Charles Barkley marks Black History Month with a spotlight on Philadelphia’s African-American heroes—many of which didn’t make it into the history books or even the newspapers of their time. But their stories are nonetheless inspiring, game-changing and worth knowing.
(born November 22, 1942)
The first African American to go into space is Philadelphia’s own Bluford, 77, who grew up here before earning an aerospace engineering degree from Penn State through the Air Force ROTC program.
After flying 144 combat missions in Vietnam, Bluford became the first African American NASA astronaut in 1979, eventually going into space on the Challenger and Discovery.
Bluford logged over 28 days in space and 5,100 hours on different fighter pilots.
“I’ve come to appreciate the planet we live on,” Bluford said. “It’s a small ball in a large universe. It’s a very fragile ball but also very beautiful. You don’t recognize that until you see it from a little farther off.”
After his retirement, Bluford joined the private industry, eventually becoming president of Aerospace Technology, an engineering consulting firm.
(August 17, 1837- July 23, 1914)
Born into a wealthy family in Philadelphia that valued both intellect and activism, Charlotte Forten Grimké was always eager to educate and engage a deprived African-American community.
She was the first black northerner to go south and teach former slaves.
During the Civil War, on Union-occupied St. Helena Island, she taught ex-slaves as part of the Port Royal Experiment.
While there, she struggled to connect with the islanders who hardly spoke English and who struggled following the daily routines of school.
Nevertheless, once she detailed her experiences in an article published by Atlantic Monthly, more schools started popping up in the south for African Americans.
She was also an avid writer, keeping journals that have drawn attention for their insightful take on America during and after slavery.
(July 27, 1856 – October 27, 1946)
Nathan Francis Mossell was a pioneer physician who established the first black private hospital in Philadelphia, the Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital and Training School, that both treated African Americans and trained black nurses and doctors.
Uncle to All-Star Sadie Mossell Alexander, he was the first African American to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania medical school, and the first to join the Philadelphia County Medical Society.
Mossell was also an activist, founding the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, and joining W.E.B. DuBois’ Niagara Movement.
Mossell left his papers to Penn, including his autobiography in which he writes, “It is plain therefore, that prior to the Civil War, the so-called free colored people had few, if any, rights that the white man felt bound to respect. This mental attitude on his part, so hampered the colored people’s ideas of themselves that it still shrouds their efforts to attain a more inclusive legal franchise for themselves.”
(November 1, 1848 – June 1 or 2, 1919)
The daughter of abolitionists, Anderson graduated as the youngest in her class and earned her B.A. at 19.
She taught elocution, drawing and music until 1875, when she decided she wanted to go into medical school.
After initially being rejected because of her race for an internship at Boston’s New England Hospital for Women and Children, Anderson went in person and awed the board, who unanimously voted to hire her.
She returned to Philly, opened her own dispensary and medical practice, and then began teaching hygiene and public speaking.
She also opened her own liberal arts school Berean Manual Training and Industrial School that was praised by W.E.B. DuBois, along with her other work for the black community in Philadelphia.
Anderson wrote in a letter to her husband before attending medical school, “I am tired of being so situated as to accomplish so little either for myself or anybody else.”
Civil Rights Leader
(October 16, 1922- April 24, 2001)
Rev. Leon Sullivan—the “lion of Zion”—used his pulpit and his position as longtime pastor of North Philly’s Zion Baptist Church to organize for local African-American causes, particularly in employment.
From 1959 to 1963, he led area black preachers in organizing “selective patronage” boycotts of local companies—Tasty Baking, Sun Oil, Gulf—deemed to discriminate against African Americans in their hiring, urging black consumers with the slogan “Don’t buy where you don’t work.”
The movement opened up several thousand jobs to black workers and drew national attention, including that of Martin Luther King Jr, who adopted Sullivan’s techniques in his Operation Breadbasket.
In 1964, Sullivan opened the first Opportunity Industrial Center, a job-service training program to teach manufacturing skills to black Philadelphians. OIC still operates today, in 22 states and around the globe.
Sullivan led Zion for 40 years, growing it from 600 congregants to 6,000, and turning it into a community hub (the center still bears his name).
Throughout, he also spent time in South Africa helping to fight and dismantle apartheid and creating a set of rules—now dubbed the ‘Sullivan Principles’ —that serve as guidelines for American corporations doing business in South Africa.
He recalled in a 1999 interview a trip to South Africa that ended with him enduring a strip search at the airport.
“A man with the biggest .45 I’d ever seen said, ‘We do to you what we have to,’” Sullivan recalled to the New York Times. “I stood there in my underwear, thinking, ‘I’m the head of the largest black church in Philadelphia and I’m on the board of directors of General Motors. When I get home, I’ll do to you what I have to.’”
Writer, ‘Dean’ of Harlem Renaissance
(September 13, 1885 – June 9, 1954)
A writer and philosopher, Alain Leroy Locke is considered the philosophical architect of the Harlem Renaissance, a less widely known—but no less important—figure than stars Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes.
The first African American Rhodes Scholar (and last to be selected until 1960), Locke graduated from Central High School and then Harvard University.
Despite his talents, even in England Locke faced adversity.
Gay and black, he was rejected from many schools once he arrived at Oxford University because of his race, and had trouble finding work once he returned home.
But he triumphed, teaching and leading at Howard University for 42 years.
Sixty years after his death, in 2013, his ashes were buried in the Congressional Cemetery, where his tombstone reads: “1885–1954 Herald of the Harlem Renaissance Exponent of Cultural Pluralism.”