In this century African Americans found struggles every way they turned. But some of those folks found ways to overcome the challenges and shine. They created stunning examples of what could be.
Josephine Baker (3 June 1906 – 12 April 1975) was an American-born French dancer, singer and actress. Her career was centered primarily in Europe, mostly in her adopted France. She was the first black woman to star in a major motion picture, the 1927 silent film Siren of the Tropics, directed by Mario Nalpas and Henri Étiévant.
She was born in St Louis, Missouri, as Freda Josephine McDonald where she had a very rough beginning. She dropped out of school at age 12 and had two failed marriages at ages 13 and 15. Then she joined a vaudeville troupe that took her to New York City. She later became part of a show, Shuffle Along in the chorus line. This would be one of the first steps to her success.
She used comedy to make herself stand out in the chorus line, and later launch a career that sent her overseas because prejudice limited what she could accomplish in the United States. In Paris she became a success which led to a career that spanned all over Europe. Some have called her the first Beyonce in that she starred in theater and movies in France and became a standout star.
She did not limit her life to performance, during World War II she became a spy for the French Resistance and later received a medal for her work. In the 1950s became active in the Civil Rights Movement traveling throughout the southern part of the United States. Ever the humanitarian, she also adopted 12 children from around the world and raise them.
Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama (born January 17, 1964) is an American attorney and author who served as first lady of the United States from 2009 to 2017. She was the first African-American woman to serve in this position. She is married to former President Barack Obama.
Raised on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois, Obama is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School. In her early legal career, she worked at the law firm Sidley Austin where she met Barack Obama. She subsequently worked in nonprofits and as the associate dean of Student Services at the University of Chicago as well as the vice president for Community and External Affairs of Affairs of the University of Chicago Medical Center. Michelle married Barack in 1992, and together they have two daughters.
After the White House, she and husband wrote books about their experiences and produced programming for Netflix.
Thurgood Marshall (July 2, 1908 – January 24, 1993) was an American civil rights lawyer and jurist who served as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1967 until 1991. He was the Supreme Court’s first African-American justice. Prior to his judicial service, he was an attorney who fought for civil rights, leading the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Marshall coordinated the assault on racial segregation in schools. He won 29 of the 32 civil rights cases he argued before the Supreme Court, culminating in the Court’s landmark 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which rejected the separate but equal doctrine and held segregation in public education to be unconstitutional.
He was born in Baltimore, MD and attended the Colored High and Training School in Baltimore, graduating in 1925 with honors. He then went to Lincoln University in Chester County, Pennsylvania, the oldest college for African Americans in the United States. Upon his graduation with honors in 1930 with a bachelor’s degree in American literature and philosophy, he went to the all-white University of Maryland Law School—applied to Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C., and was admitted.
At the age of 82 he announced his retirement in June of 1991 and began it in October because of his health issues. In January 1993 he died of heart failure. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Sidney Poitier (February 20, 1927 – January 6, 2022) was a Bahamian and American actor, film director, and diplomat. In 1964, he was the first black actor and first Bahamian to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. Poitier’s family lived in the Bahamas, then still a Crown colony, but he was born unexpectedly in Miami, Florida, while they were visiting, which automatically granted him U.S. citizenship. He grew up in the Bahamas, but moved to Miami at age 15, and to New York City when he was 16. He joined the American Negro Theatre, landing his breakthrough film role as a high school student in the film Blackboard Jungle (1955).
In 1964, he won the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for Best Actor for Lilies of the Field (1963), playing a handyman helping a group of German-speaking nuns build a chapel.
He continued to break ground in three successful 1967 films which dealt with issues of race and race relations: To Sir, with Love; Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and In the Heat of the Night, the latter of which won the Academy Award for Best Picture for that year.
In April 1997, Poitier was appointed ambassador from the Bahamas to Japan, a position he held until 2007. From 2002 to 2007, he was concurrently the ambassador of the Bahamas to UNESCO
Poitier was first married to Juanita Hardy and Joanna Shimkus. He had four daughters with his first wife (Beverly, Pamela, Sherri, and Gina) and two with his second (Anika and Sydney Tamiia).
On January 6, 2022, Poitier died at his home in Beverly Hills, California, at the age of 94.
Marvin Pentz Gay Jr. (April 2, 1939 – April 1, 1984) was an American singer and songwriter who helped shaped the Motown sound in the 1960s. He was nicknamed the “Prince of Soul.” He was born in Washington DC and was raised there where he started singing in the church. At 17 he joined the Air Force but was quickly discharged for not wanting to follow orders.
He joined a quartet called the Marquees, which later worked with Bo Diddley. After the Marquees disbanded, Gaye moved to Detroit and got a contract with Motown. In the 1960s he found success as a songwriter and singer with hits like How Sweet It Is and Aint That Peculiar. His first record to reach no 1 on Billboard Hot 100 was I Heard It Through the Grapevine.
In the 1970s he released cutting edge sounds that challenged political views with What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On. Berry Gordy refused to release the music because he thought it was too political. Gaye refused to release any new music until What’s Going On? was released.
He married Anna Gordy, Berry’s sister in 1963 and divorced her in 1977. He then married Janis Hunter in 1977 and divorced her in 1981. He had three children.
Gaye was killed by his father, Marvin Gay Sr., in 1984. His father had been diagnosis with a brain tumor and given a suspended sentence.