Black History Names: Barrier Breakers

Black History Names: Barrier Breakers

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.

These names would serve as a beautiful tribute to the remarkable contributions of the Black community, especially for a child born around Juneteenth.

Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19th, marks the date in 1865 when General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and officially proclaimed freedom for all enslaved people in the state. This signaled the end of slavery in the United States and became a symbol of hope, liberation, and progress.

Today, Juneteenth is a day to honor the resilience, strength, and indomitable spirit of those who endured the hardships of slavery and fought for their freedom. Choosing a name inspired by Black history, particularly names associated with Juneteenth, can be a powerful way to pay tribute to this pivotal moment and the generations of people who paved the way — and are continuing to fight — for progress and equality.

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)

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)

Euzham Palcy

First Black woman director of a feature film for a major studio (1989)

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

First Black woman dentist (1890)

Jewel Plummer Cobb

First Black woman president of a California State University (1981)

Joycelyn (born Minnie) Elders

First Black female Surgeon General of the U.S. (1993)

Kamala Harris

First Black and Asian-American Vice President of the United States (2021)

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

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

First published female Black science fiction writer (1976)

Opal Lee

Considered the "Grandmother of Juneteenth", Opal Lee campaigned for decades so that Juneteenth would be a national holiday. At age 94, she was at the White House when President Biden signed it into law. (2021)

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

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

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 enslaved person autobiography (1760)

Coleman Young

Detroit’s first Black mayor (1973)

Colin Powell

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

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

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)

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)


First — and only — Black member of Lewis and Clark's expedition (1804)

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:

Black Hero Names

Early African American Names

About the Author

Linda Rosenkrantz

Linda Rosenkrantz

Linda Rosenkrantz is the co-founder of Nameberry, and co-author with Pamela Redmond of the ten baby naming books acknowledged to have revolutionized American baby naming. You can follow her personally at InstagramTwitter and Facebook. She is also the author of the highly acclaimed New York Review Books Classics novel Talk and a number of other books.