Black History Month: Living Figures of Significance

The Spokesman asked five of Morgan State’s leaders to help curate a list of 50 Black people who they consider to be the most influential, from the Morgan community and beyond.

Jordan D. Brown and Aziah Siid

In honor of Black History Month, The Spokesman has cultivated a list of 50 living, influential African Americans that have shaped the lives of many people. From Barack Obama to Clarence Dunnaville, the purpose of this list is to provide a wide range of Black leaders that everyone in the Morgan community should know about.

Five members of university students and faculty were asked to send their list of 10 influential people with a brief explanation for each choice. From there, Spokesman editors compiled a list, making note of repeated names. For university archivist Ida Jones, the thing each of her 10 people had in common was “power in one.”  

“I learned and would love Morgan students to learn that there is power in one,” she said. “These persons saw something, were driven by something and/or sought to solve a problem. They realized that their vision was a moment to put energy into action and make the necessary changes in the world to benefit themselves, others, and the world.” 

This list was made possible with contributions from Jewell Debnam, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of History, Ida Jones, Ph.D., Morgan State University archivist, Corey Miles, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Sociology, Ramona Riley-Bozier, Morgan State Lady Bears’ volleyball coach, and Anika Simpson, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Gender Studies.

Alicia Garza, Civil Rights Activist  

Garza, 40, is an American civil rights activist and author who co-founded #BlackLivesMatter. She helped shaped an anti-racist movement and forced the world to engage with issues as they impact Black women, Black men, Black LGBTQ+ communities, and poor Black communities.

Alphonso David, Attorney

David, 50, is an accomplished LGTBQ+ civil rights lawyer and advocate. David is the first civil rights lawyer and person of color to serve as the president of the Human Rights Campaign. In 2015, Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed David to serve as the Counsel to Governor, in which he functioned as the Governor’s Chief Counsel. 

Amanda Gorman, Poet

Gorman, 22, is an American poet and activist. In the 2021 Inauguration, Amanda Gorman became the youngest inaugural poet in history at just 22 years old. Gorman was the first person named the National Youth Poet Laureate. She also graduated Cum Laude at Harvard University in 2020. 

Andrea Jenkins, Minneapolis City Council Member

In 2017, Jenkins, 60, made history as the first African American openly trans woman to be elected to office in the United States. As Jenkins represents Ward 8 and serves as the vice-president of the Minneapolis City Council, she is also a writer, performance artist, poet and transgender activist.

Assata Shakur, Social Activist

A leading figure in the 1970s Black Liberation Army, Shakur, 73, was convicted for first-degree murder in 1977. Two years later, she escaped and has been on the run since. There is a $2 million reward for her apprehension to date. As Assata Shakur famously states, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win.”

Ava DuVernay, Filmmaker

Duvernay, 48, is an American filmmaker, writer, and producer. In 2012, she became the first African American woman to receive Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival. Duvernay is responsible for several movies and television shows such as Selma, When They See Us, 13th, A Wrinkle in Time, and more.

Barack Obama, Former President of the United States

Obama, 59, served as the 44th President of the United States from 2009-2017, making him the first African American President of the United States. Throughout his presidency, he was most known for legalizing gay marriage, establishing Obamacare, and the killing of Osama bin Laden. Before his presidency, he served as the United States Senator in Illinois.

Barbara Smith, Black Activist

Smith, 74, is a member of the Combahee River Collective; a black, lesbian feminist organization most known for their transformative paper “A Black Feminist Statement.” This paper and these women were the vanguards of black feminist thinkers and activists in the 1970s. 

Beverly Smith, Black Activist

Like her twin sister Barbara, Smith, 74, is a member of the Combahee River Collective. She is a writer, Black feminist health advocate, and currently an instructor of Women’s Health at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Beyoncé, Singer/Songwriter

Knowles-Carter, 39, is a singer, songwriter who has had a lasting career for the past three decades. Emerging from her singing group, Destiny’s Child, to releasing six studio albums, Beyoncé has significantly impacted the music industry. Outside of music, she has inspired discourse on Black feminism, Black liberation, and Black aesthetics.

Chirlane McCray, Writer

McCray, 66, is a writer, editor, and American Activist. Like Beverly and Barbara Smith, she is a member of the Combahee River Collective, a Black lesbian feminist organization. As the wife of New York City Mayor, Bill de Blasio, she chairs the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City and leads the mental health initiative, ThriveNYC.

Clarence Dunnaville, 87, Lawyer

Not only is Dunnaville, 87, a Morgan State class of 1954 graduate, but he is a well-known attorney, civil rights veteran, legal reformer, author, and activist for Justice.  He has been active in the civil rights movement since the 1950s when he began by participating in sit-ins during college.  He is still practicing law and dealing with environmental racism.

Colin Kaepernick, Former NFL Player/Activist

A standout NFL quarterback and activist, Kaepernick’s, 33, athlete abilities and social justice initiatives are a testament to his dedication, but his life is also a window into America’s injustice. Being pushed out of the NFL and faced with countless media attacks, he offers in real-time an example of what happens when Black life is defended. Notably known for kneeling during the national anthem in 2016, he recently announced a partnership with Disney producing an exclusive docu-series.

Cori Bush, U.S. Representative

Congresswoman Bush, 44, is a registered nurse, community activist, organizer, single mother, and ordained pastor. She is serving her first term as the representative of Missouri’s 1st Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives. She is the first Black woman to represent Missouri. Congresswoman Bush experienced hardship and overcame personal challenges. The murder of Michael Brown galvanized her effort to stop police violence and housing inequity. Her community advocacy and organizing resulted in seeking elected office to change the relationship between government and community.

Daniel Beaty, Actor

Beaty, 45, is a visionary actor, singer, writer, and social entrepreneur who lives at the intersection of art, spirit, and social change. Raised in a home fraught with substance abuse, he learned early on that the arts can help heal childhood trauma, transform pain into power, and inspire a new generation of change-makers to dismantle the systemic racism and oppression so many Americans face.

DeJuana L. Thompson, Community Activist

The creator of “Woke Vote,” a program specifically designed to engage and inform African American millennial and faith-based voters in Alabama,  Thompson, 39, has significant experience working in Democratic politics, serving on senior-level staff for the Obama Presidential campaign. Woke Vote is now in more than 5 southern states and uses the motto: No longer will we sit on the sidelines while others decide the fate of our communities. Join us in building sustainable power across the country. 

Demita Frazier, Black feminist

Demita Frazier is a Black feminist, social justice activist, writer, and teacher. Frazier is a founding member of the Combahee River Collective, a political Black feminism movement. Frazier currently works as a professional mentor and life coach.

Denzel Washington, Actor

Washington, 66, is an actor, director, and producer who has acted in a multitude of movies throughout his career. Denzel Washington has 17 NAACP awards and 3 Golden Globes. From Fences to The Preacher’s Wife, Washington has reigned as one of the most memorable Black actors for his touching scenes.

Diana Ross, Singer 

Ross, 76, was the lead singer of The Supremes, Motown’s most successful act in the 1960s and one of the world’s best-selling girl groups of all time. Eventually, she transitioned into a solo career that expanded into theater and film. Her dynamic career was groundbreaking in almost every way and opened the door for generations of Black women entertainers.

Gloria Browne-Marshall, Writer

Gloria Browne Marshall, Esq. is a law professor, civil rights attorney who litigated cases for Southern Poverty Law Center and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Inc.  She is an author of many books and articles. Her books include “The Voting Rights War: The NAACP and the Ongoing Struggle for Justice” and “She Took Justice”. She is working on a documentary film titled “She Took Justice” to accompany the book. She is also a playwright of seven produced plays. 

Gloria Hayes Richardson, Activist

Richardson, 98, was a graduate of Howard University, came to activism as the Freedom Riders stopped in Cambridge, MD in 1961. While her daughter Donna became involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Gloria Richardson was not willing to commit to nonviolent direct action. Instead, she joined other activists in founding the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee (CNAC), which became an SNCC affiliate. Richardson and CNAC engaged in confrontational encounters with the white power structure and even the Maryland National Guard. Her open acceptance of self-defense tactics is one example of the diversity of the era.

Imani Rupert-Gordon, LGBTQ Advocate

Imani Rupert-Gordon is an advocate and dedicated leader for LGBTQ people of color. Rupert-Gordon leads a 42-year old feminist LGBTQ legal organization as the Executive Director of Affinity Community Services, the nation’s oldest social organization focused on the needs of Black LGBTQ people. She has been recognized for her magnificent leadership in the LGBTQ community.

Janaya Khan, Social Activist

Khan, 33, a queer, nonbinary artist, Khan is the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Canada. Khan is also a program director for the racial justice organization Color of Change and a speaker for the Keppler Speakers Bureau. A lot of Khan’s work focuses on the Black Lives Matter movement, Black feminism, and more.

Janelle Monáe, Singer 

Janelle Monáe, 35, is a singer, actress, rapper, and record producer. She has contributed to several songs as well as movies and television shows such as Antebellum, Homecoming, Moonlight, Harriet, and more.

Jay-Z, Rapper

Shawn Carter, 51, famously known as “Jay-Z”, is a rapper, producer businessman, songwriter, and label executive. Jay-Z is one of the world’s best-selling artists and is often referred to as one of the most influential rappers of all time. Married to Beyoncé, he developed his own streaming service, Tidal.

Jordan Peele, Actor/Filmmaker

Peele, 42, actor, comedian, and filmmaker, is famously known for his filmmaking works Get Out (2017) and Us (2019). These works brought the world horror films featuring Black cast members and using Black stories. 

Kenya Barris, Writer/Producer

Barris, 46, an actor, director, producer, and writer, is known for creating the TV show Black-ish, Grownish, and BlackAF. His work shines a light on modern-day upper-class Black families and the struggles of race we still face today in America with, of course, a bit of comedy. 

Kerry James Marshall, Artist

Marshall, 65, is a part of a pioneering group of Black visual artists who centered race in their art. His work thoroughly explores the Black American experience. He helped usher in new generations of Black artists. 

Kierra Johnson, Deputy Executive of National LGBTQ Task Force

Recognized as an expert on queer and reproductive rights issues, Kierra Johnson has appeared in  Newsweek, The New York Times, Fox News, and National Public Radio. She’s debated in front of the U.S House of Representatives in an effort to…. She currently serves as the Executive Director of the National LGBTQ Task Force. 

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Lawyer

Crenshaw, 61, is a lawyer, activist, scholar and philosopher who developed the much-debated theory of intersectionality.  Coined in 1989, intersectionality describes how class, race, gender, and other systems of oppression “intersect” and overlap, potentially causing their effects to the compound. The idea of intersectionality has truly expanded our understanding of discrimination and solutions to structural injustice.

Lauren Underwood, U.S. Representative

Congresswoman Underwood, 34, is the youngest African American woman to serve in the United States House of Representatives. Underwood co-founded and co-chairs the Black Maternal Health Caucus which elevates the Black maternal health crisis within Congress and advances policy solutions to improve maternal health outcomes and end disparities. Prior to elected office, Underwood taught future nurse practitioners through Georgetown University. 

Lynn Nottage, Playwright

Nottage, 56, is a playwright and a screenwriter. She is the first and remains the only, woman to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice. Her use of theater has interrogated society, justice, and equity.  She is the co-founder of the production company, whose mission is to bring evocative, visual, and character-driven storytelling to unusual and otherwise untold stories. We work in both fiction, non-fiction, installation, and podcast.

Mae Jemison, Engineer

Jemison, 64, paved the way for Black women in astronomy. Not only was Jemison the first African American female astronaut, but she was also the first African American woman to go into space. Throughout her career, she was also an engineer and physician.

Marc Lamont Hill, Author

Hill, 42, is one of the leading intellectual voices in the country. Hill has been a social justice activist and organizer who has worked on campaigns to end the death penalty, abolish prisons, and release numerous political prisoners. Hill has also worked in solidarity with human rights movements around the world.

Marian Wright Edelman, President of the Children’s Defense Fund

Edelman, 81, is the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund during the modern Civil Rights Movement- worked with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the SCLC’s Poor People’s Campaign. She also established the Head Start program. Her advocacy for children has continued to expose the inequities many children experience while also challenging those with the power to intervene.

Mavis Staples, Singer

As the youngest member of The Staples Singers, Staples, 81, traveled across the country singing gospel, then soul and protest music. She and her family were early proponents and supporters of the modern Civil Rights Movement and constantly used their platform to advance the causes of justice and equality. She continues to perform and make music today. 

Michael Jordan, Chairman of the Charlotte Hornets

Notably known for being one of the greatest players on the Chicago Bulls, Jordan, 58, is a former professional basketball player and businessman. During his career, he scored 32,292 points and won six NBA championships. He now owns the Jordan Brand and is a chairman for the Charlotte Hornets.

Michelle Obama, Former First Lady of the United States

Obama, 57, former first lady, is an accomplished attorney and author who has dedicated her life to service. A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, Obama has been a role model for women and worked as an advocate for poverty awareness, education, nutrition, physical activity, and healthy eating.

Mickalene Thomas, Visual Artist

Thomas, 50, is a versatile artist reigning from Brooklyn, NY. Her work varies from paintings, collages, photography, and more. She uses her art to create an image of women’s sexuality, beauty, and power.

Misty Copeland, Ballet Dancer

Copeland, 38, is an American ballet dancer for American Ballet Theatre. She is the first Black woman to become the principal dancer of the American Ballet Theatre in its 75-year history. On top of her dance career, Copeland serves as a public speaker and author of two autobiographies.

Nikki Giovanni, Poet

Giovanni, 77, is a world-renowned poet who is the winner of seven NAACP Image Awards, the Langston Hughes award, and several others. Her poems and writing shaped how the world understands Blackness, love, and beauty. She is also a writer, commentator, activist, and educator.

Oprah Winfrey, Producer

Winfrey, 67, is a famous talk show host, producer, and philanthropist. As the richest African American of the 20th century, Winfrey is responsible for multiple projects and productions such as The Oprah Winfrey Network, O, The Oprah Magazine, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and more.

Raymond Winbush, Professor

Winbush, Ph.D., 72, is a research professor and the Director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University. A world-renown scholar and activist, he is known for his systems-thinking approaches to understanding the impact of racism/white supremacy on the global African community. His writings, consultations, and research have been instrumental in understanding developmental stages in Black males, public policy and its connection to compensatory justice, relationships between Black males and females, infusion of African studies into school curricula, and the impact of hip-hop culture on the contemporary American landscape

Rosalind Brewer, Businesswoman

Brewer, 59, was recently named C.E.O. of Walgreens which will make her the only Black woman to currently run a Fortune 500 company. Formerly the C.E.O of Sam’s Club, she helped bring modern-day online grocery shopping to the development. Brewer was the first woman as well as the first African American woman to serve as the Chief Operating Officer of Starbucks. Brewer is a graduate of Spelman College.

Ruby Bridges, Activist

Bridges, 66, was just six years old when she became the first African American student to attend William Frantz Elementary in Louisiana at the height of desegregation. She is now the chair of the Ruby Bridges Foundation, which was formed in 1999 to promote “the values of tolerance, respect, and appreciation of all differences.”

Ruth J. Simmons, Academic Administrator

Simmons, Ph.D., 75, is the President of Prairie View A&M. She was the first African American president of Brown University from 2001-2012 and the first African American to lead any ivy league institution. During her tenure at Brown, Simmons initiative the campus-wide investigation into the connections between Brown/Ivy League institutions to the chattel slavery system. This investigation resulted in decolonizing the curriculum, built environment, and understanding between groups within higher education. 

Serena Williams, Tennis Player

Williams, 39, has won four Olympic Gold medals and 34 grand slam titles. She has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles, more than any player in the Open Era and the second most of all time after Margaret Court. Williams and her sister, Venus, are large competitors in the sport of tennis.

Sonia Sanchez, Poet

Sanchez, 86, poet, activist, and scholar was a pioneering figure in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Sanchez helped theorize a “black aesthetic” during a moment of cultural invention. Her poetry continues to challenge dominant narratives on blackness while also affirming black beauty, creativity, and intellect. 

Spike Lee, Film Director

Lee, 63, is a film director, producer, screenwriter, actor, and professor. Throughout his career, the Morehouse alum has produced over 35 films, all with topics surrounding the black experience. Lee has directed films such as Crooklyn and Do the Right Thing, winning multiple Academy Awards for his films.

Wayne Young, Publisher

Wayne Young, publisher and philanthropist, started publishing the Port Of Harlem magazine in 1995. He named the magazine after the world’s most famous pan-African community to reflect the magazine’s inclusive, diverse, and pan-African perspective. As a pan-African publication, Port Of Harlem magazine is the chief business supporter of the Port Of Harlem Gambian Education Partnership, a nonprofit that works with Gambians in the areas of education, community, and culture.