We are creating an archive of Black heroes in Maryland history. Is there a historical Marylander who isn't already on the list below?
A new year, a new month, a new day means another great reason to celebrate the contributions of Black Marylanders. We’ve updated our list of Black Maryland heroes from last year, adding 10 more revolutionary thinkers and reformers from American history. Their historic accomplishments explain why investment in America’s future means nothing without investment in Black Futures. These are the people who stood up so we could eventually sit down.
- Samuel Green (1802–1877)
Samuel Green was born into enslavement in East New Market, Maryland. He worked in the fields in Dorchester County before earning enough money to purchase his freedom and his wife’s in 1842. In 1857, Green was caught with a copy of the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin and was tried and convicted. He received a 10-year sentence but was pardoned by the Maryland Governor after five years served. Green was also a conductor for the Underground Railroad, a minister, and co-founder of the Centenary Biblical Institute, now Morgan State University.
- Honiss W. Cane, Jr. (1932–2010)
Honiss Cane, Jr. was a hero for Pocomoke City, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Born on January 31, 1932, Cane worked tirelessly to end segregation in Pocomoke City. Cane was the lead among a group of activists who pursued a history-making lawsuit bearing his name that remains one of the most cited precedents in voting rights litigation in Maryland today, Cane v. Worcester County. That hard-fought case challenged the at-large election system that had locked Black people out of Worcester County office for 250 years and led to the election of the County's first Black Commissioner in 1995.
- Amanda Smith (1837–1915)
A minister, missionary, and child advocate, Amanda Smith is famous for the creation of the Amanda Smith Orphanage and Industrial Home for Abandoned and Destitute Colored Children. Born into enslavement on January 23, 1837, in Long Green, Maryland, Smith served as an evangelist and leader of the Wesleyan Holiness Movement. Her work led her to preach in several countries including Sierra Leone, Great Britain, and Liberia. In 1893, Smith published her autobiography, The Story of the Lord's Dealings with Mrs. Amanda Smith the Colored Evangelist.
- Reginald F. Lewis (1942–1993)
Known as the first Black man to build a billion-dollar company in the U.S., Reginald Lewis was born December 7, 1942, in East Baltimore. As an entrepreneur and groundbreaking business tycoon, Lewis was a powerhouse on the economic front, as well as the social justice movement. The Reginald F. Lewis Foundation, named in his honor, was one of the largest African American foundations in the world and remains dedicated to addressing the legacy of institutional discrimination against Black people by investing in Black futures. Presently, the foundation has given away over $30 million in grants. His acute focus and business model made him one of the richest Black men in America in the 80s. The Reginald F. Lewis of Maryland African American History and Culture in the heart of Baltimore is also named after him.
- Willam H. Butler, Sr. (1829–1892)
William H. Butler, Sr. was the first Black man to be elected to state office in Maryland. As a resident of Annapolis, Butler climbed his way up the city's political ladder to serve on the Annapolis City council in 1873. His success didn’t stop there – Butler would also own over 25 properties in Maryland, making him one of the wealthiest Black people at the time. As a civic leader, Butler used his capital and property ownership to help build institutions essential to his community, including the Maryland Colored Baptist Church, now First Baptist Church in Annapolis.
- James L. Purnell, Jr. (1937–2021)
Born on July 26, 1937, in Berlin, Maryland, James Lee Purnell Jr. was the first Black man elected to public office in Worcester County. As a social activist and politician, Purnell served several organizations in his community, including as President of the Worcester County NAACP Chapter. Purnell partnered with the ACLU as a lead plaintiff in a lawsuit to create fair voting districts for Black residents in Worcester County. Ultimately, Purnell served on the Worcester Board of County Commissioners for 20 years.
- Sarah V. Jones (Early–Late 1900s)
As a Black woman living and working during the time of Jim Crow, Sarah Jones's commitment to higher learning was exceptional, to say the least. In 1922, Jones started working in Anne Arundel County Public Schools, eager to educate Black children. Her methods were so exemplary that it only took her a few years to become principal of the Churchton School in southern Anne Arundel County. She was later elevated as the first Black woman superintendent of all Colored Anne Arundel County Public Schools. Jones held her position for over 40 years before she retired. Jones was also a member of the NAACP, Morgan State Alumni Association, and a charter member of Phi Delta Kappa.
- Joe Gans (1874–1910)
Referred to as the greatest lightweight boxer of all time, Joe Gans became the first Black world boxing champion of the 20th century. Gans was born November 25, 1874, in Baltimore, where he first started boxing professionally as early as 17. However, the racism of the time was felt even in the boxing ring, as Gans was compelled by boxing promoters to allow white fighters to last the scheduled number of rounds with him – instead of him knocking them out sooner. Gans would win the world lightweight title by defeating Frank Erne in 1902 in a round-one knockout. Gans was inducted into The Ring magazine’s Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954.
- Beatrice "Bea" Gaddy (1933–2001)
Beatrice “Bea” Gaddy was like a second mother to residents in Baltimore. True to her calling, she was widely considered the “Mother Teresa” of the city. Gaddy served her community in various ways, including as a member of the Baltimore City Council and as an advocate for people who are unhoused, financially challenged, or hungry. In the early 1970’s Gaddy offered her home as a distribution center for food and clothing to those in need. In 1981, Gaddy founded the Patterson Park Emergency Food Center to collect food donations and distribute them to community members. In 2006, Gaddy was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame and her annual Bea Gaddy Thanks for Giving Campaign remains an annual tradition in Baltimore, serving over 3,000 meals on-site and delivering over 50,000 more.
- Josiah Henson (1789–1883)
Josiah Henson was an abolitionist, minister, and author born on June 15, 1789, in Charles County, Maryland. Born into enslavement, Henson found freedom by escaping to Ontario, Canada, where he would later establish a school for other people who had escaped bondage. As an author, Henson wrote his autobiography The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself, in 1849. Additionally, Henson was also the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s widely successful novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, though he never recieved any money from its success. Henson’s school in Canada is known as the Dawn Settlement and a provincial plaque was placed by the Ontario Government to memorialize the land.
- 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 Kirklady (1917–2007)
Born in Baltimore on April 9, 1917, Irene Morgan Kirklady (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, Morgan 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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