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. The labor of African Americans had been the mainstay of the southern economy, so efforts to force them to remain and work in the communities where they had been enslaved often succeeded. This was 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 who 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

Civil War: Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, 54th Massachusetts (March 13, 1863 - August 4, 1865) Carney, Glory, Hallowell, Medal of Honor, Military, Shaw, Fort Wagner

On January 26, 1863, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton authorized Massachusetts Governor John Albion. Andrew to create volunteer companies of artillery "for duty in the forts of Massachusetts and elsewhere, and such corps of infantry for the volunteer military service as he may find convenient.

Timeline of the Civil War: Background and Causes South Carolina (April 12, 1961 - April 9, 1865) Union, Confederacy, slavery, Lincoln, Douglas, Brown, Stowe, Taney, Scott, succession, Tubman, Andersonville, Pennington, Truth, Davis, Fifty-Fourth, 54th

The Civil War is one of the most complex, studied and written about events in U.S. history and was fought from April 12, 1861 to April 9, 1865. Although many theories have been considered, it is now generally agreed that the main cause of the conflict was the long-standing controversy over the enslavement of Black people.

Mollie Arline Kirkland Bailey Texas (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 . . .

Frederick Douglass Maryland (February 1818 - February 20, 1895) Abolitionist, African Americans, Author, Black, Civil Rights, Civil Servant, Civil War, Diplomat, North Star, Orator, Slavery, Social Reformer, Statesman, Underground Railroad, Women’s Suffrage, Writer

Frederick Douglass was an American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. After escaping from slavery in Maryland, he became a national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York, becoming famous for his oratory and incisive antislavery writings. His brilliant words and brave actions continue to shape the ways that we think about race, democracy, and the meaning of freedom.

Matthew Alexander Henson New York (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 New York (c.1807 - October 22, 1870) African-American, Presbyterian, Writer, Minister, Abolitionist, Civil War

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 (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 New York (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 . . .

Bayard Rustin New Jersey (March 17, 1912 - August 24, 1987) Activist, African American, Athlete, Black, Civil Rights, Desegregation, Economic Justice, Freedom Ride, Gay, Globalist, Jim Crow, March on Washington, Musician, Nonviolence, Pacifist, Prejudice, Quaker, Radical, Socialist, Strategist, Voting Rights

For more than 50 years, Bayard Rustin was a nonviolent activist and leading strategist in the struggle for human rights and economic justice. As a gay man with radical politics, he was often marginalized despite his major contributions to the struggle for African-American civil rights and his work for peace and disarmament. He was born in West Chester, PA . . . 

Ketia C. Stokes Maryland (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 Michigan (c.1797 - November 26, 1883) African-American, Methodist, Abolitionist, Author, Women’s Rights Activist, Civil War, Detroit Housing Project

Sojourner Truth was born c. 1797 as “Isabella Baumfree” 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.

Harriet "Minty" Tubman Maryland (c.1822 - June 14, 1914) African American, Underground Railroad, conductor, abolitionist, Union spy, civil war, slavery, suffrage, scout, nurse, civil rights

Born, c.1822, into slavery on a slave-breeding plantation on Maryland's Eastern Shore, she was named Araminta “Minty” Ross by her enslaved parents, Ben Ross, and Harriet (“Rit”) Green. Rit’s mother was owned by Mary Pattison Brodess, whose inherited Harriet when Mary’s mother, Atthow Pattison, died in 1797. Rit was a house cook on the plantation and her father . . .