Top 5 Moments in African American History

Learn about some of the most historically defining moments for African American history that might not be widely known.

Image: Clay Banks

If you poll most high schoolers and younger generations about the most important historically defining moments for African Americans, you will likely get answers that include the Civil Rights Movement and Juneteenth. While these milestones are extremely important, there are many others that helped African Americans start on the path towards equality. Let’s take a look at some of those moments and see why they are historically important. 

The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural movement that emerged in the 1920s and 1930s in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. It was a time of unprecedented artistic and intellectual creativity among African Americans, and it is considered a significant period of African American cultural and artistic history.

During the Harlem Renaissance, African American writers, artists, musicians, and intellectuals produced a vast array of works that celebrated the African American experience and challenged the prevailing racial stereotypes of the time. These works explored themes such as black identity, the legacy of slavery, social and political inequality, and the role of African Americans in American society.

Some of the most prominent figures of the Harlem Renaissance included writers such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Countee Cullen, musicians such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, and visual artists such as Aaron Douglas and Romare Bearden. The Harlem Renaissance had a profound impact on American culture and helped to pave the way for future generations of African American artists, writers, and thinker

The Great Migration 

The Great Migration was a demographic shift that took place between 1916 and 1970, during which over six million African Americans moved from the rural South to urban areas in the North, Midwest, and West of the United States. The migration was driven by a range of factors, including the Jim Crow laws, which enforced racial segregation and limited economic opportunities for African Americans in the South, and the promise of better jobs and living conditions in the North.

During the Great Migration, African Americans left behind the agricultural South and headed to cities like Chicago, New York, and Detroit. The migration had a significant impact on both the communities in the South that were losing their population and the communities in the North that were experiencing rapid growth.

The Great Migration resulted in the development of new African American communities in urban areas, with their own distinct cultural and political identities. These communities faced significant challenges, including discrimination, poverty, and social exclusion. However, the migration also provided African Americans with new opportunities for education, employment, and political activism, and it contributed to the growth of the civil rights movement in the mid-20th century.

The Founding of America’s First BIPOC Institutions

BIPOC colleges and universities provide many important opportunities for African Americans. They allow access to affordable education in a culturally aware environment and have elevated many of our country’s top leaders to their chosen career path. 

The first historically black BIPOC college or university founded in the United States was Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, which was established in 1837. At the time of its founding, it was known as the Institute for Colored Youth and was located in Philadelphia. The school was founded to provide higher education opportunities for African American students who were excluded from attending other colleges and universities due to racial discrimination. Today, Cheyney University is a member of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and continues to provide educational opportunities to students from diverse backgrounds.

Today, the most prominent active BIPOC institutions include:

  • Dillard University
  • Fisk University
  • Hampton University
  • Howard University
  • Morehouse College
  • Spelman College
  • Tuskegee University
  • Clark Atlanta University

The Rise of Businesses Owned and Operated By African Americans 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were over 2.6 million black-owned businesses in the United States in 2018, generating over $150 billion in revenue. However, black-owned businesses still face significant challenges, including limited access to capital and resources, and ongoing discrimination. Despite these challenges, black entrepreneurs and business owners continue to demonstrate resilience and determination in building successful enterprises that contribute to the economic and social empowerment of their communities.

One factor that contributed to the growth of black-owned businesses was the civil rights movement of the 1960s. As African Americans gained more political and economic power, they were able to leverage their influence to create new business opportunities. This included the development of black-owned banks, such as the United Bank of Philadelphia and OneUnited Bank, which provided much-needed financial services to underserved communities.

Another important factor was the rise of African American entrepreneurship. Many successful black-owned businesses were founded by individuals who had a strong vision for their companies and were willing to take risks to achieve their goals. Here are some examples of African American entrepreneurs: 

  • Madam C.J. Walker: Born in 1867, Madam C.J. Walker is considered one of the first self-made female millionaires in the United States. She made her fortune by developing and marketing a line of hair care products for African American women.
  • Robert L. Johnson: Robert L. Johnson is the founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET), the first black-owned cable television network in the United States. He later sold BET to Viacom for $3 billion.
  • Oprah Winfrey: Oprah Winfrey is a media mogul and philanthropist who has built an empire around her talk show and other media ventures. She is one of the wealthiest self-made women in America.
  • Daymond John: Daymond John is a businessman, investor, and television personality who is best known as one of the “sharks” on the television show Shark Tank. He is the founder of FUBU, a fashion brand that became popular in the 1990s.
  • Reginald F. Lewis: Reginald F. Lewis was an attorney and entrepreneur who founded TLC Beatrice International, a food company that became the largest black-owned business in the United States in the 1980s.

African Americans That Have ServedOur Country 

African Americans have served our country proudly over the years in the Armed Forces. During World War I and World War II, African Americans served in segregated units and were often relegated to non-combat roles. However, many black soldiers distinguished themselves in battle, including the Harlem Hellfighters, an all-black regiment that saw combat in World War I. The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African American military aviators in the United States Armed Forces and served in World War II. They served with distinction and helped to break down racial barriers in the military. Here are some specific examples of African Americans that have proudly served our country:

  1. Colin Powell: General Colin Powell served in the U.S. Army for 35 years, rising to the rank of four-star general and serving as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest-ranking military officer in the United States. He was the first African American to hold this position.
  2. Benjamin O. Davis Jr.: Benjamin O. Davis Jr. was the first African American general in the U.S. Air Force. He served in the military for more than 30 years, including during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Davis was also the first black cadet to graduate from West Point Military Academy in 1936.
  3. Dorie Miller: Dorie Miller was a Messman Third Class in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He became famous for his actions during the attack on Pearl Harbor, when he took control of an anti-aircraft gun and fired back at Japanese planes despite having no training in the weapon. He was the first African American to be awarded the Navy Cross.
  4. Montford Point Marines: The Montford Point Marines were the first African Americans to be trained as U.S. Marines after the desegregation of the military in 1948. They faced discrimination and harassment during their training, but went on to serve with distinction in the Korean War and other conflicts.

These are some of the moments and individuals who have helped facilitate progress for African Americans in the United States.


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