Hubert Fauntleroy Julian – Born Huberto Fauntleroyana Julian in Trinidad in 1897, but better known to the world as the Black Eagle, Julian was a world famous aviator and soldier of fortune. Something of a controversial figure in the 1920s and 30, Julian was a supporter of Marcus Garvey and one of the first, if not the first black men to get his pilot’s license. Julian became known as a showman by flying his plane over rallies for Garvey and performing aerial stunts. He unsuccessfully attempted a transatlantic flight from New York to Africa in 1924, and barely survived when his plane crashed into the ocean. He successfully made the trip five years later. In 1931, Julian set the non-stop non-refueling aviation endurance record with a flight of 84 hours and 33 minutes. He also toured with an all-black flying circus known as The Five Blackbirds. When Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, the Black Eagle flew to the African nation to fight for Emperor Haile Selassie, who had made Julian an honorary citizen in 1930, and awarded him the rank of colonel. The Black Eagle passed away in New York City in 1983.
Ida B. Wells—Born in Mississippi just before the Emancipation Proclamation, Ida B. Wells would go on to become one of the foremost advocates for equal rights, a pioneer of the modern civil rights movement, and a tenacious anti-lynching activist. Orphaned at the age of 16, Wells took it upon herself to raise and care for her siblings, and still managed to get an education, leading to careers as a teacher and journalist. Wells began crusading for the rights of others at an early age, and her list of accomplishments is impressive. By the 1890s she was one of the most prominent black leaders in America, as well as a highly regarded advocate for women’s rights. Wells founded the National Association of Colored Women in 1896, as well as the National Afro-American Council, which would go on to become the NAACP. Wells is also known for her anti-lynching campaign, and her militancy when it came to defending against white attackers. Between 1892 and 1894 she wrote and published Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases and A Red Record, both of which dealt with lynching. Wells asserted that lynching was primarily a response to the economic progress of blacks, which threatened the white way of life and defied notions of black inferiority. In Southern Horrors she wrote of how to respond to the threat of lynching by white people: “The lesson this teaches and which every Afro-American should ponder well, is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give. When the white man who is always the aggressor knows he runs as great a risk of biting the dust every time his Afro-American victim does, he will have greater respect for Afro-American life. The more the Afro-American yields and cringes and begs, the more he has to do so, the more he is insulted, outraged and lynched.”
Lincoln Perry and Willie Best—Born in Florida in 1902, Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry would go on to become arguably the most controversial black actor in the history of motion pictures. Best know by his stage name Stepin Fetchit (above left), Perry became the embodiment of the negative stereotypes that portray black men as lazy, illiterate buffoons. Billed as “The Laziest Man in the World,” Stepin Fetchit was one of the most popular black actors of the 1920s, 30s and 40s, appearing in more than 50 films, and becoming a millionaire. In real life Perry was nothing like his screen persona. He was a highly literate man, who also had a writing career working for the Chicago Defender. In the 1960s he became involved with the Nation of Islam and became friends with legendary boxer Muhammad Ali. Stepin Fetchit became so popular that he spawned many imitators, including comedic actor Willie Best, who was best know by his stage name, Sleep ‘n’ Eat. Best’s career started several years after Perry’s and would actually go on to be more prolific, with more that 120 roles. Working in both film and television, Best appeared alongside such notable actor as Humphrey Bogart and Bob Hope, who called Best “the best actor I know.” Like Stepin Fetchit, Sleep ‘n’ Eat was a comedic performer who played lazy, superstitious simpletons and both became symbols of controversy for the derogatory roles they played. And while Stepin Fetchit is still remembered—most often in a negative context—Sleep ‘n’ Eat has been largely forgotten. Despite the stereotypical roles played by both men, they should also be remembered for being talented performers and major personalities in the entertainment business.
Mary Ellen Pleasant—Much has been written about the woman known to many as Mammy Pleasant, but so much of it is tall tales and legends, it is difficult to know what is true and what is not. What is known is that Mary Ellen Pleasant was a famous abolitionist and Underground Railroad operator who was born in the early 1800s (reports vary on her birth, placing it somewhere between 1814 and 1817). In her memoirs, she claimed to be the daughter of a voodoo priestess and the son of the governor of Virginia. In the 1820s she worked as a bonded servant in Massachusets, eventually earning her freedom, and becoming friends with several white families involved in the abolitionist movement. Pleasant managed to successfully pass for white while establishing herself as a successful businesswoman and becoming increasingly involved with the Underground Railroad. She relocated to San Francisco in the late 1840s, and may or may not have owned and operated a bordello. Likewise, there are rumors that she may have helped fund John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, but no one knows for sure (her gravestone reads “She Was a Friend of John Brown”). Pleasant’s time in San Francisco was marked with political activism and championing human rights. But her work earned her enemies who went out of their way to smear her name, often claiming she practiced voodoo and had actually killed people. Despite the controversy surrounding her, Mammy Pleasants was referred to a “The Mother of Human Rights in California.”
George Dixon – Canadian boxer George Dixon became the first black man to win a boxing championship. Born in 1870, Dixon weighed only 87 pounds and stood 5’3”, earning him the nickname “Little Chocolate.” He started fighting at the age of 16, his career spanning twenty years and 104 fights (he had 44 fights in 1893 alone). Dixon won the world bantam weight championship in 1888, and in 1891 Dixon won the world featherweight title. Jack Johnson would go on to become the first black world heavyweight in 1908, after beating Tommy Burns. Before Johnson took the title, black fighters were not allowed to fight for the world championship, and instead had to vie for the “black world heavyweight championship,” at title Johnson won in 1903. In 1910, former champion James Jeffries, known as “the Great White Hope,” came out of retirement to take the title back for the white race. Johnson destroyed Jeffries in “the Fight of the Century,” and his victory set off race riots. The fight had been filmed, as many prizefights were in those days, but it was felt that Jeffries’s defeat was so demoralizing to the white population that Congress banned the exhibition of all prizefight films. The ban lasted from 1912 until 1940.
Mary Eliza Mahoney – In 1873, Mary Mahoney of Dorchester, Massachusetts, graduated nursing school, making her the first professionally trained black woman to become a nurse. Mahoney was not the first black woman to provide health care. Jamaican-born Mary Seacole was a nurse, known for her service in the Crimean War (1853-1856), and during her time was regarded alongside legendary nurse Florence Nightingale. And while black women like Seacole practiced medicine in various different capacities for centuries, Mahoney was the first to become a licensed nurse. She was also a supporter of the women’s suffrage movement, and one of the first women in Boston registered to vote. Mabel Keaton Staupers became a nurse in 1917. Three years later, she helped found the first hospital in New York. Staupers was an advocate for desegregation, leading the charge for the integration of black nurses in the both the armed forces and the private sector.
Joseph Nazel—Most people have never heard of writer Joseph Nazel, but those who have can’t help but impressed with his pedigree. Born in 1944, Nazel was a combat veteran of the Vietnam War who went on to become a prolific writer and chronicler of the black experience in America. He worked as an editor for a variety of black publications, including the Watts Times and Players magazine. But Nazel is best remembered for his books, of which there were at least sixty. Writing under his own name as well as pseudonyms, Nazel wrote in every genre. Most of his books were published by Holloway House, the company best known for cranking out urban street literature from legendary writers like Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines. Nazel wrote a series of biographies profiling pretty much every black celebrity, politician and athlete you can think of. We also wrote a ton of hardboiled crime fiction, including his Iceman series, novelizations of movies like Black Gestapo and Foxtrap, and even a book called The Black Exorcist. Nazel is said to have been capable of writing an entire novel in six weeks. Despite his prolific body of work, Nazel’s books are difficult to find, and there is very little information to be found about him. He passed away in 2006.
Jackie Ormes—Born Zelda Mavin Jackson in 1911, Jackie Ormes was a popular cartoonist with a career that spanned three decades, and is considered to be the first African-American female cartoonist. Ormes launched her first comic strip in The Pittsburgh Courier in 1937. The strip ran for a year and starred Ormes’s character Torchy Brown. Ormes followed up Torchy Brown with the popular Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger in 1945, which ran for eleven years. During that time, a doll of Patty-Jo was released, which like the cartoon character was based in reality and not the tired stereotypes that usually defined both black characters in comics and toys. In 1950 Ormes re-launched the Torchy Brown character. All of Ormes’s comics were politically and socially aware, and went to great lengths to combat the common stereotypes used to depict black characters. Because of her outspoken political views, Ormes was investigated by the FBI during the Red Scare of the 1950s. Ormes retired from cartooning in 1956, but not before helping the change the way black characters were portrayed in comics.
Oscar Micheaux – Although he was not the first black filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux was the first black director to produce a feature-length film, and was certainly the most prolific movie maker of the era. The son of former slaves, born in Illinois in 1884, Micheaux moved to South Dakota with dreams of being a farmer. When his farm failed to produce any viable crops, he wrote his first novel, The Homesteader, which he self-published and sold door-to-door. Pioneering black filmmaker Noble Johnson’s Lincoln Motion Picture Company tried to option The Homesteader from Micheaux, but when they didn’t offer him enough money, he decided to make a movie himself. With no film experience at all, Micheaux produced a feature-length version of The Homesteader in 1919. Over the next three decades, Micheaux would make 41 more films, creating his own cottage industry of stars that included Paul Robeson (who made his film debut in Micheaux’s Body and Soul), Lorenzo Tucker (often billed as “The Black Valentino”), Alec Lovejoy, Carman Newsome and Laura Bowman. Micheaux traveled cross-country with his films in the trunk of his car, showing the movies anywhere he could screen them. He often raised the money for his next production by pre-selling the rights to various exhibitors, thereby pioneering the now common practice of pre-sales in film distribution.
Florynce “Flo” Kennedy – Flo Kennedy was born in Kansas City in 1916, and moved to New York City after she graduated high school. After graduating Columbia University in 1948, she applied to the Columbia Law School, but was rejected because she was a woman. After threatening a lawsuit on the grounds of racial discrimination, she was accepted to Columbia, where she became the first African-American woman to graduate from the prestigious law school. In 1954 she opened her own law office, but by the end of the decade she had grown cynical and doubted the law profession. By the 1960s, she had became increasingly active politically, championing Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, and the rights of all those oppressed. She was a co-founder of the National Organization of Women and the Women’s Political Caucus, and the founder of the Feminist Party, which nominated Shirley Chisholm for President of the United States. Her career and life were both defined by her audacious spirit, her commitment to justice and her flamboyant style. She was once quoted as saying, “I’m just a loud-mouthed middle-aged colored lady with a fused spine and three feet of intestines missing and a lot of people think I’m crazy. Maybe you do too, but I never stop to wonder why I’m not like other people. The mystery to me is why more people aren’t like me.”