The Edlavitch DCJCC recognizes that Black history and culture are an essential part of Washington, DC, as well as our country. In celebration of Black History Month, we are sharing information about the lives and achievements of Black Americans. These individuals have contributed to the beauty, health, joy, knowledge, safety, economy, and social progress of the US in the face of systemic racism. This list, by no means complete, was compiled by suggestions from Edlavitch DCJCC staff members, many of whom have been professionally and personally inspired by these remarkable individuals. Many of them have direct connections to Washington, DC, Maryland, and Virginia, where their work can be seen and felt.
We encourage you to take time to learn more about Black individuals who have contributed to subjects and fields important to your work and life, as well as those who have helped shape your community and our country.
Loïs Mailou Jones (1905-1998) – An artist of extraordinary range, Jones began her seven-decade career as a textile designer before turning to painting. Her aesthetic shifted and evolved to combine a wide variety of influences—such as African masks, Haitian colors and patterns, Cubism, and European landscapes—gathered during her extensive travels. A life-long student herself, Jones was also an educator, most notably her 47-year tenure teaching watercolor and design at Howard University. Her work graces the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Hirshhorn Museum, and the National Portrait Gallery, among many others.
Daryl Davis (1958- ) A musician, actor, author, and activist, Davis has a life and career defined by crossing boundaries. Considered one of the greatest living boogie-woogie and blues pianists, Davis has played with the likes of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, BB King, Muddy Water, and President Bill Clinton. Since 1983, Davis has spent much of his time speaking to and befriending members of the Klu Klux Klan, getting dozens of individuals to leave the hate group. His efforts to improve race relations has been well documented and studied.
Laura Wheeler Waring (1887-1948) Born in Hartford, Connecticut, the painter Waring attended the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, becoming the sixth generation of college graduates in her family in 1914. After returning from her post-college studies at the Louvre, she became a teacher at the all-Black Cheyney Training School for Teachers in Philadelphia, where she founded and developed the art and music departments. She would chair both departments for 30 years, while working, exhibiting and selling her paintings on both sides of the Atlantic. Initially known for her landscape paintings of North Africa, France, and elsewhere, Waring became more famous for her portraiture, particularly of influential Black Americans like W.E.B DuBois and Marian Anderson. Waring was included in the country’s first exhibition of African American art, held in 1927 by the William E. Harmon Foundation. Today her work can be seen in several major institutions, including Corcoran Gallery, Brooklyn Museum, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.
Guy McElroy (1946-1990) Born and raised in West Virginia, the art historian and curator McElroy would hold numerous positions in museums throughout the country during his twenty-year career. Studying at Fairmont State College, University of Cincinnati, Emerson College, University of California at Berkley, and the University of Maryland, where he was a PhD candidate, McElory specialized in nineteenth-century and African American art. From 1978 to 1988, he held two positions at the National Council of Negro Women’s Bethune Museum and Archives in Washington, D.C, overlapping with his capacity as Guest Curator of the Corcoran Art Gallery from 1986 to 1990. After a car accident in 1987, McElroy began using a wheelchair for quadriplegia. For the Corcoran, he curated “Facing History: The Black Image in American Art 1710-1940,” the first public display by a major museum to showcase depictions of Black people in American art.
Liesl Tommy – An award-winning South African and American director, Tommy became the first woman of color to be nominated for a Tony Award for best direction of a play for her work in Eclipsed by Danai Gurira in 2016. Educated at Oxford and Brown, she is known for developing exciting new plays as well as innovative interpretations of classic works like Hamlet and Les Miserable. She has directed at some of the country’s premiere theaters, such as The Public Theater, La Jolla Playhouse, Dallas Theater Center, Huntington Theatre Company, Yale Repertory Theater, and Oregon Shakes. She has recently begun directing for television (Queen Sugar and The Walking Dead) as well as film, including an upcoming adaptation of Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, and Respect, the highly anticipated Aretha Franklin biopic starring Jennifer Hudson.
Ann Lowe (1898-1981) Born into family of seamstresses—her grandmother was an enslaved dressmaker and her mother specialized in embroidery—Lowe was one of the first prominent Black fashion designers. Trained in a separate room from her white peers, Lowe quickly became famous among America’s wealthiest and socially elite families for her one-of-a-kind gowns made of fine fabric and handiwork, often evoking floral motifs. Specializing in debutant gowns, Lowe created her most famous dress for Jacqueline Bouvier’s wedding to John F. Kennedy in 1953, though many in the press merely credited the dress to a ‘colored designer.’ Paid less than contemporary white designers, Lowe struggled financially for much of her career. Collections of work are held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and DC’s National Museum of History and Culture.
Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) A world-renowned writer and anthropologist, Hurston explored African American life in the South through novels, short stories, and plays. After earning an associate’s degree from Howard University, where she helped found the campus newspaper The Hilltop, she received a BA in Anthropology from New York’s Barnard College on scholarship. While in New York, she befriended other Harlem Renaissance writers like Langston Hughes, a collaborator, and Countee Cullen. Hurston published three novels between 1934 and 1939, including Their Eyes Were Watching God. She also conducted extensive field research studies in Black religion and folklore in Haiti, Jamaica, and the Southern US.
Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-1784) Wheatley became the first published Black American when her 39-poem collection Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in September 1773. Born in West Africa, Wheatley was seized and sold into slavery around age seven. Recognizing her intelligence, her owners taught her to read and write. While still responsible for domestic work, Wheatley immersed herself in the Bible, astronomy, geography, history, British literature, and the Greek and Latin classics of Virgil, Ovid, Terence, and Homer, all of which influenced her poetry. Freed in 1774, she was unable to turn her talents and celebrity into financial security. She died in poverty in 1784, having written an estimate 145 poems, many of which are lost. Her fame in 19th century England and New England became a catalyst for the fledging antislavery movement.
Leontyne Butler King (1905-1976) An American businesswoman and fashionista, King was the first Black member of the Los Angeles Public Library Commission, serving from 1961 to the mid-1970s and elected president of the commission in 1969. During her presidency, the library system: delivered books to elderly, ill, and patrons with disabilities; hired bilingual library aides; observed Negro History week, the forbearer of Black History Month; and invited Black writers and artists to speak at events. During national library conferences, King eloquently advocated for libraries across the country to purchase books covering Black history and achievements, as well as books for and about Black people. Frequently cited among LA’s best dressed women, King also owned a jukebox franchise with machines in Black-owned businesses and worked at a funeral home.
Kizzmekia Shanta Corbett, PhD (1986- ) A viral immunologist, Corbett is the scientific lead of the Vaccine Research Center at the Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health. Corbett and her team at the NIH partnered with Moderna as part of the federal government’s Operation Warp Speed to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 in record time, due in part to Corbett’s early work on other novel coronaviruses. In December 2020, Dr. Fauci said Corbett “is right at the forefront of the development of the vaccine.”
Dr. Charles R. Drew (1904-1950) Born in Washington, DC, Drew was a renowned surgeon and pioneer in the collection, storage, and preservation of life-saving blood plasma. The first Black individual to receive a medical doctorate from Columbia University, Drew served as the director of the Blood for Britain project before being appointed director of the first American Red Cross Blood Bank in early 1941. While his work would save countless lives during World War II, Drew resigned his post due to the armed forces unwillingness to store the blood of Black individuals with that of white individuals. Drew returned to Howard University, where he served as Head of the Department of Surgery and Chief of Surgery at Freedmen’s Hospital.
Lonnie G. Johnson (1949- ) An industrious inventor, aerospace and nuclear engineer, and entrepreneur, Johnson received his BS, MS, and honorary PhD from Tuskegee University. After serving in the Air Force, he joined the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA, where he worked on the Galileo mission to Jupiter, an orbiter for Saturn, and the stealth bomber program. In 1990, he invented the Super Soaker water gun, among the world’s bestselling toys ever since and which was inducted in the Toy Hall of Fame in 2015. Johnson has continued his scientific career developing and technologies to improve the efficiency of solar energy. He holds over 100 patents.
Bessie Coleman (1892-1926) The early American aviator Bessie Coleman is the first Black woman and first Native American to hold a pilot license in the world. As a young woman, Coleman heard her brothers’ stories of French women learning to fly, which they witnessed while serving aboard in WWI. Coleman applied and was rejected by flight schools across the country. After learning French in night classes, she was accepted and received her license from Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France, and later received her international pilot license from France in 1921. The following year she gave the first public flight by a Black woman. Dreaming of owning her own plane and flight school, Coleman toured the US and Europe, speaking and performing aerial tricks like “loop-the-loops” and making figure eights in the sky. She refused to perform anywhere that was segregated or discriminated against Black Americans. She died as a passenger in a plane crash in 1926.
Ralph Bunche (1904-1971) An American political scientist, educator, and diplomat, Bunche became the first Black American honored with the Nobel Peace Prize, which he received in 1950 for his role as the UN’s chief negotiator on the 1949 Armistices Agreements between Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria. He continued his work with the UN, mediating conflicts in the Congo, Yemen, Kashmir, and Cyprus, among others. Before his work with the UN, he chaired Howard University’s political science department from 1928 to 1950, and served as a trustee at universities across the country. Bunche became the first Black American to earn a PhD in political science, which he did from Harvard in 1934, and he was also the first Black member of the American Philosophical Society in the organizations 207-year history. Bunche was an active supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, he declined President Truman’s offer of the position of assistant secretary of state because of the segregated housing conditions in Washington, D. C., and helped lead the civil rights march organized by Martin Luther King, Jr., in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965.
Richard Spikes (1878-1963) A prolific inventor holding over a dozen patents, Spikes greatly improved early automotive and trolley technologies, most notably the automatic gear shift in 1932. His first break-through invention in 1907, a beer-tap which uses tubes to regulate pressure from the keg, is still used today. Spikes worked on his final invention, an automatic brake safety system which is still used in some buses today as a fail-safe, while losing his vision to glaucoma. He is also widely credited with patenting the turn signal in the early 1910s and first used on a Pierce-Arrow car in 1913, though corroborating paperwork has yet to be discovered.
Dante Barksdale (1975-2021) Community activist and organizer Dante Barksdale served as the outreach coordinator for Baltimore’s Safe Streets program, an evidence-based violence prevention and interruption program that works to reduce shootings and homicides in high violence areas. In his role, Barksdale drew upon his personal experience and relationships; he served eight years in prison for selling heroin and was a nephew of one of the city’s former drug kingpins. After his death on January 18, 2021 from a gunshot wound, Baltimore city officials shared words of thanks and tribute, including these words from Baltimore City Council President Nick J. Mosby, “Dante Barksdale used his life to save others by preventing gun violence on our streets. He beat a myriad of odds to do it. Dante was my friend, and I grieve with countless others at the murder of this exceptional man. I extend heartfelt condolences to his family and loved ones.”
Claudette Colvin (1939- ) On March 2, 1955, 15-year old Colvin was arrested by police in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to give her seat to a white woman on a crowded, segregated bus, nine months before Rosa Parks. She would later say, “History kept me stuck to my seat. I felt the hand of Harriet Tubman pushing down on one shoulder and Sojourner Truth pushing down on the other.” Local Black leaders, however, questioned whether the young woman, with darker skin and pregnant at the time, should be the public image of the subsequent Montgomery bus boycott. She was one of the five plaintiffs in Browder vs. Gayle, a case which ultimately ruled that bus segregation is unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Colvin moved to New York City in 1958 and worked as an aide in a nursing home from 1969 to her retirement in 2004.
Find ways to celebrate and support Black business owners, restaurateurs, writers, and more, plus a walking tour of Black history in DC.
Patrons businesses owned by People of Color whether online or in person. See some bars and restaurants in DC here.
Learn more about Black history in DC. Find a full self-guided tour of historical sites in every Ward here.
Read books by Black Jewish authors. Start with this list of twenty books!
For a very partial list of Black Jews who have made contributions to the worlds of culture, sports, entertainment, and Judaism click here.
We encourage those in our community who identify as white to engage in life-long learning and action on eradicating racism in ourselves and our society. To help with this journey, click here for a variety of different learning options.