Lucy Storey
16 October, 2020

Black History Month - Hidden Figures

Throughout history, there has been a huge number of influential black figures, some of whom have finally been given the recognition they deserve. There are, however, still a number of unknown men and women who are still overlooked and yet to have their story widely shared. This Black History Month, we're focusing on five of the people whose story, we feel, should be told.


1. Matthew Henson

Robert Edwin Peary is widely known as the first man to reach the geographic North Pole, on 6th April 1909. In fact, it was one of his crew, a black man named Matthew Henson. Henson was instrumental on the voyage, going as far as learning the local Inuit language in order to earn their trust and aid. On the final leg of the journey, Peary was overcome with exhaustion and sent Henson ahead as a scout, making him the first man to reach the North Pole.


2. Claudette Colvin

Everyone knows the story of how, in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white person, triggering the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement in America. Fewer people have heard of Claudette Colvin, a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl who, nine months earlier, was the first black person to challenge this law and be consequently arrested. Colvin was pretty much immediately forgotten; the NAACP felt Rosa Parks would make a better icon because she was an adult with 'the right look'.


3. Lewis Howard Latimer

If asked who invented the lightbulb, you will immediately say Thomas Edison. While this is technically true, Edison's original design was very costly and inefficient, only lasting a few days. Lewis Latimer, a black patent draftsman who worked for Edison's company, went on to invent the much more cost-effective filament within the lightbulb that allowed the widespread use of electric lighting. He went on to supervise the installation of electric street lighting in New York, Philadephia, Montreal and London.


4. Bessie Coleman

Amy Johnson and Amelia Earheart are both names that come to mind when speaking about female aviators, but what about Bessie Coleman? An early civil aviator, she was not only the first black African-American woman to earn a pilot's license, but the first black person to earn an international pilot's license. She accomplished all this before the age of 35, later dying in a plane crash due to mechanical failure aged 34.


5. Bayard Rustin

Our last figure faced discrimination from all sides, having been overlooked in history not just because he was black, but because he was an openly gay man at a time when it was considered unacceptable. An important advisor of Martin Luther King Jr, Rustin has been largely forgotten as the driving force behind the March on Washington during the Civil Rights Movement.


Bonus: Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan

We admit that this story has now been told in the fantastic book and film, Hidden Figures, but we wanted to feature it anyway. Hired by NASA to work as 'human computers' in a profession dominated by white men, the calculations of these three black women were instrumental in turning around the Space Race in favour of the USA. Mary Jackson went on to become NASA's first American American female engineer and the namesake of their Washington D. C. headquarters building.