February is African American History Month, and the U.S. Government Publishing Office (GPO) invites you to join them in observing the achievements of African Americans in U.S. history with the following facts. These facts are all found in excerpts of the Congressional Record and in Congressional resolutions on govinfo. Visit the links to learn more about the contributions made and adversities overcome by these individuals in history.
1. Bessie Coleman, the first African-American female pilot, was denied entrance to Flight Schools in America because she was a woman.
According to a 2016 tribute by Congress Member Ted Poe, “schools in America denied her entrance, so she set out to attend aviation school in France. She attended the Caudon Brother’s School of Aviation, where she completed a 10 month program in only 7 months. She also received her international aviation pilot’s license from the renowned Federation Aeronautique Internationale, making her the first African American and Native American woman to earn a pilot’s license.”
See also: 149 Cong. Rec. 10065 – Honoring Aviation’s Pioneer Women of Color.
2. James Baldwin’s first novel Go Tell It on the Mountain was a semi-autobiography.
According to Congress Member Charles B. Rangle in his 1997 celebratory remarks, the novel “explores the repression, moral hypocrisy, religious inspiration, and community ties that characterize the Black American Experience.”
3. Educator and Executive Mary McLeod Bethune walked ten miles to and from school every day.
“The first free school opened when Bethune was nine years old. She walked ten miles every day to and from school then returned home to teach what she had learned to her family,” according to Congress Member Tim Roemer’s 1994 speech. Bethune later opened her own school, the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls.
4. Dr. W.E.B. DuBois was the first African-American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University.
Congress Member Charles B. Rangle noted in 2003 that DuBois “obtained his doctor’s degree from Harvard” and went on to play “a prominent part in the creation of the NAACP.”
See also: H. Con. Res. 72 (IH) – Expressing the sense of Congress that W.E.B. DuBois should be recognized for his legacy of devotion civil rights and scholarly advancement, and as a defender of freedom.
5. Toni Morrison was the daughter of Alabama Sharecroppers.
Toni Morrison, the first black woman to receive the Nobel Prize for literature, was the “daughter of Alabama sharecroppers and granddaughter of a slave [who] has tapped the complex vein of the black experience in six novels,” according to a 2014 tribute to Toni Morrison by Congress Member Maxine Waters.
See also: S. Res. 402 (ATS) – Honoring the Life, Work, and Legacy of Toni Morrison, and 140 Cong. Rec. H23 – Tribute to Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison – An African-American Crown Jewel.
6. Jesse Owens’ name was really James Cleveland.
In a 2013 tribute in honor of Jesse Owens’ 100th birthday, Congress Member Robert B. Aderholt said “A teacher at his new school, misunderstanding when James Cleveland told her his name was J.C., called him Jesse, and the name stuck.”
7. Katherine Johnson who inspired “Hidden Figures” attended high school on West Virginia State College’s campus at age 13.
“Katherine was famously asked to run the orbital equations controlling the Friendship 7 trajectory by hand in case of a mechanical computing error…The mission, which was a success, marked a turning point in the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union,” according to a 2018 tribute from Congress Member Joe Manchin.
See also: 163 Cong. Rec. S1090 – Tribute to Katherine Johnson and Remembering Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan.
8. Gordon Parks turned to photography after becoming an orphan and high school dropout.
In a 2006 commemoration of the life of Gordon Parks, Congress Member Charles B. Rangel noted that Parks “referred to his photography as ‘his weapon against poverty and racism,’ and used his skill to give a voice to the black experience.”
See also: 152 Cong. Rec. H1566 – Honoring Gordon Parks.
9. A shopkeeper hit a teenage Harriet Tubman with a lead weight because Tubman stood up for an enslaved boy.
Tubman “recalled later in life that…after this incident she would see visions that later inspired her to escape slavery,” said Congress Member Ben Cardin in 2015 remarks on Harriet Tubman and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park.
See also: 157 Cong. Rec. S1531 – Harriet Tubman.
10. Playwright August Wilson dropped out of school at age 15 because his teacher didn’t believe that a black student could write well and accused him of plagiarism.
According to 2005 remarks by Congress Member Charles B. Rangle on “The Life and Legacy of August Wilson,” “Wilson continued his education through self-study at Carnegie Library.” Wilson went on to become a two time Pulitzer Prize winner.