The Dream, and the Hope: Black History Month

By Cassaundra Brooks

The first African-Americans to serve in Congress took office during the Reconstruction Era that immediately followed the Civil War. Over twenty mixed-race blacks—some former slaves, others not—served until as late as 1901. The Compromise of 1877 began restoring the previously white absolute majority by imposing challenging voter registration rules, including the infamous Jim Crow laws created to keep black citizens from improving their lot in society. These laws stayed in place until the 1960s, when the Civil Rights Act was passed. Although very few African-Americans served in the first half of the twentieth century, the Civil Rights Act was the gradual beginning to the just practice of electing individuals based on merit rather than race.

Two inventions necessary to fire safety were created by African-Americans. Thomas J. Martin patented a fire extinguisher in 1872. Six years later, Joseph Winters invented a fire escape ladder.

The United States banned the import of slaves in 1808, but the Emancipation Proclamation did not come until 1863, midway through the Civil War. Although Lincoln was first and foremost committed to restoring the union of the United States, he played a key role the abolition movement.

Bessie Coleman (1893–1926) was the first licensed African-American pilot in the world. She received her aviation training in France.

Thomas Jefferson, although himself a slave owner, included Britain’s role in slavery in the list of colony grievances in an early draft of the Declaration of Independence. It was taken out in order that the document would be accepted.

In 1987, neurosurgeon Ben Carson led the first successful operation to separate a pair of Siamese twin infants who were joined at the back of the head.

President Barack Obama might be the first African-American to win a United States presidential election, but he was not the first to seek the office. Democrat Jesse Jackson (1984 and 1988), Republican Alan Keyes (1996 and 2000), and Democrat Al Sharpton (2004) are perhaps the best known, but Democratic candidate Shirley Chisholm, both African-American and female, was the first, in 1972. Independent Lenora Fulani (1988 and 1992) and Democrat Carol Moseley Braun (2004) also sought the presidential nomination. None of their campaigns were successful in securing the nomination for their respective parties.

Handsome eminent actor Sidney Poitier was not only the first African-American to be nominated for an Oscar in the Best Actor category (for The Defiant Ones, in 1958), but he was also the first African-American to win an Academy Award for Best Actor (for Lilies of the Field, in 1963). In 2002, Poitier was awarded an Academy Honorary Award. President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, for film in 2009.

Eighty-seven African-Americans have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration in the United States. Navy sailor Robert Augustus Sweeney is the only African-American to have been awarded two such medals, both for peacetime actions. He twice jumped overboard, once in 1881 and again in 1883, to save a shipmate’s life. Sadly, he died at the young age of 37.

To learn more about black history, check out biography.com/blackhistory.

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