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13 Lesser-Known Facts About Well-Known Black History Heroes

Yes, Rosa Parks refused to get up on the bus. But did you know about her work with the NAACP?

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1. Harriet Tubman was the first woman to direct an armed expedition in the Civil War.

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Tubman was hugely helpful as a spy, nurse, and cook for the Union armies during the Civil War, but her knowledge of the land was vital in the raid on Combahee River in 1863. She accompanied soldiers, putting her life on the line, during the nighttime assault that ultimately freed more than 700 slaves from South Carolina plantations.

2. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Rosa Parks tracked and investigated brutal hate crimes as secretary of the Montgomery NAACP.

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Rosa Parks is famous for her refusal to leave her seat on the bus, but it wasn't a singular act of resistance. She was a key member of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP, working closely with Edgar Nixon and devoting almost all of her free time to organizing notes, handling correspondence, writing and sending press releases, and documenting racist acts of brutality, especially against black women.

She spearheaded one of the decade's strongest campaigns for justice around the case of Recy Taylor, who was gang-raped in Alabama, and delivered a critical speech against President Truman's civil rights initiatives at the 1948 statewide NAACP convention.

3. Nelson Mandela co-founded South Africa's first all-black law firm with Oliver Tambo.

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The friends and colleagues opened the Johannesburg firm in August of 1952, dedicated to defending those whose rights were violated by apartheid laws. "For Africans, we were the firm of first choice and last resort," Mandela wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. "To reach our offices each morning, we had to move through a crowd of people in the hallways, on the stairs, and in our small waiting room. ... It was a place where they could come and find a sympathetic ear and a competent ally, a place where they would not be either turned away or cheated, a place where they might actually feel proud to be represented by men of their own skin color."


4. Zora Neale Hurston got a B.A. in anthropology in 1928 from Barnard College, where she was the only black student and the school's first black graduate.

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The author of Their Eyes Were Watching God worked closely with famous anthropologist Franz Boas, and, after graduation, conducted field research on folklore and cultural practices in Florida and Haiti.

6. Malcolm X first earned notoriety in the U.S. in 1957, when he rallied Nation of Islam members at a Harlem NYPD precinct in protest of police brutality.

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Though there are some disputing accounts over the exact details, it's widely acknowledged that Malcolm X helped organize a group of over 100 men and women to protest the brutal beating of fellow Muslim Johnson Hinton by Harlem police officers. Malcolm X is credited with demanding medical attention for Hinton, who immediately underwent brain surgery, and with assisting in a lawsuit against the city that resulted in a settlement of $70,000 — the city's largest police brutality settlement at the time.

7. W.E.B. Du Bois co-founded and edited The Brownies' Book, the first monthly magazine written specifically for black children.

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The magazine, which ran from January 1920 to December 1921, was born out of Du Bois' frustration with the coverage of black history in American textbooks, and included fiction, poetry, puzzles, essays on current events, and letters from readers.


8. Muhammad Ali had his world champion title revoked and boxing licensed suspended for over three years after refusing to serve in the Vietman War.

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Ali declared himself a conscientious objector based on his role in the Nation of Islam, and was subsequently arrested and stripped of his license — this, according to the New York Times, despite the New York State Athletic Commission's allowing countless convicted felons to fight in the past. His stance (Ali famously stated, "'I ain't got no quarrel with the Vietcong. No Vietcong ever called me n****r") is said to have inspired Martin Luther King Jr. to also speak out against the war.

9. George Washington Carver developed a mobile classroom to bring his agricultural teachings directly to farms and the community.

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The wagon — built by students, designed and funded by New York investor Morris Jesup — brought instructors, nurses, agricultural experts, and home demonstrators to share the latest agricultural developments with rural farmers.

10. Angela Davis co-founded Critical Resistance, a national grassroots organization working toward eliminating the prison industrial complex.

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The organization began in 1998 as a conference in Berkeley, California, where activists met to analyze the detrimental effects of the U.S. prison industrial complex and strategize ways of abolishing it. It has since grown into a community of mostly volunteers with chapters throughout the country, each working on protest, education, and advocacy projects.

11. Frederick Douglass was the only known African-American man to sign a petition for women's suffrage at the Seneca Falls Convention for women's rights.

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Douglass didn't just sign, either; he delivered an impassioned speech about the necessity of women's voices in the political sphere, saying, "In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world."

12. Maya Angelou worked as a calypso singer and dancer around San Francisco in the mid-1950s.

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It was at the urging of her musician friends that she switched from her birth name, Marguerite Johnson, to Maya Angelou — which they believed would be a more "distinctive" name and persona. She recorded one album, Miss Calypso, in 1957.

13. Martin Luther King Jr. was stabbed in the chest during a Harlem book signing.

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King, who in 1958 was just coming into prominence as a civil rights leader, had to undergo immediate surgery. In an interview from his hospital room, King said of the apparently unstable woman who stabbed him, "I think she needs help ... I'm not angry at her."