Before I go any further, let me say that, of all the articles and columns that I have written during my nearly two decades of professional writing, this was one of the toughest I have ever had to write.
Selecting only 10 people for this list was akin to having a bad tooth pulled with no Novocain. To be honest about it, many of the names on my list of all-time greats could certainly be substituted for many other equally deserving candidates. However, when push came to shove, which, for all intents and purposes, is exactly what a deadline is, I made some tough choices and I am sticking with them.
The only criteria I used in making my selections were, how important each person’s contributions were to the betterment of the entire African-American race. Now that that’s done, here we go.
1. Dr. Martin Luther King (1929-1968)
I don’t think there is a person alive who would object to my selection of Martin Luther King as the number one most notable African-American of all-time. The legendary civil rights leader who was slain in August of 1968, preached a message of equality for all and spurred numerous political and ideological changes that have affected every African-American who has resided in the U.S. since the time of his death. King’s “Dream” has been alive for nearly four decades and his message and memory show no signs of ever being forgotten by a multitude of races all over the globe.
2. Harriet Tubman (1821-1913)
Yes, we all know that Tubman made 19 trips to the north and saved at least 300 slaves from what was most likely more years of slavery, but I’m not sure whether or not many young African-Americans realize how important Tubman’s contributions were since they occurred so long ago. To put Tubman’s achievements in proper perspective, there is no telling how many lives beyond those 300 that were altered, extended and changed forever by her courageous acts. I suspect that many of the same people, who were moved by Dr. King’s impassioned pleas over a half-century after Tubman’s death, were probably descendants of slaves whose lives were saved by Tubman’s heroic efforts.
3. Fredrick Douglas (1817-1895)
Douglas was, for all intents and purposes, his era’s Martin Luther King. He was the most famous of all black abolitionists as well as one of the greatest American orators of his day. Douglas was also an editor author, statesman and reformer who was often referred to as the Called “The Sage of Anacostia” or “The Lion of Anacostia,”
Douglass was among the most prominent African-American of his time, and one of the most influential in American history. He was often called “The Father of the Civil Rights Movement.”
4. W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963)
Dubois was one of the most influential black leaders of the first half of the 20th Century. He shared in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909 and served as its director of research and editor of its magazine, “Crisis,” until 1934. Dubois was also the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1896. Labeled as a “radical,” DuBois was ignored by many who hoped that his massive contributions would be buried along side of him. But, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “history cannot ignore W.E.B. DuBois because history has to reflect truth and Dr. DuBois was a tireless explorer and a gifted discoverer of social truths. His singular greatness lay in his quest for truth about his own people. There were very few scholars who concerned themselves with honest study of the black man and he sought to fill this immense void. The degree to which he succeeded disclosed the great dimensions of the man.”
5. Richard Allen (1760-1831)
Being born and raised in Philadelphia, I know all about Richard Allen. The First Black Bishop and A.M.E. Church leader was president of the first national Negro convention and is sometimes called “The Father of the Negro.” Born into slavery in Philadelphia in 1760, Allen died in 1831 not only free but influential as well and the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which he organized in 1816, and its first bishop. The only way I can describe Allen, is to say that he was his generation’s Martin Luther King as well.
6. Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955)
The career educator was a mentor to a whole generation of leaders and was the first Black woman to receive a major federal appointment. Bethune was one of the greatest educators in United States history. She was a leader of women, a distinguished adviser to several American presidents, and a powerful champion of racial equality. Bethune began her career as an educator when she rented a two-story frame building in Daytona Beach, Fla., and began the difficult task of establishing a school for African American girls. Her school opened in October 1904, with six pupils, five girls and her own son. This began the Daytona Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls, in an era when most African American children received little or no education. At first Bethune was teacher, administrator, comptroller, and custodian. In 1923 Bethune’s school for girls merged with Cookman Institute of Jacksonville, Fla., a school for boys, and the new co-educational school became known as Bethune-Cookman Collegiate Institute, soon renamed Bethune-Cookman College. Bethune served as president of the college until her retirement as president emeritus in 1942. She remained a trustee of the college to the end of her life. By 1955 the college had a faculty of 100 and a student enrollment of over 1,000.
7. Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)
The woman we know as Sojourner Truth was born into slavery in New York as Isabella Baumfree. The abolitionist and leader of the women’s movement lectured widely and fought for land and rights for the freedmen. In 1843, she took the name Sojourner Truth, believing this to be on the instructions of the Holy Spirit and became a traveling preacher. In the late 1840s she connected with the abolitionist movement, becoming a popular speaker. In 1850, she also began speaking on woman suffrage. During the Civil War she raised food and clothing contributions for black regiments. After the War ended, Sojourner Truth again spoke widely, advocating for some time a “Negro State” in the west. She spoke mainly to white audiences, and mostly on religion, “Negro” and women’s rights, and on temperance, though immediately after the Civil War she tried to organize efforts to provide jobs for black refugees from the war.
8. Nat Turner (1800-1831)
I’m sure a lot of folks will scratch their heads at this selection, but Turner wasn’t just a runaway slave who started a revolt and murdered a bunch of people. His efforts, which certainly did not end in vain, changed the way a multitude of slaves viewed slavery and fueled their subsequent acts of heroism to abolish slavery nationwide. Born on October 2, 1800, in Southampton County, Virginia, Turner organized a rebellious escape attempt on August 21, 1831 in which he and several other slaves killed 55 whites in the process. Although Turner was captured and executed later, his boldness changed the thought process for every slave until the time when slavery was ultimately abolished.
9. Malcolm X (1925-1965)
Like Turner, Malcolm X was a militant man who abhorred the oppression that whites had placed on African-Americans living in the U.S. for centuries. Unlike his more peaceful counterpart, Martin Luther King, Malcolm sought to end oppression of blacks in the U.S. by any means necessary.” During his life, Malcolm went from being a street-wise Boston hoodlum to one of the most prominent Black Nationalist leaders in the United States. As a militant leader, Malcolm X advocated black pride, economic self-reliance, and identity politics. He ultimately rose to become a world renowned African American/Pan-Africanist and human rights activist. Like Turner and King, Malcolm X’s life was extinguished far too early when was assassinated in New York City on February 21, 1965 on the first day of National Brotherhood Week.
10. John H. Johnson (1918-2005)
Once again, many people may have a problem with this selection, but that’s a shame because Johnson was truly an African-American giant and visionary who strived to make the United States a better place for African-Americans everywhere.
Johnson formed the Johnson Publishing Company and transformed it into a multi-million dollar entity that assisted, promoted and raised the consciousness of African-Americans everywhere. Johnson was the first black person to appear on the Forbes 400 Rich List, and had a fortune estimated at close to $600 million.
However, it wasn’t the fortune that Johnson amassed that put him on this list for me. Once again, it was educating and teaching a nation full of African-Americans about the successes, failures, possibilities and realities of life for blacks living in the United States.