7 Amazing African American Leaders Who Changed the Way Our Children Are Educated

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While we experience, and hopefully appreciate, the influence of these pioneers and innovators all year long, Black History Month is a great time to reflect on the accomplishments of America’s black leaders, especially those who helped to shape the education of our nation’s children. Following are seven black leaders whose accomplishments, activism, and general contributions had a significant impact on education, with effects felt even to this day. 

Edmund W. Gordon

Edmund W. Gordon [Teachers College, CU / Twitter]

Gordon is chair of the College Board’s National Task Force on Minority High Achievement and has dedicated his career to improving educational opportunity. One of his many achievements was as founding director of research and evaluation for Project Head Start. His work to establish Head Start as a child development, early education, and community improvement initiative continues to have a positive impact on the 35 million young children and their families that have participated since the program was established in 1965.

Thurgood Marshall 

Thurgood Marshall [public domain]

This civil rights lawyer was the lead attorney in the groundbreaking Supreme Court case Brown vs Board of Education, which overturned segregation in public schools. The class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of a group of black parents in Topeka, Kansas, whose children were forced to attend segregated schools. Considered one of the most important cases of the 20th century, Brown vs. Board of Education paved the way for the civil rights movement that followed. Marshall went on to become the first African-American appointed as a US Supreme Court Justice, inspiring students of all races for years to come. 

Nathan Hare

Nathan Hare [Bay Area Television Archive / screenshot]

In 1968 while working at San Francisco State University, Nathan Hare created the nation’s first Black Studies program. When school administrators attempted to cut the program by half, he protested with students for months, earning national acclaim and paving the way for other universities to create their own programs dedicated to black history and education. Today more than 350 colleges and universities have formal programs dedicated to black studies. 

Carter G. Woodson 

Carter G. Woodson [National Park Service / public domain]

While earning degrees from the University of Chicago and Harvard University in the early 20th century, Carter G. Woodson noted how African Americans seemed absent from the teaching of American history. In 1915 he co-founded what is today known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). A little over 10 years later, Woodson and the ASALH launched Negro History Week to motivate schools to include the black experience in American history teachings, earning him the unofficial title “Father of Black History.”  By the 1960s colleges across the country transformed the week into Black History Month. In 1976 President Gerald Ford decreed Black History Month a national observance. Woodson says he chose the month of February for its historical significance to black history; both Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln have birthdays that month. 

Fanny Jackson Coppin 

Fanny Jackson Coppin [Library of Congress / public domain][headshot / public domain]

Born into slavery, Fanny Jackson Coppin is known as the first female African-American principal in the U.S. at the Institute for Colored Youth, breaking ground for educators to occupy roles that allowed future generations of young women and minorities to see themselves represented in leadership positions. She served for an incredible 37 years and was a champion of the advancement of education for all children, especially young girls.

Aaron Lloyd Dixon

Aaron Lloyd Dixon [Joe Mabel / public domain]

Along with other members of the Black Panther Party, Aaron Lloyd Dixon launched a program called Free Breakfast for School Children in Oakland, California, in 1969. It grew exponentially and went on to feed thousands of children before it was shut down by former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. While the USDA had piloted free breakfast programs since the mid 1960s, the Black Panther Party is credited for paving the way for its permanent authorization as a federal program in 1975. The program has fed tens of millions of schoolchildren since its inception. 

Selena Sloan Butler 

Selena Sloan Butler [public domain]

Ever wondered who founded the National Parent Teacher Association (NPTA)? Selena Sloan Butler had a big part in it. She spearheaded the National Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers Association (NCCPT), the first parent teacher association for black parents in the United States. As a teacher and parent, Butler was dedicated to getting parents more involved in their children’s education. In 1919 she formed a parent-teacher organization in Georgia. After writing many letters encouraging parents and teachers everywhere to form a union with the sole purpose of uniting in support of child welfare and education, she put out a call for the first national convention in 1926. She modeled the organization after its whites-only counterpart, the National Congress of Parents and Teachers (what is today known as the National Parent-Teacher Association). Once organizations were no longer segregated, she eventually was recognized as a co-founder of the National PTA. 

As we parents handle the daily routines of school drop-off and packing lunches, it’s all too easy to forget the trailblazers who made much of our children’s educational experience possible. Many aspects of American education, from conveniences to things we now consider fundamental rights, wouldn’t be possible without leaders like these. Let’s be sure to take a moment to remember them—during Black History Month, and every month.

The former Content Director at Parenting, and several other brands, Ana Connery is a writer and content strategist whose work appears in USA Today, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Cafe Mom/The Stir, Momtastic, and others.