African Americans have overcome discrimination and segregation, stumbling blocks and boundaries to excel in many areas, but are seldom recognized or credited for their vast achievements.
History makers such as Shirley Chisholm, Josh Gibson, Billie Holiday and William Grant Still helped maintain the standard of success, determination and will power, which was established by those who came before them. With every achievement, these legends raised the standard higher for future generations.
Shirley Chisholm, born in November 1924, was an American politician and the first African American woman elected to the U.S. Congress. She served six terms from 1969-1983.
Chisholm was considered one of the foremost female orators and is often remembered for her commitment to the disadvantaged and minorities, including African-Americans, Native Americans, Spanish-speaking immigrants, women and children.
In 1972, she became the first African-American woman to campaign for the presidency. Since retiring from Congress, she has created and chairs the National Political Congress of Black Women and has served on the Advisory Council of the National Organization for Women.
Josh Gibson, born in December 1911, was known as the black Babe Ruth. While Gibson played in the Negro Leagues as a catcher for the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays, he also played in the Mexican and Puerto Rican leagues.
Gibson was voted to start in nine all-star games and held the highest homerun average, .384 in the league’s history. Considered one of the greatest players kept from the majors due to discrimination, Gibson died at age 35 from a sudden stroke. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.
Billie Holiday, born in April 1915 as Eleanora Fagan, was one of the greatest American jazz singers. Known as “Lady Day,” she created beautiful music and an original technique without any training. Holiday made her singing debut in Harlem nightclubs and later toured with Count Basie and Artie Shaw.
Between 1933-1944, she recorded over 200 songs but never received royalties for any of them. Her own compositions included God Bless the Child, espousing the virtues of financial independence; Don’t Explain, a lament on infidelity; and Strange Fruit, a haunting protest against the racial discrimination she encountered throughout her career.
Borrowing her singing name from screen star Billie Dove, she wore white gardenias in her hair, which became her trademark. She died in July 1959 in New York City.
William Grant Still, born in May 1895, was the first African-American to conduct a professional symphony orchestra in the United States. A U.S. composer, conductor, musician and instrumentalist, his best-known work is Afro-American Symphony (1931).
The public often called his music “Negro-music,” but he disliked the term. He felt that having a black person compose and write music on paper didn’t make it “Negro-music.” He has received honorary degrees from Howard University, Bates College and Oberlin College.
He has been awarded with The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Prize, the Cleveland Symphony Prize and the National Federation of Music Clubs Prize. Still died in December 1978, and is considered one of the most important and influential composers of the 20th century.
The struggles of African-Americans have been many. These great individuals were significant and helped shape a culture that would not be hindered or subsided by discrimination or segregation. During Black History Month we should remember those who have made a difference by sacrificing their lives and placing their souls on the line to achieve equality. Black History Month is about recognition and remembrance of those, famous and not so famous, who walked the long road, paved the way and built the strong foundation we now stand on.