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.


Lorraine Hansberry

Lorraine HansberryLorraine Hanberry’s play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” was the first Broadway play written and produced by a black woman.

Hansberry was born in Chicago, Illinois on May 19, 1930. She became interested in theater while in high school. After high school she attended the University of Wisconsin for two years and studied drama and stage design.

She moved to New York in 1950 and began writing for Freedom, a progressive newspaper founded by Paul Robeson.

Hansberry married in 1953. Her husband’s success as a songwriter allowed her to quit work and concentrate on writing. She wrote A Raisin in the Sun in 1957. The play’s title came from Langston Hughes poem “Harlem: A Dream Deferred.”

A Raisin in the Sun which details the experiences of a black family in Chicago opened on Broadway on March 11, 1959.

The play won the New York Critics Circle Award for best drama.

Lorraine Hansberry was the first woman and the youngest person to receive the award.

NOTE: A Raisin in the Sun was revived on Broadway in 2004. It starred Sean “Puffy” Combs and Audra McDonald. It was revived again in 2014 and starred Denzel Washington and Sophie Okonedo. The 2014 revival won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play.

Bernard Harris

Bernard Harris

Bernard Harris was the first Black astronaut to walk in space. He was selected by NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) in 1990 and became an astronaut in 1991.

Harris’ first space flight was on the space shuttle Columbia where he flew a ten day mission and logged over 239 hours and 4,164,183 miles in space. During the mission the crew conducted research in physical and life sciences.

In 1995 he flew his second mission in space. That mission was the first flight of the joint Russian-American Space Program and included a rendezvous with the Russian Space Station, Mir. During that mission Harris became the first African American to walk in space.

Bernard Harris was born in Temple, Texas on June 26, 1956. He received a bachelor of science degree in biology from the University of Houston in 1978, and a doctorate in medicine from Texas Tech University School of Medicine in 1982. He trained as a flight surgeon at the Aerospace School of Medicine at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. He also attended the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and received a master’s degree in biomedical science in 1996.

Harris has received several awards from NASA including the NASA Award of Merit and the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal.