Every February, schools across America celebrate Black History Month by introducing children to prominent African-Americans and their contributions.
We have written about Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman in the past. This year, we look at three little known, but equally important trailblazers, who left their mark on the world.
Frederick Douglass [1818-1895]
Frederick Douglass, a contemporary of Lincoln, was a prominent abolitionist who through his eloquent speeches and writings, stood up for the rights of all Americans including blacks, women and minority groups. He was an advisor to President Lincoln and went on to serve in the administrations of at least three U.S Presidents.
Born into slavery, Douglass grew up on a Maryland plantation. After his mother died when he was just ten, Douglass was moved under different masters. His fortune turned when he came under the Auld family. Defying a ban on teaching slaves, Sarah Auld taught young Douglass the English alphabet, until he was forcibly removed from her care.
Douglass continued developing his reading and writing skills from other white children on the plantation. He was intimidated by slave owners and eventually escaped to Massachusetts. From here, he spoke out actively against slavery and wrote an autobiography on his life's experiences. With fame came the risk of re-capture. Douglass fled to London and with support from English patrons, won his freedom.
The struggles of people like Frederick Douglass set the stage for others such as Arthur Ashe and Mae Jemison to follow their passions.
Arthur Ashe: First (And Only) Male Tennis Winner [1943-1993]
Arthur Ashe's early years were characterized by hardship after his mother passed away when he was only six. His father, afraid that his two boys might lose direction, kept a tightrope on them. As Ashe remarked, he had no more than 12 minutes to get home from school each day!
Ashe discovered tennis accidentally at a local park. His passion and abilities were recognized by a coach who was active in the local black community. After years of rigorous training, Ashe surprised the world when he won the U.S Open in 1968, followed by Australian Open and the Wimbledon.
Arthur Ashe used his status to promote opportunities for inner-city youth and spoke out against apartheid in South Africa. Unfortunately, his life was cut short when he contracted AIDS as a result of tainted blood that he received during his second heart surgery. Ashe became a spokesperson for AIDS until his end.
Dr. Mae Jemison, First Female Astronaut [1956-Present]
Born in Alabama and raised in Chicago, Mae Jemison was a curious little girl who spent endless hours in the library. Her father, a carpenter, and her mother an elementary school teacher nurtured their daughter's talents and encouraged her to pursue science.
After an undergraduate in chemical engineering at the prestigious Stanford University, Jemison set her heart on becoming a physician. After completing her medical studies, she joined the Peace Corps and served in Sierra Leone and Liberia where she taught and pursued medical research. On returning to the US, Jemison turned her career around to follow a passion she had from her childhood - to become an astronaut. She joined NASA's astronaut training program, and in 1992 became the first African-American woman in space, aboard space shuttle Endeavor!
The stories behind these prominent African Americans, as you see, are those of poverty, struggle and sheer determination to follow their dreams. Perhaps, February should be a celebration of the human spirit.