Every February, USA celebrates its annual ‘Black History Month,’ commemorating well-known figures such as Martin Luther King, Maya Angelou and Rosa Parks. February 21st this year also marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Malcolm-X, one of the most important leaders during the civil rights campaign.
Aside from these figures though, there are thousands of black Americans who acted heroically or fought for their rights, who go unrecognised during these celebrations. During the Civil War, over 200,000 African American men served in the Army or Navy, while the women became involved as activists, nurses, spies and even soldiers. During the period of slavery there were hundreds of black Americans who fought for the abolition of slavery, and many more who helped runaway slaves escape to freedom.
In the twentieth century there were African American soldiers who fought in the World Wars saving the lives of others, despite being classed as lower ranking than white soldiers. After the War there were men and women who fought for equal rights and secured the freedoms enjoyed by millions of black Americans today.
In this list we recognise just ten of the unknown heroes, although there are thousands more who are equally as brave.
10. Martin Robison Delany (1812-1885)
Martin Delany was arguably the first ever activist and campaigner for black civil rights in the US, and is sometimes referred to as the “grandfather of black nationalism.” He was born in Charles Town, Virginia, but later moved to Pittsburgh where he began campaigning for civil rights. His lifetime achievements are so numerous it’s hard to believe they were all carried out by the same person.
In the 1930s he published a novel, and set up an African American newspaper to help spread the word of the abolitionist cause. He was trained as a physician, and helped treat patients during the cholera epidemics in Pittsburgh in 1833 and 1854 after many other doctors had fled the city.
He became one of the first three black students admitted to Harvard Medical School in the 1850s, but was later asked to leave following a petition by white students. He then returned to journalism and published numerous articles on the subject of black civil rights and abolition.
During the Civil War, Delany recruited black troops and later met with President Lincoln to discuss the possibility of African American officers to command the United States Colored Troops. He was commissioned as a Major, making him the first ever African-American officer, and also the highest-ranking African-American in the history of the US Army.
After the war he became politically active, and also resumed publishing his writings on race and color. He continued to write, up until his death in 1885.
9. Andre Cailloux (1825-1863)
Andre Cailloux was a slave from New Orleans, who became a lieutenant in the Confederate Native Guard when the Civil War broke out. In 1862, Cailloux switched sides to join a Union regiment, the 1st Louisiana Native Guard. This was mostly made up of escaped slaves who had joined the Union forces to fight against the Confederate Army.
Cailloux was made captain of Company E, who were considered one of the best drilled companies in the entire regiment. In May 1863 the Union Army launched an attack on the Confederate position at Port Hudson. The attack was poorly devised as the defences at Port Hudson were strong. Cailloux was selected to lead his men on the first day of the attack, in an almost suicidal charge against Confederate shooters.
Despite suffering heavy losses, Cailloux was able to rally his men and persuade them to keep fighting. During one charge his arm was blown off, but he continued to fight until he was killed by a Confederate artillery shell.
Cailloux was one of the first African-American officers in the Union Army to be killed during the Civil War. Accounts of his heroism were widely circulated in the press, and he was often cited as an example to persuade more African-American enlist in the US Army.
8. Robert Smalls (1839-1915)
Robert Smalls was a slave from Beaufort, South Carolina, who was assigned to the CSS Planter, a Confederate military transport ship. In May 1862, while the ship’s three white officers were ashore in Charleston, Smalls and eight other enslaved crewmen stole the boat. Smalls dressed in a Captain’s uniform and sailed to a nearby wharf to collect all the crew’s family members who were hiding there. He was then able to manoeuvre past the five Confederate forts who were guarding the harbour by supplying the correct secret signals. Smalls sailed the ship past Fort Sumter and headed straight towards the Union ships, flying a bed sheet as a white flag. He surrendered the Planter and all its cargo, including a codebook to the US Navy. All of the crewmen and their families were freed from slavery, and Smalls was invited to meet President Abraham Lincoln and helped convince him to allow African-Americans into the US Army and Navy.
Smalls joined the service for the Union Navy, and in 1863 became the first black captain of a vessel in the US. After the war he became a politician and was elected to the House of Representatives as a Republican candidate for South Carolina. He was the longest-serving African-American member of Congress until Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
7. Caroline Le Count (1846-1923)
Caroline Le Count was an African American schoolteacher, who was also part of a women’s resistance campaign during the Civil War. The aim of the group was to cause civil disobedience in order to challenge segregation orders which kept black and white people separated in public areas.
Many of the women in these groups were involved in supplying troops and nursing wounded soldiers, yet were unable to ride the streetcars to transport them to bases many miles outside the city. Le Count and many of the other women had been forcibly removed from the streetcars on numerous occasions trying to reach the troops.
Due to increasing pressure from civil rights activists, the law regarding the streetcars was eventually changed. However when Le Count tried to board a streetcar on March 25th, 1867 the conductor was unaware of the new law, and shouted “We don’t allow niggers to ride!” Le Count complained to the nearest policeman who arrested the conductor and fined him $100.
Following this victory, all of Philadelphia’s streetcar companies were informed that segregation would no longer be tolerated. It was a small victory in terms of the civil rights movement as a whole, but allowed for the free movement of African Americans across the city of Philadelphia.
6. Henry Johnson (1897-1929)
Henry Johnson was a soldier in the black regiment of the New York National Guard, which was later renamed the 369th Infantry Regiment, based in Harlem. They later became known as the “Harlem Hellfighters” on account of their exploits.
During World War I, Johnson’s regiment was assigned to the French Army, as many white American soldiers had refused to fight alongside black troops. While on guard duty in May 1918, Johnson and a colleague had come under attack from a group of 24 German soldiers.
Both Johnson and his colleague were shot multiple times. Despite this, Johnson is alleged to have fought off all the German troops single-handedly with his rifle, then using it as a club once he had run out of bullets. When the Germans tried to capture his comrade, he slashed at them with a knife until they retreated. He killed at least four of the German troops in the process, and injured others.
Johnson successfully rescued his injured comrade, despite suffering over twenty wounds, and was nicknamed the “Black Death” by fellow soldiers. Both men were awarded the French Croix de Guerre medal for bravery, but were unrecognised in the US until posthumously awarded the Purple Heart by President Bill Clinton in 1996.
5. Charles David Jr (1917-1943)
Charles David Jr was a member of the US Coast Guard, and had grown up in New York, signing up for military service as soon as the US became involved in World War II. By 1942 he was working as a Steward’s Mate on board the Commanche.
In February 1943, the Commanche had been assigned to escort a larger ship, The Dorchester, through an area of the Atlantic known as ‘torpedo alley’. The Dorchester was carrying hundreds of troops, as well as military supplies. It was struck by a German U-Boat, and began listing to one side. Dozens of men fell into the water and would soon drown or catch hypothermia in the Atlantic sea.
David, who was one of the lowest-raking men on board the Commanche, was one of the first volunteers to help with the rescue mission. He and a handful of others worked tirelessly in the rough and freezing waters until they had rescued 93 men. David also helped rescue some of the Commanche volunteers who had themselves become exhausted.
There were 227 survivors in total, who were taken to Greenland. However David contracted pneumonia not long after arrival, and died days later. He was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medals, and was recognised by President Johnson for his bravery.
4. Dorie Miller (1919-1943)
Dorie Miller was a mess attendant (kitchen worker) from Waco, Texas, who was working on board the battleship West Virginia when it came under attack at Pearl Harbor. At that time the US military was segregated, so African Americans were not given combat roles, and did not receive any weaponry training.
When the attack begun on 7th December 1941, Miller reported to his battle station where his job was to carry any injured colleagues to safety. He dragged a number of men from the deck of the ship, including the ship’s captain.
Miller then returned to deck, picked up an anti-aircraft machine gun, which he had never been trained to use, and started firing at the Japanese planes who were still dive-bombing all over Pearl Harbor. He was able to shoot down four Japanese planes before the call was given to abandon ship.
News bulletins soon emerged of a heroic “negro messman” and it was from these reports that Miller was eventually identified. He became the first African-American to be awarded the US Navy Cross. Miller was killed in 1943, when his new ship, the USS Liscome Bay was struck by a Japanese torpedo in the Pacific.
3. Claudette Colvin (b. 1939-)
Claudette Colvin was a teenage schoolgirl who was the first person arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white person on a bus, in Montgomery Alabama.
The Colvin bus incident happened on March 2, 1955 – nine months prior to the more famous protest by Rosa Parks. Colvin had written a school essay on segregation in Alabama, earlier that day. When a white woman boarded the bus, Colvin decided there and then that she wasn’t going to move. She was handcuffed, arrested and physically removed from the bus.
It is widely accepted that Colvin’s bus protest was the spark that begun the wider bus boycott movement, although Colvin herself did not receive any publicity. Black organisations and protest groups promoted the Rosa Parks incident as a more suitable campaign, as Parks was a respectable adult. Colvin was a teenager, pregnant and unmarried.
2. George Jackson (1941-1971) & The Soledad Brothers
George Jackson was imprisoned as an 18 year old for stealing $70 from a gas station. His defender recommended he pleaded guilty to reduce the sentence, however he was given an indeterminate term of one year to life, and each year he was refused parole.
While he was imprisoned in California, he began reading Maoist and Marxist theories and later associated himself with the Black Panther Party. He wrote a book entitled The Soledad Brother, containing many of his prison letters. It was critically acclaimed, and gave Jackson a level of fame within the prison. But this newly found fame also helped increase tensions with the prison guards.
Jackson felt that a huge injustice had been done to him and other black Americans by the state. He began to protest against the lengths of sentences given to black people compared with whites.
In 1970 an incident occurred where three black inmates were shot to death by guards, after a fight broke out involving some white inmates. A guard was later found killed in retaliation, and Jackson and three others were accused of his murder. They became known as the Soledad Brothers.
Jackson organised a number of events to gain publicity for the struggles of black inmates, including hunger strikes, and an incident where his younger brother was able to storm a courthouse and take the judge hostage. These events gained huge media coverage, raising Jackson’s profile, and he also published numerous letters and another book during this time.
In 1971, Jackson was shot and killed during an escape attempt, just prior to the beginning of his trial for the murder of the guard.
1. Leroy Wilton Homer Jr (1965-2001)
Leroy Wilton Homer Jr was a pilot from Long Island, New York and was serving as the First Officer on United Airlines Flight 93, which was hijacked on September 11th. Prior to becoming a commercial airline pilot, Homer had served in the Gulf War and Somalia, and had received numerous medals and awards.
During the attacks on September 11th, Homer was removed from the cockpit by the hijackers who killed the captain and took control of the plane. It is not known exactly what happened next, but it is thought the hijackers were having trouble with the autopilot, and were heard on the radio saying to bring back the first officer.
However, First Officer Homer had learned of the earlier attacks at the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. Along with a group of passengers and flight crew he organised an uprising against the hijackers and attempted to storm the cockpit and regain control of the plane.
The plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, killing everyone on board. However the actions of Homer and the other passengers ensured that the plane never reached its target in Washington DC, which would have resulted in the loss of many more lives.