Written by Fardeen Ahmed
Edited by Steven Spear, Jr.
Black History Month should recognize more than the hard-fought battle for racial equality. It should be a celebration of the millions of beautiful and talented black Americans whose contributions are often forgotten.
John B. Russwurm (1799-1851) was the third black American to have graduated from a university in the United States. Shortly after graduating, he moved to New York City in 1827 and started his own business: He, along with his co-editor Samuel Cornish, published the first edition of Freedom’s Journal, the first U.S. newspaper to be fully owned, edited, and published by black Americans. During its short two-year run, the weekly newspaper took a bold stance against slavery and inspired future black Americans to success in the journalism industry.
In 1945, John H. Johnson (1918-2005) began publishing Ebony. This monthly magazine targeted black consumers, and it was wildly successful. Johnson became the first black American to be recognized in the Forbes 400, a list of the 400 wealthiest people in the United States. In 1952, he began publishing a weekly news digest called Jet. Along with Ebony, these two publications dominated the black media industry for the latter part of the twentieth century and played a vital part in projecting the black community in a positive light. Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996.
Ethel Payne (1911-1991) was a a pioneering journalist who was known as the “First Lady of the Black Press.” Payne closely covered the Civil Rights movement (notably the March on Washington in 1963) for the Chicago Defender, she was the first black news woman assigned to cover the Vietnam war in 1966, and she was the first female black commentator for a national network when CBS hired her in 1972. She earned a reputation for herself as a formidable journalist asking unrelenting questions, including once pushing President Eisenhower to detail his plans for desegregation. Through her work she enabled black women to have a voice and an outlet on the national front.
Gordon Parks (1912-2006) was a photographer and movie director. His photography captured the day-to-day lives of poor, black Americans. Parks (pictured to the left) is most famous for a haunting portrait entitled American Gothic, Washington, D.C. (pictured to the right). He hoped to communicate both the victim and survivor aspects of black Americans during the years following the Great Depression. Aside from his photography, Park was also the first major black director in Hollywood, when he filmed an adaptation of his autobiography, The Learning Tree, in 1969.
The last person on our star-studded list is Gwen Ifill, a celebrated female journalist, author and TV newscaster. Like everyone else on this list, she also holds the distinction of a notable “first” – in 1999, she became the first black woman to host a nationally broadcasted television program, the Washington Week. Ifill was also a political analyst, and she moderated the U.S. Vice-Presidential debates in 2004 and 2008. In February 2016, she and co-anchor Judy Woodruff became the first team of women to have moderated a Democratic presidential primary debate when they moderated the debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
Black Americans have made major contributions to the progress of the United States. We are more than athletes and musicians; we are mathematicians, we are engineers, and we are journalists.