2007-02-01 / Front Page

Black History Month salutes black leaders, astronauts, billionaires

A tradition that dates back to the mid-1920s, Black History Month was started over 80 years ago by an academic named Dr. Carter G. Woodson. In his studies, Dr. Woodson realized the glaring lack of black history in textbooks. When blacks were mentioned, it was frequently only in passing or in explaining individual examples of infamy. What Black History Month has grown into today is an American celebration of a storied history, one that is littered with an influential and, in many cases, world-altering cast.

In celebration of Black History Month, here is a list of trailblazing African-Americans, each of whom broke down a barrier and made what was once only a dream into a reality for many African-Americans. Beginning next week, The News-Reporter will feature a series, written by the Rev. Ed Anderson, on Black Americans from the Wilkes County area.

.. John Mercer Langston. Langston was the first black elected official in the United States. Though Langston was the son of a white plantation owner and a former slave, he is still considered to be the first black elected official, having been elected as the town clerk in Brownhelm Township, Ohio, in 1855. That was not the lone office Langston would hold, as he was later appointed inspector general of the Freedmen's Bureau and a U.S. minister to Haiti.

.. Carl Stokes. Elected to the office of mayor of Cleveland in 1967, Stokes became the first black mayor of a major city. While Robert C. Henry actually was the first African- American mayor in the U.S., Henry was appointed mayor of Springfield, Ohio, a few months before Stokes was elected in Cleveland. After serving two terms as mayor, Stokes eventually moved to New York City, where he blazed yet another trail, becoming the first black anchorman in that city's history when he began working for WNBC-TV.

.. Joseph Rainey. Born in Georgetown, South Carolina, Rainey was the first African-American elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. The son of slaves, Rainey escaped to the West Indies in 1862 shortly after being drafted into the Confederate army. Rainey returned to South Carolina once the war had ended and, in 1871, was elected to the House as a Republican.

.. Robert C. Weaver. In 1966, Weaver became the first African- American to hold a cabinet post when he was appointed Secretary of the Department of Urban Housing and Development (HUD) by then- President Lyndon Johnson. In 2000, three years after his death, Weaver was honored when the HUD headquarters was renamed the Robert C. Weaver Federal Building.

.. L. Douglas Wilder. Wilder blazed a trail that, surprisingly, wasn't blazed until 1990, when he, a Virginia native and the grandson of slaves, was the first African- American to be elected governor of a U.S. state. A veteran of the Korean conflict, in which he earned a bronze star, Wilder served as governor of Virginia from 1990 to 1994 and is currently serving as the mayor of Richmond, an election he won in a landslide, garnering 79 percent of the vote.

.. Guion "Guy" Bluford, Jr. While on mission STS-8 as a member of the crew on the space shuttle Challenger in 1983, Bluford became the first African-American in space. Though he was not the first African- American astronaut (a distinction that belongs to Robert H. Lawrence, Jr.), Bluford was the first in space. Bluford was also a war hero, flying 144 combat missions, 65 of which were over North Vietnam.

.. Robert Johnson. The first African American billionaire, Johnson reached that status in 2001 after selling his television network, Black Entertainment Television (BET), to media giant Viacom. A trailblazer in many respects, Johnson launched BET in 1980 and, in so doing, established the first cable television network aimed at African-Americans. BET eventually became the first African-American-run company to be offered on the New York Stock Exchange. Though Johnson retired from BET at the end of 2005, he still acts as majority owner of the National Basketball Association's Charlotte Bobcats, a team he has owned since 2002, when he became the first African-American to own a professional sports franchise.

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