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13 Things About Black History Month You Didn’t Learn in School

From the first African American to fly across the country to the discovery of the last known slave ship in the United States, there's a lot you don't know about Black History Month.


Black History Month

Every year in February we celebrate the contributions of Black Americans as part of Black History Month, but even so, there are many groundbreaking people, places, and things whose legacy has been overlooked or forgotten. Read on for facts to celebrate Black History Month that deserve to be remembered every month of the year.

Lorraine MotelErik Pendzich/Shutterstock

The National Civil Rights Museum is in a somber location

Everyone should visit the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee; it’s an immersive experience, steeped in history and emotion. And it’s not only the artifacts the museum houses that are notable. The museum itself is located on the former site of the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was tragically assassinated on April 4, 1968. The facade is still there to remind visitors of what happened that day. Noelle Trent, PhD, director of interpretations, collections, and education at the museum tells Reader’s Digest, “The preservation of historic sites, especially the Lorraine Motel, is important because the physical structures, space, and geography interpret history in a manner that can not be expressed by words or photographs. There is power in a place.” Don’t miss these 14 rarely seen photos of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Fort Mose, St. Augustine, BoardwalkQualityImagePro/Shutterstock

The importance of Fort Mose

Of all the cities you learned about in school that no longer exist, Fort Mose is arguably one of the most important. More than 250 years ago when escaped slaves made their way to St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest continuously inhabited city in America, they were welcomed by the Spanish, who valued their skills and contributions. In 1738, the governor rewarded them by establishing the town that went on to become known as Fort Mose. It was the first officially sanctioned town for freed black men in what is now the United States.

Dr. James McCune Smithvia Schomburg Center / New York Public Library

James McCune Smith was the first African American doctor

James McCune Smith was the first African American to hold a medical degree and the first African American to run a pharmacy. Despite his intelligence and obvious love of learning, he was forced to travel to Scotland to earn his degree from the University of Glasgow because no American university was willing to admit him. After graduating in 1837, he practiced medicine for nearly two decades at the Colored Orphan Asylum in Manhattan, contributed papers to scholarly journals, and was widely respected as an intellectual. He was an abolitionist who helped runaway slaves find their way to freedom via the Underground Railroad. Despite his accomplishments, Smith was never admitted into the American Medical Association. Find out about the trailblazing Hispanic Americans who made history.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Everett/Shutterstock (10288617a) The Civil Rights Movement began in the late 1940s with small demonstrations such as this one by NAACP youth members protesting Texas segregation laws. Historical CollectionEverett Collection/Shutterstock

Students had a big impact on the Civil Rights Movement

When people think of the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, they usually think of towering figures like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. but the movement was also comprised of ordinary people who decided to change the world by fighting injustice. “Young people have been critical actors in the fight for civil rights in the United States,” Kent shares. “From the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to the Congress for Racial Equality’s Freedom Riders to 1964 Freedom Summer’s Council of Federated Organizations, youths were participants and leaders in key protest movements. They leveraged their innovative techniques to work within the community to challenge the status quo.”

George Edwin TaylorCourtesy University of North Florida

George Edwin Taylor ran for president in 1904

Long before Barrack Obama became the first African American president of the United States, George Edwin Taylor ran for president as a member of the National Negro Liberty Party in 1904. Though the journalist and a newspaper editor received only 2,000 votes, Taylor deserves to be remembered for his groundbreaking political run. Find out more history lessons you never learned in high school.

Photo by Everett/Shutterstock (10293662a) Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Godmother of Rock n Roll, performing in an MGM studio in 1961. Historical CollectionEverett Collection/Shutterstock

Sister Rosetta Tharpe knew how to rock

When it comes to rock and roll, the boys seem to get all the credit but Sister Rosetta Tharpe was known as the Godmother of Rock and Roll for a reason. Born in 1915, Tharpe blazed a trail as surely as she blazed her guitar, combining both secular and spiritual music in her own unique brand of rock and roll. She went on to influence future greats like Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash. This puts her in great company with other pioneering women who changed the world.

wilma rudolph african american olympic runner AP/Shutterstock

Wilma Rudolph was an athlete and activist

Wilma Rudolph was an African American athlete who became the first woman to win three medals at the Summer Olympics in 1960. Having achieved her dream, she returned home and refused to participate in a celebratory parade if it was segregated. As a result, the parade and banquet thrown in her honor were the first events to be integrated in her hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee. It was an Olympic moment that changed history.

plane Bettmann/Getty Images

James Banning’s inspiring achievement

You’ve probably heard of Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earheart, but the name James Banning deserves to be right up there with them. Accompanied by Thomas Allen, the pair departed from Los Angeles on September 18th, 1932 and landed in Long Island, New York on October 9th, 1932, making Banning the first African American pilot to fly across the country. Tragically, Banning was killed in a plane crash just three months later participating in an air show.

clotildaJay Reeves/AP/Shutterstock

The wreckage of America’s last known slave ship was finally found

Although slavery was still legal, importing new slaves was a crime in 1860 when a plantation owner bet he could sneak a new slave ship into the country. The ship was the Clotilda and as soon as it reached its destination the captain transferred his prisoners to a new boat and deliberately sank the ship to avoid detection. The year was 1860. In 2019, it was announced that the wreckage of the Clotilda had been found in Alabama’s Mobile River. The story of the Clotilda is one of 50 facts about America that most Americans don’t know.

Michelle Obama Suzanne Cordeiro/Shutterstock

Michelle Obama is so much more than our former first lady

Michelle Obama will go down in history as the first African American first lady but her accomplishments don’t begin or end there. Obama is a mom, a Harvard-educated lawyer and her book, Becoming, was the best-selling book of 2018 and the second best-selling book of 2019. To soak in a little bit of her grace and wisdom, read these inspiring quotes by Michelle Obama.

paul laurence dunbar high school chicagoHedrich Blessing/Getty Images

The first public African American high school opened in 1870

The first public African American high school, Paul Laurence Dunbar High opened in Washington D.C. in 1870, just five years after the end of the Civil War. The school graduated many luminaries including the first black general in the army, the first black presidential cabinet member, and the first black graduate of the Naval Academy. Many high schools, including Dunbar Vocational High School in Chicago pictured above, have also adopted his name. Here are more facts you never knew about Washington D.C.

Booker T. Washington Glasshouse Images/Shutterstock

The first African American to dine at the White House as a guest feared for his life

In 1901, with segregation still in force, President Theodore Roosevelt invited educator Booker T, Washington, a former slave, to dine with him and his family at the White House. News of the dinner led to outrage and even death threats for Washington. He later said he almost didn’t accept the invitation, knowing it would be controversial, but he “felt compelled to accept on behalf of his entire race.” If you’re ever invited to eat at the White House, be sure to read up on these dinner etiquette rules everyone in the White House must follow.

sculpture of Alice Allison Dunnigan, Washington. African American White House Journalist Jose Luis Magana/AP/Shutterstock

Alice Dunnigan was a hero of journalism

Born in 1906 Dunnigan was the first female African American White House correspondent in a time when the nation was still largely segregated. She endured many indignities including going three years straight without President Dwight D. Eisenhower calling on her for a single question. The dry spell was broken when JFK called on her only eight minutes into his first press conference. Today Dunnigan is considered a groundbreaker in the field of journalism. There are so many incredible women you probably didn’t learn about in history class.

Tamara Gane
Tamara Gane is a regular contributor to Reader's Digest covering travel, lifestyle, history, and culture. Her work has also appeared in The Washington Post, NPR, Al Jazeera, Wine Enthusiast, Lonely Planet, HuffPost Food, and more. You can follow her on Twitter @TamaraGane