Famous Firsts by African Americans
500 Notable African American Biographies
American history is full of African American trailblazers and pathfinders. Some names, like Barack Obama, are familiar to most of us. Others may not be as familiar, though they certainly should be!
Black history is full of originators, inventors, and movers and shakers, including the first African American billionaire, combat pilot, Nobel Prize winner, poet laureate, Oscar winner, and Miss America.
What Is the Importance of African American Firsts?
Celebrating contributions by Black Americans shouldn’t be limited to Black History Month. African American history has a lot of incredible firsts from a lot of incredible people. From the Black men and women who contributed to the efforts during World War I and World War II, to heroes of the Civil Rights Movement to ground-breaking pioneers in science, medicine, and the arts, their successes are all around us.
Representation allows people to see themselves reflected in the pantheon of society’s leaders and innovators. This, in turn, allows people of all backgrounds to set their sights high.
What Are Some African American Achievements?
Did you know that the system of blood banking was invented by an African American doctor? Or that an African American lawman who singlehandedly apprehended more than 3,000 criminals was the inspiration for the Lone Ranger?
These are but a few African American achievements. Check out our list for more.
A Timeline of African American Firsts
In every field, from science to diplomacy to literature, African Americans have made their mark. Here is a sampling of some impressive African American achievements and firsts.
African American Firsts: Politics and Government
Nearly two hundred years of African American achievements in politics and government have helped to build today’s United States.
- State elected official: Alexander Lucius Twilight was elected to the Vermont legislature in 1836.
- Local elected official: John Mercer Langston was elected town clerk of Brownhelm Township, Ohio in 1855.
- U.S. Representative: Joseph Rainey became a Congressman from South Carolina in 1870 and was reelected four more times. The first Black female U.S. Representative was Shirley Chisholm, Congresswoman from New York, who served from 1969 to 1983.
- U.S. Senator: Hiram Revels became a Senator in Mississippi from February 25, 1870, to March 4, 1871, during Reconstruction. Edward Brooke was the first African American Senator since Reconstruction, serving from 1966 to 1979. Carol Mosely Braun became the first Black woman Senator serving from 1992 to 1998 in the state of Illinois.
- Governor (appointed): P.B.S. Pinchback served as governor of Louisiana from December 9, 1872, to January 13, 1873, during impeachment proceedings against the elected governor.
- Conference on African American political and civil rights: On February 12, 1909, the first conference on African American civil and political rights was convened by the National Negro Committee, the predecessor to today’s NAACP.
- Head of a federal agency: In 1938, Mary McLeod Bethune was chosen to head the National Youth Administration.
- Head of a Congressional Committee: From 1943 to 1970, William L. Dawson served as a House Representative from Illinois. He was the head of the Committee on Expenditures in the Executive Departments during the 81st and 82nd Congresses.
- U.S. Cabinet Member: Robert C. Weaver served as Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under Lyndon Johnson from 1966 to 1968. The first Black female cabinet minister was Patricia Harris, who served in 1977 as Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under Jimmy Carter.
- Mayor of a major city: Carl Stokes served as the mayor of Cleveland, Ohio, from 1967 to 1971. The first Black woman to serve as a mayor of a major U.S. city was Sharon Pratt Dixon Kelly, mayor of Washington, DC from 1991 to 1995.
- Governor (elected): L. Douglas Wilder served as Governor of Virginia from 1990 to 1994.
- U.S. Secretary of State: General Colin Powell served as U.S. Secretary of State from 2001 to 2004. Condoleezza Rice served as Secretary of State between 2005 and 2009. This was the first time a Black female held this position.
- Major Party Nominee for President: Illinois Senator Barack Obama was selected as the presidential nominee for the Democratic party in 2008.
- U.S. President: Barack Obama defeated Senator John McCain in the general election on November 4, 2008, and was inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States on January 20, 2009.
- U.S. First Lady: Michelle Obama became the nation's first Black First Lady when her husband, Barack Obama, defeated Sen. John McCain in the general election on November 4, 2008.
- First African American Republican woman to serve in the House: Ludmya Bourdeau "Mia" Love won her race in Utah in the 2014 midterm elections.
- U.S. Vice President: Senator Kamala Harris was elected with President Joe Biden in 2020. She is the first to serve as vice president, as well as the first African American (and the first woman) to temporarily serve as president while President Joe Biden was undergoing a medical procedure.
African American Firsts: Law and Order
Even before the United States was a country, African Americans were holding positions of authority in law and law enforcement.
- Town Constable: In 1768, Wentworth Cheswell became the town constable for Newmarket, New Hampshire. He would go on to hold other public offices, including assessor and auditor.
- Police Officer: In 1898, Samuel J. Battle would become New York City’s first Black police officer, the first Black sergeant in 1926, the first Black lieutenant in 1935, and the first Black parole commissioner in 1941.
- Licensed Lawyer: The first African American licensed to practice law was Macon Allen, who was admitted to the Maine bar in 1844. He would later become a Justice of the Peace in Massachusetts and a judge in South Carolina.
- Deputy U.S. Marshall west of the Mississippi: Bass Reaves served as a lawman for 32 years, capturing 3,000 criminals between 1875 and 1907. Many consider Reaves to be the inspiration for the Lone Ranger.
- Member of the American Bar Association: In 1911, attorney Butler R. Wilson was admitted to the ABA, followed a few months later by William Henry Lewis and William R. Morris.
- Editor, Harvard Law Review: Charles Hamilton Houston became the first Black editor of the Harvard Law review in 1919.
- President, Harvard Law Review Barack Obama became the first Black president of the Harvard Law Review in 1990.
- Federal Judge: William Henry Hastie became the first African American federal judge in 1946. Constance Baker Motley became the first Black woman federal judge twenty years later, in 1966.
- US Supreme Court Justice: Thurgood Marshall was the first Black Supreme Court Justice, serving from 1967 to 1991.
- First Black Female Supreme Court Justice: Ketanji Brown Jackson was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2022.
African American Firsts: Diplomacy
African American achievements include some impressive firsts in diplomacy.
- Foreign Service Officer: In 1925, Clifton R. Wharton Sr. became the first African American foreign service officer.
- U.S. Ambassador: In 1949, Edward R. Dudley became Ambassador to Liberia, the first African American to attain this position.
- Delegate to the United Nations: Edith Sampson. On August 24, 1950, President Harry S. Truman appointed lawyer and judge Edith Sampson as a delegate to the UN, the first time an African American had been appointed to this post.
- Nobel Prize winner: Political scientist and diplomat Ralph J. Bunche received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950 for mediating the Arab-Israeli truce. Bunche was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement as well as the decolonization process. He also played a major role in several UN Peacekeeping operations.
- U.S. diplomat: Ebenezer D. Bassett became minister-resident to Haiti in 1869. Patricia Harris became the first Black female ambassador (to Luxembourg) in 1969.
- U.S. Representative to the UN: Andrew Young served as U.S. representative to the UN from 1977 to 1979.
African American Firsts: Military
African American men and women have served the U.S. military with distinction for nearly two hundred years.
- U.S. Marine: John Martin was recruited to the Marines in 1776 and participated in numerous ship-to-ship battles.
- Congressional Medal of Honor winner: Sgt. William H. Carney won a Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery during the Civil War. He received his medal in 1900.
- Combat pilot: Georgia-born Eugene Jacques Bullard, denied entry into the U.S. Army Air Corps because of his race, served throughout World War I in the French Flying Corps, becoming the first Black combat pilot in the world in 1917. He received the Legion of Honor, France's highest honor, among many other decorations.
- Military aviators: The 99th Pursuit Squadron (the Tuskegee Airmen) were the first all-Black flying squadron. Others would follow, including the 332nd Fighter Group, which would rack up 96 Distinguished Flying Cross medals by the end of the war.
- Navy Nurse: Phyllis Mae Dailey served as the first African American nurse in the Navy Nurse Corps during the second world war. She was one of four African American women who would serve in the Nurse Corps.
- General: Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. served as a general in the army from 1940 to 1948. Davis’s military career went back a bit further than that, however; he also served during the Spanish Civil War (1898 to 1899).
- Navy Cross Award: In 1942, Doris Miller was the first African American to be awarded the Navy Cross.
- Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: Colin Powell served as the Chairman between 1989 and 1993.
African American Firsts: Science, Technology, and Medicine
African American scientists, inventors, and doctors originated some of the most important technologies that we rely on today.
- First patent holder: In 1821, Thomas L. Jennings is awarded a patent for a dry-cleaning process. In 1885, Sarah E. Goode became the first African American woman to receive a patent, for a bed that folded up into a cabinet.
- M.D. degree: In 1837, James McCune Smith earned a medical degree from the University of Glasgow. Rebecca Lee Crumpler became the first Black woman to receive an M.D. degree. She graduated from the New England Female Medical College in 1864.
- Heart surgery pioneer: Surgeon Daniel Hale Williams performed the first successful heart surgery in 1893. In 1891, Williams founded the first non-segregated hospital in the country, the Provident Hospital in Chicago.
- Inventor: In 1891, former slave George Washington Carver became the first Black student to attend Iowa State University. He studied soil science and would go on to earn a Master of Science and two honorary PhDs. Carver would spend 47 years as the head of the Agriculture department at Tuskegee University. He was a prolific inventor and earned three patents. In 2000, Carver was inducted into the USDA’s Hall of Heroes of Chemurgy.
- Architecture Firm: In 1905, brothers Moses and Calvin McKissack founded the first Black-owned architecture firm in Nashville, Tennessee.
- Inventor of the blood bank: Dr. Charles Drew was a surgeon, medical researcher, and pioneer in the field of transfusions. His doctoral thesis, "Banked Blood: A Study on Blood Preservation,” was the foundation of large-scale blood banking, which saved many lives during the second world war, and continues to save lives worldwide today.
- Astronaut: Robert H. Lawrence, Jr., 1967, was the first Black astronaut, but he died in a plane crash during a training flight and never made it into space. Guion Bluford, in 1983, became the first Black astronaut to travel in space. Mae Jemison, in 1992, became the first Black female astronaut. Frederick D. Gregory, 1998, was the first African American shuttle commander.
African American Firsts: Education and Scholarship
Since the 18th century, African Americans have been at the forefront of U.S. scholarship and educational excellence.
- Ordained Christian Minister: In 1785, the Rev. Lemuel Haynes was ordained in the Congregational Church (today the United Church of Christ), the first Black American to become an ordained minister.
- College graduate (B.A.): Alexander Lucius Twilight was the first African American to graduate from university with a Bachelor of Arts degree. He graduated in 1823 from Middlebury College. The first Black woman to receive a B.A. degree was Mary Jane Patterson, who graduated from Oberlin College in 1862.
- University Professor at a Predominantly White Institution: Linguist and mathematician Charles L. Reason served as a professor at New York Central College from 1849 to 1852. Reason would leave this position to focus his efforts on educating African American youth as a high school teacher, principal, and administrator.
- University president: In 1856, Daniel A. Payne became president of Wilberforce University in Ohio.
- Ph.D.: In 1876, Edward A. Bouchet received a Ph.D. from Yale University. In 1921, three individuals became the first U.S. Black women to earn Ph.D.s: Georgiana Simpson, from the University of Chicago; Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, from the University of Pennsylvania; and Eva Beatrice Dykes, from Radcliffe College.
- West Point Graduate: Henry Ossian Flipper, born into slavery in Thomasville, Georgia, became the first African American cadet to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point on June 15, 1877.
- Rhodes Scholar: In 1907, Alain L. Locke of Harvard University won the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University in England.
- Ivy League president: In 2001, Ruth Simmons became the first African American president of an Ivy League university, at Brown University.
African American Firsts: Music and Dance
African American excellence in and influence over the performing arts is undeniable. The following are some of the highlights.
- Founder of a record label: In 1921, Harry Pace founded Black Swan Records, the first Black-owned record label.
- Conductor of a major U.S. orchestra: Composer William Grant Still was the first African American to conduct a major U.S. orchestra. He conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1936. He was also the first to conduct an orchestra performing his own work.
- Member of the New York City Opera: In 1945, Todd Duncan became the first African American member of the New York City Opera.
- Tony Award: In 1950, Juanita won a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical, for her work in "South Pacific".
- Member of the Metropolitan Opera Company: In 1955, Marian Anderson became the first African American member of the Metropolitan Opera Company.
- Billboard Number 1: The first African American to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100 was "It’s All in the Game" by Tommy Edwards, in 1958.
- Grammy Award winner: In 1949, Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald became the first African Americans to win the brand-new Grammy Award.
- Principal dancer in a major dance company: In 1959, Arthur Mitchell joined the New York City Ballet, becoming the first African American dancer to do so.
- MTV Video: In 1983, Michael Jackson became the first African American artist to have a video shown on MTV.
- Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame: In 1986, the first African Americans were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, and Little Richard.
- Radio City Music Hall Rockette: Jennifer Jones, the first Black Rockette, joined the troop in 1987.
- Country Music Hall of Fame: In 2000, Charley Pride was the first Black inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
African American Firsts: Literature
For nearly two hundred years, African American poets and writers have been breaking new ground.
- Poem: In 1746 Lucy Terry penned her poem "Bar's Fight."
- Collection of Poetry: In 1773, Phillis Wheatley published her collection, "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral". She is considered to be the founder of African American literature.
- Novelist: In 1853, American William Wells Brown, then living in London, published the first novel by an African American: "Clotel; or, the President’s Daughter". Brown would also publish the first play by an African American, "The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom", in 1858.
- Comic Book Artist: The first known African American comic book artist was Matt Baker, in "Jumbo Comics #69", in 1944.
- Pulitzer Prize winner: In 1950, Gwendolyn Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
- Pulitzer Prize winner in Drama: In 1979, Charles Gordone won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for his play "No Place To Be Somebody".
- Nobel Prize for Literature winner: In 1993, Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for literature.
- Poet Laureate: Robert Hayden was the first Black American poet laureate from 1976 to 1978. The first Black woman Poet Laureate was Rita Dove, from 1993 to 1995.
African American Firsts: Film and Television
African American actors, writers, producers, and directors have been blazing trails in film and television from the very beginning.
- Film director: Oscar Micheaux, in 1919, wrote, directed, and produced "The Homesteader", a feature film.
- Star of their own network television show: In 1939, Ethel Waters starred in "The Ethel Waters Show" on NBC.
- First Academy Award (Oscar): In 1940, Hattie McDaniel won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, for her work in "Gone with the Wind".
- Network television show host: In 1956, Nat King Cole became the host of “The Nat King Cole Show". Oprah Winfrey became the first Black woman television host in 1986, with "The Oprah Winfrey Show."
- Oscar, Best Actor/Actress: In 1963, Sidney Poitier won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his work in "Lilies of the Field". Halle Berry would be the first Black American actress to win in this category, in 2001, for her role in "Monster's Ball".
- First African American TV actress in a non-stereotypical role: From 1968 to 1971, Dihann Carroll played Julia, a nurse. It was the first starring TV role in which an African American woman did not portray a servant.
- Hollywood director: Gordon Parks directed and wrote "The Learning Tree" for Warner Brothers in 1969.
- Director of an Animated Feature Film: The first African American director of an animated feature film was Bruce W. Smith ("Bébé's Kids") in 1992.
- President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: In 2013, Cheryl Boone Isaacs became the first African American President of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.
- Academy Award for Best Screenplay: In 2018, Jordan Peele won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay for his film "Get Out". He was the first African American to win an Academy Award in this category.
African American Firsts: Sports
Sports history is filled with African American heroes.
- World cycling champion: In 1899, Marshall W. "Major" Taylor won the world championship in one-mile track cycling.
- Olympic Medalist: In 1904, track and field athlete George Poage was the first African American to participate in the Olympic Games and the first to win a medal. He won two bronze medals in track and field. John Taylor would be the first African American to win an Olympic gold medal (1908), also in track and field.
- Heavyweight boxing champion: In 1908, Jack Johnson became the heavyweight boxing champion.
- NFL football coach: Fritz Pollard was the first African American to play in a Rose Bowl game (1916). He was one of the three first African American NFL players (1920), and became the first Black NFL coach in 1921.
- Olympic gold medalist (Summer games, individual): In 1924, DeHart Hubbard won Olympic gold in the long jump. The first woman to win in individual summer games was Alice Coachman, who won the high jump in 1948.
- Sportscaster: The first African American sportscaster was Sherman "Jocko" Maxwell of WNJR in Newark, New Jersey. Maxwell worked as a sportscaster from 1929 to 1967.
- Major league baseball player: Second baseman Jackie Robinson was the first African American to play on a major league baseball team, the Brooklyn Dodger, from 1947 to 1956.
- Golf course designer: In 1948, Bill Powell became the first African American to design and construct a professional golf course.
- Elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame: In 1962, Jackie Robinson became the first African American to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
- NFL quarterback: In 1953, Willie Thrower became the first Black American quarterback, playing for the Chicago Bears.
- NHL hockey player: In 1958, Willie O'Ree joined the American-based hockey team, the Boston Bruins.
- Tennis champion: Althea Gibson became the first Black person to play in and win Wimbledon and the United States national tennis championship. She won both tournaments twice, in 1957 and 1958. In all, Gibson won 56 tournaments, including five Grand Slam singles events. The first Black male champion was Arthur Ashe who won the 1968 U.S. Open, the 1970 Australian Open, and the 1975 Wimbledon championship.
- Olympic medalist (Winter games): In 1988, Debi Thomas won the Olympic bronze in figure skating.
- Golf champion: In 1997 Tiger Woods won the Masters golf tournament.
- Olympic gold medalist (Winter games): In 2002, Vonetta Flowers won Olympic gold for the bobsled.
- Olympic gold medalist (Winter games; individual): In 2006, Shani Davis won Olympic gold for 1,000 meters in speedskating.
The First African American Billionaire, Miss America, and More
Before you go, here are a few more impressive African American firsts.
- Licensed Pilot: Bessie Coleman (1921).
- Millionaire: Madame C. J. Walker.
- Time Man of the Year: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1963).
- Billionaire: Robert Johnson, owner of Black Entertainment Television (2001); Oprah Winfrey, talk show host (2003).
- Portrayal on a postage stamp: Booker T. Washington (1940, and also in 1956).
- Miss America: Vanessa Williams, 1984, representing New York. When controversial photos surfaced and Williams resigned, Suzette Charles, the runner-up and also an African American, assumed the title. She represented New Jersey. Three additional African Americans have been Miss Americas: Debbye Turner (1990), Marjorie Vincent (1991), and Kimberly Aiken (1994).
- Explorer, North Pole: Matthew A. Henson accompanied Robert E. Peary on the first successful U.S. expedition to the North Pole (1909).
- Explorer, South Pole: George Gibbs accompanied Richard Byrd (1939-1941).
- Flight around the world: In 2007, Barrington Irving flew a Columbia 400 plane named Inspiration around the world in 96 days, and 150 hours.
This is just a short list of the many achievements, contributions, and “firsts” of African Americans, past and present.
Think you know your African American firsts? Test your knowledge with our African American Firsts quiz
- More from Black History Month
Black Firsts: 4,000 Ground-breaking and Pioneering Historical Events by Jessie Carney Smith, (Visible Ink Press 2013)
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