Did you know that...
- Ralph Bunche was the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
- Tony Dungy was the first African American NFL coach to win a Super Bowl game.
- Eric Holder became the first African American to serve as United States Attorney General.
- Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie were the first African Americans to win Grammy awards.
- An African American doctor performed the first open-heart surgery.
Excluded from history books, overlooked in classrooms, and neglected by media, African Americans have long been denied an accurate picture of their contributions to our nation, from colonial days to the present. But times have changed and the record will be set straight. From the inventor of the traffic light and the gas mask to winners of an Oscar and the Olympic gold, this authoritative resource reveals over 450 “firsts” by African Americans—wonderful accomplishments achieved often despite poverty, discrimination, and racism.
Leaders in government, entertainment, education, science and medicine, the law, military, and in the business world, African Americans have made their mark. African American Firsts is a clear reflection of that prideful legacy, and a signpost to an even greater future.
“African American Firsts works, works well, and works brilliantly.”
—St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“For browsing or serious queries on great achievements by blacks in America.”
“Fascinating...an excellent source for browsing and for locating facts that are hard to find elsewhere.”
—School Library Journal
“Reveals African American history as Potter had never been taught in predominantly white schools.”
“I recommend this book, a tool with innumerable possibilities which will help individuals understand...the contributions and inventions of African Americans.”
—The late Dr. Betty Shabazz
Over 75 Pages of Photographs
Fully Revised and Updated
Joan Potter’s nonfiction writing has appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times, which published more than fifty of her articles. She is the co-author of two books: The Book of Adirondack Firsts, and the children’s book, African Americans Who Were First. Her personal essays appear in the anthologies Rooted in Rock, Living North Country, and Illness & Grace, Terror & Transformation, and in the Syracuse University literary journal, Stone Canoe. She has led writing workshops for Adirondack women and prison inmates, and has been teaching a memoir class since 1998 at the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center in Sleepy Hollow, New York.
What Was The First Insurance Company
Owned By African Americans?
The Afro American Insurance Company, the first known insurance
firm to be owned and managed by African Americans,
was established in Philadelphia in 1810 by three businessmen,
James Porter, William Coleman, and Joseph Randolph. The original
purpose of the company, which stayed in business for thirty
years, was to provide African Americans with a proper burial.
Who Was The Country’s First African American Millionaire?
In 1841, William Liedesdorff arrived in San Francisco Bay on his
schooner Julia Ann. Born in the Virgin Islands around 1810, the
son of an African American woman and a Danish sugar planter,
Liedesdorff left home to learn the maritime trade, working on ships
out of New Orleans. Already a wealthy man when he came to
San Francisco, he bought land, built a home, and opened a store.
He then proceeded to make a major impact on the city.
As a member of the city council, Liedesdorff was instrumental
in setting up the first public school and organizing the first official
horse race. He launched the first steamboat on San Francisco Bay
and later opened the first hotel. He eventually owned an extensive
amount of land in the city as well as a huge estate near Sutter’s
Mill, in gold-rush country. Liedesdorff died at the age of thirty-eight
from what was then called “brain fever.’’ A short street in downtown
San Francisco still bears his name.
Who Founded The First African American Labor Union?
Born in Baltimore in 1835, Isaac Myers was apprenticed at the
age of sixteen as a ship caulker, an important job in the days
of wooden-hulled ships. He was very successful, becoming supervisor
of one of the largest shipyards in Baltimore. After the Civil
War, white laborers in the city mounted an effort to eliminate all
African American skilled workers. In response, Myers organized the
ship caulkers and longshoremen who were being forced out of
their jobs, raised money from the community, and established a
black-owned cooperative shipyard.
The shipyard, the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock
Company, employed hundreds of African Americans, won a number
of government contracts, and provided the impetus for the
establishment of the Colored Caulkers’ Trade Union Society of
Baltimore. Myers then organized the first national African American
labor union in United States history—the Colored National Labor
Union—and became its first president. Later, Myers held several
government positions and was a key member of Baltimore’s Republican
Party until his death in 1891.
Who Founded The First Chartered
African American Bank?
William Washington Browne, born a slave in Georgia in 1849,
was still a child when he was sold to an owner in Tennessee.
During the Civil War, Browne ran away with the Union Army and
became an officer’s servant. At fifteen, he joined the army, serving
for two years. He then attended school in Wisconsin, returning to
the South to become a schoolteacher.
A fervent leader in the temperance movement and an ordained
Methodist minister, Browne became the head of an organization for
African Americans called the Grand Fountain of the United Order
of True Reformers, based in Richmond, Virginia. Browne’s organization
grew to include an insurance company, a hotel, an office building,
a concert hall, and the True Reformers Savings Bank, which,
when it opened in 1889, became the first African American bank in
the United States to receive a charter. In 2001, the city of Richmond
acquired the William Washington Browne House, which had served
as the site of the bank, and joined with the National Park Service
to restore this National Historic Landmark.
Who Was The First Woman In America
To Become A Bank President?
Maggie Lena Walker was born in 1867 in Richmond, Virginia,
where her parents worked in the mansion of a noted abolitionist,
Elizabeth Van Lew, who believed in providing her servants
with a good education. When Maggie’s father found a job
as a headwaiter in a hotel, the family moved into its own home.
But after he was killed in a robbery, her mother had to support the
family as a laundress. A bright student, Walker finished her education
and became a teacher. She later took a job with the Independent
Order of St. Luke Society, an African American organization
that assisted sick and elderly members and provided burial services.
As executive secretary of the Society, Walker expanded it into
an insurance company, and in 1903 she founded the St. Luke Penny
Savings Bank, becoming its president and the first woman bank
president in the United States. Her bank provided small cardboard
boxes to children in which they could save their pennies; when
they had saved a dollar, they could open a savings account. Walker
served as president until the bank merged with two others to form
the Consolidated Bank and Trust Company, for which she served
as chairman of the board.
Walker started a department store in the African American neighborhood
of Richmond and worked for women’s suffrage. The house
in Richmond where she died in 1934 was named a National Historic
Site. During Women’s History Month, in March 2001, Virginia
Congressman Robert C. “Bobby’’ Scott honored this remarkable
woman in a speech before the House of Representatives, in which
he described her accomplishments.
What Was The First African
American–Owned Car Company?
The Patterson family of Greenfield, Ohio, began manufacturing
the Patterson-Greenfield line of cars, trucks, and buses in 1915.
The patriarch of the family was Charles Richard Patterson, who had
escaped from slavery in West Virginia and settled in Ohio, where
he ran a blacksmith business. It was there that he founded the
Charles R. Patterson Carriage Company, which started making horse-
drawn vehicles in the 1860s. After Patterson died, his son, Frederick,
took over and decided to manufacture automobiles. The first
car sold for $850. The company went out of business in the 1930s,
when it could no longer compete with large car manufacturers.
What Was The First Record Company
Owned By An African American?
In 1921 Harry Pace formed the Pace Phonographic Corporation,
which issued records on the Black Swan label. It was the first
record company owned and operated by an African American.
The label was named for the renowned singer Elizabeth Taylor
Greenfield, who was called “the Black Swan.’’ Earlier, in 1908, Pace
had organized a music publishing company in Memphis, Tennessee,
with the blues composer W. C. Handy. The Pace and Handy Music
Company moved to New York in 1918, but the partnership dissolved
three years later when Pace formed his record business.
For his record company, Pace brought in Fletcher Henderson
as recording manager and William Grant Still as arranger. His first
releases featured performances of light classical music, blues, spirituals,
and instrumental solos. Black Swan’s first hit was a recording
of “Down Home Blues’’ and “Oh, Daddy,’’ sung by Ethel Waters.
Although Pace recorded many outstanding artists, he was unable
to withstand the competition from white-owned companies, and
was forced to declare bankruptcy in December 1923. A few months
later he sold the Black Swan label to Paramount Records.
Who Organized And Served As The First
President Of The First Major
African American Trade Union?
One of the country’s leading spokesmen for African American
workers, A. Philip Randolph was born in Florida in 1889. After
moving to New York City at the age of twenty, he worked as a
waiter and an elevator operator, and in both jobs he tried to organize
his fellow workers to protest deplorable conditions.
In 1925 Randolph decided to organize the poorly paid men and
women who worked on railroad sleeping cars. He founded the all-
black International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and served
as its first president, a position he held for forty-three years. In addition,
he was the first African American to serve as international
vice-president of the AFL-CIO, a major labor organization formed
Randolph also made history by proposing a major march on
Washington to take place on July 1, 1941. It was to be a march of
African Americans from all over the country to protest discrimination
against black workers in the defense industry. President
Franklin Roosevelt tried to dissuade him, but Randolph said the
march would take place unless the president issued an order banning
discrimination in defense plants. Roosevelt finally gave in
and issued the executive order on June 25.
In 1947, Randolph began putting pressure on President Harry Truman,
who had created a peacetime draft but had not included a provision
to desegregate the armed forces. Finally, the next year, Truman
issued an order that did away with discrimination in the military.
Randolph was also the director of the famous 1963 March on
Washington, which called for civil rights for African Americans and
made Martin Luther King Jr. a national figure. The chief organizer
of the march was Bayard Rustin, whose selection caused some opposition
because he was known to be a conscientious objector, a
socialist, and a homosexual. After Randolph’s death in 1979, the
crowd of prominent people who attended his funeral was led by
President Jimmy Carter.
Who Was The First African American Woman To Start A Modeling Agency?
Ophelia DeVore-Mitchell, one of the first African American models
in the United States, was born in Edgefield, South Carolina,
in 1922. She moved with her family to New York City in the 1930s,
enrolling in the Vogue School of Modeling when she was seventeen.
She modeled for several years before deciding to help other African
American women overcome stereotypes and succeed in the field.
In 1946 she opened the Grace Del Marco Model Agency, and
two years later she started the Ophelia DeVore School of Self-
Development and Modeling. But she didn’t stop there. She initiated
a fashion column for the Pittsburgh Courier, created a line of
cosmetics, and, in 1959, began publishing a weekly African American
newspaper in Georgia, the Columbus Times. During her long
career, DeVore-Mitchell served on boards and committees under
four presidents, including the president’s advisory committee on
the arts for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.