Black History Month honors the lives, achievements, and future of Black History and culture. Though February marks the official month for such an occasion, these legacies, futures, and figures should be honored and celebrated year-round.
From continuously educating oneself, to supporting Black-owned businesses, there’s endless opportunities to commemorate Black History.
In order to recognize some incredible achievements made in Black history, here are five iconic Black figures in NYC history you should know about if you don’t already!
1. Elizabeth Jennings Graham, (1827-1901)
This civil rights activist is responsible for desegregating NYC’s transit systems after fighting for her right to ride a NYC streetcar in 1854. That’s more than 100 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat.
During Elizabeth Jennings Graham’s time, NYC streetcars were mostly privately owned or heavily segregated. Graham challenged the NYC transit system in court (specifically New York’s Third Avenue Railway Company), and went on to win the lawsuit, according to Educators of America.
2. Phillip A. Payton Jr., (1876 – 1917)
Dubbed as the “Father of Harlem,” esteemed real estate agent Phillip A. Payton Jr. had a significant impact on African American’s accessibility to housing (specifically in Harlem) during the early 1900s. After moving to Harlem himself, a neighborhood at the time home to many vacant brownstones, Payton drew Black citizens uptown, reported the New York Times. “By 1904, the year the subway reached Harlem, he incorporated the Afro-American Realty Company to help remake Harlem as a home for Black citizens who faced discrimination in housing.”
3. Alain Locke, (1886-1954)
Known for his role in the Harlem Renaissance, Locke was also the first African American awarded a Rhodes Scholarship. According to Black Past, Locke’s contribution, more so known as the originator of the Harlem Renaissance, dealt with an “emphasis on values, diversity, and race relations. He challenged African Americans to acknowledge and promote their cultural heritage while at the same time, making the effort to integrate into the larger society and appreciate the mores and customs of other ethnic groups.”
4. Shirley Anita Chisholm, (1924-2005)
Brooklyn-born, Shirley Anita Chisholm was the first female, African American to not only hold a seat in Congress but seek a major party’s nomination for presidency in 1972. By 1964 she became the second African American in New York State Legislature following Edward A. Johnson.
According to Women’s History, Chisholm was responsible for “[introducing] more than 50 pieces of legislation and [championing] racial and gender equality, the plight of the poor, and ending the Vietnam War.”
5. David Norman Dinkins, (1927-2020)
Holding the title as New York City’s first African American mayor, David Norman Dinkins served the city in the early 1990s. Upon his death in 2020, the New York Times described him as “a compromise selection for voters exhausted by racial strife, corruption, crime and fiscal turmoil, and he proved to be an able caretaker, historians say, rather than an innovator of grand achievements.”
After office, he went on to teach at Columbia University and was even consulted by former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg from time to time, reported the New York Times.