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Nine inspiring Black American heroes you might not know about, but should

Black history: These African American figures deserve to be celebrated.
Aviation pioneer Bessie Coleman, NASA's Ronald McNair and Civil War hero Robert Smalls.
Aviation pioneer Bessie Coleman, NASA's Ronald McNair and Civil War hero Robert Smalls.Tyler Essary / TODAY Illustration / Getty Images / Alamy
/ Source: TODAY

There are a number of hidden heroes that are rarely discussed in classrooms, or around the dinner table, and while their names might not sound immediately familiar, these famous figures have shaped history and deserve the spotlight.  

“Often Black history is taught from a one-sided perspective, what happened to Black folks,” author and antiracist educator Britt Hawthorne told TODAY.

“Instead, we need to teach Black history from what Black folks did to resist, experience joy, and continue to create in spite of white supremacy.”

Black history lessons in the month of February likely include the teachings of famous Black Americans like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Park, and Jesse Owens. These pioneers have earned their pages in history textbooks, but why is so much Black history missing?

"The reason is simple," Gerald Horne, Moores Professor of History and African American Studies at University of Houston told TODAY Parents. "Just look at the legislative backlash to Critical Race Theory or the Virginia gubernatorial race. Black history well taught leaves discomfort, which many would prefer to avoid."

Horne said that a fuller understanding of Black history isn't just about looking back into the past, it's about improving the future for America.

“History of a nation helps said nation better comprehend what ails it, so as to prescribe effective remedies," he said.

Here are Black American heroes you (and your kids) might not know about; now is the perfect time to learn.

1. Harlem Hellfighters

The Arrival Of 369Th Regiment Nyc
The arrival of the famed 369th Black infantry regiment in New York after World War I. Celebrated in Europe, they faced discrimination at home.Bettmann Archive

The 369th Black infantry regiment was an all-Black U.S. regiment nicknamed the “Harlem Hellfighters” which formed during World War I.

In the first World War, they became the first African-American infantry unit, and spent more time in combat than any other American unit. Initially deployed to help unload supply ships, they regiment was then loaned to the French Army and spent 191 days on the front lines.

Though the unit lost 1,500 men, and only received 900 replacements, the Hellfighters were the first unit of the French, British or American Armies to reach the Rhine River at the end of the war.

The Hellfighters received their formidable nickname from the Germans; "Hollenkampfer" in German translates to "Hellfighters." Because most of the unit hailed from Harlem, New York, the name stuck.

The Hellfighters were lauded in Europe for the bravery. But when the war ended and the Hellfighters returned home, they faced racism and segregation from the country they bravely defended.

The summer of 1919 was called the "Red Summer," and marked by violence against Black Americans at the hands of white Americans.

2. Ronald McNair

Jazz In Space
Mission specialist Ronald McNair relaxes with his saxophone during the STS 41-B mission on the Challenger shuttle. Zero gravity allows him to float around while playing his instrument.NASA / Getty Images

Ronald McNair was 9 when a South Carolina librarian told him he could not check out books from a segregated library in 1959. Refusing to leave, a determined McNair sat on the counter while the librarian called the police, as well McNair's mother. The police arrived, told the librarian to let the young boy have his books, and McNair walked out alongside his mother and brother.

McNair went on to earn his Ph.D. in physics at MIT and became one of the first African Americans selected as astronauts by NASA, alongside Guion S. Bluford, Jr. and Frederick Gregory.

McNair's first spaceflight was the STS-41B mission, aboard the "Challenger" shuttle. He successfully maneuvered the robotic arm, which allowed astronaut Bruce McCandless to perform the first space walk without being tethered to the spacecraft.  

The second space flight for McNair would be his last. He, along with six other NASA astronauts, were aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger when it exploded 73 seconds after takeoff in 1986. Everyone on board the shuttle was killed.

Today, the library in South Carolina where McNair was refused books is named after the heroic boy determined to make a difference.

3. Bessie Coleman

Pioneer Aviator Bessie Coleman
Photographic portrait of Bessie Coleman, first black woman aviatrix. George Rinhart / Corbis via Getty Images

While Amelia Earhart is often celebrated for her piloting heroics, it is pioneer Bessie Coleman who broke down barriers for women in aviation.

Coleman took flight in 1921, becoming the first African American woman to earn a pilot's license. She was inspired to take to the skies at 27 after her brother, a World War I veteran, told her that women in France were superior because they could fly. Despite her drive, Coleman was denied flying privileges in the U.S. because she was Black and a woman.

Determined to become a pilot, Coleman began learning French, before leaving for Paris to pursue her dream. After successfully earning her pilot's license, Coleman returned home and on September 3, 1922, she made the first public flight by a Black woman in the U.S. in a plane she borrowed.

Coleman worked her way into barnstorming, a form of entertainment involving aerial stunt tricks. In April 1926, while performing in Florida, Coleman's plane began nosediving at 3,500 feet. Because she was performing tricks that did not allow her to wear her seatbelt, she was thrown from the aircraft and killed.

4. Alexa Canady

Nationally renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Alexa Canady became the youngest black female in her specialty at age 30.Hugh Grannum / Detroit Free Press / AP

Born in Lansing, Michigan in 1950, Dr. Alexa Irene Canady broke both gender and color barriers when she became the first African American woman neurosurgeon in the United States in 1981.

While majoring in zoology at the University of Michigan, Canady became interested in medicine after attending a summer camp on genetics for minority students.

After receiving her B.S. in 1971, Canady graduated cum laude from the College of Medicine at the University of Michigan in 1975.

While she was initially interested in internal medicine, Canady later developed an interest in neurosurgery. She was accepted as a surgical intern at Yale-New Haven Hospital in 1975. She was the first Black woman to be enrolled in the hospital's program.

"I made it to Minnesota for residency, and before I knew it, I was a neurosurgeon. I had achieved my dream," Canady wrote in a personal essay for the University of Michigan. "And that’s all it was to me, because being the 'first' anything was never my goal."

Canady said that it was not until she began talking to people in the community that she realized the importance of her milestone.

"One, it was important for the children, who would no longer see neurosurgery as yet another world that they couldn’t belong to. That’s the side everybody appreciates," she said. "And that was equally important in changing society’s expectations. So while being first wasn’t important to me, it was important for many others."

Dr. Canady served as the chief of neurosurgery at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan from 1987 until her retirement in June 2001.

5. Robert Smalls

Portrait of Robert Smalls, an enslaved African American who escaped to freedom.
Robert Smalls, an enslaved African American who escaped to freedom.Alamy Stock Photo

Robert Smalls was only in his early 20s when he risked his life as a Black, enslaved man in the U.S. South to sail his family to freedom.

Haunted by the idea that his family, which included his wife, Hannah, and two children, could be sold and separated, a common practice during slavery, Smalls devised a plan.

On a moonlit night in the spring of 1862 during the Civil War, Smalls, an enslaved Black man, and a crew of fellow enslaved people, stole one of the Confederacy’s most crucial gunships from its wharf in the South Carolina port of Charleston.

Smalls, a maritime pilot, and his crew hijacked the U.S.S. Planter, a well-stocked ammunitions ship, after the three white officers left overnight.

Smalls and the crew sailed the vessel, carrying 16 passengers, into free waters, and handed it over to the Union Navy.

This intricately coordinated escape astonished the world. Smalls was hailed as a hero in the North, and helped lobby President Lincoln to allow Black men to enlist in the Union Army. After the war, he served in the U.S. House of Representatives.

6. Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks Smoking a Pipe
Gordon Parks, here at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Boston, was a groundbreaking photographer and movie director ("The Learning Tree," "Shaft." (Photo by © Shepard Sherbell/CORBIS SABA/Corbis via Getty Images)Shepard Sherbell / Getty Images

Gordon Parks was a Black American photojournalist, musician, writer and film director who is known for breaking the "color line" in professional photography.

"I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs," said Parks, who was born in Kansas in 1912. "I knew at that point I had to have a camera."

A self-taught photographer, he was the first African American staff photographer for "Life" magazine, and took photos of many notable figures in history throughout the years. He was the first Black man to produce and direct a major motion picture, paving the way for Black directors after him. In 2000, he won The Congress of Racial Equality Lifetime Achievement Award.

7. Marian Anderson

Marian Anderson (1902-1993), American opera singer
Marian Anderson became the first African American singer to perform at the Metropolitain Opera in 1955. (Photo by Gaston Paris/Roger Viollet via Getty Images)Gaston Paris / Getty Images

Marian Anderson was an American contralto — meaning she possessed a very low range in her vocal register. She was famous for performing a wide range of music, including opera and spirituals.

For many years in Anderson’s career, she wasn’t allowed to perform in front of integrated audiences. But, with the aid of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Anderson performed a critically acclaimed concert on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, on the Lincoln Memorial steps. 

8. Jane Bolin

African American Justice Jane Bolin
Jane Bolin was sworn in by New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia as a justice in the court of Domestic Relations in 1939, making her the first female Black judge in the U.S.Getty Images

Jane Bolin broke many boundaries in her life, but perhaps her most famous is being named the first Black woman judge in America in 1939. (This is after she was the first Black woman to graduate from Yale Law School, and the first to gain admission to the New York City Bar.)

She fought against racial discrimination within the legal system; one of her many accomplishments as a Family Court (formerly the Domestic Relations Court) judge was changing the system so that publicly funded child care agencies had to accept children with discriminating on race or ethnicity.

She served as a judge for 40 years and only retired reluctantly when she hit the mandatory retirement age of 70. After retiring, she volunteered as a tutor at New York City public schools and went on to serve on the New York State Board of Regents.

9. Robert Sengstacke Abbott

Robert S. Abbott
Portrait of Robert Sengstacke Abbott (1870 - 1940), publisher and founder of the Chicago Defender, which came to be known as 'America's Black Newspaper.' (Photo by The Abbott Sengstacke Family Papers/Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images)Robert Abbott Sengstacke / Getty Images

Born to parents who had been enslaved in Georgia, Robert Sengstacke Abbott was an American journalist, attorney and editor.

After attending Kent Law School in Chicago, he was told repeatedly that he was “too dark” to practice law in America — which inspired him to go into journalism. In 1905, he founded the Chicago Defender, and he sold 300 copies of the four-page booklet by going door to door. He started seeing a profit on the Defender 15 years later, and it became one of the nation’s largest and most influential Black newspapers.

The Defender both reported on and encouraged the "Great Migration," the massive movement of Black Americans from the U.S. south to cities in the North. He fought against Jim Crow laws and at one time, popularized the anti-lynching slogan, "If you must die, take at least one with you.”

Madeline Merinuk contributed to this story.