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Black History You Didn’t Learn In School

At most public (and likely private as well) schools in the U.S., the history curriculum is lacking. When learning about African Americans, you likely only focused on slavery and the civil rights movement. Moreover, you probably only learned about a few select people; Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, etc. These people were integral to the civil rights movement, but there is so much more to learn! Here are some more people to get to know this Black History Month:


1. Claudette Colvin

Image from Wikipedia

Born in Montgomery, Alabama in 1939, Claudette Colvin was arrested on March 2, 1955 for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus. This was nine months before Rosa Parks was arrested for the same act. Despite Colvin being the first to do it, since she was just 15 years old and assumed to be pregnant by a married man (untrue), black leaders in Montgomery chose not to publicize Colvin’s effort. Another reason Parks was supposedly credited with this act over Colvin was because Colvin had darker skin. Colvin was also a plaintiff for the 1956 court case Browder v. Gayle, which determined that Alabama’s bus segregation was unconstitutional.


2. Henrietta Lacks

Image from People.com

Born in 1920, Henrietta Lacks is known for the non-consensual contribution of her cancer cells, known as HeLa cells. These cells are the oldest and most commonly used in cancer research. The cells were taken from a cervical tumor without her knowledge in 1951 and were used to develop a cell line. This lead to the eventual development of the polio vaccine in 1952. Still today, HeLa cells are used for medical research, despite the fact that they were provided without knowledge or compensation, and have opened a discussion regarding patient rights and privacy.


3. Marsha P. Johnson

Image from biography.com

A drag queen and gay liberation activist, Marsha P. Johnson was the leader of the Stonewall Riots of 1969. A transgender woman, Marsha was born in 1945 in New Jersey, and soon settled in New York City’s Greenwich Village. She was also a homeless sex worker, and therefore dealt with many injustices and instances of discrimination. To help other people going through the same struggles she faced, she co-founded S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) with her friend Sylvia Rivera to advocate for LGBT+ homeless youths.


4. Bayard Rustin

Image from Getty Images

Born in 1912, Bayard Rustin was an advocate for civil rights, gay rights, and nonviolence. He was a member of pacifist groups such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the War Resisters League, and initiated a Freedom Ride to challenge bus segregation in 1947. He was a chief organizer of the March on Washington in 1963, but was often kept in the background, as his sexual orientation was seen as a liability.


5. Shirley Chisholm

Image from The Economist

Born in 1924 to immigrant parents from the Caribbean, Shirley Chisholm was the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress in 1968. She represented New York’s 12th District for seven terms. In 1972, she became the first woman to run for President in the Democratic Party, and the first black presidential candidate for a major party. She worked to expand the food stamp program, obtain extended unemployment benefits and a minimum wage for domestic workers, and provide disadvantaged students with the chance to receive higher education.


Certainly, the civil rights movement is important to learn about, but that’s not the only black history there is. Malcolm X once said,  “Our history did not begin in chains”. How much do you know about pre-slave trade Africa? I’m willing to bet that it’s not much. Here’s some info you should know:


1. Lebombo Bone

Image from Originalpeople.org

A tool made out of the fibula of a baboon, a Lebombo bone was used as a sort of tally stick to record numbers. With 29 notches, it may have been used to count lunar phases, according to astronomer David Darling’s Universal Book of Mathematics. This means that the Lebombo bone was likely one of the first mathematical tools. It was discovered in the Border Cave in the Lebombo Mountains of Swaziland, and is about 44,000 years old.


2. Adam’s Calendar

Image from Ancient Origins

Often referred to as “African Stonehenge” or the “Birthplace of the Sun,” Adam’s Calendar is a 100 foot-wide stone circle that is located in Mpumalanga, South Africa. Estimated to be 75,000 years old, it is believed to be aligned with Earth’s equinoxes and solstices. Not much is known about the structure, unfortunately, but it shows an impressive understanding of ancient astronomy.


3. Mali Empire

Image from Wikipedia

From 1230 to 1670, the Mali Empire ruled West Africa. Founded by Sundiata Keita, the empire was known for its wealth. Being the largest empire in the region, the spread of its language and customs was so great that it heavily influenced the culture of West Africa.


4. Mansa Musa

Image from The Independent

One of the richest people in history, Mansa Musa was the emperor of the Mali Empire from about 1312 to 1337. During his reign, the Kingdom of Mali is believed to have been the largest gold producer in the world at the height of its demand. A devout Muslim, Musa went on a pilgrimage to Mecca around 1325. During this journey, Musa would give gold to people he met along the way, accidentally ruining the economies of towns he passed through with the unexpected influx of gold devaluing the metal for a period of time.

5. The Timbuktu Manuscripts

Image from Wikipedia

A huge number of manuscripts ranging from the 13th to the 20th century have been preserved in households for centuries in Timbuktu, Mali. These manuscripts detail discoveries and thoughts about medicine art, science, and philosophy. Most are in bad condition and remain unstudied. The total amount of manuscripts is unknown.


There is so much to learn that this one article could never cover it all. I urge you to do your own research and learn more!

Header image courtesy of Michael Gillette of The New York Times.


Junior at Simmons University studying Communications, Graphic Design, and Cinema Studies // HC Video Director // Fandom geek and cooking enthusiast
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