Black LBGTQ History Icons

Marsha P. Johnson

  • A leader of the Stonewall Riots. According to several eyewitnesses, Marsha was the one who “really started it”. She was “in the middle of the whole thing, screaming and yelling and throwing rocks and almost like Molly Pitcher in the Revolution or something”
  • Dedicated her life to activism:
    • Co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (later renamed Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries)
    • Ensured that the young drag queens, trans women and other street kids on Christopher Street were fed and clothed. Marsha also housed them whenever she could. 
    • In the 1980s, she was an activist and organizer in ACT UP. 

Stormé DeLarverie

  • Also a leader in the Stonewall Riots - has been identified as the “butch lesbian that threw the first punch” against the police officers.
  • Several eye-witnesses recollections also recognize her as the cross-dressing lesbian that yelled “why don’t you guys do something” at the bystanders that evoked the reaction from them that helped make Stonewall a defining moment in history.
  • Unofficially worked at gay bars who otherwise couldn’t afford security.

Bayard Rustin

  • Was a leading strategist of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement between 1955-1968:
    • The formidable behind the scenes figure of the civil rights movement who organized the March on Washington
    • Through his influence, the civil rights leadership adopted a non-violent stance.
    • Is and was often overlooked in African-American history because of the public’s discomfort with his sexual orientation.
  • Supported LGBTQ rights and movements.
  • Was posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy

  • Another leader in the Stonewall Riots.
  • Has been involved in community efforts since 1978. She has worked at local food banks, provide services for trans women suffering from addiction or homelessness. During the AIDS epidemic she also provided healthcare and funeral services.
  • Is currently serving as the Executive Director for the Transgender GenderVariant Intersex Justice Project, working to assist transgender persons who are disproportionately incarcerated under a prison-industrial complex.

Alvin Ailey

  • At the young age of 22, Alvin AIley became Artistic Directer for the Horton Dance Company where he choreographed as well as directed scenes and costume designs.
  • Formed the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in 1958 but continued to choreograph for other companies.
  • Ailey’s signature works prominently reflects his Black pride.
  • Is credited for popularizing modern dance. 
  • Was also posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.

Feel free to add anyone I’ve missed!

“I have as much muscle as any man and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed and can any man do more than that?” -Sojourner Truth

Today marks the beginning of Black History Month, or National African American History Month, an annual celebration of achievements by black Americans and a time for recognizing the central role of African Americans in U.S. history.

We are beginning by honoring Sojourner Truth, an American abolitionist and women’s rights activist who escaped slavery with her infant daughter in 1826. In 1828, she went to court to get back her son, who had been illegally sold into slavery at the age of 5. She became one of the first black women to go to court against a white man and win the case.

From the TED-Ed Lesson How to use rhetoric to get what you want - Camille A. Langston

Animation by TOGETHER

The first female African American streetcar conductor in San Francisco ended up becoming a celebrated author and poet, too! Maya Angelou was sixteen when she dropped out of school. She had her heart set on becoming a conductorette because she liked the uniforms. It took two weeks of sitting in the hiring office, refusing to leave until she got an interview, before she wore them down to get the job.

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January 15th 1929: Martin Luther King Jr. born

On this day in 1929, the future civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia. Born as Martin King, he and his father changed their names in honour of Protestant reformer Martin Luther. King entered the ministry in his twenties and first came to national attention for his leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. This event is considered by many to be the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, which saw a national struggle to end discrimination against African-Americans. King was one of many leaders, but became the face of the movement for his nonviolent tactics and powerful oratory. In 1963, during the March on Washington, King delivered the crowning speech of the movement - the ‘I have a dream’ speech. Beyond his role in combating racial inequality, King also focused on tackling poverty and advocating peace, especially during the Vietnam War. On April 4th 1968, King was shot and killed by James Earl Ray in Memphis, Tennessee. He lived to see the legislative achievements of the movement - the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act - but tragically was unable to continue the push for full equality. The movement King set in motion continues to be fought today; the United States is still not a completely equal society and systemic discrimination persists. However, thanks to Martin Luther King, America is closer to fulfilling King’s dream of a truly free and equal society. Since 1986, a national Martin Luther King Day is celebrated on the third Monday in January.

Today would have been his 88th birthday

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January 7th 1923: Rosewood massacre ends

On this day in 1923, the Rosewood massacre ended in the Florida town after raging for a week. The violence began on January 1st, the day after a Ku Klux Klan rally was held in the area. It started when a white mob descended on the predominantly black town in response to a rumour that a black Rosewood man had sexually assaulted a white woman. The group of over 400 whites attacked African-Americans who they believed were involved, torturing people for information and targetting a family home. They then rampaged throughout the town burning buildings to the ground, including houses and churches. The black residents were forced to hide in the nearby swamps until they were evacuated to other towns, leaving Rosewood completely deserted in the wake of the violence. The carnage ended on January 7th when the mob burned the last structures and there were no black residents in Rosewood remaining. The final death toll was officially six blacks and two whites killed, but according to witnesses closer to thirty African-Americans died. A white jury decided there was insufficient evidence and none of those involved were ever charged for their role in what was erroneously portrayed as a ‘race riot’. In 1994, almost seventy years after the event, the Florida legislature passed a bill that gave each of the nine remaining survivors of the massacre $150,000 in compensation. While it is not enough to provide justice for the Rosewood victims and survivors, the 1994 law ended decades of refusal to come to terms with the horrors committed at Rosewood.

“It has been a struggle telling this story over the years, because a lot of people don’t want to hear about this kind of history … It’s a sad story, but it’s one I think everyone needs to hear”
- Lizzie Jenkins, descendant of a Rosewood survivor

29 Days of February - 29 Photos of African Americans throughout Naval History. ‪#‎BlackHistoryMonth‬

Original Caption:
US Navy African-American Navy Cross-awarded gun crew: Jonell Copeland, Que Gant, Harold Clark Jr., James Eddie Dockery, Alonzo Alexander Swann, Eli Benjamin; circa 1945. (National Archives Photo # 80-G-334029)

Benjamin Banneker & The First American Protest Letter

Born in 1731 to freed slaves on a farm in Baltimore, Maryland, Benjamin Banneker was obsessed with math and science. And his appetite for knowledge only grew as he taught himself astronomy, mathematics, engineering, and the study of the natural world. As an adult, he used astronomy to accurately predict lunar and solar events, like the solar eclipse of 1789, and used his scientific expertise to pioneer new agricultural methods on his family’s tobacco farm. 

In 1792, Banneker began publishing almanacs. He was among the first Americans, and the first African-American, to publish almanacs. These provided detailed annual information on moon and sun cycles, weather forecasts, and planting and tidal time tables.

Banneker sent a handwritten copy of his first almanac to Virginia’s Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. This was a decade before Jefferson became president. Jefferson read the almanac and wrote back in praise of Banneker’s work. 

Banneker included a letter imploring Jefferson to “embrace every opportunity to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions” that caused prejudice against black people. The letter also denounced the Bill of Rights as disingenuous. Banneker questioned the rationale of the imperialistic position taken by the Founding Fathers, especially in light of their rebellion against the tyranny imposed on them by England as settlers seeking a better life in America.

Banneker’s correspondence with the future president is now considered to be one of the first documented examples of a civil rights protest letter in America. For the rest of his life, Banneker fought for this cause, sharing his opposition to slavery through his writing.

Banneker, in his debut almanac of 1792 , was the first to recommend the establishment of a U.S. Department of Peace. It wasn’t until nearly two hundred years later that the U.S. Institute of Peace was established by Congressional authorization in 1984. The organization acknowledges Banneker for his role as the pioneering agent of this idea and states:

The first formal proposal for the establishment of an official U.S. government peace institution dates to 1792. The product of efforts by architect and publisher Benjamin Banneker and physician and educator Dr. Benjamin Rush. The proposal called for establishing a “Peace Office” on equal footing with the War Department – noting the importance to the welfare of the United States of “an office for promoting and preserving perpetual peace in our country.

From the TED-Ed Lesson The exceptional life of Benjamin Banneker - Rose-Margaret Ekeng-Itua

Animation by Jun Zee Myers

1957 Ticker-Tape Parade down Canyon of Heroes for Althea Gibson, Winner at Wimbleton

On July 6th, 1957 Althea Gibson became the first black tennis player to win a Wimbledon singles title. When she arrived back in the United States, New York City honored her with a ticker-tape parade down Broadway.

Footage: Archive Films/Getty Images

African American History at the National Archives

February is Black History Month. This month and every day, the National Archives celebrates the extraordinary contributions of African Americans to our history and culture.

The National Archives holds a wealth of material documenting the African American experience, including millions of records related to the interactions between African Americans and the Federal government. 

You don’t have to live in Washington, DC or visit one of our research rooms to be inspired by the wealth of information available at the National Archives. Visit our African American History webpage to learn more about events and activities celebrating African American History. 

Read the full post on the AOTUS blog.