We are a reader-supported education publication. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission to help us keep providing content.
February is Black History Month, a time to reflect on the nation’s tumultuous past and remember those who made it their life’s mission to abolish systematic racism. These black leaders gave everything they had to raise up a new generation of leaders, educators and activists. Of course, it’s important to remember major figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. However, it’s equally important to honor those that aren’t as well known.
These eight leaders in education are some of the most influential in history and still deserve to be celebrated and honored today.
1. Mary McLeod Bethune
Mary McLeod Bethune was born to former slaves on a cotton farm in 1875. At some point she developed an ability to read and write and went to college to become a missionary. Upon graduation, there were no opportunities in missions, so she became a teacher. In Florida, she founded a school for African American girls and involved herself in the Civil Rights movement. She also served on President Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet as an advisor on black issues.
2. Mae C. Jemison
In 1987, NASA admitted the first African American woman into its astronaut training program — Mae C. Jemison. This brilliant woman was a consistent honor student and attended college at Stanford University where she graduated with a degree in chemical engineering. In 1992, Jemison became the first black woman in space as part of the Endeavour crew. Her work as an astronaut and medical doctor have inspired many others like her to pursue a STEM education.
3. Kelly Miller
Kelly Miller was the first African American to study graduate mathematics in the United States. However, he was unable to keep attending Johns Hopkins due to financial limitations. Instead, he went on to teach mathematics at M Street High School and Howard University. In 1907, Miller became the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Throughout his career, Miller supported an education system that would provide symmetrical development of black people by offering vocational and intellectual instruction.
4. Gloria Blackwell
At the age of 16, Gloria Blackwell enrolled at Claflin College where she graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree. She later went on to earn a master’s in arts and a doctorate in American studies from Emory University in 1973. Blackwell taught at a segregated elementary school in Orangeburg for a few years, then taught English English at Norfolk State University. She also directed African American studies at American International College and taught at Clark Atlanta University until 1933.
5. Daniel A Payne
Born in 1811, Daniel Alexander Payne was an American bishop, educator and college administrator. He also helped found Wilberforce University in 1856. Seven years later, the AME Church bought the college and appointed him president, a position he held until 1877. Thus, Payne became the first African American president of a university in the U.S.
6. Booker T. Washington
It would be remiss if Booker T. Washington didn’t make this list. Washington was born into slavery in 1856 and, at the age of 16, he walked 500 miles to Hampton Institute where he studied fervently and received high grades. He went on to study at Wayland Seminary and returned to teach at Hampton in his early 20’s. At age 25, he became the principal of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute — today known as Tuskegee University.
7. Septima Poinsette Clark
The daughter of a former slave, Septima Clark was a pioneer in citizenship education. In 1916, she passed her teacher’s exam and began teaching at a black school in South Carolina. For the next 30 years, she taught throughout the state, pursuing her own education during summer breaks. After losing her teaching position for refusing to leave the NAACP, she began teaching literacy skills to people at the Highlander Folk school so they could fill out voter registration forms.
8. James Edward Shepard
James Shepard was born in North Carolina and received undergraduate and professional training at Shaw University. At age 35, Shepard founded what is now North Carolina Central University. He first established it as a religious training institute but eventually adapted it to be a school for black teachers. For years, Shepard’s philanthropic friends financially supported the school. Then, in 1925, it finally became the first black liberal arts college to receive state funding.
Through the Years
During the 1800s, education was a high calling in the black community in the drive for everyone to become literate. Many black men and women became champions of education during this time. These leaders were some of the most influential teachers, learners and civil rights activists in the history of the U.S. As long as we pledge to pass on their legacy, their names and life’s work will continue to influence the nation and those who call it home.