There are many influential African Americans in US History. Many have stood up against slavery, segregation and racial legacy. Understanding their stories and influence helps us to understand the question of race in American society today. Here are the top 5 most influential African Americans in USA history.
Influential African American Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)
Frederick Douglass was an escaped slave who became a prominent activist, author and public speaker. A leader in the abolitionist movement, he sought to end the practice of slavery, before and during the Civil War. After that conflict and the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862, he continued to push for equality and human rights. He fought for equality and human rights until he died in 1895.
Who Was Frederick Douglass?
Who was Frederick Douglass? Born into slavery near or around 1818, he was born in Talbot County, Maryland. Unfortunately, Douglass himself was never sure of his exact birth date.
His mother was of Native American ancestry and his father was of African and European descent. Actually, he was born Frederick Bailey (his mother’s name), taking the name Douglass only after he escaped. “Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey,” was his full name at birth.
Escape from Slavery
After several failed attempts at escape, Douglass finally left Covey’s farm in 1838. There he boarded a train to Havre de Grace, Maryland. From there, he traveled through Delaware, another slave state. Finally, arriving in New York and the safe house of abolitionist David Ruggles.
Once settled in New York, he sent for Anna Murray. She was a free black woman from Baltimore he met while in captivity with the Aulds. Joining him, the two were married in September 1838. They would have five children together.
From Slave to Abolitionist Leader
Douglass began attending meetings of the abolitionist movement. At these meetings, he was exposed to the writings of abolitionist and journalist William Lloyd Garrison. They were both asked to speak at an abolitionist meeting. During this meeting, Douglass shared his story of slavery and escape. It was Garrison who encouraged Douglass to become a speaker and leader in the abolitionist movement.
By 1843, Douglass had become part of the American Anti-Slavery Society’s “Hundred Conventions” project. He was physically assaulted several times during the tour by those opposed to the abolitionist movement. While in Pendleton, Indiana he was brutally attacked and broke his hand. The injuries never fully healed and he never regained full use of his hand.
Later Life and Death
In 1877, Douglass met with Thomas Auld, the man who once “owned” him, and the two reportedly reconciled. Anna, his wife, died in 1882 and later he married white activist Helen Pitts in 1884.
He became the first African American to receive a vote for President of the United States, during the Republican National Convention, in 1888. Ultimately, though, Benjamin Harrison received the party nomination.
Frederick Douglass Quotes
Douglass remained an active speaker, writer and activist until his death in 1895. He died after suffering a heart attack on his way home from a meeting of the National Council of Women.
His life’s work still serves as an inspiration to those who seek equality and a more just society. In 1852, he delivered another of his more famous speeches, one that later came to be called “What to a slave is the 4th of July?”
One section of the speech, Douglass noted, “What to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”
Prominent African American leader Harriet Tubman (1822 – 1913)
Harriet Tubman escaped slavery in 1849, becoming a leading abolitionist. She led hundreds of enslaved people to freedom along the route of the Underground Railroad. With military honors , she was buried in Auburn, New York.
Who Was Harriet Tubman?
Born into slavery in Maryland, Harriet Tubman escaped to freedom in the North in 1849. She became the most famous “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. Tubman risked her life to lead hundreds of family members and other slaves to freedom. The Underground Railroad was an elaborate secret network of safe houses. A leading abolitionist before the American Civil War, Tubman also helped the Union Army during the war. Working as a spy was among one of her roles.
Tubman first encountered the Underground Railroad when she used it to escape slavery herself in 1849. Following a bout of illness and the death of her owner, She decided to escape slavery in Maryland for Philadelphia. Due to the fact that she feared that her family would be further severed and was concerned for her own fate as a sickly slave of low economic value.
The Underground Railroad
Between 1850 and 1860, Tubman made 19 trips from the South to the North following the Underground Railroad. She guided more than 300 people. Included in this were her parents and several siblings, from slavery to freedom. Her nickname became, “Moses” for her leadership.
Remaining active during the Civil War, she worked for the Union Army as a cook and nurse. Quickly, she became an armed scout and spy. As the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war, she guided the Combahee River Raid. The raid liberated more than 700 slaves in South Carolina.
In early 1859, abolitionist Senator William H. Seward sold Tubman a small piece of land on the outskirts of Auburn, New York. The land in Auburn became a haven for Tubman’s family and friends. Tubman spent the years following the war on this property. She would tend to her family and others who had taken up residence there.
Despite Tubman’s fame and reputation, she was never financially secure. Friends and supporters were able to raise some funds to support her. One admirer, Sarah H. Bradford, wrote a biography entitled Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, with the proceeds going to Tubman and her family.
Death & Legacy
As Tubman aged, the head injuries sustained early in her life became more painful and disruptive. She underwent brain surgery at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital to alleviate the pains and “buzzing” she experienced regularly. Tubman was eventually admitted into the rest home named in her honor. Later, she died of pneumonia on March 10, 1913 around the age of 93, surrounded by friends and family. Harriet was buried with military honors at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn.
Widely known and well-respected while she was alive, Tubman became an American icon in the years after she died. A survey at the end of the 20th century named her as one of the most famous civilians in American history before the Civil War, third only to Betsy Ross and Paul Revere. Still she continues to inspire generations of Americans struggling for civil rights.
The Influential Life of Rosa Parks (1913 – 2005)
Rosa Parks was a civil rights activist who refused to surrender her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Her defiance sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Its success launched nationwide efforts to end racial segregation of public facilities. Parks was awarded the Martin Luther King Jr. Award by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.
Early Life and Family
Parks was born, Rosa Louise McCauley on February 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Alabama. Her parents, James and Leona McCauley, separated when Parks was two. The family moved to Pine Level, Alabama, to live with her parents, Rose and Sylvester Edwards. Both of Parks’ grandparents were formerly enslaved and strong advocates for racial equality. The family lived on the Edwards’ farm where Parks would spend her youth.
Parks’ childhood brought her early experiences with racial discrimination and activism for racial equality. In one experience, Parks’ grandfather stood in front of their house with a shotgun while Ku Klux Klan members marched down the street.
On December 1, 1955, Parks was arrested for refusing a bus driver’s instructions to give up her seat to a white passenger. She later recalled that her refusal wasn’t because she was physically tired, but that she was tired of giving in.
As the bus Parks was riding continued on its route, it began to fill with white passengers. Eventually, the bus was full and the driver noticed that several white passengers were standing in the aisle. The bus driver stopped the bus and moved the sign separating the two sections back one row, asking four black passengers to give up their seats.