Great African Americans

Claudette Colvin

Many have heard of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery Bus, but not many people have heard of the earlier act of Claudette Colvin that would help initiate the Montgomery Bus Boycott and spark a national civil rights movement.

Claudette Colvin was born Claudette Austin in Birmingham County, Alabama. Her parents were Mary Jane Gadson and C.P. Austin, but Claudette and her siblings were raised by their great-aunt Mary Ann and great-uncle QP Colvin.

Claudette and her family lived in a poor Black neighborhood in Montgomery County where she attended Booker T Washington High School. Claudette received good grades and was a member of the NAACP Youth Council, an organization dedicated to training the next generation of civil rights leaders. Claudette worked alongside NAACP Secretary, Rosa Parks, who served as her mentor.

It was an ordinary day for 15-year-old Claudette when she boarded the Montgomery bus on March 2, 1955, but she would soon make a decision that changed the course of her life and the civil rights movement. Claudette was on her way home from school when the bus driver told her to give her seat to a young white lady, even though there were other seats available. Claudette said the Black history she had been learning in school had her “glued to her seat.” She refused to move saying it was her “constitutional right.” Cops came, pulled Claudette off the bus, and forced her into a squad car where she was handcuffed and taken to an adult jail.

Claudette was held for three hours. She was not released until her pastor, Reverend HH Johnson arrived and bailed her out of jail. Claudette’s case came before the Montgomery Circuit Court on May 6, 1955. The charges of disturbing the peace and violating the city’s segregation ordinance were dropped. However, the third charge of assaulting a police officer (he claimed she clawed him with her long nails) remained on her record for 60 years until Montgomery Judge, Calvin Williams, erased it from her record.

In February 1956 Claudette was a plaintiff in Browder v Gayle, the case that eventually ended bus segregation in Alabama.

Rosa Parks continued to mentor Claudette the summer after her arrest and even made her Secretary of the NAACP Youth Council.

Although Claudette Colvin’s case did not become as well-known as Rosa Parks,’ her actions influenced local civil rights leaders and organizations in their decision to boycott the Montgomery bus system that would last a staggering 13 months. If Claudette had not made a stand against segregation, Rosa Parks case may not have been as impactful.

Today there is a street in Montgomery bearing Claudette Colvin’s name. Also, a proclamation by Montgomery council members Charles Jinright and Tracy Larkin dedicated March 2nd as Claudette Colvin’s day.

Claudette Colvin is forever a part of American history. Her name and the names of the other plaintiffs in Browder v Gayle, are on display near the Rosa Parks statue in Montgomery, Alabama.

Clifford Alexander

First Black Secretary of the Army

Clifford Alexander, Jr. was the first Black person to serve as Secretary of the United States Army.

He was appointed by President Jimmy Carter in 1977 and served in the position until 1981.

The Secretary of the Army is the top non-military person in the Department of Defense. As secretary Clifford was responsible for recruiting people for the army. He was also responsible for preparing them for service and providing training that would help them become good soldiers.

Clifford worked for other presidents before Jimmy Carter. He advised President John F Kennedy on national security concerns and foreign affairs.

He was a champion for civil rights and worked for civil and equal rights for women and Black Americans. He pushed for President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After he signed the Act, President Johnson created the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. Clifford would later serve as chairman of the commission from 1967 to 1969.

Clifford Alexander was born in New York City on September 21, 1933. He attended college at Harvard University and graduated in 1955. He then attended law school at Yale University and graduated in 1958.

After law school he served in the US National Guards for one year before becoming an assistant district attorney in New York. From 1973 to 1974 he was a law professor at historically Black Howard University Law School in Washington, DC.

Mary Eliza Mahoney

First Black trained nurse

Mary Eliza Mahoney always wanted to be a nurse. But becoming one was not easy for a young Black girl in the late 1800s.

When she was a teenager Mary went to work at the New England Hospital for Women and Children. The hospital was unique. Only women worked there.

Mary worked at the hospital for 15 years and had several jobs. She worked as a janitor, cook, washer woman and nurse’s aide.

In 1878 she was admitted to the hospital’s nursing program. The program was intense and extremely difficult. 40 women entered the 16-month program, but only four, including Eliza completed it. When Mary graduated in August 1879, she became the first Black person professionally trained in nursing.

After graduating Mary tried to find work in a public hospital but faced discrimination because of her race. She eventually found work as a private nurse for wealthy patients.

Eliza was committed to nursing and growing the profession. In 1896 she joined a nursing association. Most members were white and did not welcome Black nurses.

In 1908 the Association of Colored Graduate Nurses was established. to support Black nurses. Mary was one of the first members. When the organization held its first convention in 1909 Mary gave the welcome speech. 50 nurses attended the convention. Half of them attended because of an invitation from Mary.

Mary worked as a nurse for 40 years. In 1936 the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses established the Mary Mahoney Award in her honor.

Learn More About Mary

Joseph Hayne Rainey

Joseph Hayne Rainey First Black Congressman

Joseph Hayne Rainey fled to Bermuda so he would not have to help the Confederate Army during the Civil War. When he returned to the United States, he went into politics. He was the first Black man to serve in the United States House of Representatives.

Joseph was born into slavery in Georgetown, South Carolina on July 21, 1832. Joseph’s father was allowed to leave the plantation, where they were enslaved, and earn money working as a barber. Since he was not free, he had to share his earning with his enslaver. Joseph’s father saved the money he was able to keep. When he had enough, he purchased his family’s freedom.

When the Civil War started in 1861, the Rainey family was living as free people in South Carolina. Free Black people did not have the same rights as white people. They did not control anything and were sometimes forced to work for those in power.

Joseph was forced to work for the Confederate Army. He did not want to help the south during the war, and he did not want to work for an army that was fighting to keep slavery. When Joseph got the chance he and his wife escaped to Bermuda.

Joseph was a barber like his father. He started a barber business in Bermuda. His wife started a dressmaking business. Both businesses were successful.

The couple returned to the United States during Reconstruction and moved back to South Carolina. Reconstruction was the period that followed the Civil War. It was a time when the country worked to come together as one nation. It was also a time when Black men were able to vote and run for office. During that time Joseph became active in politics.


When one of South Carolina’s congressmen had to resign from office, Joseph was chosen to replace him.


Joseph Hayne Rainey served in the United States House of Representatives for ten years. While in office he fought for civil rights laws, money for public schools and equal rights for all Americans.


Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman is known for helping enslaved Black Americans escape to freedom. But she did so much more. She helped the Union army during the Civil War, She fought for voting rights for women, and she cared for the elderly.

Harriet Tubman was born on a farm in Dorchester County, Maryland around 1822. People born into slavery did not get birth certificates, so she never knew her birthday. When you are enslaved, you are forced to work at a young age. Harriet started working on the farm when she was about six years old. If there was no work for her on the farm where she was enslaved, she was rented out to work on other farms.

Harriet was held in slavery on the same farm as most of her family. One of her sisters was sold to a farm far away. When Harriet learned that she might be sold also, she ran away. Harriet had been told about the secret places and people that were part of the Underground Railroad. She used that information to make her way to freedom.

Harriet hid during the day and only travelled after dark. People who were part of the Underground Railroad helped her. Each person who helped her gave her the name of the next person to help her until she reached freedom.

After escaping from slavery Harriet worked and saved her money so she could help her family and others escape. She became a conductor on the Underground Railroad and spent ten years leading enslaved people to freedom.

During the Civil War Harriet worked with the Union Army as a nurse, cook, scout and spy. In 1863 she led Union soldiers on a raid of plantations along the Combahee River in Beaufort, South Carolina. During the raid seven hundred Black men, women and children were freed. Harriet was the first woman in the United States to lead a military operation.

After the war Harriet returned to her home in Auburn, New York where she got involved in the suffrage movement and fought for voting rights for women.

Harriet also cared for the elderly. In 1896 she purchased land near her home to create the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged.

Harriet stayed in Auburn for the remainder of her life. She died there in 1913.

Harriet was a great woman. People have celebrated her life by naming parks, roads, and museums after her. The United State Post Office has created two stamps to honor her.