More African American Firsts and Accomplishments (Black History Month)

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A Brief History

On February 1, 1998, Lillian E. Fishburne became the first African American woman promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral (2 stars) in the United States Navy.  In keeping with the spirit of Black History Month (every February) and expanding on our previous articles celebrating African American achievements, we take this opportunity to cite even more impressive achievements by African Americans, not just “firsts,” but other great accomplishments as well.  (And see our recent article dated January 18, 2021), “Historic African American Firsts”) Who would you add to this list?

Digging Deeper

Lillian E. Fishburne, 1st African American Woman Rear Admiral

Lillian earned her commission as a US Navy officer upon completing Women’s Officer School in 1973, 3 years before the United States began allowing women to attend US military service academies.  She earned her BA from Lincoln University, Oxford, Pennsylvania (Sociology) and her MA from Webster College, St. Louis, Missouri (Management).  She went on to earn a second Master of Science Degree from the Naval Postgraduate School (Telecommunications Systems Management) and later added a diploma from the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.  Yeah, we think she could have earned an appointment to the US Naval Academy and graduated with honors!  Her initial assignments in the Navy were in personnel and recruiting, and she later shifted to telecommunications and computers, an incredibly important part of the modern Navy.  She retired in 2001, but not before earning an enviable number of medals and awards.

Ralph Bunche, 1st African American Nobel Prize recipient

Born in Detroit, Michigan in 1904, Bunche lived through the “Jim Crow” era of racial discrimination in the United States and beat the pervasive racism of his era to earn a BA from UCLA (Valedictorian of the Class of 1927!) and a PhD from Harvard, so becoming the 1st African American man to earn a PhD in Political Science from an American university.  Not impressed enough?  He added 3 years of post-doctoral academic work at the London School of Economics.  Bunche worked as a professor at Howard University from 1928 to 1950, and also served in various functions at Harvard, Oberlin, Lincoln University and New Lincoln School.  During World War II Bunche applied his knowledge as an officer of the OSS, the agency that later became the CIA.  He then joined the US Department of State, and worked on setting up the United Nations.  With the establishment of the new state of Israel in 1947, the tensions in the Middle East between Arab nations and Israel had broken out into a shooting war, which Bunche brokered the peace that at least temporarily stopped the shooting, earning himself the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1950.  Bunche continued his role as an American and World diplomat, culminating in his appointment as Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations in 1968.  In the meantime, Bunche also tirelessly applied himself to the cause of Civil Rights in the United States and took part in some of the momentous events of the time (1960’s).  Sadly, he died at the age of only 67 in 1971.

Thomas L. Jennings, 1st African American awarded a patent

You may see references to Henry Blair as the “First African American Inventor,” but it was Jennings that actually applied for and was awarded the first patent in the United States to an African American man.  His patent was for a method of dry cleaning way back in 1821.  Numerous African Americans have contributed great inventions to the world and American society, notably Garrett Morgan, who invented one of the first practical and effective gas masks and the 3 position traffic signal.

Sarah E. Goode and Judy W. Reed, 1st African American Woman awarded a patent

Depending on how you like to give credit for such things, Goode is sometimes listed as the 1st African American woman granted a patent (1885) for her invention of a space saving folding bed to be used in the cramped confines of New York City tenements.  Reed invented a bread dough kneading machine and was granted a patent in 1884, but signed her name with an “X” instead of a regular signature, creating the debate as to which woman deserves credit as the first to be granted a patent.  We believe they both deserve credit!  Goode was born in Toledo, Ohio, and Reed was from Washington, D.C..

LeBron James, 2020 Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year

LBJ might not be the first African American athlete so honored, but we include him because he is our favorite basketball player.  In spite of his indisputable greatness, his focus is always on the team, winning the games and the championship and NOT on himself.  Not only the consummate team player, James also contributes an enormous amount of money and effort to better his community.  He also happens to be pretty darn funny and a good actor.  LeBron has a pretty good chance of going down in basketball history as the Greatest of All Time (GOAT), though his off-court accomplishments will ultimately outweigh his hardwood achievements.  LeBron and the LA Lakers won the 2020 NBA Championship, giving LeBron his 4th Championship ring.  Can he do it again in 2021?  We think he can and will, barring catastrophic injury or worsened pandemic.

Frank Robinson, Baseball Legend and Pioneering African American Manager

In discussing great African American baseball Hall of Famers, a name that jumps out that cannot be ignored is Frank Robinson, a slugger for several teams and the only player ever to win the League MVP award in both the American and the National League.  He retired with 586 home runs and won the exceedingly rare batting Triple Crown in 1966 when he led the American League with 49 home runs, 122 RBI’s and batting an average of .316.  A 14 time All-Star, Robinson played from 1956 to 1976, covering a time when Black players were often jeered and booed despite their on field performance.  By 1975, the racial climate had improved markedly in the United States after the turmoil of the 1960’s, and in that year the Cleveland Indians made Frank Robinson the first African American Manager (actually a player manager for that first year) of a major league baseball team.  Today we take it for granted that African Americans can be baseball managers or the head coach of other sports teams, but all these many Black managers and coaches today can trace their heritage to Frank Robinson.  Robinson went on to manage the Giants, Orioles and Expos/Nationals after leaving the Indians.  Sadly, Robinson died on February 7, 2019.  (Cause of death was bone cancer.)

Bonus entry: Lloyd Austin, First African American Secretary of Defense

After this article was written, incoming US President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. nominated retired US Army General Lloyd Austin for the post of Secretary of Defense.  Approved by the US Senate on January 22, 2021, Austin thus became the first African American Secretary of Defense in US history.  Austin is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, and has an MA from Auburn University and an MBA from Webster University.  A veteran of the War on Terror (Iraq and Afghanistan), Austin is the recipient of the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the Silver Star, among his many decorations.

Question for students (and subscribers): Which of these great citizens were you unaware of before reading this article?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Skipper, John C. Frank Robinson: A Baseball Biography. McFarland, 2014.

Stewart, Jeffrey. 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About African American History.  Three Rivers Press, 1898.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Petty Officer 2nd Class Scott Bigley of Adm. Michelle Howard, vice chief of Naval Operations, Rear Adm. Annie B. Andrews, commander, Navy Recruiting Command (NRC), and retired Rear Adm. Lillian E. Fishburne standing on stage during NRC’s change of command ceremony at Naval Support Activity Mid-South on Sept. 4, 2015, is a work of a sailor or employee of the U.S. Navy, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, it is in the public domain in the United States.


About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.