Probably the most famous member of Shoshone tribe of North American Indians, Sacajawea (or Sacagawea, depending on your translation) is best-remembered as the native guide who helped Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their journey up the Missouri river, and on to the Pacific Ocean.
Sacajawea was vital to the success of the mission, as without her knowledge of the Shoshone tongue, Lewis and Clark would not have been able to barter with that tribe for badly needed supplies. Lewis and Clark tended to refer to her as ‘the Indian woman’ in their journals – but those same journals make it very clear that the entire expedition would likely have died, either from starvation or encounters with hostile Indians, without her knowledge of the lands, tribes and tongues of the areas they explored, and her apparently considerable skills in diplomacy.
Benjamin Banneker was born a free black man in Virginia in 1731 – his mother was also a free black, his father a former slave now free. Largely self-educated, in 1791 he was a member of the team that surveyed the boundaries of the newly declared District of Columbia. His primary duty was to take astronomical observations to ascertain the exact locations of the various points the survey visited.
The following year, Banneker turned his skill at astronomy to creating an ephemeris, which he then published in an almanac. The almanac sold well enough that he continued to make them annually until 1797. He became a man of some note, and was a regular correspondent of President Thomas Jefferson, with whom he argued about slavery and other political issues. He died after retiring from public life, aged 74.
Although a legendary milestone in the long fight for racial equality in the United States of America, the Emancipation Proclamation was in fact a cynical political gambit. By freeing slaves in all those areas still in open rebellion against the government in Washington D.C. – more than three quarters of the four million black slaves in America at that time – Lincoln hoped to encourage rebellions and desertions among the slave population, splitting the Confederate forces and hamstringing their economy. He made no such gesture for any of the slave holding states on his side of the Civil War – but he doubt realised that come the end of the war, he had created conditions whereby they too would expect to be freed.
The overall effects of the Emancipation were more or less as Lincoln had hoped, although less drastic in their effects than he might have wished. There were plentiful desertions by slaves; conversely, there were also desertions by Union troopers who felt that this was not what they had signed up for.
Daniel Hale Williams was one of the first Afro-American men to achieve prominence as a surgeon. He served as the surgeon-in-chief of Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. from 1896 to 1898, and also established a teaching college for nurses at the hospital. Other notable achievements include being a charter member of the American College of Surgeons (and the first ever black member) and founding the first non-segregated hospital in America.
But he is best known for performing one of the earliest successful heart surgeries, a pericardium repair on a stabbing victim named James Cornish. Cornish convalesced for 55 days after the operation, but made a full recovery. Cardiac surgery would develop little for another 50 years, until World War Two prompted surgeons to investigate it more closely, and the pioneering work of Williams and others was belatedly recognized.
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Black Man — Stevie Wonder
Garrett Morgan was not the first to invent or patent a traffic signal, but he was the first to invent one that could be changed at a distance, via a mechanical linkage. (He also patented a gas mask.) Morgan was a black man living in Cleveland, Ohio, who was a successfully businessman and well-liked citizen of his town in a time long before the Civil Rights movement.
No doubt he still suffered from quite a deal of racism, and there’s a certain irony in that his inventions probably saved far more white lives than they did black lives. Morgan is remembered in Cleveland as the first black man there to own a car, and also for his heroic rescue of trapped minors (using his own gas mask invention) in 1916, for which he received awards and acclaim.
The co-founder of the American Indian Movement – a major ‘Red Power’ group in the civil rights struggles of native Americans – Dennis Banks was born in the Leech Lake Indian Reservation in Minnesota. Dennis Banks, of course, was simply his white name – in the Ojibwe language of his people, the Anishinaabe, was Nowa Cumig (which means ‘centre of the universe’).
As a leader of the American Indian Movement, he participated in numerous protests and demonstrations, often clashing with the law and even getting convicted a few times. In recent years, he has been a leader of the annual Sacred Run movement and served as a member of the Board of Trustees for Leech Lake Tribal College, a college with a primarily native American student body.
Born in 1904, Dr Charles Drew was one of the first black surgeons in the United States – although that is far from being his only claim to fame.
His work in the fields of blood transfusions and storage led to breakthroughs in the field, culminating in the development of large scale blood banks that saved thousands of lives of Allied soldiers and civilians during the war. He also protested the segregation of blood supplies along racial lines, on the ground that there was no scientific basis for it (as indeed, there is not). He lost his job over this stance, but it did not deter him from it.
He also became the first black man to be selected to serve as an examiner of the American Board of Surgery.
César Chávez is perhaps the most famous Latino or Mexican-American civil rights activist in history. He was a very astute user of the media, and made the union cause very sympathetic to the American public.
One of the major steps in this process was the formation of the he National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) in 1962. Later called the United Farm Workers, which was created by the merger Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) led by Filipino organizer Larry Itliong, and the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) led by Chávez.
A noted populariser of the ideas of Alfred Korzybski, especially general semantics, Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa was a Japanese-American academic. He wrote numerous books on semantics and language, some of which remain in use as textbooks even today (notably his “Language in Thought and Action” which is now in its fifth edition).
Hayakawa was the president of San Francisco State College from 1968 to 1973. As president, his most notable action was the creation of an Ethnic Studies department after pressure from Black Panther and student protesters. In 1977, he became a member of the United States Senate (California, R), a role which he held until 1983. He died in 1992 at the age of 85.