America’s story is a rich but complex one in which a select few people have taken center stage in the struggle for equal rights for Black people. Their strength, courage, and determination have left an indelible mark on the fabric of American history, culture, and society. We’ve put together this list of just some of the inspiring famous Black Americans everyone should know for their representation and contributions to the struggle for equality. Use this list for class discussions during Black History Month or anytime of year.
Famous Black Americans
1. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968)
Martin Luther King Jr. was a pivotal leader in the American Civil Rights Movement. He continues to be celebrated for his profound influence in advocating for nonviolent resistance and racial equality. His leadership in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March on Washington, and other key events of the movement brought significant attention to the struggle for civil rights in the United States. King’s eloquent speeches, including the iconic “I Have a Dream speech,” and his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, cemented his legacy as one of the most influential and inspiring figures in American history.
Learn more: Martin Luther King Jr. for Kids at We Are Teachers
2. Harriet Tubman (1822-1913)
An abolitionist and political activist, Harriet Tubman is best known for helping enslaved people escape through the Underground Railroad. A former slave herself, Tubman’s bravery and determination in conducting numerous missions to rescue enslaved individuals, coupled with her efforts in the women’s suffrage movement, made her an enduring symbol of courage and freedom in American history.
Learn more: Harriet Tubman Biography at the National Women’s History Museum
3. Barack Obama (b. 1961)
Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States, made history as the first Black American to hold the office. He served two terms from 2009 to 2017. His presidency was marked by significant milestones including the Affordable Care Act, the legalization of same-sex marriage, and a focus on progressive domestic and foreign policies.
Learn more: Barack Obama at The White House
4. Maya Angelou (1928-2014)
Maya Angelou was an influential poet, singer, memoirist, and civil rights activist, celebrated for her series of seven autobiographies. Her works focused on her childhood and early adult experiences, with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings being the most famous. She explored themes of economic, racial, and sexual oppression, earning wide acclaim for her lyrical prose and powerful depiction of the Black experience.
Learn more: Maya Angelou (official site)
5. Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)
Frederick Douglass was a social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. After escaping from slavery, he became a national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York. Known for his eloquence, Douglass wrote several autobiographies describing his experiences in slavery and his life after the Civil War. He was a powerful voice for human rights and social justice.
Learn more: Frederick Douglass at The White House Historical Association
6. Rosa Parks (1913-2005)
“The first lady of civil rights,” Rosa Parks was an iconic figure who became one of the most famous Black Americans in the struggle against racial segregation. When she refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in 1955, her act of defiance and the ensuing Montgomery Bus Boycott became powerful symbols of the Civil Rights Movement, highlighting the injustices of segregation and inspiring further actions toward racial equality.
Learn more: Rosa Parks: Bus Boycott, Civil Rights & Facts at History.com
7. Muhammad Ali (1942-2016)
Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., was a legendary boxer and social activist. Known for his charismatic personality, poetic trash talk, and principled opposition to the Vietnam War, Ali’s prowess in the ring and his commitment to social and racial justice made him an iconic figure both in and out of the boxing world.
Learn more: Meet Ali at Muhammad Ali Center
8. Ice Cube (b. 1969)
Born O’Shea Jackson Sr., Ice Cube is an influential rapper, actor, and filmmaker, known for his powerful impact on rap and hip-hop culture. Rising to fame with the group N.W.A. in the late 1980s, he later pursued a successful solo career. He transitioned into film, starring in and producing several popular movies like Friday and Barbershop and earning him a spot as one of the most famous Black Americans of the 21st century.
Learn more: Ice Cube (official site)
9. George Washington Carver (1860-1943)
A prominent scientist and inventor in the early 20th century, George Washington Carver was renowned for his innovative agricultural research and advocacy for sustainable farming. Best known for his work with peanuts, including developing over 100 products from them, Carver played a significant role in revolutionizing agricultural practices in the southern United States, especially for struggling Black farmers.
Learn more: Legacy of Dr. George Washington Carver at Tuskegee University
10. Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993)
Thurgood Marshall was a groundbreaking lawyer and civil rights activist who became the first Black appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court. Before his appointment, he achieved national acclaim for his work with the NAACP, particularly for his success in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, which led to the desegregation of public schools in America.
Learn more: Solicitor General: Thurgood Marshall at the U.S. Department of Justice
11. Katherine Johnson (1918-2020)
Katherine Johnson was a pioneering Black mathematician whose work at NASA was crucial in the success of many of its space missions, including the first American-manned spaceflight and the Apollo 11 moon landing. Her exceptional skills in celestial navigation and computational mathematics broke racial and gender barriers in a field dominated by white men, earning her widespread recognition and accolades later in her life.
Learn more: Katherine Johnson Biography at NASA
12. Langston Hughes (1901-1967)
Langston Hughes was a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance, a poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist celebrated for his insightful, colorful portrayals of life in America from the 1920s through the 1960s. His work highlighted the Black community and culture, with works like The Weary Blues and Montage of a Dream Deferred earning him a significant place in American literature.
Learn more: Langston Hughes at the National Museum of African American History and Culture
13. Michael Jordan (b. 1963)
Widely regarded as one of the greatest basketball players of all time, Michael Jordan is known for his phenomenal athleticism, competitive spirit, and leadership on the court. His illustrious career with the Chicago Bulls includes six NBA championships and five Most Valuable Player (MVP) Awards, and he has significantly influenced both the popularity of the NBA globally and the marketing of athletes as endorsers of commercial products. He made us want to “Be Like Mike!“
Learn more: Legends Profile: Michael Jordan at NBA.com
14. Serena Williams (b. 1981)
Serena Williams is celebrated as one of the greatest athletes of all time, dominating women’s tennis with her powerful style of play and winning 23 Grand Slam singles titles, the most by any player in the Open Era. Beyond her remarkable sports achievements, she is also known for her advocacy for gender equality and women’s rights in sports and beyond.
Learn more: Serena’s World (official site)
15. W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963)
W.E.B. Du Bois was a prominent sociologist, historian, and civil rights activist, widely recognized for his profound impact on the struggle for racial equality in the United States. His seminal work “The Souls of Black Folk” and his co-founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) positioned him as a key intellectual leader in the early 20th-century fight against segregation and racial discrimination.
Learn more: W.E.B. Du Bois at NAACP
16. Toni Morrison (1931-2019)
Toni Morrison was an acclaimed American novelist, essayist, editor, and professor, celebrated for her powerful narratives that explore Black identity and experience. Her profound and beautifully crafted works, including her Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Beloved, have earned her a Nobel Prize in Literature, making her the first Black woman to receive this honor.
17. Neil deGrasse Tyson (b. 1958)
Neil deGrasse Tyson is a prominent American astrophysicist, author, and science communicator, widely known for his ability to make complex scientific concepts accessible and engaging to the public. As the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and the host of the television series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, he has played a key role in popularizing astronomy and science across various media platforms.
Learn more: Neil deGrasse Tyson (official site)
18. Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005)
Shirley Chisholm was a trailblazing American politician and educator, known for being the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Congress, where she served seven terms. Her 1972 presidential campaign made her the first major-party black candidate for president of the United States and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, breaking significant gender and racial barriers in American politics.
Learn more: Shirley A. Chisholm Biography at Congressional Black Caucus Foundation
19. Mae Jemison (b. 1956)
An American engineer, physician, and former NASA astronaut, Mae Jemison made history in 1992 as the first Black woman to travel into space aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour, earning her a spot as one of the most famous Black Americans. An advocate for science education, particularly for minorities and girls, Jemison’s groundbreaking journey into space and her subsequent work have served as an inspiration to many in the fields of science and technology.
Learn more: Mae Jemison Biography at National Women’s History Museum
20. James Baldwin (1924-1987)
James Baldwin was an influential Black writer and social critic, known for his essays, novels, and plays that explored intricate aspects of race, sexuality, and class in mid-20th-century America. His works, including “Go Tell It On the Mountain” and “Giovanni’s Room,” are celebrated for their insightful and poignant examinations of complex social and personal dilemmas.
Learn more: An Introduction to James Baldwin National Museum of African American History & Culture
21. Beyoncé Knowles-Carter (b. 1981)
A groundbreaking singer, songwriter, and actress, Beyoncé is adored by fans around the world for her powerful vocals, dynamic performances, and cultural impact, making her one of the world’s bestselling music artists. Beyond her successful music career, she is also celebrated for her role in empowering women and advocating for racial equality through her artistry and public influence. All hail Queen Bey!
Learn more: Beyoncé (official site)
22. LeBron James (b. 1984)
Widely regarded as one of the greatest basketball players of all time, LeBron James is a professional basketball player known for his exceptional skills, athleticism, and basketball IQ. Playing in the NBA, he has earned numerous accolades, including multiple NBA championships and MVP awards. James is also recognized for his philanthropy and activism off the court.
Learn more: LeBron James (official site)
23. Colin Powell (1937–2021)
A distinguished American statesman and a four-star general in the U.S. Army, Colin Powell was known for being the first Black American to serve as the U.S. Secretary of State. His extensive military and diplomatic career, which included roles such as National Security Advisor and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, marked him as a pioneering figure in American history.
Learn more: Biographies of the Secretaries of State: Colin Luther Powell at Department of State
24. Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)
Born into slavery, Sojourner Truth was a Black abolitionist and women’s rights activist renowned for her unyielding advocacy for equality and justice in the 19th century. She gained her freedom and became one of the most famous Black Americans for her eloquent and powerful speeches, including her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” address, which challenged prevailing notions of racial and gender inferiority and inequality.
Learn more: Sojourner Truth at the Library of Congress
25. Alvin Ailey (1931-1989)
Alvin Ailey was an influential Black choreographer and activist who founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City in 1958. His work revolutionized modern dance by infusing it with expressions of Black culture and social commentary, with his most famous piece, “Revelations,” becoming a celebrated classic in contemporary dance.
Learn more: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (official site)
26. Aretha Franklin (1942-2018)
Aretha Franklin, known as the “Queen of Soul,” was an American singer, songwriter, and pianist celebrated for her powerful, soulful voice, which earned her 18 Grammy Awards. She was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Her influential music, which includes iconic songs like “Respect” and “I Say a Little Prayer,” played a significant role in both the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights Movements.
Learn more: The Official Site of Aretha Franklin
27. John Lewis (1940-2020)
As a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement, John Lewis played a pivotal role in the Selma to Montgomery marches and served as a U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 5th congressional district for over three decades, advocating for human rights and equality.
Learn more: John Lewis at the National Archives
28. Miles Davis (1926-1991)
Miles Davis was an innovative and influential American jazz musician, trumpeter, bandleader, and composer. He was renowned for his exploratory approach to jazz and his role in developing several of its key styles, including bebop, cool jazz, and jazz fusion. His groundbreaking album Kind of Blue, remains one of the most acclaimed and bestselling jazz records of all time.
Learn more: Miles Davis Official Site
29. Benjamin Banneker (1731–1806)
An almanac author, surveyor, naturalist, and farmer, Benjamin Banneker was a self-taught polymath who made significant contributions in the 18th century. He gained recognition for his work in astronomy and for his role in surveying the boundaries of the newly designed capital of the United States, Washington D.C.
Learn more: Benjamin Banneker at the White House Historical Association
30. Jackie Robinson (1919-1972)
One of the most famous Black Americans in sports, Jackie Robinson was the first Black athlete to play Major League Baseball in the modern era, in 1947. His signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers and his subsequent success challenged the segregation that had relegated Black players to the Negro Leagues. By breaking the sport’s color barrier, he emerged as a symbol of racial integration and progress in America.
Learn more: Jackie Robinson Foundation (official site)
31. Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)
A prolific Black writer and anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston was central to the Harlem Renaissance. Known for her portrayal of racial struggles in the early 20th-century American South, her most famous work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is celebrated for its rich narrative and unique use of language.
Learn more: Zora Neale Hurston (official site)
32. Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919)
Madam C.J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, was a pioneering entrepreneur and philanthropist, renowned as the first female self-made millionaire in America. She built her fortune through the development and marketing of a line of beauty and hair products for Black women. This revolutionized the hair-care industry and created opportunities for Black women in business.
Learn more: Madam C.J. Walker (official site)
33. Louis Armstrong (1901–1971)
An iconic figure in jazz music, Louis Armstrong was known for his charismatic stage presence and his innovative contributions to the genre. His distinctively gravelly voice and remarkable trumpet playing made him one of the most influential artists in jazz history. He is undoubtedly one of the most famous Black Americans in the music industry.
Learn more: Biography – Louis Armstrong House Museum (official site)
34. Marian Anderson (1897–1993)
Marian Anderson was a celebrated contralto whose exceptional vocal talent broke barriers in the world of classical music. She became an important figure in the struggle for Black artists to overcome racial prejudice, particularly with her historic 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial.
Learn more: Marian Anderson: Voice of the Century at Smithsonian Institute
35. Booker T. Washington (1856-1915)
An educator, author, orator, and advisor to multiple presidents of the United States, Booker T. Washington played a significant role in the development of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
Learn more: Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee University