12 African American Inventors, Activists and Leaders Lost to History

“Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.” – Carter G. Woodson 

12 African American
Photo credit: pixabay.com


I can remember sitting in American history class eager to learn and always wondering why Black history was marginalized to only one month out of the school year. Black history is American history, after all, isn’t it? 

The pioneers of America’s Black history always echoed as the same heroes/heroines and leaders from elementary school to high school.  A list seemingly condensed to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Fredrick Douglas, and George Washington Carver. Of course, the accomplishment of these visionaries and freedom fighters is not to be diminished, but given America’s sordid past, have you ever wondered, are there others? Other African American inventors, activists, and leaders that are lost in history? And who made immense contributions to the society in which we live? 

Yes, there are!  And here are 12 of the African American inventors, activist, and leaders that have been lost to history.


Elizabeth Jennings Graham. Photo credit: blackpast.org

Elizabeth Jennings Graham, Civil Rights Activist, Teacher, and Creator of the 1st Kindergarten for Black Children in New York.  Elizabeth was born in March 1827. Over a 100 years before Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks refused to give up their seats, Elizabeth refused to give up her seat.  On Sunday, July 16, 1854, Elizabeth and her friend Sarah Adams were running late. In New York State African Americans had to ride in city coaches that had signs that said: “Negro Persons Allowed in This Car.” Yet because she was in a hurry she hailed the first car she saw. Once the conductor saw two African American women get in, he yelled at them to get off. Elizabeth refused.  Eventually, Elizabeth and the driver ended up in an altercation, and the incident was reported in The New York Tribune in February of 1855.  Elizabeth went on to sue the conductor and the driver for $500 in damages. The court awarded her $225 plus expenses. In 1895, she turned the first floor of her home into the city’s first kindergarten for African American children.

Maritcha Remond Lyons. Photo credit: Harry A Williamson Photograph Collection

Maritcha Remond Lyons, American Educator, Civil Rights Activist, and Writer. Before there was Ruby Bridges, there was Maritcha Remond Lyons. Maritcha was born June 23, 1848.  In 1865, she sought to enter high school in Providence, Rhode Island. She was denied admission for being African American. Nonetheless, her family successfully sued the state of Rhode Island, and she was admitted to Providence High. Her testimony to the state of Rhode Island brought an end to segregated schools there. Maritcha was the first African American student to graduate from Providence High. After graduating from high school she became a teacher. She had over a 50 year tenure as a teacher in Brooklyn, New York where she became the second black woman to be appointed an assistant principal, and later a principal.  In 1892, she co-founded the Women’s Loyal Union of New York and Brooklyn to combat lynching. In 1897 she co-founded the White Rose Mission, a mission that provided support to migrants from the South and immigrants from West Indies.

Annie Turnbo Malone. Photo credit: blackpast.org

Annie Turnbo Malone, Inventor, Chemist, Entrepreneur, and Philanthropist. Before there was Madam C.J. Walker there was Annie. At 20 years of age, Annie created and marketed her own shampoo and scalp treatment to grow and straighten African American hair.  By 1902 her home business had skyrocketed in Illinois, and she moved to St Louis, Missouri. In St. Louis, she was able to successfully trademark her beauty products under the name “Poro.” Annie also added cosmetics to her brand. She became a self-made millionaire and was a prominent leader in the St. Louis.  In 1918, she built a four-story, million dollar factory and beauty school complex in St. Louis that employed over 175 people. Annie, dedicated to helping young black women pursue their high school and college educations, provided them them with jobs and shelter. Furthermore, she was an active philanthropist. Annie contributed thousands of dollars to educational programs, universities, the YMCA, and black orphanages across the United States. From 1919 to 1943 she served as the board president of the St. Louis Colored Orphans Home.

Richard Robert Wright, Sr. Photo credit: blackpast.org

Richard Robert Wright Sr., Military Officer, Educator, College Founder, Politician, and Banker. Richard was born on May 16, 1855. In 1891, he founded the Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youth in Savannah, Georgia which is now known as Savannah State University. He served as its first president of the University from 1891 to 1921. Richard devised a curriculum at Georgia State Industrial College that had rudiments of the classical liberal arts and vocational education. On December 18, 1896, Richard became a founding member of the American Negro Academy. In May of 1898 he took a leave-of-absence after the Spanish American war commenced. He served as a major in the U.S. Army and was the first African American to be named a paymaster of the Army. In 1921, he founded Philadelphia’s Citizen and Southern Bank and Trust Company which represented the only African American owned bank in the North and the first African American Trust Company. In Richard’s later years he helped to create the National Freedom Day to commemorate President Abraham Lincoln signing the 13th Amendment. Many say the creation of National Freedom Day led to national recognition of Black History Week and Black History Month.

Thomas L. Jennings. Photo credit: blackpast.org

Thomas L. Jennings, Inventor, Tradesman, and Civil Rights Activist. Thomas was born in 1791 and was the father of Elizabeth Jennings Graham mentioned above. Additionally, he was the first African American to be granted a patent. He received U.S. patent 3306x on  March 03, 1821 for a dry cleaning process called “dry scouring” which laid the foundation for modern-day dry cleaning. He also worked diligently to pursue equal rights for African Americans and successfully organized a legal defense for his daughter Elizabeth. As a result, in 1855 he helped create the Legal Rights Association in New York to fight discrimination and provide legal defense for court cases for African Americans. He was also the founder and trustee of the Abyssinian Baptist Church.

Susie Baker King Taylor. Photo credit: blackpast.org, Library of Congress

Susie Baker King Taylor, Teacher, Author, and Nurse. Susie was born on August 6, 1848. In 1862, at the age of 14, she was the first African American teacher for former African American slaves in Georgia. She met and married her first husband, Edward King, in the Union Army, while teaching. While traveling with her husband’s regiment she worked as a laundress, and she taught soldiers how to read and write when they were off-duty.  Furthermore, she worked with camp doctors as a nurse for injured soldiers. In the early 1870s, she became the president of the Women’s Relief Corps which provided help to soldiers and hospitals. In 1902, she was the only African American woman that published a memoir of her wartime experiences. She authored the book, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33d United States Colored Troops, Late 1st S.C. Volunteers.

Lyda Newman’s hairbrush design. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Lyda Newman, Civil Rights Activist, Inventor, and Women’s Rights Activist. Lyda was born in 1885. She was a hairdresser by trade. In 1898, at the age of 13, Lyda created the first vented hairbrush. She was granted a patent for her invention in 1898. Her hairbrush was the first hairbrush with synthetic bristles.  Furthermore, Lyda constructed her hairbrush to provide convenient and easy cleaning of the brush when needed.

William Thomas Scott. Photo credit: blackpast.org

William Thomas Scott, Taven and Hotel Owner, Newspaper Owner/Editor, and Politician. William, known as W.T. Scott, was born April 28, 1839. In 1882, William founded a newspaper called the Cairo Gazette, in Cairo, Illinois. The Cairo Gazette was the first black daily in the Midwest and is contended to be the first in the nation. After moving to East St. Louis, Illinois in 1901 he became the owner/editor of the East St. Louis Leader and in 1905 the Springfield Leader. William was also a notable and wealthy political figure. In 1890, he became the president of the National Negro Democratic League and the Negro Bureau within the National Democratic Party. He also founded and presided over, as President, the National Negro Anti-Expansion, Anti-imperialist, Anti-Trust, and Anti-Lynch Leagues. By 1904, William was the first African American selected by the convention of a national political party as its candidate for the office of president of the United States.

Christiana Carteaux Bannister. Photo credit: https://www.biography.com/people/christiana-carteaux-bannister-020216

Christiana Carteaux Bannister, Entrepreneur, Women’s Rights Activist, and Civil Rights Activist. Christiana was born between 1820 and 1822. As a young woman, she pursued the trade of hairdressing and shortly after owned and operated successful hair salons in Boston and Worcester. Christiana became a self-proclaimed “hair doctress.” Along with her husband, she helped in the operation of Boston’s Underground Railroad and raised money to sustain the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment of black soldiers. Subsequent to the Civil War she opened another salon in Providence, Massachusetts and founded the Home for Aged and Colored Women. The Home for Aged and Colored Women later became the Bannister Nursing Care Center.

Fanny Jackson Coppin. Photo credit: https://www.coppin.edu/fannyjacksoncoppin

Fanny Jackson Coppin, Educator, Principal, Philanthropist, Women’s Rights Activist, and Civil Rights Activist. Fanny was born on October 15, 1837. In 1860. she enrolled at Oberlin College. Oberlin was the first college in the U.S. that accepted both African American and female students. While at Oberlin she started a night school to educate freed slaves. In 1865, she became a high school teacher at the Institute for Colored Youth (ICY) in Philadelphia. In 1869, she was promoted to principal of the Institute, thus, becoming the first African American principal of a school. Furthermore, she was a well-known columnist defending women’s and civil rights in Philadelphia. Last, Fanny founded homes for working and poor women and did extensive missionary work. In 1902, she co-founded the Bethel Institute in South Africa with her husband. The Institute was a missionary school that emphasized self-help programs.

Anna M. Mangin. Photo credit: blackpast.org

Anna M. Mangin, Inventor.  Anna invented the pastry fork also known as the pie fork in 1891. She was awarded a patent on March 1, 1892 for this invention. The pastry fork that she developed helped cooks mix together butter and flour for pastries without having to touch the ingredients. Anna designed her fork for use with mash potatoes, to make salad dressings, to mix eggs, etc.

Osbourne Dorsey’s Door-Holding Device Patent Submission. Image credit: Google Patents, public records.

Osbourn Dorsey, Inventor. Osbourn’s estimated birth date is around September 19, 1862. In 1878, at approximately 16 years of age, Osbourn invented the doorknob and the doorstop. On December 10, 1878, he received his first U.S. patent # 210,764 for the first documented invention of the doorknob and door stop (also known as a door stopper).

What did you think about these 12 lost African American inventors, activist, and leaders lost to history? I hope that this post was eye-opening and enriching for this Black History Month and that it inspires you to find out more about other African Americans like them.  It’s important that we learn about African Americans. American history books may not have popularized them, but all of these people made tremendous contributions to the America that we live in today. Happy Black History Month!

Related Posts:


https:// pwww.biography.com/people/elizabeth-jennings-graham-091415
Bolden, Tonya. Maritcha: A Remarkable Nineteenth-Century Girl. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2004. ISBN 978-0-810-95045-0OCLC163592738



Black History Month Series on Multicultural Kid Blogs

This article was originally published in February 2018 as part of our Black History Month series. You can find other articles in this series below as we explore the rich history and cultures of Africa and African-Americans.

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Nikita Gupta

Creator and CEO at Growing Up Gupta
Hi, I'm Nikita Gupta! I'm a Business Executive (MBA) who became a SAHM, author, serial entrepreneur, writer and blogger. The multicultural lifestyle blog, Growing Up Gupta is dedicated to discussing interracial/intercultural dating and marriage, multicultural parenting, food recipes, culture and much much more! Yahoo Allyship Partner. Co-creator of the first America Black History box for kids, www.inkidz.com. Find my books at Amazon!
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