55 Most Influential Black Leaders in Academia in 2023

Once a year, Black History Month is celebrated to give tribute to African Americans who made notable contributions to different fields.

While the more prominent names like Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr. are usually honored, there are “not-as-popular” men and women who made a mark (and continue to make a mark!), especially in the field of academia.

Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Who Are African Americans?

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Also referred to as Afro-Americans or Black Americans, African Americans are an ethnic group of Americans with a partial or total ancestry from any black racial group in Africa. As a general rule, the term African American symbolizes the descendants of enslaved Africans from the United States.

In the US, African Americans represent the second-largest racial group and the third most prominent ethnic group, after Hispanics, Latino Americans, and White Americans. Most African Americans come from West/Central African and European descent, while some have Native American ancestry.

U.S. Census Bureau data suggest that African immigrants do not identify themselves as African Americans. Instead, most of these African immigrants identify with their ethnicity.

The Top 50 Most Influential Blacks Leaders in Academia

While history has not exactly been kind to many men and women of color, countless of them defied the odds and continue to! Armed with their exceptional intelligence, leadership, and compassion, these African Americans demonstrate that color or race is irrelevant in making a difference in the many facets of education:

Contributors to Higher Education

Dr. Shirley Jackson

Dr. Shirley Jackson is a decorated African American physicist. The 18th president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Dr. Jackson, was the first African American woman to earn a doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the second black woman in the U.S. to earn a doctorate in Physics.

Notable Accomplishments

  • Dr. Jackson joined the Theoretical Physics Research Department at AT@T Bell Laboratories. In 1978, she transferred to the Scattering and Low Energy Physics Research Department. She stayed there for ten years before moving to the Solid State and Quantum Physics Research Department.
  • Dr. Jackson studied the electronic and optical properties of quasi-two-dimensional and two-dimensional systems. Her breakthrough scientific research was crucial to the development of touch-tone phones, fax machines, solar cells, fiber optic cells, and call-waiting and caller I.D technologies.
  • President Bill Clinton appointed Dr. Jackson as Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. This made her the very first woman and first African American to hold this critical position. She also served and assisted in the establishment of the International Nuclear Regulators Association.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Melvin L. Oliver

Mervin L. Oliver is an author, an award-winning professor, a noted expert on urban and racial inequality, and the sixth president of Pitzer College. Before joining Pitzer College, he served at the University of California, Santa Barbara College of Letters and Science as the executive dean.

As head of the Social sciences department of UCSB for twelve straight years, he vigorously promoted faculty diversity. He led better access for underrepresented students at both the graduate and undergraduate levels.

Notable Accomplishments

  • During his Sociology years (1978-1996) at the University of California, Los Angeles, Oliver was awarded the California Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
  • He received the Charles Luckman Distinguished Teaching Award.
  • He was co-director of the L.A. Center for the Study of Urban Poverty, an organization focused on developing graduate and undergraduate curricula and top-notch research on social welfare policy and urban poverty.
  • Along with Thomas M. Shapiro, Melvin Oliver co-authored a book entitled “Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequity.” The book later won the Distinguished Scholarly Publication Award from the American Sociological Association.
  • He co-edited the Prismatic Metropolis: Inequality in Los Angeles and authored more than 50 scholarly publications and a handful of special journal issues.
  • In 2012, Oliver became a Fellow of The American Association for the Advancement of Science.

During his time at Pitzer, Oliver was included in the controversial vetoing of a vote to cancel the college’s study abroad program at the University of Haifa. It was his way of protesting the Israelis’ occupation of the West Bank.

Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Johnnetta Cole

Johnnetta Betsch Cole is an American educator, anthropologist, college president, and museum director. She was the first female African American of a historically black college, Spelman College, where she served from 1987-1997.

She was also the college president of Bennett College from 2002-2007. From 2009-2017, Cole served as the director at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.

Notable Accomplishments

  • In 1987, Cole became the first black female president of Spelman College, a prestigious and historically black college for women. She served for ten years, improving the school’s endowment through a $113 million capital campaign. Overall, Cole took the school’s ranking to the top, making it one of the best liberal schools in the country.
  • Cole was President of Bennett College for Women, another black college for women. She led a prosperous capital campaign and founded an art gallery to celebrate the culture of the college.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Amanda Aiken

Amanda Aiken founded the educational consulting group A.Leigh Solutions, working with schools nationally and locally to provide solutions to issues concerning leadership development, turnaround strategies, recruitment, CMO strategy, and the implementation of trauma-informed practices.

Notable Accomplishments

  • Aiken served as the Senior Director of Schools for New Orleans College Prep Charter Schools in May 2016.
  • She was the Principal of Lawrence D. Crocker College Prep and transformed it from being the lowest-performing school in New Orleans to the most improved school in the city. Crocker became known nationally and locally for its trauma-informed and restorative justice practices.
  • Aiken is the Internship Coach with the Summer Principal’s Academy at Teachers College, Columbia University.
  • As an Adjunct Professor with Relay Graduate School of Education, Aiken tutors and instructs service elementary school teachers who are working on their Miller Analogies Test.


Ernest Everett Just

Ernest Everett Just was a famous African American educator and biologist who pioneered research in the many areas of Physiology, including fertilization, hydration, experimental parthenogenesis, cell division, hydration, ultraviolet carcinogenic radiation effects on cells, and dehydration in living cells.

His first job was as a researcher and teacher at Howard University, a traditionally all-black university. In 1909, he worked at Wood Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts.

He went on with his education, obtaining a degree in Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Chicago, studying experimental embryology, and graduating magna cum laude.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • He pioneered studies and research on fertilization, hydration, experimental parthenogenesis, U.V. carcinogenic radiation effects, cell division, and dehydration in living cells in Physiology.
  • He was the editor of three periodicals.
  • He won the NAACP’s first Spingarn Medal for outstanding achievement by a Black American back in 1915.
  • From 1920-1931, Everett Just became a Julius Rosenwald Fellow in Biology of the National Research Council. This position allowed him to work in Europe back when racial discrimination significantly hindered his opportunities in the U.S. He wrote several research papers, including “General Cytology,” published in 1924. He co-authored it with other respected scientists from the University of Chicago, Princeton University, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Marine Biological Laboratory.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Virginia Randolph

When talking about Virginia Randolph, the name is directly coined with vocational training, thanks to her distinctive educational style where common sense, creativity, and parents’ involvement go hand in hand.

This American educator was named the United States’ first “Jeanes Supervising Industrial Teacher” by Jackson Davis, her Superintendent of Schools.

Randolph spearheaded a program sponsored by Jeanes Foundation to improve vocational training across the U.S. south as her career progressed. Because of her numerous and significant educational contributions, she was posthumously honored by the Library of Virginia as one of their “Virginia Women in History.”

Notable Accomplishments:

  • Upon securing a teaching position with the Henrico County School Board, Randolph opened the Mountain School, a one-room schoolhouse. She traveled across the entire country to recruit students. She taught sewing, woodworking, gardening, and academics. Randolph believed that having manual arts classes could help students for better employment opportunities should they fail to obtain a secondary education. She involved community members and established school improvement leagues. She organized the Willing Worker Clubs.
  • More than learning skills and academics, she believed in the importance of promoting healthy hearts and spirits. She then established afternoon classes on Sundays with the help of Virginia Union University students and faculty.
  • She established several projects, one of which is the Jeanes Foundation. This provided enough funds to employ black supervisors passionate about upgrading vocational training programs for other black students.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Charles Drew

Charles Drew is considered the leading authority on blood plasma back in the 40s. He started the concept of blood banks, wherein blood is safely stored for future transfusion. He was the one who organized the very first large-scale blood bank in the entire United States.

This African American physician-developed ways to process and store blood plasma in ‘blood banks.’ Although he directed blood plasma programs of Great Britain and the United States during World War 1, he resigned after following a ruling that the blood coming from African Americans would be segregated.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • In 1938, Drew received a Rockefeller Fellowship to enroll at Columbia University and train at the Presbyterian Hospital. He came up with a method for processing and preserving blood plasma or blood without cells. Plasma generally lasts longer than whole blood. This makes it possible to be ‘stored’ for longer periods. Drew realized that he could dry the plasma and have it reconstituted when needed. This research eventually became the basis of his doctorate thesis, “Banked Blood.” 
  • Drew became the very first African American to obtain this degree from Columbia University.
  • During the second world war in Europe, he headed a special medical effort dubbed “Blood of Britain.” He was the one who organized the collection and processing of blood plasma from different New York hospitals before they were shipped overseas to treat casualties in the war. In a verified report, he helped collect about 4,500 pints of plasma.
  • He led another blood bank effort for the American Red Cross in 1941.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Charles Henry Turner

Charles Henry Turner was a pioneering African American scholar, scientist, and zoologist. He discovered that insects could hear and modify their behavior based on previous experience. He was the first American to earn a Ph.D. in Zoology from the University of Chicago.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • Turner graduated from the University of Chicago with a Ph.D. in zoology back in 1907. He became the first African American to earn this degree from the institution.
  • Although he found it difficult to find employment at a major US university primarily because of racism or his personal preference to work with young African American students, he still managed to hold teaching positions at different schools. One of these schools is Clark College (presently Clark Atlanta University), a black college in Atlanta.
  • He published more than 70 research papers and pioneered research techniques in studying animal behavior. He made so many critical discoveries that further advanced our understanding of the natural world.
  • He was the first to discover that insects can hear and change their behaviors based on previous experience.
  • Turner also showed that insects were efficient in learning and that honeybees could recognize patterns and see in color.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Benjamin Banneker

For more than a century before the Department of Education was established, Benjamin Banneker proposed that a secretary be appointed with authority “to establish and maintain free schools in every city, village, and township in the United States.”

This astronomer, mathematician, almanac compiler, writer, and inventor, is one of the first important African American intellectuals.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • Banneker published his almanac for six consecutive years between 1792-1797, making astronomical calculations, literary, scientific medical, and tidal information, and opinion pieces.
  • Banneker wrote to Thomas Jefferson, who was Secretary of State in 1791, to view African Americans as more than slaves.
  • Because of his outspokenness about slavery, Banneker earned the support of the abolitionist societies in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Both later helped him publish his almanac.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Fannie C. Williams

With more than 60 interesting years in her career, Fannie C. Williams was the brains behind the passing of Child Health Day in 1928. She also introduced kindergarten and standardized testing for students long before Louisiana required it. She is prominently remembered for her work in community development and education.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • In 1921, she taught at Valena C. Jones Normal School, which trained African American teachers before certifying them to work in a school system.
  • Williams also played a crucial role in establishing a nursery and kindergarten class for African Americans in a public school system.
  • She started the annual Child Health Day when doctors and other medical professionals visited schools and offered their services for free.
  • Within New Orleans, Williams served as a charter member, organizer, and President of the Board of Management for the African American branch of YWCA New Orleans.
  • She held key positions in various organizations like the Family Service Society, Orleans Neighborhood Center, and the Girl Scotts.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Jeanne L. Noble

Dr. Jeanne L. Noble is a professor of education who became one of the first African American women to receive tenure at New York University. She increased everybody’s knowledge of the educational experience of black women, authoring The Negro Woman’s College Education. During her time, three presidents have named her to education commissions.

She was also the first African American board member of the Girl Scouts and the first to serve on the Defense Department Advisory Committee on Women in the Services of the U.S. government.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • She authored The Negro Woman’s College Education. Published in 1956, this non-fiction book is about African American women for a white audience and was considered one of the first research to consider gender in concert with race.
  • Dr. Noble published a summary in The Journal of Negro Education, called called “Negro Women Today and Their Education.”
  • She became a full-time professor at New York University and the first African American female instructor at a major university that was predominantly white.
  • Noble served on the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advisory Committee,
  • She created the Women’s Job Corps that encouraged the creation of jobs for women aged 16-21 (a very vulnerable demographic and in need of great employment at that time). Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford later asked her to serve on educational and investigative commissions.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Rick Kittles

Rick Kittles is an African American biologist that specializes in human genetics. His pioneering work in genetics has contributed to academia by discovering ways to prevent prostate cancer in black men. Rick Kittles holds a B.S. degree in Biology from the Rochester Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in biology from George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

He started his career in 1900 as a teacher in different Washington D.C. and New York high schools. Later, he took part in a project led by anthropologist Michael Blakey where they exhumed 408 African American remains from the 18th-century graveyard.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • He was one of the earliest geneticists able to trace the ancestry of Africans through D.N.A. testing. This was why he co-founded the company African Ancestry Inc., one of today’s leading advocates for tracing the ancestry of someone of African descent.
  • Kittles is dedicated to his work on prostate cancer, although he still allots time to study and research other diseases like breast and colon cancer, red blood cell immune response, sickle cell anemia, and pulmonary hypertension.
  • He has over 160 peer-reviewed articles, and most of these are devoted to issues like genetic ancestry or health disparities among African Americans and other minority groups.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

James West

Can you imagine how academic presentations would be without microphones? In 1962, James West created a foil part used in 90% of all microphones. The invention was not new to James West, considering his mother used to work for NASA at Langley Research Center.

After receiving his Physics degree from Temple University, West worked with Bell Laboratories for four decades until he retired from Lucent Technologies in 2001.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • Along with Gerhard Sessler, the pair invented the foil electret microphone back in 1962 while making instruments for human hearing research. Unlike the previous condenser microphones, what they invented no longer needs a D.C. bias and has a higher capacitance. The pair then improved the surface and mechanical parameters of the system.
  • At present, roughly 90% of about two billion microphones annually produced are based on the foil-electret principle and are commonly used in daily items like camcorders, telephones, baby monitors, hearing aids, and other audio recording devices.
  • West is an advocate for greater diversity in the field of science and technology. During his time at Bell Laboratories, he co-founded ABLE (Association of Black Laboratory Employees). This is an organization aimed at addressing promotional concerns and placements concerning black Bell Laboratories employees.
  • He played a role in creating and developing the Corporate Research Fellowship Program for graduate students practicing terminal degrees in science and the Summer Research Program. This program provided better opportunities for more than 500 non-white students.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Inez Beverly Prosser

Inez Beverly Prosser, the first Black woman psychologist, was also the first African American female to receive a Ph.D. in the field.

Born in 1895 in San Marcos, Texas, Dr. Prosser had very limited academic opportunities because of sexism and racism but went on to pioneer research on Educational Psychology.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • In her dissertation, “The Non-Academic Development of Negro Children in Mixed and Segregated Schools,” Dr. Prosser focused on the damning effects of racial and social inequality on the mental health of African American children, such as low self-esteem and feelings of isolation.
  • Dr. Prosser spoke against school segregation in the 1920s. Her opinions were crucial to the African American women community who dealt with scarce academic opportunities.
  • Her research is cited in many policies of the teaching community for educational equality.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Percy Lavon Julian

The birth and production of cortisone drugs were due to the chemical synthesis research of Percy Lavon Julian, Chicago’s Man of the Year” in 1950. This black American research chemist pioneered the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs from plants.

Julian was also the first to synthesize physostigmine, and he also introduced large-scale chemical synthesis of human hormones testosterone and progesterone from plant sterols.

Because of this, he laid the foundation to produce the steroid drugs like corticosteroids and birth control pills.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • In 1929, together with his colleague Josef Pikl, they accomplished the first total synthesis of physostigmine, the active principle of the Calabar bean. This chemical has been used since the end of the 19th century in treating glaucoma. Physostigmine is an alkaloid. It limits the constriction of outflow channels from the eye’s aqueous humor to eliminate high pressure. If this is left untreated, the retina may be damaged and eventually cause blindness.
  • He developed a ground-breaking industrial process of converting soybeans to progesterone in bulk, making about five to six pounds of progesterone daily. Soon, other sex hormones came into production.
  • Julian synthesized cortisone inexpensively. He developed a new synthesis for a related substance called Substance S., which is also present in the adrenal cortex, although this only differs from cortisone by an oxygen atom. Out of this substance, he synthesized both hydrocortisone and cortisone.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Esau Jenkins

Esau Jenkins was an African-American human rights leader from South Carolina. He was a businessman, community organizer, and preacher.

He founded and led several civic organizations and institutions which became instruments in the improvement of the health, educational, economic, and political conditions of the people in the Sea Islands along the coast of South Carolina.

Despite being raised during the time of segregation, Jenkins knew the value of education in the life of every man. This gave him the drive to provide education to his children and help others obtain it. He played a key role in establishing Haut Gap High School in Johns Island to provide its children with educational opportunities.

Since those days, Haut Gap has continued to serve its purpose and metamorphosed into the advanced studies magnet middle school that it is today.

Jenkins was also instrumental in the literacy of the adult black population so that they could register and vote. 

Notable Accomplishments:

  • Jenkins played a major role in the establishment of the first citizenship school on Johns Island.
  • In 1948, he led the creation and development of Progressive Club, a co-op that consists of a grocery store, recreation area, gas station, and sleeping rooms. The co-op was designed to allow residents to market their goods and services.
  • In 1959, Jenkins founded the Citizens Committee of Charleston County, a civic organization dedicated to the improvement of the lives of local African-Americans.
  • In 1966, he established the C.O. Federal Credit Union, a credit union designed to promote the economic growth of Johns Island and Sea Islands communities.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Rita Pierson

Rita Pierson was a principal, testing coordinator, counselor, and educator. She has been teaching elementary, junior high, and special education students since 1972. These roles became her doorway to show her passion – know her students and let them know that they matter no matter how modest their lives may be.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • For decades, Pierson has been doing professional development workshops for thousands of professional educators. Her work is focused mainly on under-served students, lecturing on topics such as “Meeting the Educational Needs of African American Boys,” “Helping Under-Resourced Learners,” and “Engage and Graduate your Secondary Students: Preventing Dropouts.”
  • In her appearance at TED TV (Technology, Entertainment, and Design), Pierson touched many people’s lives and changed the outlook of so many students with her advocacy that every child, rich or poor, deserves their champion “who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be.”

Civil Rights Legends

Septima Poinsette Clark

Popularly referred to as the “queen mother of the civil rights movement,” Septima Poinsette Clark tirelessly worked to allow blacks to have the right to become principals and improve literacy among African Americans.

Her personal experience of racial discrimination fueled her to fight for racial equality and her commitment to intensify the African American community through citizenship and literacy.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • In 1919, Clark taught 6th grade at Avery Normal Institute, a private academy for black children. She joined the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) Charleston chapter and attended meetings. Under the guidance of the local NAACP president Edmund Austin, Clark took part in her first political action with the NAACP in Charleston.
  • Eventually, she led her students around the city, going door-to-door, asking for signatures on a petition to allow black principals at Avery. A year later, black teachers were permitted. This was Clark’s first statement in political action.
  • She is very famous for establishing “Citizenship Schools” teaching reading to adults. These schools developed from Clark’s adult literacy courses throughout the interwar years and significantly empowered black communities.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Benjamin W. Arnett

Benjamin Arnette was a representative in the Ohio General Assembly in 1886. He introduced legislation that provided for equal education opportunities for all children, regardless of race. This American educator, bishop, and minister were born free black.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • Arnette was a Civil Rights Movement activist in the 1860s. He was a member of the National Convention of Colored Men in Syracuse, New York, a member of the Pennsylvania State Equal Rights League, secretary of the National Convention of Colored Men in Washington, D.C., and the convention chaplain Louisville, Kentucky.
  • Arnett was the first black man to serve on an all-white jury in 1872. He was later elected to the Ohio General Assembly from a district with 85% white members. This made him the first African American to represent a constituency dominated by white.
  • In 1886, he repealed Ohio’s “Black Law” legislation, giving African American residents limited rights and freedom. He was very concerned that this law did not guarantee black children the same educational opportunities as white kids. A year after, the state was eventually required to give equal opportunities to all children, no matter their color and race.
  • A compelling speaker, Arnett was very influential in Republican politics.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Gloria Blackwell

Also known as Gloria Rackley, Blackwell was a teacher at Clark University in Atlanta for 20 years. She played a role in the fight to desegregate schools, filing and winning a handful of lawsuits against discriminating organizations.

These African American civil rights activists and educators were at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement in South Carolina in the 1960s. Her being the center of it all even attracted national attention and a visit by Dr. Martin Luther King of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • In 1950, along with her husband and two daughters, Blackwell became involved in the Civil Rights Movement in Orangeburg. She was engaged in voter registration drives in Dillon County and worked as an elementary school teacher. Back then, the segregated system made many teachers hesitant to join NAACP-led movements because they relied on white school boards to renew their contracts.
  • In 1960, she won a lawsuit on behalf of the teachers. The lawsuit guaranteed the same rights to contracts that white teachers held.
  • She was an NAACP local leader in 1961 and became the target of the white power structure that refused to renew her husband’s contract at S.C. State and called her unfit to be a teacher. After she was fired, student demonstrations were made in support of her.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Dorothy Height

Dorothy Height is a well-known civil rights activist for decades. He had the ear of President Eisenhower in convincing him to desegregate schools. She focused on the issues of African American women, including illiteracy, unemployment, and voter awareness.

For 40 years, she served as the president of the National Council of Negro Women. In 2004, President Bush awarded her with a Congressional Gold Medal.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • She began to work with the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) after encountering African American leader Mary McLeod Bethune. Height focused on ending the issues of African Americans and restructuring the criminal justice system.
  • She became the fourth president of NCNW in 1957. During her time, she strongly supported voter registration in the South. The organization also financially helped several civil rights activists throughout the country.
  • In 1963, Height started the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Although she headed the march, she was not invited to speak. But despite the obvious gender discrimination in the Civil Rights Movement, she still worked on the front lines.
  • Height was a visiting professor at the University of Delhi, India, and the Black Women’s Federation of South Africa.
  • Because of her numerous efforts during the Civil Rights Movement, many organizations recognized and awarded her. She received the Citizens Medal Award from President Ronald Reagan in 1989. In 2004, she was awarded the Congressional gold Medal.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Vernon E. Jordan, Jr.

Vernon Eulion Jordan, Jr. is a civil rights leader, American lawyer, business consultant, and influential power broker. He worked for different civil rights movement organizations before he became a close advisor to President Bill Clinton. Jordan started his career in civil rights during the early 60s.

He was part of a team of lawyers that desegregated the University of Georgia. He further worked for multiple civil rights organizations until the late 80s.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • Jordan joined the law office of Donald L. Howell, a civil rights activist. They sued the University of Georgia for racial discrimination in its admission policies. In 1961, the suit ended. A Federal Court order was issued demanding the admission of two African Americans: Hamilton E. Holmes and Charlayne Hunter. Jordan escorted Hunter personally past a group of fuming white protesters to the university admissions office.
  • Jordan left private law practice in the early 1960s and became involved in activism in the field. He served as the Georgia field director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
  • He became the Executive Director of the United Negro College Fund in 1970.
  • He was president of the National Urban League from 1971-1981.
  • Because he was a friend and the political adviser of Bill Clinton, he became part of Clinton’s transition team from 1992-1993.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Mary McLeod Bethune

Mary McLeod Bethune was a daughter of former negro slaves who went on to become a pillar of black education and staunch civil rights leader of the 20th century.

She founded Bethune-Cookman College, the school that set the educational standards of black colleges of the present time. 

Notable Accomplishments:

  • Serving as a Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration director, Bethune held the highest position given to an African American woman in government during the term of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
  • In 1920, despite racist attacks and the discrimination of women during her time, Bethune founded several organizations and initiated voter registration drives for women to vote.
  • In 1924, Bethune was elected National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs president. It was in 1935 that she founded the National Council for Negro Women.
  • In 1940, Bethune was elected vice president of the NAACP.
  • Bethune was the only woman of color who attended the United Nations founding conference in 1945.

Contemporary Standouts

Cornel West

Cornel West is an American political activist, philosopher, public intellectual, and social critic. He focuses on the role of gender, class, and race in American society and how people act and react to their ”radical conditionedness”. He was into political activism in the 70s, participating in civic discourse and protesting unjust policies.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • West taught philosophy, religion, and African American studies at different universities and colleges, including Yale University, Union Theological Seminary, Princeton University, the University of Paris, and Princeton University, right after he received his doctoral degree.
  • West was deep into political activism. In 2002, Lawrence Summers, the new Harvard University president, admonished West in private, saying he was spending too much time on extra-curricular pursuits and political activities.
  • West’s other works include The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism, The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought, Beyond Eurocentrism and Multiculturalism, Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism, and Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud: A Memoir.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Bobby William Austin

Bobby William Austin is an American writer and lecturer who serves as the head of the Village Foundation, an organization founded in 1997 to engage young African American men in society through events like Give a Boy a Book Day.

This leading African American sociologist was the first person to shoulder major philanthropic initiatives for African American men and boys.

For the past 30 years, he created so many structured venues as effective ways for how citizens live their lives in communities as individuals. He is the Managing Director of the Education ThinkTank and President of the Neighborhood Associates Corporation.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • He was Program Officer at the WK Kellogg Foundation from 1990-1997. He was the Director of the African American Men and Boys Initiative and the Assistant Director of the Kellogg National Fellowship Program.
  • He founded the Village Foundation in 1997. This organization was made to “repair the breach” between African American males and the rest of society. The goal is to involve young African American men in American society by connecting them first to their local communities and later to the larger society.
  • The “Give a Boy a Book Day” campaign was the leading initiative of the Village Foundation. This was designed to encourage literacy and reading among young African American men.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Joe Louis Clark

Joe Louis Clark changed the way people think of discipline in school. He was the principal of Eastside High School in New Jersey. Clark also became the subject of “Lean on Me,” a movie back in 1989 that starred Morgan Freeman. He also gained attention in the 80s for his controversial and unconventional disciplinary measures as EastsideHigh’s principal.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • Clark was notable for his being very tough on difficult students. He would often carry a baseball bat or bullhorn at school. While he was still a principal, he expelled more than 300 students, was frequently late or absent, or sold and used drugs in school.
  • Time Magazine did a cover of Clark, saying his style as a school principal was a primary disciplinarian in nature and that it focuses on encouraging good behavior and school pride.
  • At some point, his authoritative demeanor was criticized by some people. They said, “tossing out the troublesome achievers” does nothing but move the problems from the school to the streets. Clark defended this practice. He believed teachers must not waste their time on students who do not want to learn.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Ramona Edelin

Under the leadership of Ramona Edelin, an activist, consultant, and American academic, the National Urban Coalition started the Say Yes to AYoungster’s Future” program to give ample educational help to youth and black teachers in America. Currently, she is the Executive Director of the D.C. Association of Charter Schools.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • After completing college in 1969, Edelin taught at Brandeis University, Emerson College, and the University of Maryland. In 1972, she founded the first African American Studies program at Northeastern University. This was when she was also credited for introducing the term “African American” to the academic community.
  • In 1988, Edelin held a meeting with Jessie Jackson and some prominent black leaders. During this meeting, she shared the importance and real meaning of the term “African American.” Jackson started to regularly use the term, popularizing it in the American language.
  • She became president and chief executive officer of the National Urban Coalition in 1989. This is where she established the M. Carl Holman Leadership Development Institute and the Executive Leadership Program. She also created landmark education programs for African American children.
  • Edelin is credited with introducing “African American” into the general terminology.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Nathan Hare

Nathan Hare directed the very first Black Studies program in the country. This American activist, sociologist, and psychologist was tapped to coordinate a black studies program in the United States.

He was very involved in the Black Power movement while teaching at Howard University. However, because of his involvement in the movement, he was dismissed from campus, thus leading to a student-faculty protest.

Biggest Achievements:

  • Hare took part of the NAACP legal team to argue the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case before the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that public school segregation was unconstitutional.
  • On February 22, 1967, along with students tagged as “The Black Power Committee,” Hare held a press conference where he read “The Black University Manifesto.” It summoned for the “overthrow of Negro college with white students and to raise in its place a black college, relevant to the black community as its needs.”
  • He published “The Black Anglo Saxons” and coined “The Ebony Tower” to depict Howard University.
  • He invited champion fighter Muhammad Ali in the spring of 1967 to speak at Howard. Ali delivered his popular “Black Is Best” speech before a crowd of 4,000 outside Frederick Douglas Hall’s campus. Howard’s administration padlocked the Crampton Auditorium to keep Ali from talking because of his controversial stand against the war. Because of that, Hare was dismissed effective June 1967.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Katherine Butler-Jones

Katherine Butler-Jones was the brainchild behind the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunities. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, she holds a degree in sociology and economics. In 1961, she and her husband bought a home in Newton, Massachusetts.

Back then, only two realtors would show a home to a black family. The couple later became very active in the Newton Fair Housing and Equal Rights Committee.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • Dr. Jones served as Roxbury/Newton FreedomSchool’s founding director in 1966. This was an after-school program.
  • She founded the Newton Public Schools” Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunities (METCO) Program, enrolling students of color from Boston in Newton schools. She was METCO’s Director until 1976.
  • She received her M.A. in Urban Education at Simmons College and continued to promote integration by working for the Cambridge and Boston Public Schools during Boston’s challenging desegregation efforts in the late 70s. In 1978, she was elected to the Newton School Committee for the first of four terms. She made history as the very first successful African American candidate.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Aaron Lloyd Dixon

Aaron Lloyd Dixon came from a family of leftist activists. His parents, Frances Sledge Dixon and Elmer James Dixon valued the importance of fighting social injustice.

Dixon’s contribution to academia came in a Free Breakfast for School Children program, which he helped launch as the founding member of Seattle’s Black Panther chapter. In 2006, Dixon ran for the U.S. Senate in Washington state under the Green Party ticket.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • As a teenager, he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to end Seattle’s housing discrimination. He was one of the first few volunteers to join the busing program to integrate schools.
  • Following King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, Dixon joined the Black Power Movement. Dixon and his brother were in San Francisco for the West Coast Black Student Union Conference during that week. They also attended the funeral of another Black Panther Party member, Bobby Hutton, who was killed on April 6 in a police confrontation. After spending some time with other Black Panther members, the Dixon brothers decided to put up the first Black Panther chapter outside of California, in Seattle.
  • He was involved in electoral politics when he worked for Lionel Wilson on a mayoral campaign. In 1977, Wilson was elected as the first black mayor of Oakland, California.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Carlotta Wall LaNier

In 1957, nine African American students were the first-ever black students to attend classes at Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Carlotta Wall LaNier was one of those students, and she was the youngest. LaNier was the first black female to graduate from Central High School as well.

In 1999, together with the rest of the Little Rock Nine, LaNier was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President Bill Clinton. She was later inducted into the ColoradoWomen’s Hall of Fame in 2004 and the NationalWomen’s Hall of Fame in 2015.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • Little Rock Nine attempted to enter the segregated Central High School on September 4, 1957, but failed. Under orders from the governor, the Arkansas National Guard and an angry mob of roughly 400 barricaded the school to prevent the group from getting inside. On their second attempt on September 23, 1957, 1000 people were already surrounding the school. The governor orders the National Guard to accompany the Little Rock Nine to school for protection by then.
  • Despite incessant torments from the white population, LaNier never retaliated or cried. She stood her ground and remained strong despite being spat on, called names, and knocked over.
  • In 1985, Little Rock Nine were eventually awarded the Spingarn Medal by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Willie Pearson

Willie Pearson is a Congressional Fellow who has contributed many sociological studies about blacks in the sciences. He authored and co-authored seven books and monographs, including Blacks, Education, and American Science, Who Will Do Science?: Educating the Next Generation, The Role and Activities of American Graduate Schools in Recruiting, Enrolling and Retaining United States Black and Hispanic Students, and Beyond Small Numbers: Voices of African American Ph.D. Chemists.

He played a major role in policy developments and activities concerning joining minorities and women in science. He was also the Board of Advisors President of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • He worked briefly for the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare after completing his master’s degree. In 1972, Grambling State University in Louisiana appointed him to the sociology faculty.
  • He was a Professor and Chair for the Department of History and Sociology at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.
  • In 2010, President Barack Obama appointed him to his re-established Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Pearson also served on advisory boards, committees, and panels for the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the American Chemical Society, and the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Maxine Smith

Maxine Smith was an academic, civil rights activist, and school board official who worked with the NAACP to desegregate Memphis schools in the early 60s. She was the one who escorted the first black children to attend a desegregated schoolhouse in Memphis.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • Smith applied at the University of Memphis to pursue graduate studies in 1957 but was denied admission because she was black. Because of this, Smith became involved with the Memphis Branch of the NAACP. Five years after, she was named Executive Secretary of the branch. She later continued to hold that role until she retired in 1995.
  • In 1960, she assisted in desegregating Memphis public schools. Barely a year after that, she was the one who personally escorted 13 black students to their new desegregated schools. Because of her leadership with the Memphis NAACP, she solidly advocated for civil rights. She organized marches, sit-ins, voter registration drives, marches, and student boycotts like the “if you’re Black, Take it Back” campaign. The campaign was aimed at boycotting downtown stores that had segregated workforces and water fountains.
  • She was the first African American to be elected to the Memphis board of education, where she served from 1971-1995. Smith was a strong advocate for promoting school principal WW Herenton to become a school superintendent in 1978. Herenton, for his part, was the first African American to hold that position in Memphis. Later, Smith becomes one of Herenton’s supporters for his bid to become the mayor of Memphis.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Naomi Gray

Naomi Gray is the first-ever vice president of Planned Parenthood and a social work instructor at San Francisco State University. She also co-founded the African American Education Leadership Group.

A passionate follower of international, national, and local current events, and a constant letter writer to The Chronicle, Gray quickly met and became friends with practically everybody in the city government of San Francisco.

She became close friends with several leaders from San Francisco, like Superior Court Judge Don Mitchell and Mayor Dianne Feinstein.

Biggest Accomplishment:

In 1985, San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein appointed Naomi Gray to the city’s first-ever Health Commission. Gray was nominated for the “Who’s Who of Strong Black Women” as well.

Gray served as a chair member on several committees. She always makes it a point to speak up, especially on controversial topics such as the AIDS crisis, which had become the number one killer of men between the ages of 25 and 42 back in 1992.

She fought adamantly against the needle exchange programs in which drug addicts are allowed to trade in their used needles in exchange for clean ones in the hopes of stopping the spread of AIDS. Gray believed most of the minority community felt this only reinforces drug addiction among Hispanic, black, and poor people.

Gray raised an initiative for local black leaders to research the impacts of AIDS in their communities. She received positive feedback for this. So she helped jumpstart the Black Coalition on AIDS.

She co-founded the Twenty-First Century Academy in Bayview-Hunters point to improve learning among underserved African Americans.

Famous Firsts

Daniel Hale Williams

Daniel Hale Williams what the founder of the first interracial hospital in America back in 1891. The hospital eventually served as the first school for black nurses in the country.

A doctor by profession, this American general surgeon performed “the first successful heart surgery” in 1893. In 1913, he was elected as the only African American charter member of the American College of Surgeons.

Notable Accomplishments:

He was the first African American cardiologist to perform the first successful open-heart surgery when he operated on James Cornish, a severe stab wound to his chest.

With the absence of blood transfusion and other modern surgical procedures, he successfully sutured the victim’s pericardium. This made Williams one of the first people to perform an open-heart surgery (following Drs. Francisco Romero and Henry Dalton).

Because of discrimination during his time, African American citizens were not allowed to be admitted to hospitals. Black doctors were refused staff positions. Believing that this must change, Williams opened Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses in May 1891. This is the country’s first hospital with an intern and nursing program with racially integrated staff.

Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Mae Jemison

Mae Jemison broke the barrier for black women to become astronauts. In 1992, she flew into space on board the Endeavour, thus making her the first African American woman in space. Aside from being a former NASA astronaut, Jemison was also an American engineer and physician.

In 1993, she left NASA and established a technology research company. Later, she founded a non-profit educational foundation. She also wrote several books for kids and often appeared on television shows.

Notable Accomplishments:

After working as a general practitioner for Ross-Loos Medical Group, she served as a medical officer in Liberia and Sierra. Upon returning to the U.S., she entered private practice and took graduate-level engineering courses. The flights of Guion Bluford and Sally Ride back in 1983 inspired Jemison to apply to the astronaut program.

In 1987, the Associated Press covered her as the “first black woman astronaut.”

Following her return to Earth, she resigned from NASA, intending to build her own company.

She founded The Jemison Group Inc., a consulting firm that considers the sociocultural impact of the latest advancements and designs in technology.

She established the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence in memory and honor of her mother. One of her projects is The Earth We Share, a science camp for 12-16-year-olds. The foundation also sponsors other programs and events like the Shaping the World Essay Competition, Earth Online, Listening to the Future, and so much more.

Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Charlotte Forten

Charlotte Louise Bridges Forten was a famous African American poet, anti-slavery activist, and educator. She hails from a prominent abolitionist family in Philadelphia. During the Civil War, she taught school for years.

The book “Life on the Sea Islands” is an account of her time as the first black teacher at a famous mission in the Civil War. Later, she worked for the Treasury Department, which recruits black teachers.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • In 1892, Forten and other activists Helen Appo Cook, Anna Julia Cooper, Ida B. Bailey, Mary Church Terrell, Mary Jane Patterson, and Evelyn Shaw created the Colored Women’s League in Washington, D.C. The goal of this service-oriented organization was to promote social progress, unity, and the best interests of the African American community.
  • Forten was a member of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society, where she got involved in coalition fundraising and building. During that time, she proved to be an influential activist and a leader in civil rights.
  • Occasionally, she spoke to various public groups on abolitionist issues. She also arranged for lectures by different known speakers and writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson.
  • During the American Civil Law, she was the first black teacher to join a mission to the South Carolina Sea Islands called the Port Royal Experiment.
  • She was the first African American to teach at the Penn School on St. Helena’s Island, South Carolina. Initially, the school was founded to teach enslaved African American children until African American children were freed during the US Civil War.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Kelly Miller

Kelly Miller was the country’s very first African American grad student in mathematics. This American sociologist, mathematician, newspaper columnist, essayist, and author, is an important figure in the intellectual life of black America for nearly half a century. Millar was tagged as “The Bard of the Potomac.”

Notable Accomplishments:

  • He served as a sociology professor from 1895 to 1934 at M Street High School in Washington, D.C. He introduced sociology, the development of the structure and functioning of human society, into the curriculum in 1895.
  • After graduating from Howard University School of Law in 1903, he was appointed Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. This deanship stretched for 12 years. During his time, the college significantly changed. He modernized the old curriculum, adding new courses in the social sciences and natural sciences fields.
  • Because Miller was an avid supporter of Howard University, he actively recruited students to the school. In 1914, he thought of putting up a Negro-American Museum and Library. He convinced Jesse Moorland, an American minister and civic leader, to donate his huge private library on blacks in Africa and the U.S. to Howard University. This is because of the foundation for his Negro-American Museum and Library Center.
  • He was an active member of the American Negro Academy led by Alexander Crummell until discontinued in 1928.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Alexander Crummel

The first school dedicated to African American learning was the American Negro Academy, founded in 1897 by Alexander Crummel, an African tribal chief. Alexander Crummell was an Episcopalian priest, scholar, missionary, and teacher.

Born in New York City to free black parents, much of Crummel’s life was spent addressing the real conditions of African Americans, convincing the educated black elites to aspire to the highest intellectual attainments as a refutation of the theory of black inferiority.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • Crummell settled in Washington, D.C., where he established St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. When some Episcopal bishops proposed a segregated missionary district for black parishes, he strongly fought against the proposal. Thus, he organized a group now known as the Union of Black Episcopalians.
  • He lectured widely across the U.S., focusing on the social responsibilities of educated middle-class African Americans as race leaders.
  • He taught at Howard University from 1895-1897. He helped found the American Negro Academy. He became the first president. Later, he would become a major influence on myriad black leaders.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Dorothy Lavinia Brown

In a historic first, Dr. Dorothy Lavinia Brown was the first African American female surgeon in the South in 1954. Later, she became the first black woman in the Tennessee Legislature.

This African American doctor is also known as “Dr. D.”, this African American doctor is a surgeon, teacher, and legislator. During her service in the House of Representatives, she strongly fought for women’s rights and the right of people of color.

Biggest Achievements:

  • She became the first African American female to be elected to the Tennessee General Assembly in 1966. During her two-year term, she almost succeeded in legalizing abortions in cases of incest or rape and in expanding the existing legally permitted abortions in critical cases when the “mother’s life was put in danger.”
  • As a politician, she was involved in the passing of the Negro History Act. This required public schools in Tennessee to make special programs during Negro History Week to recognize and acknowledge accomplishments done by African Americans.
  • She tried to run for a seat in the Tennessee Senate but lost. So she served on the Joint Committee on Opportunities for Women in Medicine that the American Medical Association sponsored. She played a major role in the fight for the rights of people of color. She was also a lifelong member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Fanny Jackson Coppin

Fanny Jackson Coppin was the country’s first African American principal. For 37 years, she instituted many improvements in Education in Philadelphia and elsewhere.

This American educator and missionary was a lifelong advocate for female higher education. Born into slavery, Jackson’s freedom was bought by her aunt while she was still 12. She spent her youth in New Bedford, Massachusetts, working as a servant.

Biggest Achievements:

  • Coppin was the very first black teacher at the Oberlin Academy.
  • In 1865, she secured a job at Philadelphia’s Institute for Colored Youth (Cheyney University of Pennsylvania). She was the principal of the Ladies’ Department while teaching Latin, Greek, and Mathematics.
  • She was the principal of the institute after the departure of Ebenezer Bassett in 1869. This made her the first African American woman to become a school principal.
  • During her 37 years in the institute, she was responsible for so many educational improvements in Philadelphia. During her term as principal, the board of education also promoted her to superintendent. This again made her another first: the first African American superintendent of a school district in the U.S.
  • In 1893, she was one of the five African American women invited to speak at the World’s Congress of Representative Women in Chicago. She delivered a speech called “the intellectual progress of the colored women of the U.S. since the emancipation proclamation.”
  • She opened a home for destitute young women in 1888 after finding out that other charities refused admission.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Patrick Francis Healy

Patrick Francis Healy was the first Black to obtain a Ph.D. in the United States. He was also the first to become a Jesuit priest and preside over a white college, Georgetown University. Patrick’s father, Michael Morris Healy, was an emigrant from Ireland to the United States through Canada.

He won land in the Georgia Land Lotteries and later established a cotton plantation. He was very successful in the trade and eventually owned 49 slaves, Patrick’s mother, Mary Eliza Smith. She was one-eighth black, known as an octoroon. This made her children one-sixteen black.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • After being ordained to the priesthood in 1866, Healy returned to the United States and taught philosophy at Georgetown University. In 1974, he became the school’s 29th president and the first Black president of a predominantly White university.
  • He continued to hold the role of prefect until 1879, simultaneously with the office of the president.
  • During his tenure, the demographics of the student body changed. For the first time, Northerners outnumbered the Southerners. The percentage of Catholic students increased to more than 80%. Healy also created the first formal scholarship program that granted one student a full scholarship from Washington’s parishes.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Henry Ossian Flipper

Henry Ossian Flipper, the first African American to graduate from West Point in 1877, also went on to become its first commissioned officer–Second Lieutenant—in the U.S. Army. He was an American soldier, former slave, and engineer who authored scientific topics and his life experiences. 

He attended Atlanta University during Reconstruction. Representative James C. Freeman appointed Flipper to attend West Point and was initially rejected.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • Since he was a trained engineer, L.T. Flipper designed a drainage system at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. This system is now popularly known as Flipper’s Ditch and has become a national monument. The drainage system has significantly minimized malaria by removing standing water.
  • After his dismissal from the military, he worked as a civil engineer in El Paso. He volunteered in the Spanish-American War, although there were constant requests to have him recommissioned but was ignored by Congress.
  • He was an adviser to Senator Albert Fall on Mexican politics. When the Senator became Secretary of the Interior in 1921, Flipper became his assistant in Washington, D.C.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Alexander Twilight

Alexander Twilight was an ana American educator, politician, and minister. He was the first African American man to earn a bachelor’s degree from an American college or university after graduating from Middlebury College in 1823. He was later ordained as a Congregational minister and worked in ministry and education all his career.

In 1836, he became the first African American elected as a state legislator. He served as a state legislator in the Vermont House of Representatives; the only African American ever elected to a state legislator before the Civil War.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • In 1829, he was hired at the Orleans County, Vermont, Grammar School of Brownington. This was the only secondary school in a two-county area. Because he wanted to create a residence dormitory to accommodate out-of-town students, he designed, raised funds, and built a massive four-story granite building called the Athenian Hall.
  • He was elected to the newly established Vermont House of Representatives in 1836. This made him the first African American to be elected to a state legislature.
  • In 1847, he left his job as headmaster after an apparent falling out with the Brownington school’s trustees. After he left, Brownington experienced declining enrollment. It was soon closed in 1852.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

David Levering Lewis

David Levering Lewis, an American historian and professor of History at New York University, won two Pulitzers—a first for any ethnicity—for his biography of W.E.B. DuBois, the famous sociologist, and civil rights activist. He also authored eight books and was the editor of two. His focus was comparative history and 20th-century United States civil rights and social history.

Notable Accomplishments:

He authored the first academic biography of Martin Luther King Jr., first published in 1970 and barely two years after Luther King’s assassination. He also wrote Prisoners of Honor: The Dreyfus Affair, published in 1974, The Bicentennial History of the District of Columbia, published in 1976, and When Harlem Was in Vogue, published in 1980.

  • He wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning two-volume biography of W.E.B. Du Bois.
  • He won the Francis Parkman Prize and Bancroft Prize in 1994.
  • In 2001, he won the Anisfield-Wolf book award for the second part of the Du Bois biography.
  • Lewis was a former trustee of the National Humanities Center, former senator of Phi Betta Kappa, and former commissioner of the National Portrait Gallery.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

John Wesley Gilbert

Known as the first Black archaeologist, John Wesley Gilbert was an educator and a missionary. He is known for being the first graduate of Paine College, the first African American professor at that school, and the first African American to receive a master’s degree from Brown University.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • While at Brown University, he received a scholarship to attend the American School of Classical Studies in Greece until 1901. He was the first Black person to do so.
  • In 1891, he taught Greek, French, Latin, German, and Hebrew at his former school, Paine College. This appointment caused a massive uproar because he was the first black faculty member at Paine. Some faculty members even decried “the evil” of this “revolutionary measure.”
  • In 1911, together with Walter Russell Lambuth (a white bishop), they undertook a mission to the Belgian Congo. They established a school and church in the village of Wembo-Nyama. Later, the school educated Patrice Lumumba, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s first prime minister and an icon of pan-Africanism and anti-colonialism.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Charlotte Forten Grimke

Charlotte Forten Grimke was the first black educator hired by Penn School, a school in South Carolina that was established to provide basic education to black slaves who were freed after the civil war. She later joined the US Department of Treasury to help in the recruitment of black teachers. 

Notable Accomplishments:

  • Grimke established a network of African American Women in Washington, Philadelphia, and Massachusetts and was an instrument in the 1896 founding of the National Association of Colored Women.

Other Prominent Black Leaders

Thurgood Marshall

Originally named Thoroughgood, Thurgood Marshall was a lawyer, civil rights activist, and associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1967 to 1991. He was the Court’s first African American member.

Before he served in the judiciary, he argued many notable cases before the Supreme Court, including Brown vs. Board of Education which held that racial segregation in public education is a clear violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • He graduated from the Howard University School of Law in 1933 and established a private legal practice. He was the founder of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and served as the Executive Director.
  • President John F. Kennedy appointed Mr. Marshall to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Four years after, President Lyndon Johnson appointed him as the U.S. Solicitor General.
  • Marshall traveled 50,000 miles every year, often alone in some of the nation’s most dangerous towns and cities. He stayed in homes of appreciative black folks. His courage was remarkable. He managed to maintain his fortitude amid daily death threats.
  • He did not fear anybody—not even his colleagues on the Supreme Court, whom he usually pricked during his 24 years there. He even took shots at Clarence Thomas and Malcolm X. No wonder he was called Mr. Civil Rights.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Booker T. Washington

Booker Taliaferro Washington was a reformer and educator and the principal developer and first president of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University). Between 1895 and 1915, he was the most influential spokesman for Black Americans.

He was the dominant leader in the African American community and of the contemporary black elites. Washington came from the last generation of black American leaders born into slavery and became the leading voice of the previous slaves and their descendants.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • In 1881, Washington was chosen to head a newly established normal school for African Americans at Tuskegee. Eventually, Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute became a monument to his life’s work. The school had more than 100 well-equipped buildings, a faculty and teaching staff of nearly 200, 38 trades and professions, and an endowment of roughly $2 million from only two small buildings.
  • In 1895, he was addressed at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta. He was the only African American speaker to address most white audiences. Dubbed the “Atlanta Compromise,” that speech made him one of America’s most influential black persons.
  • He became the adviser of President William McKinley and President Theodore Roosevelt on racial matters. His lectures around the country helped establish the National Negro Business League.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson, a notable mathematician and physicist helped launch the first digital electronic computers at NASA. During her 33 years working at NASA and its predecessor, she has earned a reputation for mastering tough manual calculations and helped pioneer computers to do the tasks.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • She began a career as a research mathematician, although it was difficult for African Americans and their own to enter.
  • From 1953 to 1958, Johnson analyzed gust alleviations for aircraft and was assigned to the Guidance and Control Division of Langley’s Flight Research Division which was dominated by white male engineers.
  • NASA acknowledges Johnson as one of the first African American women to work as a NASA scientist.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Maya Angelou

Born Marguerite Annie Johnson, Maya Angelou was an American memoirist, poet, and civil rights activist. She authored seven autobiographies, several poetry books, and three essays and is credited with a wide list of movies, plays, and television shows that spanned more than fifty years.

She has also received more than a dozen awards and 50 honorary degrees. She is known for her series of seven autobiographies that focused on her childhood and early adult experience. Her first, I Know Why the  Caged Bird Sings (1969), was about a life story until she turned 17.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • When “I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings” was published, she publicly discussed some aspects of her personal life. From that autobiography, she became respected as a spokesperson for Black people and women. Her works later were considered a defense of Black culture.
  • Most of her works are widely used in universities and institutions worldwide, although several failed attempts to ban her books from U.S. shelves. Although most of her works were labeled as autobiographical fiction, many critics said her works were her deliberate attempts to challenge the basic structure of the autobiography by changing, critiquing, and expanding the genre.
  • In late 2010, she donated her papers and some career memorabilia to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Gabrielle Star

Gina Gabrielle Star is the 10th president of Pomona College in Claremont, California. She is extremely interested in 18th-century British literature and aesthetics and is a highly regarded scholar of English literature whose work reaches the arts and neuroscience.

Starr receives a Guggenheim Fellowship, an N.S.F. Advance award, and a New Directions Fellowship from Mellon Foundation. In 2017, Gabrielle became the first woman and first African American president of Pomona College.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • After she completed her doctorate, she decided to retrain in cognitive neuroscience.  She completed her postdoctoral fellowship at the California Institute of Technology. She explored and learned better techniques from cognitive neuroscience.
  • In 2000, she joined the New York University faculty. She became the acting Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and dean suo jure in 2011 and 2013, respectively.
  • Starr co-founded a liberal arts prison education program with Susanne Wofford at Wallkill Correctional Facility in New York State. She also collaborated with the Borough of Manhattan Community College, initiating a STEP preparation and transfer program. This aimed to provide promising students the needed support, financial access, and mentorship they need to undertake a bachelor’s degree in STEM subjects at New York University.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Monica Cox

Monica Farmer Cox is currently the inaugural department chair and professor of engineering education at Ohio State University. In 2011, she became the first Black female to earn tenure at the College of Engineering at Purdue University. Dr. Cox has authored more than 90 different publications focused on STEM education.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • Dr. Cox is a professor and the Inaugural Chair in the Department of Engineering Education at The Ohio State University.
  • She is extensively focused on using mixed methodologies in exploring significant research questions in either undergraduate, graduate, and professional engineering education. She explores questions of intersectionality among women, specifically Women of Color in engineering. She also aims to develop, disseminate and commercialize reliable and valid assessment tools across the engineering education continuum.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Glenda Baskin Glover

Dr. Glenda Baskin Glover is one of the country’s greatest experts on corporate governance. She authored over 100 articles and papers and is currently the president of Tennessee State University. She is also a certified public accountant and a lawyer and is only one of two African American women in the country to hold the Ph.D.-CPA-JD combination.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • In 2013, Dr. Glenda Baskin Glover started serving as President of Tennessee State University. She served as Dean College of Business at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi. She led the College of Business throughout the whole accreditation process and led the implementation of the nation’s first Ph.D. programs in Business at an HBCU.
  • An attorney and a Certified Public Accountant., Dr. Glover was one of the two African American women in all of the U.S. ever to hold the Ph.D.-CPA-JD combination.
Influential Black Leaders in Academia

Marva Collins

Marva Collins is a black woman with a passion and dedication for learning and education. After graduating from college, she worked for two years in Alabama, then moved to Chicago to work in a public school system.

Finding that the standards of Chicago  Public Schools were low and showing no improvement, Collins decided to open a private school right in her own home – the Westside Preparatory School. Collins’s private school had humble beginnings, and her first students included her two children and the children of her neighbors.

Some of her students were having learning difficulties, but her dedication and talent enabled her to educate the children who garnered scores of not less than five grades higher on standardized tests.

Collins’ success earned her the reputation for “teaching the unteachable,” and her achievements gained national attention.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • Collins’ teaching methods impressed US president Ronald Reagan who eventually offered her the post of secretary of education. She declined the offer citing her intention to develop the Westside Preparatory School as her main reason.
  • When she returned to Chicago Public Schools, she improved the ratings of two of three schools with the worst academic records by 85% in a matter of six months.
  • Collins received over 40 honorary degrees. She is recognized as a world-legendary woman.

Idealism runs in the blood of every individual, no matter how humble his life may be. But for these African-American heroes of academia, it is a totally different world.

They’ve been struggling not only for equality and their civil rights but for education rights in the land that they have helped to attain the economic, political, and military power that it has today.

Against the odds, these black educators continued to reach for their aspirations for knowledge and to educate the Black American population. And then, one day, when it all happened, we can only thank them for their bravery, labor, and determination.

Their efforts, persistence, and resilience were instrumental in making each person realize that we are all the same beneath our skin. Thank you for making good things happen for all African-Americans and people of color all over the world.


49 Top U.S. College and University Presidents

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