Each February, families across the U.S. celebrate Black History Month — a nationwide celebration of the many ways in which African Americans have shaped our country. Launched in 1929, the holiday was originally a single week meant to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln on Feb. 12 and Frederick Douglass on Feb. 14. Today, it's a monthlong celebration distinctly American in its inception.
If your kids are elementary-age, they'll undoubtedly learn about icons such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Harriet Tubman. And although they both played a pivotal role in shaping our nation, there are plenty more icons to celebrate during Black History Month. This February, why not inspire your child with these African American inventors, athletes, artists and other trailblazers?
A track and field athlete, Jesse Owens made history by winning four gold medals in the Olympics in 1936. Just one year earlier, he set three world records and tied another during the Big Ten track meet. Specializing in sprints and long jump, these wins secured his status as one of the greatest athletes in track and field history.
Born in Alabama to two sharecroppers, Jessie moved with his parents and nine other siblings to Ohio as a child. By the time he reached high school, he was already well on his way to becoming a track star. He shattered three records in a single day as an athlete at Ohio State University and would go on to be one of the greatest athletes of all time.
Ask Miko: “Who is Jesse Owens?”
A judge and attorney, Jane Bolin was the first African American woman to join the New York City Bar Association. From 1939 until her 1979 retirement, she served on the bench of the New York City Domestic Relations Court as the first Black female judge in U.S. history.
During her career, Jesse was an activist for children’s rights and education causes, sitting on the boards of numerous organizations including the NAACP and Child Welfare League. She also served as legal advisor to the National Council for Negro Women. She's remembered today as not only a brilliant legal mind but an ardent supporter of the Civil Rights Movement.
Maya Angelou was a poet and activist from St. Louis, Missouri. A Civil Rights leader, she gained international recognition as an author for her many memoirs. The first,I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), chronicles her early childhood through age 17. Maya continued writing and speaking publicly until her death in 2014.
During her career, Maya wrote seven autobiographies, three books of essays, an extensive collection of poetry, and many scripts for TV, film, and the stage. She also composed movie scores and was an occasional actor in motion pictures. According to her primary biographer, Marcia Ann Gillespie, by the middle of Maya's career, “she had accomplished more than many artists hope to achieve in a lifetime.”
Ask Miko: “Who is Maya Angelou?”
Misty Copeland is the American Ballet Theatre’s principal dancer, making her the first African American to be selected for the role in the ABT’s 75 years of operation. Misty didn't start learning ballet until age 13, which is unusual in the professional ballet world. Talent and hard work led to her success despite her non-traditional introduction to dance.
Misty has won numerous awards and honors, including an honorary doctorate from the University of Hartford for her contributions to ballet. The Boys & Girls Clubs of America have named her as a National Youth of the Year Ambassador, and she has also served on the Presidents’ Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition.
Serena Williams is widely considered one of the greatest tennis players of all time. She learned tennis alongside her sister, Venus, and her parents who were themselves players and coaches. She has won four Olympic gold medals and as of 2021 was the highest-paid female athlete of all time.
The tennis star popularized the term “Serena Slam” by achieving a non-calendar year Grand Slam and a career Grand Slam, holding all singles titles simultaneously. To achieve these, she faced off against her sister Venus, herself an incredibly formidable opponent, numerous times.
Perhaps the most well-known person on our list, Barack Obama was the 44th President of the United States and the first African American to be elected to the office. However, here are some things you might not know about him: He enjoys playing basketball, is a huge comic books fan and doesn't like ice cream. (He blames his distaste for his high school job at an ice cream parlor.)
When Obama was sworn into office, he used the same Bible that Abraham Lincoln used almost 150 years earlier. After spending most of his childhood in Hawaii and two terms in Washington D.C., Obama can often be found in Chicago. His Obama Foundation is located just steps from the home he and Former First Lady Michelle Obama shared in the Windy City.
Ask Miko: “Who is Barack Obama?”
Henrietta Lacks was a cancer patient who was the source of the HeLa cell line, one of the most important cell lines in medical research. The cells were taken from her body without her knowledge, and her family did not know about the line’s existence until 1975. Now, her case is used by patients’ rights advocacy groups to illustrate the importance of patient privacy regulations.
Henrietta's cell line has changed medical history. Her LeLa cell line was used to create the polio vaccine and helped scientists understand the fundamental principles of cancer prognosis.
Bessie Coleman was the first African American and Native American to hold a pilot’s license. Born in Texas, she trained as a pilot in France since the U.S. had no path toward flight school for Native Americans, African Americans or women in the early 1920s. Her brief career as a pilot and advocate for a Black flight school was ended by a plane crash in 1926.
Nicknamed "Brave Bess," Bessie would thrill audiences with her aerial loops, rolls and figure eights. She was also a fearless advocate for ending racism, refusing to fly in shows with separate gates for white and Black spectators.
Ask Miko: “Who is Bessie Coleman?”
You may have heard that George Washington Carver invented peanut butter. Although the Aztecs invented peanut butter centuries before George published “How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it For Human Consumption” in 1916, the inventor still has many notable discoveries to his name. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, George's many discoveries included bleach, chili sauce, flour, instant coffee, shaving cream, meat tenderizer, hair conditioner and even Worcestershire sauce.
Despite not inventing peanut butter, George certainly earned his nickname of the "Peanut Man." He believed peanuts could help to sustain a family during seasons when other crops could not grow, allowing the soil time to rejuvenate and serving as an alternative to more resource-intensive cotton.
Ask Miko: “Who is George Washington Carver?”
Known simply as Oprah by her millions of fans around the world, the iconic TV host helped to make the daytime talk-show format wildly popular, with “The Oprah Winfrey Show” running for 25 years. She has interviewed hundreds of world leaders including heads of state and members of the British royal family — each time using a signature conversational style that revolutionized the talk show format. At one time, she was the world’s only Black billionaire, and she has used her vast wealth and influence to support many philanthropic passions.
Oprah was born in Mississippi and was raised in Milwaukee. She rose up the talk show ranks quickly, starting with local radio before anchoring the evening news at the age of 19. She started her own production company after having the highest-rated talk show in Chicago, beginning the reign of Oprah as the undisputed champion of the talk show format.
Ask Miko: Miko “Who is Oprah?”
Astronaut Mae Jemison was influenced by Bessie Coleman, the aviation pioneer who is also on this list. She carried a picture of Bessie when she went to space aboard the shuttleEndeavour, becoming the first Black woman to do so while serving as a mission specialist and orbiting the Earth for 8 days. After her NASA career, Mae made many public appearances. She even became the first real-life astronaut to be featured on “Star Trek.”
During her stay in space, Mae orbited the Earth 127 times, and would often broadcast that “hailing frequencies” were open — a reference to “Star Trek.” On the collaborative mission with Japan that included more than 43 experiments, Mae participated alongside Japanese astronaut Mamoru Mohri in biofeedback exercises designed to study treatments for stress, anxiety, and other physiological responses.
Ask Miko: “Who is Mae Jemison?”
Want more ways to learn about Black History Month with your robot friend Miko? Try saying "Hello Miko" and asking, "Why is Black History Month celebrated" and "How is Black History Month celebrated?"
You can also explore the Tidbits section for fun conversations about Serena Williams, George Washington Carver and other icons.
Happy Black History Month, from the Miko family to yours.