American history cannot be told without acknowledging Black history and honoring the Black Americans who shaped it. Here is a series of some of the sung and unsung heroes from Maryland who held America accountable to its promises of freedom, liberty, and justice for all when the country itself could not. Black History is American History.
- Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825–1911)
Born in Baltimore on September 24, 1825, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was among the first African American women published in the United States. She held various roles in her life including as an abolitionist, suffragist, public speaker, educator, political activist, and poet. By the age of 21, she wrote her first poetry book, Forest Leaves, and by age 67 she had written several collections that would have great commercial success, including Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, Two Offers, and Iola Leroy, which placed her among the first Black women to publish a novel in America.
- Vivien Theodore Thomas (1910–1985)
Dr. Vivien Theodore Thomas was born on August 29, 1910, in New Iberia, Louisiana. Thomas was a laboratory supervisor who created a procedure used to treat cyanotic heart disease, previously known as blue baby syndrome. For 35 years Thomas served as supervisor of surgical laboratories at John Hopkins in Baltimore. In 2004, a biographical film was made about his iconic work and the racism he faced in the health industry titled Something the Lord Made, available on HBO Max. Even though Thomas had no formal education past high school, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from John Hopkins School of Medicine and was a cardiac surgery pioneer.
- Verda Mae Freeman Welcome (1907–1990)
Born on March 18, 1907, in Lake Lure, North Carolina, Verda Mae Freeman Welcome was the second Black woman to be elected to a state senate in the United States. Welcome was a community activist, politician, civil rights advocate, and educator who taught in Baltimore City Public Schools for eleven years. In 1959, she was the first Black woman elected to the Maryland House of Delegates. Welcome was awarded honorary degrees from Howard University and the University of Maryland.
- Walter Percival Carter (1923–1971)
Known as the ‘Martin Luther King of Maryland,’ Walter Percival Carter was born on April 29, 1923, in Monroe, North Carolina. Carter was a central figure in Baltimore during the Civil Rights Movement, well known for his skill in organizing demonstrations against discrimination throughout Maryland. He is best known for being the chairman of the Baltimore Chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and as the Maryland coordinator for the 1963 March on Washington. He is also the father of Senator Jill P. Carter, a current champion of many race equity issues in the General Assembly.
- Irene Morgan Kirkaldy (1917–2007)
Born in Baltimore on April 9, 1917, Irene Morgan Kirkaldy (previously Irene Amos Morgan) is best known for her bus protest, which is seen as a precursor to the wide-spread Montgomery bus boycotts of 1955. While traveling to Gloucester County, Virginia, to visit her mother, Kirkaldy was arrested in Middlesex County for refusing to give up her seat in the ‘white section’ of an interstate bus. She later consulted with attorneys from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court – Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia. While the landmark 1946 decision ruled the Virginia law unconstitutional, it would not be enforced for decades after.
- Augusta Theodosia Lewis Chissell (1880–1973)
Augusta Theodosia Lewis Chissell was born in Baltimore around the year 1880. She lived in a three-story brick row home on Druid Hill Avenue. Her activism began with neighbor and future collaborator Margaret Gregory Hawkins when the two formed the DuBois Circle, an African American women’s club that started with a focus on literature and arts but then expanded to political and civic activities. Chissell dedicated her time to improving the lives of women and Black people in Baltimore. She served as the secretary of the Colored Women’s Suffrage Club, a columnist for the Baltimore Afro-American, and one of the founding members of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP.
- Matthew Alexander Henson (1866–1955)
The son of freeborn Black sharecroppers, Matthew Alexander Henson was born on August 8, 1866, in Charles County. For nearly twenty-three years Henson was the “first man” of explorer and mentor Robert Peary, whom he accompanied on seven voyages to the Arctic. A globetrotter, Henson traveled to many countries and continents around the world, but he is most known for his participation in the expedition on April 6, 1909, where he was among the first people to reach to the North Pole. Because Henson was a Black man, he was largely overlooked while Peary received most of the accolades and credit. It wasn’t until 1937 following the release of his memoir, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, that a 70-year-old Henson finally received the recognition he deserved. In 1944 he was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor.
- Carl J. Murphy (1889–1967)
Journalist, educator, civil rights leader, and publisher Carl J. Murphy was born on January 17, 1889, in Baltimore. Raised into the life of publishing, Murphy's father, John H. Murphy, Sr. founded the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper. Murphy followed his father’s example upon his death and assumed control of the paper in 1922. At its peak, the Afro-American published nine editions in thirteen major cities. He led the paper to national prominence for nearly half a century. The state-of-the-art Murphy Fine Arts Center at Morgan State University is named in his honor.
- Enolia Pettigen McMillan (1904–2006)
Born on October 20, 1904, in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, Enolia McMillian was an established educator, community leader, and civil rights activist. McMillian holds the distinguished honor of being the first female president of the NAACP. She received a master’s degree from Columbia University and authored the thesis, Some Factors Affecting Secondary Education for Negroes in Maryland Counties, which challenged Maryland’s racist school system. In 1990 she was inducted into the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame.
- Benjamin Banneker (1731–1806)
The largely self-taught mathematician and astronomer Benjamin Banneker was born on November 9, 1731, in Ellicott’s Mills in Baltimore County. Genius doesn’t quite capture the brilliance of Banneker. Having been afforded little to no formal education, he still managed to be one of the most paramount figures of science in American history. A farmer, surveyor, and almanac author, among other services, he is known for assisting Major Andrew Ellicott in establishing the original borders of the District of Columbia. Banneker also corresponded with Thomas Jefferson on slavery and racial equality, and in 1789 he made astronomical calculations that enabled him to successfully forecast a solar eclipse.
- Lillie May Carroll Jackson (1889–1975)
Affectionately known as “Dr. Lillie,” “Ma Jackson,” and the “mother of the civil rights movement,” Lillie May Carroll Jackson was born on May 25, 1889, in Baltimore. As an educator, organizer of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP, and pioneering civil rights activist, Jackson was a powerhouse for Maryland and instrumental in the integration of Baltimore schools after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. She set in motion the tactic of non-violent resistance to racial segregation used by Martin Luther King, Jr., and others.
- Billie Holiday (1915–1959)
One of the most significant jazz musicians of all time, Billie Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan) was born on April 7, 1915. There has been great speculation that Holiday was actually born in Baltimore, but it is widely accepted that her mother, Sadie Fagan, left home in Baltimore to have the birth in Philadelphia and returned shortly after. The Nicknamed ‘Lady Day’ Holiday began singing at nightclubs in Harlem before eventually selling out concerts at Carnegie Hall. Holiday made several albums and hit songs including “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”, “Miss Brown to You”, and the haunting “Strange Fruit” which protested the lynching of Black Americans and became anthemic of the Civil Rights Movement. Holiday won four Grammy Awards, was inducted into the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and there is a monument in her honor on Pennsylvania Avenue in Baltimore.
- Gloria Richardson Dandridge (1922–2021)
Born on May 6, 1922, in Baltimore, Gloria Richardson Dandridge (previously Gloria St. Clair Hayes) is best known as the leader of the Cambridge movement. Along with the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee, the movement was a saga of protests, civil rights demonstrations, and struggles on Maryland’s Eastern Shore that led to the desegregation of all schools, recreational areas, and hospitals in the state. The movement was the longest period of martial law in the United States since 1877. Richardson was also one of the signatories to the “Treaty of Cambridge” signed in July 1963 with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
- Henry Highland Garnet (1815–1882)
A renowned abolitionist, orator, minister, and educator from New Market (now Chesterville), Maryland, Henry Highland Garnet was born into enslavement on December 23, 1815, and escaped with his family to New York City. As an incredible orator and fierce opponent to slavery, Garnet is well known for his “Call to Rebellion” speech in 1843, which encouraged people who were enslaved to free themselves by rising against those who enslaved them. In 1865, Garnet became the first Black speaker to preach a sermon in the House of Representatives.
- Pauli Murray (1910–1985)
Born on November 20, 1910, in Baltimore, Anna Pauline Murray was a civil rights activist, women’s rights activist, author, Episcopal priest, and lawyer. It is important to note that Murray did not conform to society’s gender norms and is highly regarded among LGBTQ+ people. Murray was the first African American woman ordained as an Episcopal priest. Murray holds several degrees, including one from Howard University, graduating top of the class, and was also the first African American to receive a doctorate of judicial science degree from Yale Law School. In 1965, Murray served on the board of directors of the national ACLU and played a key role in turning the organization’s attention to gender inequality and made it a priority. In addition, Murray served on the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, coauthored a brief with Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the Reed v. Reed case, and wrote the book, States’ Laws on Race and Color, which was called the “bible” of the Civil Rights Movement by Thurgood Marshall.
- Eubie Blake (1887–1983)
James Hubert “Eubie” Blake was born on February 7, 1887, at 319 Forrest Street in Baltimore. One of the most distinguished figures in music in the 20th century, Blake was a legendary pianist, lyricist, and composer of jazz and ragtime, having composed the melody of “Charleston Rag” in 1899 when he was only 16 years old. He wrote and composed several songs and performances, including the musical sensation "Shuffle Along" with Noble Sissle. Blake was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1981 for his contributions to music culture and the world.
- Harry Sythe Cummings (1866–1917)
Born on May 19, 1866, in the 11th Ward (now Midtown), Baltimore, Harry Sythe Cummings was community leader, lawyer, and the first African American Councilman of Baltimore City. Cummings obtained degrees from Lincoln University and the University of Maryland School of Law, where he was the first African American to graduate from the program in 1889. A year later in 1890, he was elected as Councilman to the 17th Ward (now Inner Harbor) and founded the first Manuel Training School for Colored Youth in Baltimore City.
- Parren James Mitchell (1922–2007)
Parren James Mitchell was the first African American elected to Congress from Maryland. Born on April 29, 1922, Mitchell is a graduate of Frederick Douglass Senior High School, Morgan State University, and the University of Maryland College Park, and he served as an officer during World War II, later earning a Purple Heart. In 1950 the University of Maryland was still segregated, so Mitchell sued them with the support of the Baltimore NAACP branch and won admission. He is one of the thirteen founders of the Congressional Black Caucus and represented Maryland in Congress for sixteen years.
- Fannie W. Birckhead (1935–2022)
A lifelong resident of Snow Hill, Maryland, Fannie W. Birckhead, born on February 28, 1935, was an enthusiastic volunteer and civic and community organizer for a wide variety of local groups. She was one of the Black residents who brought a federal lawsuit, with support from the ACLU, challenging the all-white Worcester County Commission. Despite the County's years-long fight to suppress the rights of Black voters, through perseverance the plaintiffs won their case, resulting in the historic election of the first Black County Commissioner. In 1998, she served as interim mayor for Snow Hill, making her the first Black woman mayor anywhere on the Eastern Shore. Ms. Birckhead also became Judge Birckhead, winning the election as the County's first Black Orphan's Court Judge, and the first Black person in the County's history to win election to office county-wide. Birckhead was a true hometown hero.
- Elijah Cummings (1951–2019)
Extremely dedicated to and passionate about his beliefs, Elijah Eugene Cummings was a giant for Maryland. He was born on January 18, 1951, in Baltimore to sharecroppers. In addition to being a civil rights advocate, he was also a celebrated politician who served in the Maryland House of Delegates for fourteen years, where he was Chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland. Cummings would later serve in the United States House of Representatives for Maryland’s 7th congressional district, where he became chair of the Committee on Oversight and Reform. He received thirteen honorary doctoral degrees from various universities across the nation.
- Thurgood Marshall (1908–1993)
Born on July 2, 1908, Thurgood Marshall was one of the most prolific leaders the United States has ever seen. Marshall was a famed lawyer and civil rights activist who became the first African American Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Previously, Marshall founded the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, where he served as executive director and successfully argued cases before the Supreme Court, including Smith v. Allwright, Shelly v. Kramer, and Brown v. Board of Education. Baltimore’s BWI Airport, among other things, is named in his honor and there is a statue of him at Lawyer’s Mall in front of the Maryland State House in Annapolis.
- Frederick Douglass (1817/1818–1895)
Known by many as the “father of the civil rights movement," Frederick Douglass was a social reformer, orator, political leader, writer, and abolitionist. While the precise birthday of Douglass is unknown, he is believed to have been born in February of 1817 or 1818 in Talbot County, Maryland. Douglass was famous for his antislavery writings and oratory skills. He wrote three autobiographies, including the bestseller Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, and without his consent, was the first African American nominated for Vice President of the United States. Douglass also produced several abolitionist newspapers, including The North Star. There is also a statue of Douglass outside the Talbot County courthouse and his home in Cedar Hill is now a National Historic site.
- Harriet Tubman (1822–1913)
Often referred to as “Moses,” the heroine Harriet Tubman was born in March of 1822 in Dorchester County, Maryland. Best known as a conductor of the Underground Railroad, Tubman was an abolitionist, political activist, and war veteran who went on thirteen missions to rescue seventy people who were enslaved. Among her many accomplishments, Tubman served as a scout, nurse, and spy for the Union Army, and she is one of the most recognized icons of freedom and courage in American history. A 125-mile self-guided driving tour called the Harriet Tubman Underground Railway Byway is available to the public to view over 30 essential sites of the Underground Railroad including The Tubman Museum & Educational Center, home of the iconic Harriet Tubman mural.
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