Throwback Thursday: African-American Historical Inventory

If you have answered yes to any of these questions, then find the same numbered biography of a famous African-American who exhibited the same characteristics as you do in the paragraphs numbered below. You too may be destined for great accomplishments!

Check yourself and find yourself among the greats!


  1. Do you have a business idea for a product that seems too commonplace or ordinary to market?
  2. Are you fascinated by little experiments that explode and gush all over your bathroom or kitchen?
  3. Do you tinker incessantly because you are absorbed in how mechanical things work or could work better?
  4. Do you feel called to work against poverty and prejudice through the church?
  5. Are you interested in how different groups of people do the same things in different ways?
  6. Are you always reading and thinking about social conditions in America and in the world?
  7. Do you have the power to draw people to feel differently because of what you are saying or doing?
  8. Do you keep journals and letters and little essays that you have been writing for years?
  9. Do you find creative solutions to problems and work well with the public?
  10. Have you always wanted to go where there are no paths, or do you get lost a lot?
  11. Can you bring clay or paint or pencil to life? Are you always doodling and crafting things?
  12. Do you float when you walk, and does disciplined movement captivate you?

If you have answered yes to any of these questions, then find the same numbered biography of a famous African-American who exhibited the same characteristics as you do in the paragraphs numbered below. You too may be destined for great accomplishments!


Madam C. J. Walker (Sarah Breedlove) (1867-1919), the first African-American woman to become a millionaire by her own efforts, recounts that a dream from God showed her how to make a hair-care product for Black women. She became the first traveling cosmetics saleslady, investing not only in selling products to Black women but also in encouraging other African-American women to become entrepreneurs as well.

Natural Sciences

Percy Julian (1899-1931) was an organic chemist who followed in the intellectual tradition of George Washington Carver. At DePaul University, where he pioneered research into synthetic physostigmine used for treating glaucoma.

Percy Julian saved the lives of countless service personnel in World War II through the use of his invention “aerofoam,” a soybean-based product for extinguishing fires. He is best known for inexpensive mass production of cortisone, used in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.

Physical Sciences

Elijah J. McCoy (1843-1929) revolutionized the industrial world with his lubricator cup, a device for continuously lubricating the moving parts of a machine while it is operating. Though well trained in mechanical engineering in Europe, McCoy was repeatedly denied a position because of racial prejudice. He finally accepted a job as a firefighter for a railroad. Annoyed by the menial task of lubricating the train’s moving parts, he began experimenting with self-lubricating techniques.

His invention brought dozens of requests from major companies, since it greatly increased business profits by reducing labor and time. But many companies, shocked to find that an African-American had invented it, canceled his appointments and refused to use the lubricator cup. Anyone who owned the revolutionary new process boasted of having the “real McCoy,” an expression that still means authenticity and quality today.


Francis James Grimke (1850-1937) was a powerful and dedicated clergyman. The second son of a slaveholder and a household slave, Grimke was privileged until the death of his father, after which his own ‘brother eventually forced him into slavery til emancipation. Sponsored by a White abolitionist through Lincoln and Howard universities, Grimke entered Princeton Theological Seminary, where he earned his doctorate in divinity. A popular preacher and social advocate, Grimke published many sermons and lectures opposing segregation, Jim Crow laws, and lynching. With W.E.B. Du Bois and others, he became one of the founders of the NAACP.


Niara Sudarkasa (1938- ) earned a Ph.D. degree in anthropology from Columbia University as the culmination of an interest in linkages between continental and diasporan Africa. Living in a Yoruba village in Nigeria during the sixties increased her conviction that African-Americans shared important cultural ties with continental Africa despite the ravages of the enslavement. Her theoretical position—that where African-Americans were denied the direct transfer of cultural customs and behaviors they engaged in cultural transformations became an important foundational work for the development of the greatest challenge to the Western intellectual tradition—Afrocentricity.


W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), perhaps the greatest multidimensional genius of the twentieth century, was the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. degree from Harvard University and authored some 100 books and journal articles, including the classic Souls of Black Folks, in which he speaks of the “double consciousness” of being Black in America. A powerful activist against racism, Du Bois began the Niagara Movement in 1905 and co-founded the NAACP, where he devoted most of his life to justice and freedom for African-Americans. He expanded his movement to include colonized Africans as well and began the Pan African Congress in 1919.

Tired of the political opposition he faced throughout his life, Du Bois emigrated to Ghana in West Africa, where he died in August 1963.

Dramatic Arts

Cicely Tyson (1933- ), a well-known and respected actress, has had a distinguished career on the stage, screen, and television. Her credits include the Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Sounder, and other roles too numerous to mention. One distinguishing feature of all her roles is the care and deliberation with which she has chosen characters, who have always been courageous and intrepid Black women, never stereotypical or negative.


Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) was a journalist of tremendous drive and talent who co-founded the NAACP in advancement of her relentless antilynching campaign.

Wells, one of the first Blacks to sue for discrimination in transportation when she was thrown out of a “ladies” car because of her color, started a boycott of the Memphis trolley system until it became desegregated. In 1891 she wrote her first newspaper article for the Free Speech, a Black newspaper, and eventually became its co-owner while acting as correspondent to at least four other papers.

Her literary campaign against lynching began when her friend Thomas Moss was ruthlessly murdered for opening up a successful store. Through careful research, Wells refuted the racist idea that Black men who were lynched were killed because they raped White women. Afterward she singlehandedly frustrated the reinstatement campaign of an Illinois sheriff who had permitted what became, thanks to this courageous woman, the last lynching in that state.


Unita Blackwell (1933- ), a political activist working for voter rights in Mississippi, found herself a target for harassment; she was arrested by the police every day for a month! However, despite repeated threats and violent outbreaks, she went with her mentor and friend Fannie Lou Hamer to Atlantic City as a founding member of the Mississippi Freedom Democracy Party, which challenged the all-White delegation to the Democratic Convention in 1964. In 1976 [MEd Blackwell became the first Black mayor in Mississippi and was elected chairperson of the Black Women Mayors’ Caucus. She continues to work internationally for human and civil rights.

Geographic Explorer

Matthew Henson (1866-1955) was a seaman-explorer who traveled extensively in the most exotic locales of this planet. He met Commander Robert Peary in 1888 and was recommended to him as a valet. But it soon became clear to Peary that Henson’s sterling qualification in charting and navigation, trading and survival construction, made him a valued member of his expedition teams. Despite privation and numerous physical hardships, on April 6, 1909, Peary and Henson became the first two Americans to reach the North Pole. It was not until 1961, that Henson was posthumously acknowledged in Annapolis, Maryland, as co-discoverer of the “top of the world.”

Visual Arts

Elizabeth Catlett (1919- ) is considered the finest African-American sculptor in the world. Her greatest works include a life-size bust of Phyllis Wheatly, commissioned by Jackson State University and a 10-foot bronze of Louis Armstrong, commissioned by the city of New Orleans. A product of the Harlem Renaissance era, Elizabeth Catlett studied art with James Porter and Grant Wood (American Gothic). Her choice of theme reflects her rich commitment to African-Americans and to women of color. She has been living and working in Mexico for nearly 50 years and is considered an exceptional artist/activist in both countries.

Performing Arts

Katherine Dunham (1909- ) anthropologist-choreographer, studied in Africa and in the Caribbean. After carefully observing and imitating folk dance movements, she returned to the American stage and completely altered the art of dance by introducing torso and hip movement, the hallmark of African dance elements. She performed throughout the country, as well as in theater and film. In the sixties she made her home in East Saint Louis, where she instituted the Katherine Dunham Center for the Performing Arts at Southern Illinois University. In 1983 she became the recipient of the coveted Kennedy Center Honors. The “Dunham technique” is still taught in dance departments throughout the country.

Originally published in Message Magazine in the January/February 1995 Edition and written by Erylene Piper-Mandy

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