African Americans' Contributions to Our Nation

The Union victory in 1865 marked the close of the Civil War. One of the most widely anticipated benefits of emancipation was freedom of movement. No longer confined by law to a slaveholder’s plantation, most formerly enslaved African Americans expected to have the option of migrating. However, during Reconstruction, “vagrancy” laws, debt peonage and the convict-lease system were quickly implemented to curtail the new freedom. And because African American labor had been the mainstay of the southern economy, efforts to force them to remain and work in the communities where they had been enslaved often succeeded because they were destitute, and the “40 acres and a mule” they expected never arrived.

The legal battle for equality continued with the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments, but unfavorable Supreme Court decisions, Jim Crow laws, separate-but-equal policies and a campaign of terrorism carried out by the KKK and allied groups, made sure that African Americans would not easily achieve their real freedom in the Southern states. Moreover, those who migrated to the North quickly realized they had not reached the promised land and continued to face discriminatory practices in housing and employment. Those that had migrated to the West, however, fared better. Finally, in 1954, the Brown v. School Board of Topeka, Kansas, decision declared segregation to be unconstitutional.

Despite the hardships, many native-born African Americans succeeded in almost all occupations. And, like all other ethnic and cultural groups that made a life for themselves and their families in America, the native-born African Americans have made—and continue to make—a vital contribution to our nation’s growth. (Text and photographs from the Americans All Classroom Resources.)

Legacy Stories from the Americans All Heritage Honor Roll

We are pleased to host and share these legacy stories created by honorees’ family, friends and associates. They, like us, appreciate that heritage and culture are an integral part of our nation's social fabric and want to help students participate effectively in our nation's economy, workforce and democracy.

Last Name of Individual
First Name of Individual
Group name

Mollie Arline Kirkland Bailey [Texas State Historical Association] (November 1844 - October 2, 1918) Circus Musician, Singer, War-Time Nurse, Philanthropist

Mollie Bailey, "Circus Queen of the Southwest," the daughter of William and Mary Arline Kirkland, was born on a plantation near Mobile, Alabama. Sources differ regarding her birthdate. As a young woman, she eloped with James A. (Gus) Bailey, who played the cornet in his father's circus band and was married in March 1858. With Mollie's sister Fanny and Gus's brother Alfred, the young couple formed the Bailey Family Troupe . . .

Matthew Alexander Henson [Robert Abramson] (August 8, 1866 - March 9, 1955) African-American, Explorer, North Pole

Matthew Alexander Henson was born August 8, 1866, to free African American parents on an impoverished tenant farm in Charles County, Maryland. By the time he was 11 years old, both of his parents had died and he lived with relatives. At age 13 he went to sea as a cabin boy.

Rev. James William Charles Pennington [Allan Americans All] (c.1807 - October 22, 1870) African-American, Presbyterian, Writer, Minister, Abolitionist

Born into slavery on the eastern shore of Maryland in 1807, James William Charles Pennington escaped from slavery in 1828 and settled for a time in New York and later became the first black student admitted to Yale, although he was not officially enrolled, and is reported to only have limited use of the library. Although ordained as a minister in the Congregational Church, he later served Presbyterian Churches in many states.

William "Bill" Pickett [Texas State Historical Association] (December 5, 1870 - April 2, 1932) African-American, Rodeo Cowboy, Cowboy Hall of Fame

William (Bill) Pickett, rodeo cowboy, was the son of Thomas Jefferson and Mary Virginia Elizabeth (Gilbert) Pickett, who were former slaves. According to family records, Pickett was born at the Jenks-Branch community on the Travis county line on December 5, 1870. He was the second of thirteen children. He became a cowboy after completing the fifth grade. After observing herder dogs subduing huge steers by biting their upper lips. . .  

Jack Roosevelt "Jackie" Robinson [Americans All] (January 31, 1919 - October 24, 1972) African-American, Baseball Player, Baseball Hall of Fame, Businessman, Color Line

“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” This, more than his on-the-field statistics, can be viewed as his enduring legacy. He was born in Cairo, Georgia, to a family of sharecroppers, the youngest of five children, and his mother moved the family to Pasadena, California, the following year. He grew up in relative poverty and the prejudice the family encountered . . .

Ketia C. Stokes [Americans All ] (c.1980 - ?) African-American, Special Education Teacher, Autism, Baltimore

Ketia C. Stokes comes from five generations of educators. Her twin sister, who struggled from birth with the effects of a brain tumor, benefited from high-quality special education and inspired Ms. Stokes to pursue a career of serving students with disabilities. She is a founding staff member and teacher at Green Street Academy, a public middle school/high school in Baltimore, Maryland.

Sojourner Truth [Ambokile Abraham] (c.1797 - November 26, 1883) African-American, Methodist, Abolitionist, Author, Women’s Rights Activist

Sojourner Truth was born c. 1797 as “Isabella” to Elizabeth and James Baumfree, slaves on a Dutch settlement owned by Colonel Johannes Hardenbaugh, in Swartekill, Ulster County, New York. One of 12 children, she spent her early years serving various masters and never learned to read and write. slave, Thomas, owned by the Dumonts.