African-American Firsts: Education
Browse our collection of African-American pioneers in education, including Ruby Bridges, the first African-American child to attend an all-white elementary school in the South; Henry Ossian Flipper; the first African American to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point; Marie M. Daly, the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. in chemistry in the United States; Alexander Lucius Twilight, the first African American to graduate from a U.S. college; and Charlotte E. Ray, the first female African-American lawyer in the U.S. Explore full biographies, photo galleries, videos and more, only at Biography.com.
Astronomer / 1731 - 1806
One of the earliest African-American scientists, Benjamin Banneker was largely self-educated in astronomy by watching the stars, and in mathematics by reading borrowed textbooks. Banneker has been credited with helping design the blueprints for Washington, D.C.
W.E.B. Du Bois
Educator, Civil Rights Activist, Journalist / 1868 - 1963
Writer, educator and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois was the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University (1895). He also conducted the first case study of an African-American community. In addition to his activism and literary work, Du Bois is known for founding the Niagara Movement, a black civil rights organization that got its name from the group's meeting location—Niagara Falls—with William Monroe Trotter.
Surgeon, Philanthropist, Journalist / 1951 -
In 1987, famed African-American neurosurgeon Ben Carson led the first successful operation to separate a pair of Siamese twin infants who were joined at the back of the head. When Carson was a child, his mother required him to read two library books a week and give her written reports, even though she was barely literate. She would then take the papers and pretend to carefully review them, placing a checkmark at the top of the page to show her approval. The assignments reportedly inspired Carson’s eventual love of reading and learning.
U.S. Representative / 1924 - 2005
Politician and educator Shirley Chisholm became the United States' first African-American congresswoman in 1968. The following year, she became one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Chisholm went on to become the first major-party African-American candidate to make a bid for the U.S. presidency, running for the Democratic nomination in 1972—and surviving three assassination attempts during her campaign.
James Weldon Johnson
Educator, Civil Rights Activist, Literary Critic, Lawyer, Songwriter, Diplomat, Author, Poet / 1871 - 1938
Educated at Atlanta University, James Weldon Johnson became the first African American to pass the Florida Bar. In 1934, Johnson became the first African-American professor at New York University. He was also the first African-American poet to adapt the voice of the black folk preacher to verse, and the first black-American author to treat Harlem and Atlanta as subjects in fiction, in his 1912 novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.
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