31 Black History Facts You May Not Have Learned in School (2024)

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From the hidden figures who made an impact, essential Black inventors, change-making civil rights leaders, award-winning authors, and showstopping 21st-century women, Black American history is incredibly rich. Resources like BlackPast.org, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the Library of Congress are great ways to learn little-known facts about Black history and broaden your understanding of the culture. We’ve gathered a few choice bits of trivia, spanning various topics that will inspire you to take your research well beyond Black History Month, and share the information with friends and family. You’ll never run out of things to learn, and who knows? These iconic figures might even motivate you to shoot for the stars in your own life and career.


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Phillis Wheatley as illustrated by Scipio Moorhead on the front page of her book Poems on Various Subjects.

  1. Phillis Wheatley was the first African American to publish a book of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, in 1773. Born in the Gambia and sold to the Wheatley family in Boston when she was 7 years old, Wheatley was emancipated shortly after her book was released.
  2. “Bars Fight,” written by poet and activist Lucy Terry in 1746, was the first known poem written by a Black American. Terry was enslaved in Rhode Island as a toddler but became free at age 26 after marrying a free Black man.
  3. Clotel: The President’s Daughter was the first novel published by an African American, in 1853. It was written by abolitionist and lecturer William Wells Brown.

Important Figures

  1. In case you didn’t already know, the creator of Black History Month was historian Carter G. Woodson. Often referred to as the “Father of Black History,” he was notably the second African American to graduate from Harvard University with a doctorate degree, and is credited with being one of the first scholars to study and research the history of African Americans.
  2. William Tucker was the first known Black person to be born in the 13 colonies. He was born in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1624. According to BlackPast.org, his parents were indentured servants and part of the first group of Africans brought to colonial soil by Great Britain.
  3. After years of remarkable work as an attorney, Thurgood Marshall became the first African American to serve in the U.S. Supreme Court. Officially nominated by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967, he served as a justice until 1991.
  4. In 1854, John Mercer Langston notably became the first African American lawyer in the state of Ohio. He went on to serve as the dean of the law department and vice president of Howard University. He’s also remembered as the first African American from Virginia to be elected to public office, specifically to the U.S. Congress.
  5. Anthony Benezet, a white Quaker, abolitionist, and educator, is credited with creating the first public school for African American children in the early 1770s.
  6. After graduating from Oberlin College in 1850 with a literary degree, Lucy Stanton became the first Black woman in America to earn a four-year college degree.
  7. Martin Luther King, Jr. started as a freshman at Morehouse College at the young age of 15.
  8. James McCune Smith was the first African American person to earn a medical degree. He also started the nation's first pharmacy under Black ownership, and was the first African American to have their work published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.
  9. After attending Barnard College, Lila Fenwick graduated from Harvard Law School in 1956, becoming the first African American woman to graduate from the prestigious legal institution. She also later studied at the London School of Economics and worked at the United Nations.
  10. Hiram Rhodes Revels was sworn in as the first Black U.S. senator in 1870.
  11. Guion Bluford became the first Black person in space in 1983, and would spend 688 hours there over the course of his career as an astronaut.

Music and Television

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Entertainer Nat King Cole poses for a portrait circa 1950.

  1. Dubbed “Hip-Hop’s First Godmother” by Billboard, singer and music producer Sylvia Robinson produced the first-ever commercially successful rap record: “Rapper’s Delight,” by the Sugar Hill Gang. And along with her husband, she co-owned the first hip-hop label, Sugar Hill Records.
  2. Renowned singer and jazz pianist Nat King Cole was the first Black American to host a TV show: NBC’s The Nat King Cole Show.
  3. In 1981, broadcast journalist Bryant Gumbel became the first Black person to host a network morning show when he joined NBC’s Today show.
  4. In 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first Black person to win an Oscar, for her supporting role in Gone With the Wind. Twenty-four years later, Sidney Poitier became the first Black man to win an Oscar, for his leading role in Lilies of the Field.


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American businesswoman, philanthropist, and activist Madam CJ Walker, 1913. (Photo by Addison N. Scurlock/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

  1. Madam C.J. Walker created a line of haircare products for African American women, leading her to later become the first female African American self-made millionaire. There is now a Netflix series based upon her journey, titled Self Made.
  2. Computer scientist Lisa Gelobter assisted with the 1995 creation of Shockwave, essential technology that led to the development of web animation. (So we have her to thank for GIFs.)
  3. Agricultural scientist George Carver was responsible for creating over 500 new products made from peanuts and sweet potatoes, including cooking oils, paint, and soap.


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Wilma Rudolph, of Clarksville, TN, breaks the tape to win her semi-final heat in the women’s 100-meter dash.

  1. In 1960, Wilma Rudolph, of Clarksville, TN, won with the new Olympic record time of 11.3 seconds in Rome with the new record time of 11.3 seconds in in the women’s 100-meter dash in Rome, 1960.
  2. In 1908, after winning the 4 x 400 meter relay, John Taylor became the first African American to win gold in the Olympics. And in 1948, Alice Coachman became the first Black woman in the world to win an Olympic gold medal while competing in the high jump.
  3. Founded in 1984, the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo is the only touring African American rodeo in the world.
  4. In 1920, Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall became the first Black athletes to play in the NFL. Pollard was also the league’s first Black coach.
  5. George Coleman Poage became the first Black person to earn a medal at the Olympic Games in 1904. He was a hurdler.
  6. In 1996, Sheryl Swoopes became the first player to sign with the WNBA, with the league debuting a year later.

Society and Life

  1. First published in 1936, The Negro Motorist Green Book was a comprehensive guide for Black travelers about locations across America—and eventually overseas—that were either Black-owned or didn’t engage in segregationist practices. The guide was printed for 30 years. It stopped publication in 1966, two years after the Civil Rights Act was passed.
  2. The oldest Black female Greek-letter organization, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. (AKA), was founded at Howard University in 1908. Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. (Alpha), the first Black male Greek-letter organization, was founded in 1906 at Cornell University.
  3. It’s estimated that around 100,000 enslaved people escaped to the North via the Underground Railroad from 1810 to 1850.
  4. In July 1777, Vermont became the first colony to ban slavery.

To learn about more important figures, read Lift Every Voice: A Celebration of Black Lives, which has a foreword from Oprah. The collection presents interviews with the oldest generation of Black Americans about their lives, their experiences, and the wisdom that can carry all of us to a better future.

Lift Every Voice: A Celebration of Black Lives

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Lift Every Voice: A Celebration of Black Lives

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McKenzie Jean-Philippe

Editorial Assistant

McKenzie Jean-Philippe is the editorial assistant at OprahMag.com covering pop culture, TV, movies, celebrity, and lifestyle. She loves a great Oprah viral moment and all things Netflix—but come summertime, Big Brother has her heart. On a day off you'll find her curled up with a new juicy romance novel.

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Jane Burnett

Assistant Editor

Jane Burnett is an Assistant Editor at Oprah Daily, where she writes a variety of lifestyle content for the editorial team. She's a journalist with a pop culture sweet tooth—when she isn't catching up on celebrity news, she's usually listening to a podcast! Jane was previously an on-air reporter in local news, and worked at Thrive Global, Ladders News, and Reuters. She also interned at CNBC through the Emma Bowen Foundation, and is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ).

31 Black History Facts You May Not Have Learned in School (2024)


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