In 1976, exactly 200 years after the founding of our nation, Black History Month was established. The month-long celebration honors African American people and events in our history. February was selected for Black History Month because it coincided with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Our nation owes a great deal to countless African American leaders, from Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks and many more.
In honor of Black History Month, we wanted to highlight three significant, but often overlooked, African American leaders who had an enduring impact on business, education and the arts:
- Maggie Walker: An entrepreneur and businesswoman from Richmond, Virginia, Maggie Walker was the first woman to charter a bank in the United States. She founded a newspaper and department store as well. She served as Grand Secretary of the Independent Order of St. Luke, which was a fraternal organization dedicated to economic independence and improving the lives of African Americans. Walker’s home is now a National Historic Site operated by the National Park Service in Richmond.
- Mary Jane Patterson: Originally from Raleigh, North Carolina, Mary Jane Patterson was born into slavery in 1840. She fled to Ohio with
her parents and siblings and became the first African American woman in the United States to graduate from an established four-year college. She received her bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College. After graduating, she spent her life as an educator in Philadelphia and Washington, DC, primarily working with African American high school students.
- James E. Lewis: One of the most prominent and significant artists of the 20th century, James E. Lewis was a sculptor who developed the art department and
gallery at Morgan State University in Maryland. He chaired the university’s art department from 1950 – 1986. One of his most famous works, “Black Soldier,” is located in Baltimore’s War Memorial Plaza and is pictured above.
We believe it’s how you live that matters and recognizing the trailblazers who came before us, especially those unsung heroes, is critical to understanding who we are and the history of our country. We encourage you to learn more about the history of this special month and explore the Smithsonian’s recently-opened National Museum of African American History and Culture.