Celebrating Black Excellence

By Kayli Harley, Stella Heo, Shrida Pandey, and Irene Meklin, Online Editors-in-Chief, Online News Editor, and Staff Writer

// In honor of Black History Month, Blueprint profiled a few Black figures who helped pave the way for the future generations. Enjoy!

Gwendolyn Brooks

   Gwendolyn Brooks was born on June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kan. She grew up in Chicago with her parents who supported her interest in reading and writing. When she was 13 years old, the American Childhood magazine published her first poem, “Eventide”. The Chicago Defender, a newspaper that highlighted the voices of Chicago’s African American population, consistently published her poems when she was 17 years old.

   She began working on her first poetry collection, A Street in Bronzeville, in 1945 after attending junior college and working for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. A Street in Bronzeville focused on the Black urban experience and received high praise from other writers at the time. 

   In 1949, Brooks published the poem, Annie Allen, which describes the life of a young Black girl as she grows older and confronts social issues. Brooks became the first Black author to win the Pulitzer Prize for Annie Allen. 

   Brooks published her novel, Maud Martha, in 1953, in which she incorporated her personal experience of racial discrimination at the hands of white people and lighter-skinned African Americans into Maud’s character. 

   In her later work, Brooks shifted the focus of her writing towards addressing politics directly. Many people credit her attendance at a gathering of Black writers at Fisk University in 1967 for this change because it prompted her to write consciously and intentionally about the experiences of Black people in the United States. Her poem, In the Mecca, which she published in 1968, is evidence of her shift in style and content. 

   In the spirit of her new direction, Brooks left Harper & Row publishing and joined Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press in the 1970s to support Black publishing companies. Through Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press, Brooks published several poetry collections including Riot, Family Pictures, and Beckonings.

   In addition to writing poetry and a novel, Brooks also wrote two volumes of autobiography. The first installment, Report From Part One, underwhelmed some readers who claimed it was not as personal and detailed as they expected. Others viewed the work as Brooks’ reflection on her heritage and position as a poet. 

   Brooks finished the second volume of her autobiography while working as the first Black woman to hold the position of poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. At 68, she hosted award ceremonies for literature, which she funded herself, and visited local schools, universities, prisons, hospitals, and drug rehabilitation centers.  

   Despite passing away in December of 2000, Brooks’ legacy continues. The University of Western Illinois created the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for African-American Literature and a junior high school in Harvey, Ill. is also named after her. In 2017, the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois held celebrations in Champaign-Urbana in her honor. 

Jose Celso Barbosa

   Jose Celso Barbosa was born on Jul. 27, 1857, in Bayamón, Puerto Rico. He was of both African and European descent and was the first person of African ancestry that attended the famed Jesuit Seminary in Puerto Rico. In order to raise funds for college, he tutored students after graduation from the seminary. He moved to New York City in 1875 in order to attend a prep school and learned English within a year.

   After suffering from pneumonia, Barbosa changed his ambition of becoming a lawyer to becoming a doctor. He attended medical school at the University of Michigan in 1877, and in 1880, he graduated at the top of his class. He was the first Puerto Rican to earn a medical degree in the United States. Upon his return to Puerto Rico, Barbosa established a medical practice in his hometown.

   Barbosa provided medical care across Puerto Rico. He came up with a system in which employers paid for the future medical necessities of their employees, a precursor to the modern system of health insurance.

   During the Spanish-American War, when the United States blockaded San Juan, Barbosa and several other doctors traveled to aid the wounded Spanish and Puerto Rican soldiers. Due to this act of bravery, he and the other doctors were recommended for the Spanish Cruz de la Orden del Mérito Naval (The Cross of the Order of Naval Merit).

   Puerto Rico became American territory as a result of this war. In 1899, Barbosa formed the pro-Puertorican statehood party called the Partido Republicano de Puerto Rico. 

   Barbosa served on the Puerto Rican Executive Cabinet from 1900-1917 and founded Puerto Rico’s first bilingual newspaper called El Tiempo in 1907.

   Jose Celso Barbosa died on Sep. 21, 1921. He is buried in Old San Juan.

Octavia Butler

   Octavia E. Butler was born on June 22, 1947, in Pasadena, Calif. Although Butler was dyslexic, she continued to read and write and ultimately decided to dedicate her life to writing. She earned an associate degree from Pasadena City College and studied writing further at the Clarion Fiction Writers Workshop with Harlen Ellison. 

   Butler’s work is famous for its combination of science fiction and African American culture. In 1976, Butler published her first novel, Patternmaster, the first of several works about a group of people with telepathic abilities. The other novels that follow this storyline are Mind of My Mind, Wild Seed, and Clay’s Ark. 

   In her writing, Butler sometimes drew inspiration from her mother’s life. In 1979, Butler published Kindred, a novel about an African American woman who travels back in time to save one of her ancestors who is a white slave owner. 

   Butler began receiving praise for her work in the 1980s. In 1984, she won the Best Short Story Hugo Award for “Speech Sounds” and her novella “Bloodchild” won both a Nebula and a Hugo Award. Later in that decade, she published her Xenogenesis trilogy, a series about genetics and race. 

   In 1995, Butler became the first science fiction writer to receive a “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation. She wrote her final novel, Fledging, in 2005 before passing away in February 2006 at 58 years old. 

Bessie Coleman

   Born in Atlanta, Texas on Jan. 26, 1892, Bessie Coleman was the youngest of 12 children. Her mother was an African American maid and her father was a sharecropper of Native American and African American descent. In 1901, her father moved to Oklahoma to escape racial discrimination while the rest of her family stayed in Texas.

   As Coleman grew up, she helped pick cotton and washed laundry to earn money, and by 18 years old, she had enough to attend Colored Agricultural and Normal University, now known as Langston University, in Langston, Okla. She dropped out after one semester, however, because she couldn’t afford the tuition.

She then moved to Chicago to live with her brothers, and in 1915, she entered the Burnham School of Beauty Culture. While her brothers served in the military during World War I, Coleman became a manicurist in a local barbershop. After her brothers returned, Coleman discovered that women in France could learn how to fly airplanes, which inspired her to become a pilot. 

   After receiving several rejections from flight schools due to her race and gender, she moved to France to learn how to fly planes at the Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation.

   On June 15, 1921, Coleman got her international pilot’s license. To earn money, she gave speeches and showed films of her flying planes at churches, schools, and theaters. She avoided all towns that discriminated against African Americans. 

   In 1922, Coleman became the first African American woman to perform a public flight. Coleman’s popularity grew in the U.S. and Europe largely for her loops and figure-eight tricks.  Coleman eventually toured the country to perform in-plane shows and teach flying lessons. 

   Coleman died on April 30, 1926, after she took a test flight with mechanic William Wills and the plane flipped over after Wills lost control. Because she wasn’t wearing a seatbelt and planes at the time did not have a roof or overhead protection, she fell out of the plane and died.

Nikole Hannah-Jones

   Nikole Hannah-Jones is an investigative journalist focusing on the shortcomings of racial equity work, the continuation of segregation, and the effect of these issues on the Black community. 

   In 1988, Hannah-Jones received her Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Notre Dame, and in 2003, she received her Masters of Arts degree from the University of North Carolina. 

   At the start of her journalism career, Hannah-Jones was a reporter for the Raleigh News and Observer, the Oregonian, and the ProPublica. In 2014, she profiled families in Tuscaloosa, Ala. in “Segregation Now”, a piece detailing the history of segregation in school districts in the South. 

   Following the shooting of Michael Brown in 2015, Hannah-Jones also recorded a radio piece entitled “The Problem We All Live With”. The piece discussed the flaws in the United States education system.

   In addition to publishing the radio piece, Hannah-Jones also became a staff writer for the New York Times in 2015. She then co-founded the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting to increase the number of reporters and editors of color.

   In 2016, the New York Times published her piece, “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City”. The article detailed her experience with New York City’s public school system and demonstrated the wide reach of segregation throughout the United States.   

   In August of 2019, Hannah-Jones started the 1619 Project with the New York Times. The project consists of essays, podcasts, and a broadsheet article that re-examine the impact of slavery on the United States. It received high praise and Hannah-Jones later won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2020 for her work on it.   

Gwen Ifill

   Gwen Ifill was born on Sep. 29, 1955, in New York City. Her father was a minister of African Methodist Episcopal, and her family moved to several cities along the East Coast because of his ministry.

   Ifill graduated from Simmons College in 1977 with a Bachelor of Arts in communications. While at Simmons, she interned for the Boston-Herald American. She later went on to work from 1981 to 1984 at the Baltimore Evening Sun and for the Washington Post from 1984 to 1991. She worked at the New York Times from 1991 to 1994.

   In 1994, she entered her first job in television at NBC as a Capitol Hill reporter.

In 2004, Ifill became the first African-American woman to moderate a vice presidential debate. She moderated the debate between Dick Cheney and John Edwards, as well as the vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin in 2008. In 2016, she co-moderated the presidential debate in the Democratic primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

    Ifill wrote and published a New York Times best-seller called The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama.

  She received over 20 honorary doctorates from universities across the globe and served as a commencement speaker at Morehouse College in 2011.

  Ifill died on Nov. 14, 2016, of endometrial and breast cancer. One year after her death, her alma mater announced the launch of a school named after her: the Gwen Ifill College of Media, Arts and Humanities.

Mae Jemison

   Mae Jemison was born on Oct. 17, 1956, in Decatur, Ala. When she was three years old, Jemison and her family moved to Chicago, Ill. where she spent the rest of her childhood. The Apollo airings interested Jemison, but she disliked that there were no female astronauts. 

   After graduating from Morgan Park High School in 1973, Jemison moved to California to attend Stanford University at 16 years old, where she faced racial discrimination for being one of the few African American students. To portray the African American experience, she choreographed a musical called “Out of the Shadows” where she could incorporate her passion for dance.

   In 1977, Jemison graduated with degrees in chemical engineering and African-American studies and began attending Cornell Medical School where she learned about international medicine. During her time there, she led a study in Cuba for the American Medical Student Association and volunteered at a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand for one summer.

   She graduated from medical school in 1981, and she served as a general practitioner in Los Angeles before becoming a medical officer with the Peace Corps in West Africa in 1983 for two years. There, she worked with the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control on several projects, such as the development of a hepatitis B vaccine.

   After Sally Ride became the first American woman in space in 1983, Jemison applied to become an astronaut at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1985. After the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, however, NASA stopped accepting new astronauts. In 1987, Jemison applied again and was one of the 15 people chosen out of the thousands of applications to be part of the program.

   She worked at the Kennedy Space Center and the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory before receiving her first space mission on Sept. 28, 1989, as a Mission Specialist. Jemison and six other astronauts went to space on Sept. 12, 1992, on the space shuttle Endeavor, making her the first African American woman in space. 

   She and her team returned on Sept. 20, 1992, after completing 127 orbits around the Earth. Jemison then left NASA in 1993 and began The Jemison Group, a firm focused on encouraging technology, science, and social change. She also worked at Dartmouth College and Cornell University as a professor.

   Jemison is now leading the 100 Year Starship project as a part of the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which hopes to make space travel to another star possible within the next 100 years.

Ethel Waters

   Ethel Waters was born on Oct. 31, 1896, and grew up in poverty in Chester, Pa. She married for the first time when she was 12 years old and in convent school. At 17 years old, she named herself “Sweet Mama Stringbean” and began singing professionally in Baltimore, Md. 

   While in Maryland, Waters rose to fame after becoming the first woman to sing W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” in public. She moved to New York City to advance her professional career as a singer, and she performed at the Plantation Club in Harlem in 1925. Her successful performances there led her to Broadway.

   Waters starred in several performances on Broadway, such as in “Africana” and “Blackbirds”. In 1933, Waters performed in Irving Berlin’s “As Thousands Cheer,” where she became the first African American woman to star in a Broadway musical with a mixed cast. Afterward, she became the highest-paid actress on Broadway.

   Her success on “As Thousands Cheer” led to her feature in Berlin’s hit musical “Cabin in the Sky” in 1940 and in the film version in 1943. In 1950, she starred in her own television show, “Beulah,” and while Waters’ fans claim the show misused her talents, she helped pave the way for other African Americans.

   Throughout her career, Waters was an advocate for actors’ rights and was on the executive council of Actors Equity and the Negro Actors Guild of America. She also served on the Hollywood Victory Committee during World War I and sang on the radio for United Service Organizations shows.

   Waters became the first African American woman nominated for a primetime Emmy, the first African American to star in her own television show, and the second African American to be nominated for an Academy Award.

   She passed away on Sept. 1, 1977, in Los Angeles due to kidney and heart failures at the age of 80. 

Works Cited:

“The 1950s: Scraps.” Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network Television, by Donald Bogle, 2001. New York Times, archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/first/b/bogle-blues.html. 

Alexander, Kerri Lee. “Bessie Coleman.” National Women’s History Museum, 2018, http://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/bessie-coleman. 

Alexander, Kerri Lee. “Mae Jemison.” National Women’s History Museum, 2019, http://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/mae-jemison. 

“As an African American, LGBTQ+ Woman, Ethel Waters Shaped U.S. Entertainment.” Because of Her Story, Smithsonian, 12 June 2020, womenshistory.si.edu/news/2020/06/african-american-lgbtq-woman-ethel-waters-shaped-us-entertainment-0. 

Augustyn, Adam. “Ethel Waters.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., http://www.britannica.com/biography/Ethel-Waters. 

Biography.com Editors. “Octavia E. Butler Biography.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 21 Aug. 2020, http://www.biography.com/writer/octavia-e-butler. 

Ellison, Sarah. “How the 1619 Project Took over 2020.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 14 Oct. 2020, http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/1619-project-took-over-2020-inside-story/2020/10/13/af537092-00df-11eb-897d-3a6201d6643f_story.html. 

“Ethel Waters.” National Museum of African American History and Culture, 28 May 2020, nmaahc.si.edu/LGBTQ/ethel-waters. 

“Gwendolyn Brooks.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/gwendolyn-brooks. 

 “Mae Jemison.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 11 Feb. 2021, http://www.britannica.com/biography/Mae-Jemison. 

“Nikole Hannah-Jones .” RSS, MacArthur Foundation, 11 Oct. 2017, http://www.macfound.org/fellows/class-of-2017/nikole-hannah-jones#:~:text=Biography,of%20the%20New%20York%20Times. 

One Reply to “Celebrating Black Excellence”

  1. Really appreciate the pieces of these women who persevered and their contributions. Let’s celebrate and educate. Great writing too
    Share with younger students.

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