African-American History: Leaders & Famous People


The African Americans who helped shape this country into what it is today are a vital part of history study. As part of our African American History Month celebration, we wanted to take a closer look at some of the most beloved of those individuals.


Maya Angelou

As a poet and activist, Maya Angelou created some of the best poetry ever published. At eight years old, Angelou went through a very traumatic experience that resulted in her becoming mute (unable to speak) for five years straight. During that time, she memorized poetry and Shakespearean sonnets. With the help of a teacher and literature, she was able to speak again and when she did, she spoke about her traumatic childhood. She also expressed herself in her poetry and her own literature, which won her many awards including three Grammy awards.


Benjamin Banneker

Born in 1731, Benjamin Banneker was the son of two free ex-slaves. Since both of his parents were free, Benjamin was free as well. As a child, he was mostly self-taught but he did attend a small Quaker school for a short time. Astronomy was one of the subjects he taught himself, and he was able to accurately predict some of the solar and lunar eclipses. He is most famous for his almanacs, which he published for six years straight.

Sojourner Truth

 In 1797, Sojourner Truth – born as Isabella Baumfree – was born. She would later come to be known as one of the most famous abolitionist speakers who ever lived. She was born into slavery but managed to escape with her baby girl. Over the years, she fought not just for slaves to be free but also for women’s rights. Sojourner Truth was best known for her speech “Ain’t I a Woman” which she delivered in 1851 at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention.

  Rosa Parks

 Rosa Parks was a civil rights activist. Born in 1913, Rosa Parks was most notable for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger. The bus was segregated, which means blacks were kept separate from the whites. Specifically, blacks were expected to take a seat in the back of the bus and leave the front seats for the whites. The bus driver of the bus she was on noticed that there were white people standing, so he moved the “line” (that separated blacks from whites) back so Ms. Parks was now seated in the “whites” section. Ms. Parks refused to move and was arrested. As a result, the Montgomery Bus Boycott ensued and lasted 381 days.

Harriet Tubman

Born in 1820, Harriet Tubman was a slave who sought to help her family and other slave members escape slavery by way of the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad was neither a railroad nor was it underground. Still, it served its purpose in helping slaves escape. Harriet Tubman risked her own life to help others escape through the Underground Railroad. Initially, she escaped with her brothers but they were scared of getting caught and punished severely, so they returned to the plantation. Though she was sick at the time, Harriet knew this was her chance to escape, so she took the risk.


  Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery and became one of the smartest slaves of his time. Although slaves were not allowed to obtain an education, he was taught the alphabet – and other basic things – by the wife of a slaveholder at around age 12. As soon as the slaveholder found out, he forbade his wife from continuing. At that point, Frederick Douglass continued learning things from the white children he was around. As he grew older, he wanted to share his knowledge with other slaves, especially the Bible. He began to hold lessons on the New Testament for any slaves who were interested. In addition to fighting for slaves, Frederick Douglass was an avid fighter of women’s rights. As a result of his abolitionist efforts and fighting for women to have the same rights as men, Douglass became the first African-American to be nominated as Vice President of the United States.

 For more resources to study Black American History:

Each year The Association for the Study of African American Life and History selects a theme for Black History Month. This theme provides a great place to begin your study.

NEA Black History Month Lessons and Resources

Go Beyond the basics of Black History 

Black History Classroom Resources that can be modified for homeschooling

Ed Tech tools for Black History Month

Movie Resources for Black History

More than a Map(p) is a geo-location app that allows user to track import locations in this history study

African American History through the Arts

Library of Congress Resources

Teaching History

Smithsonian’s Resources

Return to African American History Study Resources

African American Study Resources