verified)
Tue, 03/01/2022 - 12:07pm

Bessie coleman was an early american civil aviator.

From Elton kpaan (not verified)
Tue, 04/19/2022 - 09:40am

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

View All Blogs

Read Similar Blogs:

Resources You May Also Like

British and Irish Women's Letters and Diaries

Explore more than 400 years of women’s personal writings.
More Info

American Indian History

Access information about more than 500 groups.
More Info

World Geography and Culture Online

Find printable maps and flags and compare country stats.
More Info

Ancient and Medieval History

Get a comparative view of the pre-modern world.
More Info

Events You May Also Like

Blogs You May Also Like

Library Launches Museum Pass Program
Read More

Library Launches Museum Pass Program

Mid-Continent Public Library, the City of Independence, and the Jackson County Historical Society
MCPL Spotlights Missouri’s 200-Year History
Read More

MCPL Spotlights Missouri’s 200-Year History

In six months, Missouri will reach its 200-year anniversary of becoming the 24th state.
Historical Libraries: The Library of Alexandria
Read More

Historical Libraries: The Library of Alexandria

The Great Library of Alexandria was a massive library that was part of a research inst
In Honor of D-Day, Preserve Your Family’s Stories
Read More

In Honor of D-Day, Preserve Your Family’s Stories

Seventy-five years ago, 156,000 young men from the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada landed on f

Was this page helpful? Yes No