African-American Firsts: Literature
Browse our collection of African Americans who were firsts in the field of literature, including Maya Angelou, James Weldon Johnson, Gwendolyn Brooks, Alain LeRoy Locke, Octavia E. Butler, James Alan McPherson, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Charles H. Houston and Frances E.W. Harper. Explore full biographies, photo galleries, videos and more, only at Biography.com.
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.
Civil Rights Activist, Author, Poet / 1928 -
Literary icon Maya Angelou worked as the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco, California, in the 1940s. Angelou's autobiographical book I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969, is the first nonfiction best-seller by an African-American woman. The famed writer later became the first African-American woman to have her screenplay produced, for the 1972 film Georgia, Georgia; Angelou also composed the score for the film. In 1993, Angelou recited her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at President Bill Clinton's inaugural ceremony—marking the first inaugural recitation since Robert Frost delivered his poem "The Gift Outright" at President John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961. In 1995, Angelou was lauded for remaining on The New York Times' paperback nonfiction best-seller list for two years—the longest-running record in the chart’s history.
Ida B. Wells
Civil Rights Activist, Journalist / 1862 - 1931
Famed journalist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells was one of the first American women to continue to keep her last name after her marriage.
James Weldon Johnson
Educator, Civil Rights Activist, Literary Critic, Lawyer, Songwriter, Diplomat, Author, Poet / 1871 - 1938
Civil rights activist, writer, lawyer and composer James Weldon Johnson was the first African-American poet to adapt the voice of the black folk preacher to verse, as well as 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.
Alain LeRoy Locke
Educator, Philosopher, Scholar, Journalist / 1886 - 1954
Famed educator, writer and philosopher Alain LeRoy Locke was the first African American to win a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship.
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