Throughout the month of February, we recognize and celebrate the achievements of African Americans and recognize their central role in U.S. history. Also known as African American History Month, this celebration was initiated by noted historian Carter G. Woodson and other prominent African Americans back in 1915; since 1976, every U.S. president has officially designated the month of February as Black History Month. Canada and the United Kingdom as well as other countries around the world also devote a month to celebrating Black history.
Rose Marie McCoy (1922 – 2015)
McCoy’s name may not be instantly recognizable, but she wrote and produced some of the biggest pop songs in the 1950s. In an industry dominated by white males, McCoy was able to make her mark through her pen, even if she couldn’t through her own voice. Her songs, “After All” and “Gabbin’ Blues” never quite took off on the charts, but she was courted by music labels to write for other artists, including hit singles for Big Maybelle, Elvis Presley, and Big Joe Turner. So now when you hear Presley’s “Trying to Get You,” you’ll remember the name of the African American woman who wrote it.
Dorothy Height (1912 – 2010)
Hailed the “godmother of the women’s movement,” Height used her background in education and social work to advance women’s rights. She was a leader in the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and the president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) for more than 40 years. She was also among the few women present at the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Ella Baker (1903-1986)
Baker was an essential activist during the civil rights movement, the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement. She was a field secretary and branch director for the NAACP and also co-founded an organization that raised money to fight Jim Crow Laws. Baker was a key organizer for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). But what was perhaps her biggest contribution to the movement was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which prioritized nonviolent protest, assisted in organizing the 1961 Freedom Rides, and aided in registering Black voters. The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights exists today to carry on her legacy.
Gordon Parks (1912 – 2006)
Parks was the first African American on the staff of LIFE magazine, and later he would be responsible for some of the most beautiful imagery in the pages of Vogue. He also was the first Black director of a major film, Shaft, helping to shape the blaxploitation era in the ’70s. Parks famously told LIFE in 1999: “I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs. I knew at that point I had to have a camera.”
Bessie Coleman (1892 -1926)
Despite being the first licensed Black pilot in the world, Coleman was not recognized as a pioneer in aviation until after her death. Though history has favored Amelia Earhart or the Wright brothers, Coleman—who went to flight school in France in 1919—paved the way for a new generation of diverse fliers like the Tuskegee airmen, Blackbirds, and Flying Hobos.
Mary McLeod Bethune (1875 – 1955)
Bethune was an American educator, stateswoman, philanthropist, humanitarian, womanist, and civil rights activist. Bethune founded the National Council for Negro Women in 1935, established the organization’s flagship journal Aframerican Women’s Journal, and resided as president or leader for many African American women’s organizations including the National Association for Colored Women and the National Youth Administration’s Negro Division. She opened a Daytona Beach Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls. Eventually, Bethune’s school became a college, merging with the all-male Cookman Institute to form Bethune-Cookman College in 1929.