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Black History Names: Barrier Breakers

June 1, 2020 Linda Rosenkrantz
black history names phillis wheatley

Black history names include the extraordinary names of extraordinary achievers.

African-American history is full of the (interesting) names of people who have made breakthroughs by being the first to achieve something, whether it be in the arena of government, Civil Rights, scholarship, the professions, sports or the arts. It’s sobering to see how recently some of these firsts occurred.

Here are some outstanding Black history names:

Girl Names

Alexia Canada — first female African-American neurosurgeon (1984)

Althea Gibson — first Black player to win a major tennis title (1956) and first Black woman to play on the Ladies PGA golf tour (1964)

Aretha Franklin — first Black woman inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame (1986)

Aulana Peters — first Black woman appointed to the Securities and Exchange Commission (1984)

Bessie Coleman — first Black woman aviator (1921)

Biddy Mason — first known Black female property owner in L.A. (1866)

Camilla Williams — first Black woman to sing with the New York City Opera (1945)

Charlotta Bass — considered the first Black woman newspaper publisher (1912), and the first African-American to run for vice-president (1952)

Condoleezza Rice – first female head of the National Security Council (2001), first Black woman Secretary of State (2005)

Constance Baker Motley — first Black woman federal judge (1966)

Cora M. Brown — first Black woman in the US to be elected to a state senate (1952)

Della Reese — first Black woman to host a TV variety show (1969)

Euzham Palcy — first Black woman director of a feature film for a major studio (1989)

Dorothea Towles — first professional Black female model (1949)

Dorothy Dandridge — first Black woman nominated for an Oscar in a leading role (1955)

Ella Fitzgerald — first Black woman to win a Grammy (1959)

Gwendolyn Stewart King — first Black woman commissioner of Social Security (1989)

Hazel Johnson — first Black female army general (1979)

Hazel Scott — first Black entertainer to host her own TV show (1950)

Ida Rollins — the first Black woman dentist (1890)

Jewel Plummer Cobb — the first Black woman president of a California State University (1981)

Joycelyn (born Minnie) Elders — the first Black female Surgeon General of the U.S. (1993)

Katherine Dunham — first Black choreographer to work at the Metropolitan Opera House (1963)

Lorraine Hansberry — first African-American to win the NY Drama Critics Award (1959)

Lucy Ann Stanton — the first Black woman college graduate (1850)

Maggie Lena Walker — first Black woman bank president (1903)

Mamie Smith — first Black woman to make a recording (1920)

Marvel Jackson Cooke — first full-time Black reporter on a mainstream paper (1950)

Maude Rutherford — dancer who first introduced the Charleston on Broadway (1922)

Maya Angelou (born Marguerite) — first Black woman to have a nonfiction bestseller (1970); first Black inaugural poet (1993)

Michelle Obama — first African-American first lady (2009)

Minnie M. Geddings Cox — first Black US postmistress (1891)

Minyon Moore — first Black woman political director of the National Democratic Committee (1995)

Octavia Butler — the first published female Black science fiction writer (1976)

Oprah Winfrey — first Black woman to host a nationally syndicated weekday talk show (1986)

Otelia Cromwell — first Black woman to graduate from Smith College (1900)

Phillis Wheatley (pictured) — published the first book of poetry by an African-American (1773)

Susie King Taylor — first Black army nurse (1863)

Toni Morrison — first African-American to win the Nobel Prize for literature (1993)

Zina Garrison — first Black Olympic winner in tennis (1988)

Boy Names

Alexander Lucius Twilight — first known Black graduate from an American college (1823)

Arsenio Hall — first Black host of a talk show on national TV (1989)

Asa T. Spalding — the first Black actuary in the U.S. (1932)

Atoy Wilson — first Black American ice skater to win a figure skating title (1966)

August Wilson — first Black American to have two plays running on Broadway (1985)

Azie Taylor Morton — first Black treasurer of the United States (1977)

Barack Obama — first African-American president of the United States (2009)

Booker T. Washington — first president of Tuskegee Institute (1881), first Black guest to dine at the White House (1901), first Black person on a US stamp (1940) and coin (1946)

Briton Hammon — wrote the first known slave autobiography (1760)

Coleman Young — Detroit’s first Black mayor (1973)

Colin Powell — the first Black National Security Advisor (1987), chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989), Secretary of State (2001)

Cornelius Johnson — set an Olympic high jump record (1936)

Crispus Attucks — Crispus Attucks, a stevedore who was Black and Native American, was the first person killed in the Revolutionary War.

Derrick Albert Bell Jr — first Black law professor at Harvard Law School (1969)

Ebenezer Don Carlo Bassett — the first African-American diplomat (1869)

Emmett Ashford — first Black umpire in the major leagues (1966)

Gordon Parks — first Black photojournalist on Life staff (1949)

Guion Stewart Bluford, Jr — the first Black American to make a space flight

Hiram Rhodes Revels — first African-American U.S. senator (1870)

Jacob Lawrence — first Black artist represented by a New York gallery (1941)

Jupiter Hammon — first African-American published writer (1760)

Kobe Bryant — at 18, the youngest basketballer to play with the NBA—(1996)

Langston Hughes — wrote the first play by an African-American to be a Broadway hit (1935)

Lemuel Haynes — first Black person to receive an honorary degree in the US (1804)

Levi Jackson — first Black football captain at Yale (1948)

Lincoln Perry (aka Stepin Fetchit) — the first Black actor to receive feature billing in movies (1926)

Lionel Hampton — first Black musician to play at a presidential inauguration (1949)

Lloyd Richards — first Black director of a play on Broadway (1959)

Lucas Santomee — first trained Black physician in New Amsterdam (1667)

Macon B. Allen — first African-American admitted to the bar in any state (1845)

Mordecai Johnson — first Black president of Howard University (1926)

Moses Fleetwood Walker — first Black player in major league baseball (1881)

Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback — first Black governor of any state (1872)

Rafer Johnson — first Black person to carry an American flag at an Olympic event (1960)

Rojo Black — first Black auto racer (1923)

Roscoe Robinson, Jr — first US Black four-star general (1982)

Salem Poor — first Black soldier to win a battle commendation (1775)

Satchel Paige (born Leroy) – first Black baseball player to pitch in a World Series game (1948)

Sidney Poitier — first African-American to win the Best Actor Oscar (1963)

Simeon Booker — first full-time African-American reporter on the Washington Post (1952)

Solomon Carter Fuller Jr — the nation’s first Black psychiatrist (1897)

Spottswood Robinson — the Court of Appeals’ first Black judge (1966)

Theophilos Thompson — earliest documented Black American chess expert (1800s)

Thomy Lafon — considered the first Black millionaire (1890)

Thurgood Marshall — first Black US solicitor general (1965), first Black Supreme Court Justice (1967) and first Black Cabinet secretary (1997)

Wynton Marsalis — first jazz artist to win a Pulitzer Prize (1997)

There are of course hundreds of other barrier-breakers, who just happened to have more common names.  To find out more, I recommend the book Black Firsts: 4,000 Ground-Breaking and Pioneering Historical Events by Jessie Carney Smith.

You might also want to explore:

African-American artist names

Black female athlete names

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