History, as a discipline, is not only a matter of observation. It is also the art of organizing information about the past into understandable narratives. African American history is often told through the big names such as Fredrick Douglass, Rosa Parks and Dr. King. And while these leaders deserve our attention and admiration, understanding less famous leaders reveals many hidden complexities. Here’s a short list of unsung black political leaders.
1. George Lewis Ruffin Ruffin was born a free person of color in Virginia during the early 19th century. His family moved to Boston in response to a Virginia law banning African-Americans from learning to read. Mr. Ruffin became the first African-American graduate of Harvard Law School in spite of a challenging struggle with racism. After graduation, he became the first African-American elected to a Boston City Counsel. From there, he move into the Massachusetts State Legislature where he fought against slavery and for Black rights.
2. Hiram Rhodes Revels In 1870, Mr. Revels became the first African-American to become a congressman. Radical abolitionist, Senator Charles Sumner, from Massachusetts praised the moment as a victory for equality. Mr. Revels supported expanding black rights and universal amnesty for former Confederates who swore allegiance to the union.
Early 20th Century
3. Ralph Bunche Born in 1903, Ralph Bunche was a scholar, educator, Africanist, diplomat and noble prize winner. Mr. Bunche succeeded in academics despite economic hardship and racial prejudice. At Harvard, Bunche was the first African-American to be awarded a political science Phd. In his career, Bunche was a civil rights activist and later, a UN diplomat where he negotiated an armistice agreement between Israel and 4 Arab states.
Civil Rights Era
4. Robert C. Weaver Weaver was born the great grandson of a slave. And yet, Mr. Weaver became a Harvard educated economist and civil rights leader. Weaver was the first African-American to be appointed to a cabinet position in US government when in 1966, President Lyndon Johnson named him head of Department of Housing and Urban Development.
5. Shirley Chisholm Shirley Chisholm became the first African-American woman elected to congress. In 1968, she was elected to the House of Representatives to represent a newly reapportioned U.S. House district centered in Brooklyn, New York. She opposed the Vietnam war, supported a minimum income for families and federal assistance for education. Impressively, she was brave enough to run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972, still very much a time of white, male domination in politics.