Black History Month Feature: 15 African Americans Making History

11 minutes

Learn more about the accomplishments of these trailblazers in their fields

Brightly's Diversity & Inclusion Committee set out to celebrate Black History Month by honoring a few key African Americans. Although we wish we could have listed many more, in honor of the last day of the month, we have compiled a list of notable inventors, dancers, trailblazers and artists who have made significant contributions in their fields. 

As we look at the past, present and future, here are 15 African Americans who made (or are making) history.


Alexander Miles

May 18, 1838 – May 7, 1918

Did you know that elevators have been around since 236 BC? But it wasn’t until 1887 that Alexander Miles, an inventor, developed automatically opening and closing doors, vastly improving the safety of the elevator. Before Miles’ creation, elevator doors were manually opened and closed by either an operator or one of the passengers inside, and if that door wasn’t closed riders could fall out of the elevator into the shaft. Yikes. Thanks to Miles (although unfortunate for elevator operators), we can safely ride up to the top floor, secure in the thought that we won’t fall out.


Dr. Daniel Hale Williams

January 18, 1856 – August 4, 1931

When Dr. Daniel Hale Williams graduated from Northwestern University Medical School in 1883, African Americans were not allowed to practice medicine in American hospitals. So, in 1891, he founded Provident Hospital, the first African American-owned and operated interracial hospital in the United States. In 1893, he was the first African American surgeon to successfully perform open heart surgery, or pericardium heart surgery, to repair a knife wound in the heart of his patient James Cornish. He would go on to be the surgeon-in-chief of Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., was appointed to the Illinois Department of Public Health in 1897, co-founded the National Medical Association for African American doctors, and, in 1913, became the only African American doctor in the American College of Surgeons.


Elijah McCoy

May 2, 1844 – October 10, 1929

As the owner of 57 United States patents, Elijah McCoy was a notable inventor whose work focused on the lubrication of steam engines. Born in Canada as a free man in 1844, his parents had escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad from Kentucky. Moving back to Kentucky after the Civil War ended, they settled in Michigan. There, McCoy worked as a fireman and oiler at the Michigan Central Railroad, and began to develop his inventions for steam engines. The first was an automatic lubricator in 1872, which lubricated trains on their routes without needing to stop for maintenance. McCoy’s work was well-regarded, and, in fact, led to the invention of the phrase “the real McCoy.” There are several theories about its origins, most notably that engineers would ask if a locomotive was fitted with “the real McCoy” oil-drip cup system instead of lower quality copies. Today, the phrase simply means “the real thing,” and we have the original McCoy to thank for it.


Garrett Morgan

March 4, 1877 – August 27, 1963

Garrett Morgan created not one but two revolutionary inventions: the gas mask and the traffic signal. Starting his career in Cincinnati, Ohio as a sewing machine repairman, his first invention was a belt fastener for sewing machines, and in 1907 he opened up his own sewing machine and shoe repair shop. In 1912, he patented his idea for a smoke hood and, in fact, used his invention in a well-documented and celebrated rescue of workers trapped in a tunnel in 1916 (the event ignited orders from fire departments around the country for the hoods). After witnessing an accident at an intersection, he developed the three-position traffic signal, patenting the idea in 1923 and selling the rights to General Electric for $40,000. In addition to the gas mask and traffic signal, Garrett Morgan was truly a well-rounded inventor, patenting the first chemical hair straightener (he went on to create a successful haircare product company). He also became the first African American to own an automobile in Cleveland, Ohio and helped found the Cleveland Association of Colored Men.


John Taylor

November 3, 1882 – December 2, 1908

Born in Washington D.C., John Taylor, Jr. was making headlines before he entered the Olympics in 1908. At the Brown Preparatory School in Philadelphia, he had the fastest time for the high school quarter-mile in the country, and was the Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America (ICAAAA) champion in the quarter mile while at the University of Pennsylvania, besting his own personal time the following year. Recruited by the Irish American Athletic Club in New York, he was their most well-known African American member. In the 1908 Olympics in London, he was a part of the gold medal-winning men’s medley relay team, becoming the first African American to win the gold. Unfortunately, just five months later, Taylor contracted typhoid fever and passed at the age of 26.


Alain LeRoy Locke

September 13, 1885 – June 9, 1954

The first African American Rhodes Scholar, Alain LeRoy Locke graduated from Harvard in 1907. He was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, yet when he arrived at Oxford, he was denied entry to several of its colleges due to his race. Nevertheless, he persisted, and he was finally admitted to Hertford College, studying literature, philosophy, Greek, Latin and, later, philosophy at the University of Berlin. Locke is a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, which took place from approximately 1918 to 1935. Locke’s essays and articles on the Renaissance not only helped to elevate its status and notoriety among white readers but also helped to define and preserve its evolution. His point of view helped him mentor other philosophers — including, most notably, Zora Neale Hurston.


Gwendolyn Brooks

July 7, 1917 – December 3, 2000

The first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize, Gwendolyn Brooks is one of the most prolific writers of her generation, publishing more than 20 books of poetry. Raised in Chicago, the institutionalized racism and societal prejudice she saw both during her time in school and growing up in the inner city would influence her work throughout her life. During her lifetime, Brooks had 14 honors and awards bestowed upon her, including the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for Annie Allen. President John F. Kennedy would invite her to read at the Library of Congress Festival in 1962, and in 1985 she was appointed as a poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. In addition to her work as a writer, Brooks also dedicated her life to teaching writing and poetry to future generations with teaching positions at numerous colleges. A pillar of the Illinois writing community and proud Chicagoan, in 1968, Illinois named her as the Poet Laureate for the state and honored her with the Order of Lincoln in 1997, the highest honor the state grants.



Lonnie Johnson

Who didn’t have a Super Soaker growing up? The beloved toy was invented by Lonnie Johnson. With a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and an M.S. in Nuclear Engineering from Tuskegee University, Johnson joined the U.S. Air Force in 1978. It was during his time in the Air Force that he developed his idea for a “Power Drencher,” applying for its patent in 1983. The Super Soaker, as it came to be dubbed, was a major hit, creating $200 million in sales in 1991 (today, Hasbro estimates that it’s reaching $1 billion in sales), and in 1996 he received the patent for a “pneumatic launcher for a toy projectile and the like” — the basis of several Nerf toys. Yet despite his contributions to Nerf, it wasn't until he took Hasboro to court that he received all of the royalties he deserved — winning $73 million in royalties in 2013. Today, Johnson has two technology development companies in Atlanta: Excellatron Solid State, LLC and Johnson Electro-Mechanical Systems (JEMS). He currently holds 120 total patents.


Dr. Patricia Bath

Dr. Patricia Bath is an ophthalmologist making history. She currently holds five United States patents, most notably for laser surgery to correct cataracts. In 1988, Dr. Bath patented this invention, which uses a laserphaco probe to remove cataracts, and she became the first African American woman to receive a patent in medicine. Today, this treatment is used around the world. Dr. Bath is also the first:

  • Woman to become a member of the Jules Stein Eye Institute
  • Woman to lead a post-graduate training program in ophthalmology
  • Woman elected to the honorary staff of the UCLA Medical Center
  • African American to serve as a resident in ophthalmology at New York University
  • African American woman to serve on staff as a surgeon at the UCLA Medical Center


Katherine Johnson

Before there were computers, there were, well, computers. More specifically, human computers who would perform mathematical calculations. One such human computer was Katherine Johnson, whose work for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA (later dissolved into NASA), was memorialized in the film Hidden Figures, based on the non-fiction novel of the same name. Starting her career as a math teacher, she later successfully applied to and was accepted as a human computer for NACA in 1953. In her work with the Guidance and Control Division, she was the only African American – let alone woman – in the department. Yet her career grew to include not only the famous project depicted in Hidden Figures, but also the first mission to both the moon and Mercury, orbits around the Earth, and many others in her over 30 years with NASA. In 2015, she won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and is the co-author of 26 scientific papers.


Zena Howard

As the managing director of architecture design firm Perkins+Will in Durham, North Carolina (just down the road from Brightly HQ!), Zena Howard is an award-winning architect known for her work on culturally significant projects. Howard is an advocate for diversity in architecture, an industry that historically has very little minority or female representation. Her portfolio includes several libraries in Durham County, Motown Museum Expansion in Detroit, Michigan, and several other well-known projects. On September 24, 2016, the National Museum of African American History & Culture opened its doors for the first time in Washington, D.C. Howard served as the Senior Project Manager.


Debra Austin

As the first African American female principle dancer of a major American ballet company, Debra Austin paved the way for future generations of dancers. She had been dancing since the age of eight, winning a scholarship to the School of American Ballet in New York City at twelve years old. George Balanchine – one of the most influential dance choreographers in the 20th century – hand-selected her to join New York City Ballet, though she left for the Swiss Zurich Ballet as a soloist. Returning to the United States in 1982, she was hired as a principle dancer for Pennsylvania Ballet, making history. She retired from dancing eight years later in 1990. Today, she serves as ballet mistress for the Carolina Ballet in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina. The company has 35 dancers.


Misty Copeland

In 2015, Misty Copeland became the first African American woman to become a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre (ABT). Prior to that, Copeland was considered a child prodigy, having not started ballet until the age of 13 (most ballet dancers start very young) but learning quickly and showing great talent. In 1997 at the age of 15, she won the Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Award for the best dancer in Southern California and entered the ABT in 2000. In 2007, Copeland became a soloist, honing her skills and technique, and her hard work paid off when she was promoted on June 30, 2015. In addition to her work as a professional dancer, she has also been awarded with several honors, including an honorary doctorate from the University of Hartford and a place on the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition.


Hannah Beachler

When a superhero movie is done right, everything – writing, cinematography, acting, directing – comes together to build a world that’s not only believable but engaging to audiences. As a sweeping epic set in the fictional country of Wakanda, last year’s Black Panther proved that superhero movies can have excellent character development and nuanced narratives about social issues while still offering thrilling action that does its comic book subject matter – in this case, the titular hero and his people – justice. The lush backdrop for the story is a character in the movie unto itself, with its Afrofuturism architecture and intimate set pieces that truly feel fit for a nation untouched by the outside world. It’s no surprise, then, that the film’s production design team won an Oscar this month. Hannah Beachler made history as the first African American to be nominated for the award for Best Production Design, and made history again as the first African American (and African American woman) to win in the category.


Ruth E. Carter

Much like Beachler, Ruth E. Carter’s work on Black Panther as the costume designer enhanced the story and added extra layers of depth to the characters. To prepare for the movie, she travelled to Africa for inspiration from indigenous peoples’ cultures, even receiving permission to incorporate traditional Lesotho designs. The result is a wardrobe that lives and breathes alongside its actors, telling their stories without saying a word (and, of course, woven with vibranium). This year, Carter became the first African American woman to win an Oscar for Best Costume Design after being nominated twice before for her work on Malcolm X and Amistad. “Marvel may have created the first black superhero, but through costume design, we turned him into an African king,” Carter said in her acceptance speech. “It’s been my life’s honor to create costumes. Thank you to the academy. Thank you for honoring African royalty and the empowered way women can look and lead onscreen.”



With trailblazers leading the way, the future is looking brighter each day – most importantly because we’re all a part of it. As Bleacher told the press after her historic Oscar win, “Don’t ever let anybody tell you [that] you can’t do this craft. You are worthy, you are beautiful and this is something for you.”

Interested in doing more? Here are a few organizations whose work is shaping history in the future: