Noble Drew Ali, who was born Timothy Drew of North Carolina, was the founder of the Moorish Science Temple of America in Newark, N.J., in 1923. Soon after there were branches in Pittsburgh, Detroit, and other major industrial cities of the Northeast.
Ali saw Black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey as the inspiration for his own efforts. He wanted to present to Black people a message of pride, self-determination, personal transformation and self-sufficiency. Ali also intended to provide African-Americans with a sense of identity in the West, and promote civic involvement.
His movement inspired other leaders such as Fard Muhammad and Elijah Muhammad, leading to the creation of the Nation of Islam.
Claudette Colvin (born Sept. 5, 1939)
On March 2, 1955, a full nine months before Rosa Parks’ famous arrest, Claudette Colvin was dragged from a Montgomery bus by two police officers, arrested and taken to an adult jail to be booked. She was only 15 years old and was the first person to be arrested for defying bus segregation in Montgomery.
Her arrest and her story has long since been forgotten, but it provided the spark for the Black community in Montgomery that ultimately led to Parks’ actions, the bus boycott, and the Supreme Court ruling to end segregation on buses.
Benjamin Singleton (1809–1900)
Benjamin “Pap” Singleton was an American activist and businessman best known for his role in establishing African-American settlements in Kansas.
Held in slavery in Tennessee, Singleton escaped to freedom in 1846 and became a noted abolitionist, community leader and spokesman for African-American civil rights. He returned to Tennessee during the Union occupation in 1862, but soon concluded that Blacks would never achieve economic equality in the white-dominated South.
After the end of Reconstruction, Singleton organized the movement of thousands of Black colonists, known as Exodusters, to found settlements in Kansas. A prominent early voice for Black nationalism, he became involved in promoting and coordinating Black-owned businesses in Kansas, and developed an interest in the Back-to-Africa movement.
Robert Smalls (April 5, 1839 – Feb. 23, 1915)
Robert Smalls was an African-American born into slavery in Beaufort, S.C., but during and after the American Civil War, he became a ship’s pilot, sea captain, and politician.
He freed himself, his crew and their families from slavery on May 13, 1862, when he led an uprising aboard a Confederate transport ship, the CSS Planter, in Charleston harbor, and sailed it north to freedom. His feat successfully helped persuade President Abraham Lincoln to accept African-American soldiers into the Union Army.
As a politician, Smalls authored state legislation that gave South Carolina the first free and compulsory public school system in the United States.
Madam Efunroye Tinubu (c.1805-1887)
Madam Tinubu was born in Yorubaland, an area in what is now known as Nigeria. She was a major political and business player, who campaigned against the influence of the British Empire over her people and for the elimination of slavery.
She became the first Iyalode of the Egba clan and is considered an important figure in Nigerian history because of her political significance as a powerful female aristocrat in West Africa. Iyalode (queen of ladies) is a title commonly bestowed on the most prominent and distinguished woman in a town.
After Tinubu, a former slave trader herself, realized the treatment of Africans enslaved in Europe and the Americas was far more inhumane than the way slavery was practiced in Africa, she became a scathing opponent of all forms of slavery and used her influence to try to eliminate the practice in her region.
Matthew Henson (Aug. 8, 1866 – March 9, 1955)
Born to sharecroppers on a farm in Nanjemoy, Md., Matthew Alexander Henson became the first African-American Arctic explorer, and is credited by many as the first man to reach the North Pole, in 1909.
Henson was an associate of the American explorer Robert Peary on seven voyages over a period of nearly 23 years. Henson served as a navigator and craftsman, traded with Inuit and learned their language. He was known as Peary’s “first man” when it came to tackling the arduous expeditions.
Miriam Makeba (March 4, 1932 – Nov. 9, 2008)
Miriam Makeba or “Mama Africa,” was a South African singer and civil rights activist, known for denouncing apartheid on the world stage and campaigning abroad for the end of the oppressive policy.
As a result of her activism, her South African passport was revoked in 1960 by the apartheid regime, and they banned her from returning to her country in 1963. However, the world came to Makeba’s aid and Guinea, Belgium and Ghana issued her international passports. She received passports from six other countries in her lifetime, and was granted honorary citizenship in 10 countries.
Despite the success that made her a star, she refused to wear makeup or curl her hair for performances, proudly wearing what came to be known internationally as the “Afro-look.”