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6 Figures That Have Helped Shape Black History

Black people have undergone great hardships and have fought long and hard for their rights and freedoms. They are a people who have struggled to break the bonds of slavery, oppression, discrimination and injustice. Several have dedicated and given their lives to rally for racial inequality. Here are six figures that have played pivotal roles in shaping black history.


Martin Luther King Jr.

“I have a dream that one day…little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls.”

– Martin Luther King Jr., I Have A Dream

Perhaps one of the most distinguished figures in black history, Martin Luther King Jr. was an American minister and activist. King was one of the prominent leaders of the American Civil Rights Movement and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Through the SCLC, King took part in organizing nonviolent protests for civil rights reform including the Birmingham Campaign and the monumental March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. As a child, King was active in the church and excelled in school. He would often see his father boldly protest in everyday situations through civil disobedience. The racial discrimination he experienced from childhood to adulthood often filled him with indignation towards white people. However, he still chose to practice nonviolence and civil disobedience to protest racial inequality.


Photo via IMDb


Nelson Mandela

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

– Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedo

Apartheid was a legal policy used in South Africa from the 1940s until the 1990s during the period of white-minority rule. Laws were put in place to segregate the people of South Africa into four distinct racial groups that were geographically and socially separated from each other. Nelson Mandela was a key figure in the abolition of apartheid and white-minority rule. Upon joining the African National Congress political party, Mandela became actively involved in ending institutionalized racism and gaining voting rights for black and mixed race people. In 1963, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government. 27 years later, Mandela was released and spent the following years eradicating white-minority rule in the country. In May 1994, Mandela became the first fully-elected, non-white president of South Africa, using his term to eradicate the legacy left by the apartheid system.


Photo via IMDb


Rosa Parks

“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

– Rosa Parks, Rosa Parks: My Stor

In 1950s Montgomery, Alabama, public bus passengers were segregated by race in accordance with the law. Bus operators were given the task to enforce this segregation and often made people of color move or get off the bus whenever the whites-only section was full. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks boarded a bus after a full day of work. She paid her fare and took a seat in the “colored” section at the back of the bus. Moments later, as the bus became full, the bus driver noticed a few white people standing and told four black people to give up their seats. Parks was the only person who refused to give up her seat, resulting in her arrest. Though Parks was not the first to protest through a bus sit-in, she became a key figure in the events that followed. Her act of resistance inspired the Montgomery Bus Boycott, in which the black residents of Montgomery refrained from taking the public buses for over a year. This resulted in sufficient damage to the bus company’s profits and the repealing of the bus segregation law



Harriet Tubman 

“I have heard their groans and sighs, and seen their tears, and I would give every drop of blood in my veins to free them…” 

– Harriet Tubman, The Moses of Her People 

The Underground Railroad was a system of transportation made up of a secret network of houses, caves, barns and several routes. Established in the early 1900s, it was used by black slaves in the American south to escape to the free northern states and Canada with the support of white abolitionists, free and escaped blacks, and activists. It was through the Underground Railroad that Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery to Pennsylvania. There she worked to save money before returning to help her family escape. For over a decade, Tubman frequently risked her life and freedom to go back to slave territories and successfully helped numerous slaves achieve their freedom by escaping to Canada. Tubman would go on to serve the country during the Civil War by serving as a nurse, a scout, and a spy for the United States Army.


As Niagara is situated on the Canada-US border, it was one of the ends of the underground railroad. This meant that Niagara and St. Catharines became home to many slaves seeking freedom. Prominent activists such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass have significant historical moments in St. Catharines and Niagara. There is a lot to learn about #blackhistorymonth in Niagara and the St. Catharines museum’s blog is a great resource to learn about some of this important history. If you have time, visit the museum for a “Follow the North Star” guided tour and learn about local BHM heroes such as Adam Nicholson. #myNCstory #undergroundrailroad #history #ourhomestc #harriettubman #education

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Henrietta Lacks 

“If our mother[‘s] cells done so much for medicine, how come her family can’t afford to see no doctors?” 

– Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks 

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks was examined at Johns Hopkins, which was  the only hospital in Baltimore, Maryland that was open to black people, upon her doctor’s referral. Soon after, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and received treatment. While undergoing treatment, two samples were taken from her body without her knowledge or consent, a practice that was not required or customary at the time. One sample was of healthy tissue and the other was of cancerous cells. These were given to the hospital’s cancer researcher for its unusual ability to live past more than a few days. Unfortunately, Lacks passed away months later and her family did not come to know of the cells until nearly 20 years later. The cell line, now known as the HeLa cell line, is the first immortalized cell line and the most commonly used. It has been used to develop the vaccine for polio and it continues to be used today in medical research for various diseases, gene mapping and radiation.


In 1951, an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks went to Johns Hopkins Hospital to have a doctor look at a “knot” in her womb, which turned out to be cervical cancer. Her doctor took two biopsies, one of cancer cells and one of healthy cells. The cells were taken without Lacks’s knowledge or consent. _ Those cells, now known as HeLa cells, were unique in the fact that they were able to survive and reproduce outside of the body They have been used in research around the world. HeLa cells have contributed to the first clone of a human cell, the development of the polio vaccine, advances in gene mapping, and much more. _ Henrietta Lacks has also changed the way medical professionals and researchers obtain consent. _ We want to recognize her contribution to science and medicine during African American History Month. _ Photo courtesy of NIH. _ #TheImmortalLifeofHenriettaLacks #HenriettaLacks #helacells #AfricanAmericanHistoryMonth #cancerresearch #cellbiology #cancer #cervicalcancer #healthequity

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Malcolm X

“You can’t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom.”

– Malcolm X, Prospects for Freedom in 196

Malcolm X is often called the more spirited counterpart of Martin Luther King Jr. At 20 years old, Malcolm X was imprisoned for larceny and breaking and entering. While in prison, he joined the Nation of Islam and converted to Islam. Upon his release from prison, Malcolm X became a minister for the Nation of Islam and established the newspaper Muhammad Speaks. This newspaper became a channel to spread his message to the public, becoming one of the most read black newspapers in the United States. Through the paper, he expressed his values and thoughts on black pride, black beauty and black power. Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam in 1964 and sought to distance himself from the group, renouncing his previous statements which echoed sentiments of segregation and violence. He moved towards a more peaceful approach, dedicating the rest of his life to advocate gaining equality through unity and peaceful protests and policy reformation.


Photo via IMD

These are just a few of the many who have influenced history and helped shape the future. This black History Month, let us celebrate and remember the legacies left behind by these leaders and the others who have dedicated their lives for black freedom.


Dianne Victor is a Communication Studies student with a passionate flair for the creative arts. Currently in her third country of residence, she loves to explore the city and find new hidden gems.
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