Skip To Content
  • Black History Month badge

17 Unforgettable Black History Facts They Should've Taught In School

"I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted."

We asked the BuzzFeed Community to share some black history facts that they found to be surprising. Here's what we learned.

1. A black woman invented the sanitary belt.

Fair use

"Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner was quite the inventor at an early age, but her most innovative creation was the sanitary belt. Because of Mary's skin color, an interested manufacturing company failed to market her product, and the great invention wasn't used until 1956, 30 years after its creation."


2. In 1951, Henrietta Lacks's cancer cells led to major discoveries in medical research.

Nicholas Hunt / Getty Images for HBO / Fair use

"There was a novel — and later a movie starring Oprah Winfrey as Henrietta's daughter — called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which explained how Henrietta's HeLa cells have contributed to medical research. The tragedy is that her family didn’t know about any of this until 1975. Scientists were making all these discoveries and making a profit from her cells, while her own children were living in poverty!"


3. Dorothy Dandridge was the first African American to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress.

20th Century Fox

"The singer and actress was acknowledged for her performance in the 1954 film Carmen Jones."


4. The first successful open-heart surgery was performed in 1893 by a black surgeon named Dr. Daniel Hale Williams.

Public domain / Getty Images

"He also founded the first hospital that employed black healthcare workers."


5. John Rock was the first African American Supreme Court lawyer.

Public domain

"He did so Feb. 1, 1865. Before this day, John Rock was a doctor but was so ill that he had to give up practicing medicine and became a lawyer instead. My mind was blown because we hear about Dred Scott v. Sandford, where black people were not considered American citizens, but you didn’t need to be a citizen to practice law in the Supreme Court. It’s sad this is not learned in school."


6. Thelonious Monk was one of the greatest jazz composers and a strong leader in the jazz revolution.

Public domain

"I discovered his music years later. If you have not listened to his music, find 'Big Band and Quartet in Concert' online."


7. Betty Boop was based on a black woman.

Instagram/ @Bettyboop / Paramount Pictures

"Betty Boop was inspired by the black jazz singer Esther Jones, commonly known as Baby Esther in Harlem's Cotton Club. Her signature singing style was stolen by Helen Kane and adapted by the cartoonist Max Fleischer."


8. Musa I of Mali is considered the richest man in history.

Public domain

"Students should learn more about the king of the Mali Empire. It's been said that 'there's really no way to put an accurate number on his wealth,' but I'm sure Jeff Bezos only wishes he had that kind of dough."


9. Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan were the women behind the NASA space race.

Public domain

"I had no clue about all the black women behind the space race in the '60s until I saw the movie Hidden Figures. Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan, and all the ladies who worked as the 'computers' served as the brains behind launching John Glenn, the first successful American astronaut to orbit Earth. I would’ve loved to learn about them in school!"


10. A black transgender woman named Marsha P. Johnson helped lead the Stonewall uprising.


"Also known as the 'mayor of Christopher Street,' Marsha was a visible figure in the gay civil rights movement, yet was completely left out of the 2015 movie Stonewall. She remained on the frontline of the protest, advocating for universal gay rights."


11. Bayard Rustin was an openly gay civil rights activist.

Public domain

"Bayard Rustin was a social rights activist who helped install various organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1947 Freedom Ride. He was the head of the 1963 March on Washington and helped fight for civil, social, and gay rights."


12. Henry Box Brown escaped to freedom at the age of 33.

Public domain

"He shipped himself from Virginia to Philadelphia so that he could be free! I absolutely love that story and how determined he was to be a free man."


13. Ida B. Wells led a movement against lynchings in the 1890s through her informative essays and brave activism.

R. Gates / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

"This was a huge deal not only for an African American but for a woman as well. For some reason I never knew about her until college, which is just sad."


14. The Harlem Hellfighters spent 191 days in the trenches during World War I, more than any other American unit.

Public domain

"I wish I had learned about the Harlem Hellfighters, the 369th Infantry Regiment that fought in WWI. They were awarded the French Croix de Guerre for their bravery. One of the most notable Harlem Hellfighters to me is Henry Johnson, who fought off soldiers on the frontline with a knife and his bare hands."


15. In 1921, "Black Wall Street" was a thriving community of black businesses.

Public domain

"I didn't learn about Black Wall Street until I saw Watchmen. In the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma, were a great number of successful black establishments — that is, until the Tulsa race massacre occurred, destroying the community. That's definitely something that should have been taught in schools, not only because of the tragic loss but also because of how successful black people were in Tulsa during that time in history."


16. The youth of Birmingham, Alabama, led a nonviolent Children's Crusade in 1963.


"I grew up knowing civil rights was important, but my classmates and I rarely saw anything about young people playing a part in the civil rights movement. Knowing kids our age went out to protest and succeeded would have been super inspiring."


17. And finally, Martin Luther King Jr. was not the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

"That honor goes to Ralph Bunche, the political scientist and US diplomat from Detroit. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950 for his efforts with resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict."


Note: Submissions have been edited for length and/or clarity.

Do you know of any other black history facts you wish everyone else knew? Tell us in the comments below!


Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner invented the sanitary belt. An earlier version of this post said that she invented the sanitary pad.

Nostalgia Trip

Take a trip down memory lane that’ll make you feel nostalgia AF

Newsletter signup form