African American Hero Bios 

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MAYA ANGELOU

Author Poet, Activist

Maya Angelou, born April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri, was an American author, actress, screenwriter, dancer, poet and civil rights activist best known for her 1969 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The memoir made literary history as the first nonfiction best-seller by an African-American woman.

The book sprung from a suggestion by friend and fellow writer James Baldwin, who urged Angelou to write about her life experiences, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a memoir of Angelou’s teen and young adult years . The poignant story made literary history as the first nonfiction best-seller by an African-American woman. It made Angelou an international star and remained on The New York Times' paperback nonfiction best-seller list for two years — the longest-running record in the chart's history.

One of her most famous works, 'On the Pulse of Morning' was another of Angelou’s critical successes. She wrote this poem especially for President Bill Clinton's inaugural ceremony in January 1993, where she recited it herself, which has occurred on only one other occasion in presidential history. Angelou went on to win a Grammy Award for the audio version of the poem. She received a litany of other honors throughout her career, including two NAACP Image Awards in the outstanding literary work, in 2005 and 2009.

Following her death on May 28, 2014, President Barack Obama issued a statement about Angelou, calling her "a brilliant writer, a fierce friend, and a truly phenomenal woman."

 
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Ryan Coogler

Film Director, Producer + Screenwriter: Black Panther, Creed, Fruitvale Station

Ryan Coogler is best known as director and co-writer of the Marvel film Black Panther, which broke numerous box office records and became one of the highest-grossing films of all time.

Coogler's films have received significant critical acclaim and commercial success. In 2013, he was included on Time's list of the 30 people under 30 who are changing the world.

Coogler remembers the first moment it occurred to him to become a film director. Growing up in Oakland, Coogler was on a football scholarship to Saint Mary’s College in the East Bay, where he had to take a creative writing class. The assignment was to write about a personal experience, and Coogler wrote about the time his father almost bled to death in his arms. He handed it in, and the professor called him into her office. She asked what Coogler wanted to do with his life. “Play ball, become a doctor and be a positive influence in my community,” he replied. He remembers her saying, “I think you should become a screenwriter. You can reach more people.” Coogler thought she was crazy but gave it a shot.

Saint Mary’s cancelled its football program, and the young wide receiver got another scholarship, this time to Sacramento State. There he changed his major to finance while taking every film class he could. By graduation he was “in love with filmmaking.” One of his professors had told him about USC film school. “It was either go there or play wide receiver. I was short, my prospects weren’t the highest, so I took a risk and drove to L.A.”

Of his features, he says Fruitvale is the closest to his heart. It’s the true story of Oscar Grant, an unarmed man shot in the back by a cop in Oakland. “I saw the riots and the frustration, and they didn’t have an effect,” says Coogler. “I thought if I could get two hours of people’s time, I could affect them more than if they threw a trash can through a window.”

As sad as Fruitvale is, Coogler still calls it his “love letter to the Bay Area.”

 
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President Barack Obama

44th President of the United States

President Barack Obama Few presidents have walked a more improbable path to the White House. Born in Hawaii to a white mother from Kansas and a Black father from Kenya, Obama was raised with help from his grandparents. The homespun values they instilled in him, paired with his innate sense of optimism, compelled Obama to devote his life to giving every child, regardless of his or her background, the same chance America gave him.

After working his way through Columbia University with the help of scholarships and student loans, Obama moved to Chicago, where he worked with a group of churches to help rebuild communities devastated by the closure of local steel plants. That experience honed his belief in the power of uniting ordinary people around a purpose, and in the hard work of citizenship, to bring about positive change. In law school, he became the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review, then he returned to Illinois to teach constitutional law at the University of Chicago and begin a career in public service, winning seats in the Illinois State Senate and the United States Senate.

On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States, winning more votes than any candidate in history. He took office at a moment of crisis unlike any America had seen in decades – a nation at war, a planet in peril, the American Dream itself threatened by the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression. Yet despite all manner of political obstruction, Obama’s leadership helped rescue the economy, revitalize the American auto industry, reform the health care system to cover another twenty million Americans, and put the country on a firm course to a clean energy future – all while overseeing the longest stretch of job creation in American history.

In times of great challenge and change, President Obama’s leadership ushered in a stronger economy, a more equal society, a nation more secure at home and more respected around the world. The Obama years were ones in which more people not only began to see themselves in the changing face of America, but to see America the way he always has – as the only place on Earth where so many of our stories could even be possible.

Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, are the proud parents of two daughters, Malia and Sasha.

 
 
Angela Davis

Angela Davis

Angela Davis is famous for being an activist, scholar and writer who advocates for the oppressed. She has authored several books, including Women, Culture & Politics.

Born on January 26, 1944, in Birmingham, Alabama, Davis' father, Frank, owned a service station, while her mother, Sallye, taught elementary school and was an active member of the NAACP. Sallye would later pursue her master’s degree at NYU and Davis would accompany her there as a teenager.

Davis later moved north and went to Brandeis University in Massachusetts where she studied philosophy. In addition, she became a master scholar, studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, and later joined the U.S. Communist Party. As a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, in the late 1960s, she was associated with several groups including the Black Panthers.

Hired to teach at the University of California, Los Angeles, Davis became a formidable voice in the civil rights movement and a well-respected author. Known for books like Women, Race & Class, she advocated for gender equity, prison reform and alliances across color lines. She ran into trouble with the school's administration because of her association with communism. The university fired her, but she fought them in court and got her job back.

Davis has continued to lecture at many prestigious universities, discussing issues regarding race, the criminal justice system and women's rights and was a featured speaker and made honorary co-chair at the Women's March on Washington after Donald Trump's inauguration.

 
Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

Famed 19th-century author and orator Frederick Douglass was a human rights leader in the anti-slavery movement and the first African-American citizen to hold a high U.S. government rank.

He was born into slavery sometime around 1818 in Talbot County, Maryland and became one of the most famous intellectuals of his time, advising presidents and lecturing to thousands on a range of causes, including women’s rights and Irish home rule.

Despite a ban on teaching slaves to read and write, a slaveholder taught Douglass the alphabet when he was around 12. He read newspapers avidly and sought out political writing and literature. He shared his knowledge with other enslaved people, teaching other slaves to read the New Testament at a weekly church service.

Douglass began producing some abolitionist newspapers. He soon became a regular on the abolitionist lecture circuit and one of the most famous Black men in the country. In 1863, Douglass met with President Abraham Lincoln regarding the treatment of black soldiers, and later with President Andrew Johnson on the subject of black voting rights. Slavery was abolished in 1865 following the Civil War.

In 1872, Douglass was nominated for vice-president, marking the first time an African American appeared on a presidential ballot.

Douglass wrote autobiographies eloquently describing his experiences, including the well-known Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. The book was a best-seller in the United States and was translated into several European languages.

 
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Tracee Ellis-Ross

Tracee Ellis Ross is an American actress, model, comedian, director and television host, best known for her lead role as Joan Clayton in the comedy series Girlfriends and Dr. Rainbow Johnson in the comedy series Black-ish.

The daughter of actress and Motown recording artist Diana Ross and her ex-husband Robert Ellis Silberstein. Her father is Jewish, her mother is African-American and Tracee Ellis-Ross considers herself to be a Baptist. Actor and musician Evan Ross is her half-brother. She adopted her mother's last name in the hope that it would be of benefit to her acting career.

From 2000 to 2008, she played the starring role of Joan Clayton in the UPN/CW comedy series Girlfriends, for which she received two NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series. She also appeared in numerous films before returning to television to star in the BET sitcom Reed Between the Lines, for which she received her third NAACP Image Award.

Growing up, Ross attended Riverdale Country Day School in New York and the Institut Le Rosey in Switzerland. She was a model in her teens and attended Brown University, where she appeared in plays, and graduated in 1994 with a theatre degree. She later worked in the fashion industry as a model and contributing fashion editor to Mirabella and New York magazines.

Ross’ work on the series Black-ish has earned her three NAACP Image Awards and nominations for two Critics' Choice Television Awards, in addition to two Primetime Emmy Awards. Her 2016 nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series was the first for an African-American woman in that category in 30 years.

 
 
Althea Gibson

Althea Gibson

Althea Gibson is famous for being the first African-American tennis player to compete at the U.S. National Championships in 1950, and the first Black to compete at Wimbledon in 1951.

Althea Gibson was born in South Carolina on August 25, 1927. At an early age, she developed a love of sport. Her great talent was in tennis, but in the 1940s and '50s, most tournaments were closed to African Americans. Gibson kept playing (and winning) until her skills could no longer be denied.

At a young age, Gibson moved with her family to Harlem, a neighborhood in the borough of New York City. Gibson's life at this time had its hardships. Her family struggled to make ends meet, living on public assistance for a time, and Gibson struggled in the classroom. However, Gibson loved to play sports—especially table tennis—and she soon made a name for herself as a local table tennis champion.

Incredibly, just a year after picking up a tennis racket for the first time, she won a local tournament sponsored by the American Tennis Association. She picked up two more ATA titles in 1944 and 1945 and won 10 straight championships from 1947 to 1956. Amidst this winning streak, she made history as the first African-American tennis player to compete at both the U.S. National Championships (1950) and Wimbledon (1951).

For a short time, too, the athletically gifted Gibson turned to golf, making history again as the first black woman ever to compete on the pro tour. Gibson retired in 1971 and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

 
Mae Jemison

Mae Jemison

Mae Carol Jemison is famous for her role as an African American engineer, physician and NASA astronaut.

Jemison was born in Decatur, Alabama, on October 17, 1956 before her family moved to Chicago in search of better educational and employment opportunities. As a young girl growing up in Chicago, she always assumed she would get into space. "I thought, by now, we'd be going into space like you were going to work." Once she realized it was easier to become a shuttle astronaut than it was to get an extra-terrestrial to pick her up and take her into space, she knew she’d one day apply.

"In kindergarten, my teacher asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I told her a scientist," Jemison says. "She said, 'Don't you mean a nurse?' Now, there's nothing wrong with being a nurse,” said Jemison, “but that's not what I wanted to be."

After earning a degree in chemical engineering from Stanford University, Jemison attended medical school at Cornell and briefly entered private medical practice. She later applied for an opening in the NASA astronaut corps, and, selected from a pool of 2,000+ applicants, she got the job. In September of 1992, Jemison boarded the Shuttle Endeavor, becoming the first African American woman to travel in space.

She resigned from NASA in 1993 to start a technology company and spends much of her time encouraging young girls interested in science to follow her path. Jemison holds nine honorary doctorates in science, engineering, letters, and the humanities. She is the current principal of the 100 Year Starship organization.

 
Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall was an American lawyer, serving as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from October 1967 until October 1991. Marshall was the Court's 96th justice and its first African-American justice.

Born in Baltimore in 1908, he earned his undergraduate degree at Lincoln University, where he pledged Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, and later graduated from Howard University School of Law in 1933. He set up a private law practice before founding the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, where he served as executive director.

During his time with the NAACP, he argued 32 cases before the Supreme Court and won nearly all of them - including Brown v. Board of Education, which held that racial segregation in public education is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. He spent most of his adult life fighting for the fair treatment of African Americans.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall to United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. 1967, President Lyndon Johnson successfully nominated Marshall to succeed retiring Associate Justice Tom C. Clark. Marshall retired during the administration of President George H. W. Bush, and was succeeded by Clarence Thomas.

Marshall retired from the Supreme Court in 1991 due to declining health and died of heart failure two years later.

 
 
Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks was born on February 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Alabama. After her parents, separated when Rosa was two, Rosa’s mother moved the family to live with her parents. Both were former slaves and strong advocates for racial equality.

Taught to read by her mother at a young age, Rosa attended a segregated, one-room school in Pine Level, Alabama, that often lacked adequate school supplies such as desks. Rosa Parks' childhood brought her early experiences with racial discrimination and activism for racial equality, which set the stage for what would happen some 30 years later.

On December 1, 1955, Rosa refused to surrender her seat to a white passenger on a segregated Montgomery, Alabama bus, which spurred on the 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott that helped launch nationwide efforts to end segregation of public facilities. Rosa’s movement sparked so much support that the city of Montgomery had no choice but to lift the law requiring segregation on public buses. Rosa Parks received many accolades during her lifetime, including the NAACP's highest award.

In 1987, with longtime friend Elaine Eason Steele, Rosa founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development. The organization runs "Pathways to Freedom" bus tours, introducing young people to important civil rights and Underground Railroad sites throughout the country. On October 24, 2005, at the age of 92, Rosa Parks quietly died in her apartment pf dementia. The Detroit chapel which hosted her funeral service was renamed the Rosa L. Parks Freedom Chapel.

 
Colin Powell

Colin Powell

Colin Luther Powell was born in, 1937, in Harlem, New York, the son of Jamaican immigrants. He was educated in the New York City public schools, and graduated without any definite plans for where he wanted to go in life. It was at City College of New York, where Powell studied geology, that he found his calling—in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps, or ROTC. He soon became commander of his unit. This experience set him on a military career and gave him structure and direction in his life.

After graduation in 1958, Powell was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He was awarded the Soldier's Medal for rescuing his comrades from a burning helicopter. In all, Powell has received 11 military decorations, including the Legion of Merit.

Powell earned an MBA at George Washington University and won a White House fellowship in 1972. In 1989, President George H. W. Bush appointed General Colin Powell as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The post is the highest military position in the Department of Defense, and Powell was the first African-American officer to receive that distinction. As chief military strategist, he developed what became known as the "Powell Doctrine," an approach to military conflicts still in use today.

In 2004, Powell announced his resignation as secretary of state, left Washington and moved to the Bay Area. He joined Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm, as a "strategic limited partner”; and he co-founded America’s Promise with his wife to improve the lives of American youth.

 
Shonda Rhimes

Shonda Rhimes

Shonda Lynn Rhimes is an American television producer, screenwriter, and author. She is best known as the creator, head writer, and executive producer of the television medical drama Grey's Anatomy, its spin-off Private Practice, and the political thriller series Scandal, all of which have aired on ABC. Rhimes has also served as the executive producer of the ABC television series Off the Map, How to Get Away with Murder, and The Catch.

Rhimes was born in Chicago, Illinois, on January 13, 1970. She is the youngest of six children born to a university administrator and a college professor and she exhibited an early affinity for storytelling. While fulfilling a volunteering requirement in high school, she served as a hospital volunteer, which would later inspire her interest in medical storylines.

Rhimes attended Dartmouth College, where she majored in English and film studies, earning her bachelor's degree in 1991. At Dartmouth, she divided her free time between directing and performing in student productions, reporting for the college newspaper, and writing fiction. After college, she relocated to San Francisco and worked in advertising at McCann Erickson and, later, to the University of Southern California to earn a master’s degree in screenwriting. Ranked at the top of her USC class, Rhimes was hired as an intern by Debra Martin Chase, a prominent African-American producer who had become her mentor. She went on to work for Denzel Washington and Disney before creating the hit show Grey’s Anatomy. In 2007, Rhimes was named one of TIME magazine's 100 People Who Help Shape the World. In 2017, Netflix announced it had entered into a multi-year development deal with Rhimes, under which all of her future productions will be Netflix Original series.

 
 
WEB DUBOIS

W.E.B. Du Bois

William Edward Burghardt "W. E. B." Du Bois was an American sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, author, writer and editor.

Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in February of 1868, Du Bois grew up in a relatively integrated community. Relying on money donated by neighbors, Du Bois attended Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee.

He went on to complete his graduate work at the University of Berlin and Harvard, where he was the first African American to earn a doctorate. DuBois then became a professor of history, sociology and economics at Atlanta University.

Du Bois was one of the co-founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909. He rose to national prominence as the leader of the Niagara Movement, a group of African-American activists who wanted equal rights for blacks. Du Bois insisted on full civil rights and increased political representation for blacks, which he believed would be brought about by the African-American intellectual elite. He referred to this group as the “Talented Tenth” and believed that African Americans needed the chances for advanced education to develop leadership opportunities.

DuBois died in 1963 at age 95. The United States' Civil Rights Act of 1964, embodying many of the reforms for which Du Bois had campaigned his entire life, was enacted a year after his death.

 
Harriett Tubman

Harriett Tubman

William Edward Burghardt "W. E. B." Du Bois was an American sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, author, writer and editor.

Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in February of 1868, Du Bois grew up in a relatively integrated community. Relying on money donated by neighbors, Du Bois attended Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee.

He went on to complete his graduate work at the University of Berlin and Harvard, where he was the first African American to earn a doctorate. DuBois then became a professor of history, sociology and economics at Atlanta University.

Du Bois was one of the co-founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909. He rose to national prominence as the leader of the Niagara Movement, a group of African-American activists who wanted equal rights for blacks. Du Bois insisted on full civil rights and increased political representation for blacks, which he believed would be brought about by the African-American intellectual elite. He referred to this group as the “Talented Tenth” and believed that African Americans needed the chances for advanced education to develop leadership opportunities.

DuBois died in 1963 at age 95. The United States' Civil Rights Act of 1964, embodying many of the reforms for which Du Bois had campaigned his entire life, was enacted a year after his death.

 
Condi Rice

Condoleezza rice

Condoleezza "Condi" Rice is an American political scientist and diplomat. She served as the 66th United States Secretary of State, and the first female African-American Secretary of State, as well as only the second female Secretary of State (after Madeleine Albright).

Rice was born in Birmingham, Alabama in November of 1954, and grew up while the South was racially segregated. She obtained her bachelor's degree from the University of Denver and her master's degree in political science from the University of Notre Dame. Rice worked at the State Department under the Carter administration and then pursued an academic fellowship at Stanford University, where she later served as provost from 1993 to 1999. On December 17, 2000, she left her position there and joined the Bush administration as the Soviet and Eastern Europe Affairs Advisor to President George H. W. Bush just as the Soviet Union was crumbling and Germany was reunifying.

Following her confirmation as Secretary of State, Rice pioneered the policy of Transformational Diplomacy directed toward expanding the number of responsible democratic governments in the world. She logged more miles traveling than any other Secretary of State. In March 2009, Rice returned to Stanford University as a political science professor and in September 2010, she became a faculty member of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Having learned piano at age three, she continues to play even now with a local chamber music group.

 
 
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CORY BOOKER

Cory Anthony Booker is an American politician who was elected as a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in 2013 and began representing New Jersey in that body later in the year. Booker was mayor of Newark from 2006–13 and later became the first African American from New Jersey to serve in the Senate.

Booker was born in Washington, D.C. on April 27, 1969 to parents who were executives at IBM. The family relocated to New Jersey later in Booker’s life. He went on to attend Stanford University, where he studied political science as an undergraduate, and where he earned a master’s degree in sociology two years later.

A Rhodes scholarship recipient, Booker attended the University of Oxford, where he received a bachelor’s degree in history in 1994. He then attended Yale Law School, earning a doctorate in jurisprudence in 1997.

After working for the Urban Justice Center in New York City, Booker ran for a seat on the Newark City Council in 1998, and he surprised many by defeating a longtime incumbent. After assuming office, Booker sought to combat an epidemic of drug abuse, and he took up residence in one of Newark’s most crime-afflicted areas.

In 2002 he ran for mayor of the city, but was defeated; you may have seen the race depicted in the acclaimed documentary Street Fight. A second bid, in 2006, however, was successful for Booker. As mayor, he garnered national attention for initiatives on gun control and violence abatement, among other measures. After Frank Lautenberg died in 2013, a special election to fill his U.S. Senate seat was held, and Booker easily won.

As senator, Booker became known for his efforts at bipartisan cooperation, although he often adopted liberal causes. He was a vocal supporter of same-sex marriage, and he called for an increase in the federal minimum wage. He also supported tax increases for the wealthy.

Booker co-sponsored legislation that reformed the criminal justice system, and the bill was signed into law in 2018. And, in case you haven’t heard, Booker has since announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020.

 
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JORDAN PEELE

Jordan Haworth Peele is an actor, director and writer known for his work on Comedy Central's 'Key & Peele' and his blockbuster hit horror film 'Get Out.' He was born on February 21, 1979, to a Black father and a white mother in New York City.

Peele became a fan of horror movies as a child, with favorites such as Gremlins and The Shining. Peele also loved 1980s fantasy movies such as Labyrinth and The NeverEnding Story. Growing up, Peele attended The Calhoun School in Manhattan and performed with the TADA! Youth Theater. He went on to Sarah Lawrence College to study puppeteering; but instead of becoming a puppeteer, he formed a comedy duo with his college roommate and future Key & Peele comedy writer Rebecca Drysdale. Peele loved comedy. He found success with the improv groups Boom Chicago, based in Amsterdam, and Chicago's Second City, before moving on to television.

Get Out, Peele’s first major film project, is a horror movie about racism that became a breakout hit and the most profitable film of 2017. The success of this film garnered Peele an Oscar win for Best Original Screenplay, as well as a nomination for Best Director. In June 2017, he was invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Before turning to directing for the first time with Get Out, Peele was a popular performer who'd co-created the hit Comedy Central show Key & Peele (2012-2015).

Working in improv and comedy let Peele develop a sense of timing that helped him succeed as a director. And he feels the different parts of his career have inherent connections, saying in a 2016 interview with Forbes, "As with comedy, I feel like horror and the thriller genre is a way, one of the few ways, that we can address real life horrors and social injustices in an entertaining way."

 
 
 

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