Famous African-Americans

Throughout history many famous African-American men and women have contributed significantly to society as far as civil rights, music, science, sports, equality are concerned. Their remarkable efforts and achievements, and life stories are often are quite worthy of high recognition. Below is a list of some of the most famous African-Americans of all time.

Famous African-Americans

Dred-Scott Sojourner-Truth Frederick-Douglass
Dred Scott (1795-1858)
Known For: Being a slave turned social activist
Dred Scott was a slave for several owners before he tried to sue for his freedom in a Missouri Court. The case went all the way up to the Supreme Court where the ruling in Missouri that would have given him and his family freedom was overturned by the court. It is believed that this case was part of what motivated the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln.
Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)
Known For: Being a women’s rights activist and abolitionist
Originally named Isabella Baumfree, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth. She was born a slave and later escaped less than a year before slavery was abolished in the state of New York where she lived. She was the first black person to successfully take a white man to court and win. The result of the case was the return of her son who was illegally sold and sent to Alabama.
Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)
Known For: Famous abolitionist and human rights activist
Frederick Douglass was a former slave who became a popular anti-slavery speaker. He wrote an autobiography that became a bestseller in the U.S. Douglass additionally became a supporter of woman’s rights. He later became the first black man to be appointed to positions of political power. Interestingly, he also was put on the Equal Rights Party ticket as vice presidential candidate without his agreement. This made him the first African American to be on the presidential ballot.
Harriet-Tubman Booker-T-Washington George-Washington-Carver
Harriet Tubman (1820-1913)
Known For: Her work with the Underground Railroad
Nicknamed “Minty” and “Moses,” Harriet Tubman, originally named Araminta Harriet Ross, was an escaped slave who grew to become an abolitionist leader. In her years she saved hundreds of African-Americans from slavery via the Underground Railraod.
Booker T. Washington (1856-1915)
Known For: He was a longstanding leader in the African-American community
Booker T. Washington was known for being a great speaker, educator, author and presidential advisor. He was initially born into slavery and after emancipation he became the voice for former slaves and other African-Americans who were being discriminated against in the Southern states. He pushed for economic advancement and better education in the community.
George Washington Carver (1864-1943)
Known For: Being a famous inventor and scientist
George Washington Carver coined the crop rotation method. He also invented many different uses for the peanut. From this simple crop he created dyes, wood stain, shaving cream, shoe polish, synthetic rubber, salad oil and much more.
WEB-DuBois Duke-Ellington Louis-Armstrong
W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963)
Known For: Co-founding the NAACP
W.E.B. Du Bois was a influential black rights activist and leader. He was also a notable scholar who studied at Harvard. Du Bois was the very first black individual to earn their doctorate from Harvard University.
Duke Ellington (1899-1974)
Known For: Being the man who started the big band jazz concept
Duke Ellington was known for his skills as a pianist, composer and bandleader. He made over 1,000 musical creations during his lifetime with his career lasting over 50 years. Ellington earned 12 Grammy Awards including the Grammy LIfetime Acheivement Award.
Louis Armstrong (1901-1971)
Known For: Thought of as one of the top musicians in the history of jazz
Besides playing the trumpet, Louis Armstrong was also a singer, actor, comedian, bandleader and soloist. Some of his best-known songs are “What a Wonderful World,” “Star Dust” and “La Via En Rose.”
Langston-Hughehs Thurgood-Marshall Rosa-parks
Langston Hughes (1902-1967)
Known For: Being a popular poet and writer
Hughes was first published at the age of 24. He became a well-known poet, playwright and novelist. Much of his work incorporated African-American subject matter which is why he is considered to be a major part of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920’s.
Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993)
Known For: Becoming the first black justice on the Supreme Court
Thurgood Marshall graduated with a law degree from Howard University. He then represented the NAACP to work for equality for African-Americans. He argued the case of Brown v. Board of Education and won. Marshall served as a Supreme Court justice for 24 years.
Rosa Parks (1913-2005)
Known For: Refusing to give up her seat on the bus for a white rider
Rosa Parks actions on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama resulted in a boycott in the city. Because of this boycott the city was essentially forced to get rid of the law that allowed for segregation on the buses. Her actions marked a big turning point in the young civil rights movement. She has been honored with many awards in her life.
Billie-Holiday Jackie-Robinson Nat-King-Cole
Billie Holiday (1915-1959)
Known For: She was one of the best female jazz singers ever
Billie Holiday won 10 Grammy Awards for her songs and albums. She also was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, The Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame and the ASCAP Jazz Wall of Fame. Billie Holiday died at the age of 44 from substance abuse. Later, her autobiography was turned into a movie called Lady Sings the Blues with Diana Ross playing her character.
Jackie Robinson (1919-1972)
Known For: Being the first African-American in Major League Baseball
Jackie Robinson was Rookie of the Year, played on a World Series championship team and was the National League most valuable player. His presence in MLB helped make huge advancements in black civil rights. His batting average of .311 makes him one of the greatest batters in history.
Nat King Cole (1919-1965)
Known For: He was the first African-American musical performer to have his own TV show
Perhaps most remembered for his songs “Mona Lisa,” “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” “The Christmas Song” and “Nature Boy,” Nat King Cole began hosting his own variety TV show in the mid 1950’s. He was an inductee of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. In 1990 Nat King Cole was honored with the Grammy LIfetime Achievement Award.
Malcolm-X Medgar-Evers Miles-Davis
Malcolm X (1925-1965)
Known For: Being a powerful leader in the Nation of Islam
As the key figurehead of the Nation of Islam in the 50’s and 60’s, Malcom X saw his organization grow from a couple hundred followers to more than 40,000. He was known as a great speaker who told blacks that they should fight racism “by any means necessary.”
Medgar Evers (1925-1963)
Known For: Being a prominent civil rights activist
Medgar Evers fought for African-American rights throughout his life. He worked on voter registration, organized boycotts and demonstrations and helped to investigate crimes committed against African-Americans. Evers held the position of state field secretary for the NAACP in the state of Mississippi. He was assassinated at the young age of 37.
Miles Davis (1926-1991)
Known For: He was an amazing jazz artist, bandleader and trumpet player
Miles Davis won the Grammy Award 9 times in his life. He was a leader in jazz music innovation who liked to push the boundaries of the music. Some of his most popular songs were “So What,” “Round Midnight” and “Boplicity.”
Chuck-Berry Coretta-Scott-King Maya-Angelou
Chuck Berry (1926-present)
Known For: Being one of the most popular music artists from the 1950’s to the 1970’s
Chuck Berry created and performed rock and roll and rhythm and blues music during his long career. He is known for having unique and catchy lyrics as well as a distinguished sound. His top hits during his career were “My Ding-a-Ling” and “Johnny B. Goode.”
Coretta Scott King (1927-2006)
Known For: Key American civil rights leader
Wife to Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King worked with her husband throughout his life and played a big role in many events. She was a part of the reason why the Civil Rights Act passed and she took part in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. After her husband’s death she started up the Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
Maya Angelou (1928-present)
Known For: She is a world-famous and highly honored memoirist and poet.
Maya Angelou has written many autobiographies and poems that have won her numerous awards, including: The National Book Award, a Tony Award, a Pulitzer Prize nomination, three Grammys, the Lincoln Medal, the National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Martin-Luther-King-Jr Ray-Charles Toni-Morrison
Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968)
Known For: He was a key figurehead that led the U.S. Civil Rights Movement
Starting in the mid 1950’s, Martin Luther King Jr. began to make big leaps toward creating equal rights for African-Americans. His leadership resulted in the end of legalized segregation around the country. His work also helped to create the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. In 1964, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Ray Charles (1930-2004)
Known For: Widely thought to be one of the best musicians of all time
Combining pop, country and rythmn and blues with soul music, the blind Ray Charles made timeless songs the likes of “Georgia on My Mind,” Unchain My Heart” and “Hit the Road Jack.”
Toni Morrison (1931-present)
Known For: Being an award-winning author
Toni Morrison is a very popular African-American author who has written such books as Song of Solomon, Beloved, and The Bluest Eye. For her works she has won many awards including The Nobel Prize and the Pulitzer Prize.
James-Brown Quincy-Jones Hank-Aarong
James Brown (1933-2006)
Known For: Being nicknamed “The Godfather of Soul”
James Brown was a musician, singer, songwriter and recording artist. He specialized in the areas of funk and soul music. Some of his hit songs were “Try Me,” “Lost Someone,” “Prisoner of Love” and “Night Train.”
Quincy Jones (1933-present)
Known For: Being a world-famous composer and music producer
Quincy Jones has been the record producer for such big names as Celene Dion, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson and Frank Sinatra. Additionally he has been nominated for 79 Grammy’s, which is more than anybody else. He won 27 of those nominations.
Hank Aaron (1934-present)
Known For: Thought by many to be one of the greatest baseball players ever
Hank Aaron was one of the greatest hitters that baseball has ever seen. To this day he still holds many records, including: most extra base hits, most runs batted in, most seasons with thirty of more home runs and most total bases. He faced a lot of racism from fans and other players when he played.
Jim--Brown Morgan-Freeman Bill-Cosby
Jim Brown (1936-present)
Known For: Holding several records in the NFL
Jim Brown was a professional football player and fullback in the NFL. Brown holds the record for most seasons leading the National Football League in all -purpose yards. He is the only athlete to rush for an average of over 100 yards per game in their career. He was voted into the Pro Bowl every year of his professional career. He retired early, at the age of 29, and later went on to act in several movies.
Morgan Freeman (1937-present)
Known For: Becoming one of Hollywood’s most famous actors.
Morgan Freeman went from being a pilot in the airforce to gravitating toward his true passion in life: acting. He started off in small roles and eventually began getting big parts in major films. He has also grown to become a narrator and director. Some of his biggest roles came in The Shawshank Redemption, the Batman movies and Driving Miss Daisy to name only a few.
Bill Cosby (1937-present)
Known For: His real and positive depiction of blacks on his television shows
Bill Cosby is a producer, actor and comedian who is most known for his TV show The Cosby Show. He served in the Navy while growing up and began to do comedy shows while in college. He achieved national attention when he appeared on The Tonight Show and went on to win a Grammy Award for best comedy performance.
Colin-Powell Jesse-Jackson Muhammad-Ali
Colin Powell (1937-present)
Known For: He was the first black U.S. Secretary of State
Colin Luther Powell remains the only African-American individual to be on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He retired from the United States Army as a 4-star general. He played a key part in making the case for the U.S. to go to war in Iraq.
Jesse Jackson (1941-present)
Known For: He is a key civil rights leader
Jesse Jackson has been involved in civil rights for most of his life. He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama and was a special envoy to Africa. In 1984 he created the National Rainbow Coallition which has a goal of making sure there are equal rights for blacks, homosexuals and women. In 2000 he was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom
Muhammad Ali (1942-present)
Known For: Considered to be one of the best boxers in history
Besides being a world-famous athlete, Muhammad Ali is also a social activist and philanthropist. He won an Olympic gold medal as well as the Golden Gloves. He won every one of his fights throughout the 60’s, usually by knockout.
Jimi-Hendrix Aretha-Franklin Arthur-Ashe
Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970)
Known For: His incredible guitar playing abilities
Jimi Hendrix became a guitar playing phenomenon at a very early age. Despite dying at just 27 years old, Hendrix left a major impact on the music world. His stylings were ground-breaking and influenced many other artists.
Aretha Franklin (1942-present)
Known For: Being nicknamed the “The Queen of Soul”
Aretha Franklin is an 18 time Grammy Award winner and one of the most honored female artists of all time. Some of her best-known song titles are “Respect,” “I Say a Little Prayer” and “Freeway of Love.”
Arthur Ashe (1943-1993)
Known For: Being the first African-American to be ranked number one in the world in tennis
Arthur Ashe was a world-famous tennis star. He was the first black person to win the U.S. Open as well as the men’s singles at Wimbledon. He still holds these titles. Later in life he contracted AIDS because of a bad blood transfusion. He spent much of the rest of his life campaigning to spread awareness about the AIDS virus.
Diana-Ross Angela-Davis Alice-Walker
Diana Ross (1944-present)
Known For: Strong influence in music and creating many popular hit songs
Orignally Diana Ross was a member of the three person group The Supremes. She later went on to have a successful solo career. Two of The Supremes’ songs, “You Can’t Hurry Love” and “Stop! In the Name of Love” are listed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of the 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. She also acted in the movies The Wiz and Lady Sings the Blues.
Angela Davis (1944-present)
Known For: Being a key women’s rights activist
Angela Davis isa big name in the women’s rights movement. She has written many books including Women, Race & Class as well as Women, Culture & Politics. She also pushes for prison reform and better interracial relations.
Alice Walker (1944-present)
Known For: Author of The Color Purple
Alice Walker writes both poems and novels. She has won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Award for Fiction, Humanist of the Year Award, the Domestic Human Rights Award and many more.
Clarence-Thomas Stevie-Wonder Oprah-Winfrey
Clarence Thomas (1948-present)
Known For: Being the second African-American to ever be on the U.S. Supreme Court
Clarence Thomas is a conservative-leaning Supreme Court member who was appointed in 1991 by George H.W. Bush. He attended Yale Law and here is where his views shifted from left to right. He is against Roe v. Wade as well as school desegregation.
Stevie Wonder (1950-present)
Known For: Hit songs and being in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Stevie wonder, who was born blind, became a huge music sensation at a young age. He recorded his first hit single at the age of 13. He has many popular songs, including: “I Just Called to Say I Love You” and “Ebony and Ivory.”
Oprah Winfrey (1954-present)
Known For: Her talk show that is known world-wide
Oprah is a billionaire philanthropist, actress, producer and publisher. Besides The Oprah Winfrey Show, she has acted in movies, such as The Color Purple. “Oprah’s Book Club” has helped many unknown authors become huge successes. She has her own magazine and television network as well. She is the richest black person in the 20th century.
Condoleezza-Rice Ruby-Bridges Al-Sharpton
Condoleezza Rice (1954-present)
Known For: First black woman to be Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice was the first woman and African-American to become provost at Stanford University. She was also the first black woman to become national security adviser, holding this post under President George W. Bush.
Ruby Bridges (1954-present)
Known For: Was the first black child to attend an all white school in the South
Ruby Bridges was just 6 years old when she went to William Frantz School. She was brought in and protected by U.S. Marshals every day for her safety. She experienced extreme racism from other students and parents alike, but she still kept going to the school.
Al Sharpton (1954-present)
Known For: Being a vocal fighter against racism and inequality
Al Sharpton is a divisive political activist with strong speaking skills. He has worked with organizations that push for diversity in places of work. He established the National Youth Movement organization whose mission is to raise money for poor children and fight drugs. Sharpton has helped to organize demonstrations and protests as well as point the media’s eye toward cases of injustice.
Michael-Jackson Barack-Obama Michael-Jordan
Michael Jackson (1958-2009)
Known For: Changing pop music and culture, being the “King of Pop”
The Guiness World Records notes Michael Jackson as being the most successful entertainer ever. His fame and influences in music, fashion and dance boosted him to the forefront of pop culture for more than four decades. He is known for popularizing the moonwalk dance move and some of his most noteable songs were “Thriller,” “Billie Jean,” “Smooth Criminal” and “Beat It.”
Barack Obama (1961-present)
Known For: Being the first African American to become the U.S. president
While studying at Harvard, Barack Obama became the first African-American to be editor of the Harvard Law Review. He received his law degree in 1991 and then became a civil rights lawyer. He also became a professor at the University of Chicago Law School. He got involved in politics and won his first election to become an Illinios State Senator in 1996. In 2004 Obama won an Illinois U.S. Senate seat. Later, in 2008, he beat Republican John McCain to become the 44th president of the United States. He won re-election over Mitt Romney in 2012.
Michael Jordan (1963-present)
Known For: Leading the Chicago Bulls to 6 NBA championships
Michael Jordan is considered by many to be one of the best NBA players of all time. Besides winning six national championships, he has been awarded the NBA Finals MVP title six times, the NBA MVP award five times and the All-NBA scoring champion title ten times.
Tiger-Woods
Tiger Woods (1975-present)
Known For: Youngest person and first African-American to win the U.S. Masters
Tiger Woods is known as one of the best golfers of all time. Woods was the very first golfer ever to hold all of the 4 professional championships at once. He was the youngest person to finish a career “Grand Slam.” Tiger Woods was also the youngest person to win the Masters championship.
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