Black History Month: Breaking Barriers in Education, Law, and Awards

During Black History Month, we are focusing on heroes and those people who conquered odds or became “firsts” to do a particular thing. For the first February blog post, we explored those athletes who broke through color barriers in their sports. Then, last week we reposted an article from Disabled American Veterans (DAV) about Centra “Ce-Ce” Mazyck, a champion of Wheel Chair Games who took a zero-gravity flight as part of a mission to make space  more accessible.

This week’s blog focuses on some people who broke through color barriers in education and law and those who have won both national and international prizes.

Alain Leroy Locke, who was an American philosopher, educator, and writer, who became the first Black Rhodes Scholar (after obtaining is undergraduate degree from Harvard) and is considered the father of the Harlem Renaissance. After Locke returned to the U.S. he completed his doctoral studies at Harvard, earning a Ph.D. in philosophy in 1918. He went on to be a professor at Howard University, until his retirement in 1953.

But Locke wasn’t the first Black person in the United States to graduate from college. That honor goes to Alexander Twilight, who graduated in 1823 with a bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College in Vermont. He then went on to become a teacher and did a short stint in the Vermont state legislature.

Ralph Bunche Source: National Archive

Ralph Bunche was the first African American to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950. Bunche worked for the United Nations during a tumultuous time in Middle Eastern history: the decision to divide Palestine to create Israel. This broke out a war between the Arabs and the Jews. When the chief UN negotiator Folke Bernadotte was killed by Jewish extremists in autumn 1948, Bunche stepped in and replaced him. The following year, Bunche entered tough negotiations which ultimately led to a cease-fire between Israelis and Arabs. And it was for this work that Bunche became the first Black American to win the Peace Prize.

Baptist minister and activist Martin Luther King Jr. was awarded the same prize 14 years later, making him the youngest Black person to win the Nobel Peace Prize. He was just 34 years old. King won the prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance.

Constance Baker Motley was turned away from a public beach when she was 15 years old and this incident sparked her interest in civil rights and law. She received her law degree from Columbia Law School and when she was a young lawyer, she represented Martin Luther King Jr. and was a law clerk for Thurgood Marshall. She segued her career into politics becoming the first Black woman to become a New York Senator, but in 1966 she was appointed as a federal judge (becoming the first Black female federal judge).

Source: AP Gwendolyn Brooks poses with her first book of poems, A Street in Bronzeville.

In 1950, Gwendolyn Brooks won a Pulitzer Prize for her book of poetry Annie Allen. She was the first black author to win the prestigious prize. Brooks had been publishing poetry since she was 13 years old and in her later teen years she was a frequent contributor to the newspaper Chicago Defender. After junior college, she worked at the National Association of the Advanced of Colored People (NAACP) while honing her voice and furthering her craft, and she published her first poetry collection in 1945 and then the prize-winning book in 1949. At age 68, she became the first Black woman to hold the position of poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. In that role, she visited local schools. From 1968 until her death in 2000, Brooks held the position of Poet Laureate of Illinois, which is where she grew up.

In 1993, Toni Morrison became the first Black Woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, for her book of essays Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, of which she said, “My work requires me to think about how free I can be as an African-American woman writer in my genderized, sexualized, wholly racialized world.” Morrison’s book Song of Solomon won the National Critics Book Circle Award, and she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for her novel Beloved.

And if you want to hear about another Black leader, watch this Ted-Ed video on Bayard Rustin, a leader in the Civil Rights Movement who was an openly gay black man. He organized the March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his most famous speech.

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