Another Black History Month has come and gone, and the country has heard, once again, a great deal about the likes of Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, and Martin Luther King Jr. These American heroes are rightfully celebrated, but there are many stories that have gone un- or under-told, stories of courageous Americans of color who overcame tremendous barriers to accomplish extraordinary things. Three in particular stand out—a surgeon, a pilot, and a general—remarkable individuals who exemplify the best of American character and whose stories deserve to be told anew, and for many, for the very first time.
Mildred Fay Jefferson was born in 1926 to a Methodist minister and a schoolteacher in Texas. The young Mildred grew up following the local doctor on his house calls, marveling at his skills and beginning to take an interest in medicine that would follow her the rest of her life. After completing her bachelor’s degree at Texas College, Jefferson began to reach for the stars. She went on to earn a master’s in biology before graduating from Harvard Medical School. Jefferson was the first black woman to graduate from that school, as well as the first woman to complete a surgical internship at Boston City Hospital. She served as a general surgeon at Boston University’s medical center, even as a professor at the university’s school of medicine.
Throughout Jefferson’s prolific medical career, she maintained a firm, principled opposition to abortion. Citing her loyalty to the Hippocratic oath, Jefferson made massive strides in the pro-life movement, helping found Massachusetts Citizens for Life in 1970 and serving as president of the National Right to Life Committee from 1975 to 1978. Her strident opposition to abortion would change many minds, most notable among them Ronald Reagan’s. In fact, the president expressed to her in a 1972 letter that “you made it irrefutably clear that an abortion is the taking of human life,” and that he was “grateful” for Jefferson’s dedicated activism. The two would go on to correspond regularly. Jefferson’s background as both a black woman and a surgeon gave her tremendous credibility when describing the abortion industry as “a class war against the poor and genocide against blacks.” After a successful career as a surgeon, and decades of tireless pro-life advocacy, Jefferson died in 2010, leaving a truly admirable legacy of professionalism and lived-out principles.
Benjamin O. Davis Jr. was born in 1912 in Washington D.C. At 13 he went on a flight that launched the young Davis into a lifelong love of aviation. His journey to stardom, however, was not without its obstacles. While in the U.S. Military Academy, Davis was isolated by white classmates for four long years, often eating by himself. He never had a roommate, and his white peers hoped that the isolation would pressure him to leave the Academy. Davis never gave up, though, graduating in 1936 and earning the respect of many classmates, who described him as possessing “courage, tenacity, and intelligence.”
Davis applied to the Army Air Corps but was denied entrance because of his race, eventually being assigned to teach military tactics at a small town in Alabama called Tuskegee. Once again, Davis’ love of flying guided his career, and the young professor earned his wings in 1942 as America was entering the Second World War. He would soon ship off to war, leading the Tuskegee Airmen in North Africa and Sicily and eventually becoming a general in the Air Force. Davis earned a Silver Star and Distinguished Flying Cross for his valor during the war. In his 1991 memoir, he wrote that “the privileges of being an American belong to those brave enough to fight for them.” Davis went on to a well-deserved retirement before passing away from Alzheimer’s in 2002.
Perhaps the most extraordinary story of the three is that of Robert Smalls, born in 1839 to Lydia Polite, a slave in South Carolina. Although a slave himself, the young Robert was favored by his master, Henry McKee, who took him around town and allowed him to play with white children. Despite these atypical favors, Robert grew to abhor slavery, moving to Charleston in 1912 and working for his master on the waterfront on various ships. Smalls eventually learned how to perform captain’s duties on the ship he was assigned to, the Planter. The clever Smalls was preparing for escape and in 1862 put his plan into action. Smalls, along with other enslaved men and their families on the Planter, waited on the ship until the white supervisors turned in for the night. Then the crew steered the Planter out of Charleston Harbor, past the Confederate batteries, and surrendered the ship to the Union forces blockading Fort Sumter. Smalls would go on to gain fame, holding audience with Abraham Lincoln and recruiting 5,000 African Americans to fight valiantly for the Union for the remainder of the war.
As the Civil War came to an end, Smalls emerged a hero and embarked on a political career. As Reconstruction gained traction, he fought for an improved public school system in South Carolina and greater civil rights in the South generally. Despite efforts by South Carolina Democrats to force him from government, Smalls prevailed, serving five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. After politics, Smalls went on to a happy retirement, dying of natural causes in 1915. A monument to his memory in nearby Tabernacle Baptist Church preserves one of his most famous quotes: “My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be the equal of any people, anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.”
From a young girl dreaming of being a doctor, to a young boy looking up at the skies, to a young slave chasing a desire for freedom, the history of black Americans is awash with unsung heroes. These hidden stories of grit, determination, and perseverance are well worth telling and remembering, and not just during Black History Month (although that would be nice).