33 Little-Known Facts About Black History That You Didn’t Learn In School
By Kaleena Fraga | Checked By Jaclyn Anglis
Published February 5, 2022
Updated February 7, 2022
From forgotten war heroes to overlooked inventors, dive into some of the most fascinating stories from the annals of Black history.
Throughout American history, Black cowboys have roamed the plains, Black explorers have traveled to unseen lands, and Black women have broken barriers as doctors and activists. Black history is American history. And these 33 Black history facts are just the tip of the iceberg.
In the gallery below, you can explore the stories of some truly remarkable Black Americans. From Bass Reeves, the deputy who fearlessly patrolled the Wild West, to Hazel Scott, the musician who successfully played two pianos at once, these little-known Black history facts shed light on the past like never before.
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Lonnie Johnson spent his childhood tinkering with objects, including his sister's doll. After earning a scholarship to attend Tuskegee University, he found a job at NASA — and then invented an iconic water gun while puzzling over a different project in the 1980s. Thomas S. England/Getty Images
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For over 30 years, Daryl Davis has been approaching white supremacists with one simple question: "How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?" He's convinced hundreds of KKK members to give up their robes for good.YouTube
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While comforting a suicidal man, Muhammad Ali told him, "You’re my brother! I love you, and I couldn’t lie to you." Ali eventually convinced him not to jump off a building — and then took him to the hospital.
Los Angeles Public Library
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Before he became a world-famous actor, Samuel L. Jackson fought tirelessly to improve conditions for Black students on his college campus — even holding Martin Luther King Sr. hostage to draw attention to the issues at the school. While administrators agreed to some much-needed changes, Jackson was kicked out of school.Samuel L. Jackson/Hollywood Reporter
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The brilliant musician Hazel Scott spoke out against racism whenever she encountered it throughout her career and refused to play at segregated clubs. She once said, "Why would anyone come to hear me, a Negro, and refuse to sit beside someone just like me?"YouTube
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Born Oluale Kossola, Cudjo Lewis was on the last, illegal slave ship to the United States in 1860. He endured four years of slavery before he was freed — and then decided to create his own community.University of South Alabama
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Actor Morgan Freeman imported 26 hives from Arkansas to his ranch and planted magnolia, clover, lavender, and bee-friendly fruit trees so that the bees could thrive.
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Dubbed the "Harlem Hellfighters" by the cowed Germans and the "Men of Bronze" by the grateful French, the 369th Infantry Regiment proved its mettle during World War I. They were feted as heroes with a New York City parade when they returned home but also found American racism solidly in place. Wikimedia Commons
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Eugene Bullard was such a skilled pilot during World War I that the French called him "Black Swallow," but the U.S. Air Service denied him entry. And even though Bullard was seen as a hero in France, he spent his final years in the U.S. by working as an elevator operator. Wikimedia Commons
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After escaping from slavery by punching his master, Bass Reeves became one of the most effective lawmen of the Wild West. He arrested 3,000 and killed 14, once shooting an outlaw from a quarter-mile away. And some believe that his exploits inspired the Lone Ranger.Wikimedia Commons
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Known as "Baby Esther," Esther Jones delighted audiences as a young singer and dancer in the 1920s and 1930s. She was especially beloved for her signature phrase "Boop, Boop-a-Doop." But Jones eventually faded into obscurity, and a white performer named Helen Kane started copying her act, catching the eye of the cartoonist who later created Betty Boop. And though the cartoon took off, Jones never received credit or royalties.Public Domain
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Standing six feet tall, "Stagecoach Mary" Fields was said to have the "temperament of a grizzly bear." Tough as nails, she drove over 300 miles each week to deliver mail and was beloved in her town of Cascade, Montana. Public Domain
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Claudette Colvin later said that civil rights activists considered using her case to challenge Montgomery's segregation laws, but ultimately passed because she was young, dark-skinned, and pregnant.
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"He was a brilliant man who preached equality, but he didn't practice it. He owned people. And now I'm here because of it," said Shannon LaNier, Thomas Jefferson's sixth great-grandson. But despite his feelings about his ancestor, he agreed to pose alongside a portrait of Jefferson for a photographer — as long as he didn't have to wear a wig. Wikimedia Commons/Drew Gardner
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With just $1.25, Madam C.J. Walker launched "Madam Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower" as an enormously successful hair product for Black women in 1905. And as her star rose, she used her fame to advocate for anti-lynching legislation. Public Domain
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Despite being enslaved by explorer William Clark, York was a crucial member of Clark's expedition alongside Meriwether Lewis. At one point, York even saved Clark, Sacagawea, and her son, when they got caught in a flash flood. But after they completed the journey, Clark denied York's requests for freedom until decades later. Pinterest
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Though she received pushback for her role as a house slave named Mammy, Hattie McDaniel often said: "I'd rather play a maid than be one."Wikimedia Commons
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"My notes would have been highly compromising had they been discovered, but who would dare search Josephine Baker to the skin?" Josephine Baker later said. "When they asked me for papers, they generally meant autographs."Wikimedia Commons
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Mary McLeod Bethune was known as "The First Lady Of Negro America" and "The First Lady Of The Struggle" — and later went on to advise five presidents. Public Domain
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Not only did Ann Lowe have to fight to use the front door at Jackie Kennedy's wedding, but Kennedy also dismissed her as a "colored woman dressmaker" when she was asked who had created her wedding dress — and never even named Lowe as the designer.Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
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"It wasn’t hard," Doris Miller later said. "I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine. I had watched the others with these guns. I guess I fired her for about fifteen minutes. I think I got one of those Jap planes. They were diving pretty close to us."US Navy/Wikimedia Commons
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The descendent of African people who had once been enslaved by the Muscogee Nation, Sarah Rector was eligible to receive land from the U.S. government when Oklahoma became a state in 1907. Though the young girl was given a plot of so-called undesirable land, it turned out to be rich with oil. By the time she turned 18, her net worth was estimated at over $1 million — about $28 million today.Wikimedia Commons
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"Henson must go all the way," wrote Matthew Henson's partner Robert Edwin Peary of their North Pole trek. "I can't make it there without him." The pair had tried to reach the Arctic Circle several times before they finally succeeded in 1909, and Henson claims he was the first of their crew to do so. But his incredible achievement went largely ignored for years because of his race.
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Set along the present-day western edge of Central Park, between 83rd and 89th Street in Manhattan, Seneca Village grew to have a population of about 300 people before it was ultimately razed. New York Public Library
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Black historian Carter G. Woodson created Negro History Week after noticing the blatant absence of Black history in his master's and Ph.D. history programs.
"If a race has no history," Woodson wrote, "it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated."Wikimedia Commons
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Harriet Tubman was one of the most famous "conductors" on the Underground Railroad, who proudly stated that she never lost a "passenger."Wikimedia Commons
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Black women were banned from service during the Civil War — but many served anyway as scouts, nurses, and spies.Public Domain
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Rebecca Lee Crumpler earned her medical degree in 1864 at age 33. And after the Civil War ended, she traveled to the former capital of the Confederacy to treat newly emancipated slaves. She primarily focused on women and children, but she cared for any vulnerable patient in need — regardless of their ability to pay.Twitter
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Of the roughly 10.7 million enslaved Africans who survived the treacherous Middle Passage, most of them were sent to the Caribbean or South America. About 388,000 were sent directly to North America. Wikimedia Commons
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Native Americans were allegedly the first to call the men "Buffalo Soldiers". This was perhaps because of their curly hair — or because the Native Americans admired their might, just like they did from the buffalo. John C. H. Grabill/True West Magazine
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Between 1882 and 1968, at least 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States. Most of these lynching victims were Black. They were often tortured by angry mobs before being hanged, decapitated, or burned alive in front of an enthusiastic audience. Library of Congress
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Going by the name "William Cathay," Cathay Williams served alongside an all-Black regiment after the Civil War. Traveling with the famous Buffalo Soldiers in the Wild West for three years, Williams saw more of America than most women of her time. But when she came down with smallpox, her gender was revealed to her fellow soldiers and she was honorably discharged. US Army
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Martin Luther King Jr. had used the line "I Have A Dream" before the 1963 March on Washington and an advisor suggested that he not use it again because it was "trite" and "cliché."
But during his speech, a gospel singer and a friend of King's named Mahalia Jackson called, "Tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream." So, King did. Getty Images
33 Little-Known Facts About Black History That You Didn’t Learn In School
In the Black history facts gallery, you can also learn about Black Americans who turned their backs on racism in the United States and found fame abroad. Eugene Bullard became the first Black American fighter pilot by fighting for the French during World War I. He famously flew with a plane painted with the words "All Blood Runs Red."
Josephine Baker was another Black American who moved to France. There, she thrived as a dancer before she emerged as one of the French Resistance's most important spies during World War II.
But while many of these Black history facts are inspiring, some of them are heartbreaking, such as the tragic statistics that show how common lynching was in the United States during the Jim Crow era — and how many millions of people were stolen from Africa during the transatlantic slave trade.
The gallery above includes facts like these and more. From the lost history of Manhattan's Seneca Village to how Martin Luther King Jr. changed his famous "I Have A Dream" speech at the last moment, discover the most revealing Black history facts that don't show up in most textbooks.
A staff writer for All That’s Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a double degree in American History and French.