Each February, we have an opportunity to reflect on the significance that Black Americans have had in shaping the story of our country. Since before the colonies declared their independence from Great Britain in 1775, America has been defined by those African men and women who were brought to these shores against their will. In the centuries that followed, America’s legacy has, and always will be, interlaced with the influence of black culture, innovations and public discourse.
For the District, the story of Black people in the U.S. runs as deep and as long as the Potomac. In 1800, just a few years after the city was established as the new national capital, Black people made up 25% of the population, and nearly all of them were enslaved. Later, D.C. was the first region in the union to abolish slavery through the District of Columbia Emancipation Act, nine months before President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863. And by 1900, nowhere in the nation was there more opportunity for Black men and women than in Washington, thanks to institutions like Howard University and The Preparatory School for Colored Youth, the first public high school in D.C.
Many decades passed before a fragment of equality and prosperity would come for Black Americans, and the fight for civil rights continues in our communities, schools and places of work today. That is why we show appreciation and respect for the men and women who’ve fought to make our country a better place, a fairer land for all those living here. Whether it was by their gift of public service, the conviction of their beliefs or their trailblazing in an industry glutted with adversity, Washington D.C. can claim home to hundreds of Black leaders. Here we showcase three such legends, all who’ve shaped – or continue to shape – what it means to be Black in the U.S.
Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954)
Mary Church Terrell was born in Memphis, Tennesee, in 1863, the year of the Emancipation Proclamation. She was one of the first women of African descent to graduate from college, earning both undergraduate and graduate degrees in 1888 from Oberlin College in Ohio, the first college in the nation to admit women and among the first to accept people of color. From there, she began a career as an educator, an identity that she carried throughout her decades as a lecturer, suffragist and civil rights activist.
Terrell’s life work would be defined by her fighting for women’s rights and the rights of all people of color. She tackled issues such as lynchings and peonage conditions in the American South, women’s suffrage, voting rights and education programs for Black people. She found that Black women’s groups were often excluded from national women’s organizations, so in 1896, she was one of the founders and the first president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). The NACW would support Black women’s groups throughout the country, working to end discrimination based on gender and race. This work was done primarily through public education.
Mary Church Terrell’s prolific experience in education assisted her in becoming the first Black woman on the District of Columbia School Board, and the first Black woman on any school board in the country, in 1895. Prior to this, she taught Latin at the M Street School (formerly the Preparatory High School for Negro Youth, now the Paul Laurance Dunbar High School), the first Black public high school in the nation. On the D.C. School Board, Terrell took on the problems of an urban, segregated school system, fighting for integration. Later, she worked with the Coordinating Committee for the Enforcement of D.C. Anti-Discrimination Laws, helping tear down the color line in D.C. and integrating movie houses and restaurants.
Terrell continued pursuing civil rights well into the 20th century, organizing sit-ins and rebelling against Jim Crow laws. She was a regular columnist for the Chicago Defender from 1927-1929 and an active member of the Republican Party. She campaigned for Ruth Hanna McCormick’s U.S. Senatorial race and served as an advisor to the Republican National Committee during Herbert Hoover’s presidential campaign. In 1954, just two months after the Supreme Court handed down their decision on Brown v. Board of Education, Mary Church Terrell passed away. Until her death, she persisted in fighting segregation in Washington, D.C.’s courts and abroad.
Dr. Ralph J. Bunche (1904-1971)
Dr. Ralph J. Bunche was a political scientist and U.N. diplomat who was the first Black American to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He was born in Detroit, Michigan to a barber, Fred Bunche, and an amateur musician, Olive Bunche. Due to his parents’ poor health, his family, along with his maternal grandmother, moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the drier climate was expected to improve their illnesses. Unfortunately, his parents passed away two years later, prompting his grandmother to move Bunche to Los Angeles.
Nana Johnson was born into slavery and valued education above all else for her grandson. Through her support and Bunche’s unwavering work ethic (he helped support his family by selling newspapers, laying carpets, running errands for a movie actor and other odd jobs), Ralph would go on to graduate valedictorian of his class at Jefferson High School. There, he excelled in debate, football, basketball and track. An athletic scholarship paid for his academic expenses at UCLA while a janitorial job paid for everything else. At college, he played on a championship-winning basketball team, participated in debate and journalism and, in 1927, with a major in international relations, graduated summa cum laude and valedictorian.
With the financial help of the Black community in L.A., Bunche would go on to earn a master’s in political science and a doctorate in governmental/international relations from Harvard University, the first Black to earn a political science doctorate. During this time, he joined the faculty of Howard University, chairing the political science department from 1928 until 1950. Bunche’s other accolades in education include teaching at Harvard University 1950-1952; serving on the New York City Board of Education (1958-1964); being a member of the Board of Overseers for Harvard University (1960-1965); being a member of the board of the Institute of International Education; and being a trustee of Oberlin College, Lincoln University and the New Lincoln School.
Bunche was a staunch advocate for civil rights, at one point declining an offer from then-President Truman to be the assistant secretary of state due to D.C.’s segregated housing conditions. He was a close ally of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., helping organize the 1963 March on Washington where Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. He helped organize the Selma to Montgomery March, which eventually led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. For over two decades, he served on the board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Dr. Bunche’s most enduring achievement, however, was during his service to the United Nations. Having worked with the U.S. Department of State as the acting chief of the Division of Dependent Area Affairs, Bunche was “borrowed” by U.N. Secretary-General Trygve Lie to lead the Department of Trusteeship of the U.N., tasked with helping the peoples of the world who had not yet attained self-government. In June 1947, he was appointed as assistant to the U.N. Special Committee on Palestine during the confrontation between Arabs and Jews and later served as principal secretary of the U.N. Palestine Commission. This strategy was eventually dropped, however, when fighting between Arabs and Israelis grew out of control, prompting the U.N. to appoint Count Folke Bernadotte as a mediator and Ralph Bunche as his chief aide. Four months into the negotiations, Count Bernadotte was assassinated. Bunche assumed the mantle as the lead mediator and after eleven months of tireless negotiating, he brokered an armistice agreement between Israel and the Arab states.
Bunche returned to the U.S. a hero and received a ticker tape parade up New York City’s Broadway. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the following year and continued working for the United Nations until his death in 1971.
Taraji P. Henson (1970-)
Taraji Penda Henson is a homegrown, award-winning American actor known for her roles in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Empire” and “Hidden Figures.” Born in 1970 in Southeast Washington, her father was a janitor and metal fabricator and her mother was a corporate manager. As a teenager, she auditioned for Duke Ellington School of the Arts but didn’t get in. Taking a break from acting, she graduated from Oxon Hill High School in Oxon Hill, Maryland before attending North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, where she planned on studying electrical engineering. However, Taraji failed her pre-calculus exam and decided to return home to D.C., where she enrolled at Howard University in their drama department.
While attending college, Henson paid for school by working mornings as a secretary at the Pentagon and evenings as a performing waitress aboard the dinner-cruise ship Spirit of Washington. In 1996, after graduating from Howard, Henson and her infant son moved to Los Angeles with only $700 to her name, a gift from her friends and family. She auditioned for two years, working an office job to support her family, before landing a recurring television role on “Smart Guy” (1997-1999). She snagged a few more television spots, including a role on “Sister, Sister” (1994-1999), before getting her big break in John Singleton’s film “Baby Boy” (2001).
Henson’s next milestone would be the 2005 independent film “Hustle & Flow.” The film was nominated for two Academy Awards, winning one for Best Original Song, to which Henson lent her musical talents. In 2008’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” she played Button’s mother, Queenie, earning nominations for Best Supporting Actress from the Academy Awards and Screen Actors Guild. Having solidified her career portraying smart, capable women in power, in 2015 Henson went on to star in one of television’s most talked-about series, “Empire,” winning a Critics Choice Television Award for Best Actress in a Drama Series, the first Black woman to do so. The following year she won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress, becoming only the third Black woman to win the award.
Later in 2016, Henson starred as Katherine G. Johnson in the major box-office hit, “Hidden Figures,” about the women mathematicians responsible for NASA’s early success. The film was nominated for dozens of awards, including three Oscars and two Golden Globes, and Henson was honored at the BET, MTV and NAACP Image Awards for her work. To date, she has more than 80 television and film credits under her belt, spanning independent film, studio features and animation. In 2016, she was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world.