The Honorable Hazel R. O’Leary was the first black person and first woman to serve as the Secretary of Energy. Under President Jimmy Carter, O’Leary was named to help lead a regulatory division of the newly created Department of Energy. President Bill Clinton announced his intention to nominate O’Leary in 1992 and in January 1993, her nomination was swiftly approved. With strong GOP opposition to the new department, O’Leary had the daunting task of managing the government agency with limited resources yet still excelled.
One of O’Leary’s biggest accomplishments was declassifying Cold War documents that revealed the government performed radiation experiments on human subjects. She also pushed for nuclear testing regulation and helped reveal some of the abuses made by major nuclear power plants and the dangers they posed to the environment. She resigned in 1997 after false allegations of misconduct and returned to her alma matter to become president.
Jesse Owens was an American track and field athlete. He specialized in the sprints and the long jump and was recognized in his lifetime as "perhaps the greatest and most famous athlete in track and field history". At the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany, Owens achieved international fame by winning four gold medals in the 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump, and 4 x 100 relay. He was the most successful athlete at the Olympics and, as an African-American man, was credited with "single-handedly crushing Hitler's myth of Aryan supremacy."
Cathay Williams was born in Independence Missouri to a free man and an enslaved woman. As such, she was legally a slave. Due to the prohibition against women serving in the military, Cathay WIlliams enlisted in the U.S. Army under the name William Cathay. She was the first African-American woman to enlist in the U.S. military, and she was able to hide behind her male facade for two years before her identity was discovered.
Garrett Morgan can be thanked for his role in inventing traffic control.
Born in Paris, Kentucky, on March 4, 1877, Garrett Morgan was the seventh of 11 children. His mother, Elizabeth Reed, was of Indian and African descent, and the daughter of a Baptist minister. His father, Sydney, a former slave freed in 1863, was the son of John Hunt Morgan, a Confederate colonel. Garrett Morgan's mixed race heritage would play a part in his business dealings as an adult.
With only an elementary school education, he began his career as a sewing-machine mechanic. He started his own sewing machine business, which enabled him to sponsor many more inventions. He went on to patent several inventions, including an improved sewing machine and traffic signal, a hair-straightening product, and a respiratory device that would later provide the blueprint for WWI gas masks. The inventor died on July 27, 1963, in Cleveland, Ohio.
Sarah Baartman was born in South Africa's Eastern Cape in 1789. Her mother died when she was two, and her father, a cattle driver, died when she was an adolescent. She entered domestic service in Cape Town after a Dutch colonist murdered her partner, with whom she had a baby who died.
In October 1810, although illiterate, Baartman allegedly signed a contract with English ship surgeon William Dunlop and mixed-race entrepreneur, Hendrik Cesars, in whose household she worked, saying she would travel to England to take part in shows.
On stage she wore skin-tight, flesh-coloured clothing, as well as beads and feathers, and smoked a pipe. Wealthy customers could pay for private demonstrations in their homes, with their guests allowed to touch her.
Sarah Baartman died at 26 in 1815, but her exhibition continued. Her brain, skeleton and sexual organs remained on display in a Paris museum until 1974. Her remains weren't repatriated and buried until 2002.
“Service is the rent you pay for room on this earth.”
Shirley Chisholm was the first African American woman elected to the House of Representatives. She was elected in 1968 and represented the state of New York. She was assigned to the House Forestry Committee but demanded reassignment. She was moved to the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, then promoted to the Education and Labor Committee. She championed minority education and employment opportunities, and vehemently opposed the draft. Eventually, she became a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus.
She broke ground again four years later in 1972 when she was the first major party African-American candidate and the first female candidate for president of the United States. After seven terms in the House, she retired to become a teacher and public speaker.
In 1932, the Public Health Service, working with the Tuskegee Institute, began a study to record the natural history of syphilis in Macon County, Alabama. It was called the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.” The study initially involved 600 black men. Participants were coerced into taking part in the study in exchange for free medical exams, free meals, and burial insurance for the families.
Researchers told the men they were being treated for “bad blood,” a local term used to describe several ailments. In truth, they did not receive any treatment needed to cure their illness even when penicillin became available in 1947. Researchers even went so far as to convince local physicians in Macon County not to treat the participants with penicillin. In order to track the disease’s full progression, researchers provided no effective care even as the men died, went blind or insane, or experienced other severe health problems due to their untreated syphilis. They also did not advise the men on protective sexual activity to reduce the spread of the infection to partners.
Although originally projected to last 6 months, the study actually went on for 40 years. Reparations in the amount of $10 million were disbursed to families affected in 1973, but as a result of the experiment many African Americans developed a lingering, deep mistrust of public health officials.
The iconic cartoon character Betty Boop was inspired by a black jazz singer in Harlem. Introduced by cartoonist Max Fleischer in 1930, the caricature of the jazz age flapper was the first and most famous sex symbol in animation. Betty Boop is best known for her revealing dress, curvaceous figure, and signature vocals “Boop Oop A Doop!” While there has been controversy over who inspired the character, Betty Boop’s origin has been traced back to Esther Jones who was known as “Baby Esther” and performed regularly in the Cotton Club during the 1920s.
Baby Esther’s trademark vocal style used “boops” and other childlike scat sounds. While the animated character did little to bring her mainstream fame and she died in relative obscurity, a piece of her lives on in the iconic character Betty Boop.
One in 4 cowboys was black and it's believed that the real “Lone Ranger” was inspired by an African American man named Bass Reeves.
Reeves was born a slave, but he escaped during the Civil War. He eventually became a Deputy U.S. Marshal, was a master of disguise, an expert marksman, had a Native American companion, and rode a silver horse.
Over the 35 years that Bass Reeves served as a Deputy U.S. Marshal, he earned his place in history by being one of the most effective lawmen in Indian Territory, bringing in more than 3,000 outlaws. Killing some 14 men during his service, Reeves always said that he “never shot a man when it was not necessary for him to do so in the discharge of his duty to save his own life.”
For frequent updates, visit the Facebook page of Austin NAACP President Nelson Linder!