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Throughout our history, African Americans have made invaluable contributions to America’s culture, economy, and social policy. Many of these individuals are well known, but in honor of Black History Month, we’re taking time to shed light on a few, lesser-known figures of our community who deserve recognition for their contributions and achievements.

Little Known African Americans in Business, Culture, & Social Policy

Arthur G. Gaston (1892-1996) was a successful businessman and entrepreneur who built an impressive empire in Birmingham, AL during the Jim Crow era. Among his many ventures, Mr. Gaston may be best known for founding insurance companies, a funeral home business, one of the leading black-owned banks in the U.S., and opening a business college along with the A.G. Gaston Motel. The Gaston Motel opened in 1954 and hosted performances by timelessly great artists like Stevie Wonder and Little Richard. Gaston also welcome Martin Luther King Jr. and members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at the Gaston Motel in 1963 during MLK’s Birmingham Civil Rights Campaign.

Around the same time, Diane Nash, an alumna of Nashville, Tennessee’s Fisk University, helped Nashville become the first southern city to de-segregate dining facilities. What’s more, Ms. Nash was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in April of 1960. She was jailed in 1961 with the “Rock Hill Nine” (students who were imprisoned after a lunch counter sit-in), and later played a major role in bringing Martin Luther King Jr. to Montgomery, AL, and Selma, AL in support of the Freedom Riders and the voter’s rights agenda.

Fast forward to the present day and meet Mwende Window Snyder, Security and Privacy Product Manager at Apple. Ms. Snyder is a computer and network security expert that spends her days keeping cyber threats at bay. At 38 years old, she is one of a few African American women fighting hackers in today’s wild cyberspace. She learned to program BASIC when she was just 5 years old and has since worked for Mozilla and Microsoft, not to mention co-authored the standard protocol book for cyber-security applications – Threat Modeling.

Little Known African Americans in Government

You’ve heard of Condoleezza Rice and President Barrack Obama, but have you heard of these African Americans that helped to pave a path for them in the world of politics?

In the mid-1800s, Alexander Lucius Twilight was the first African American to graduate from a U.S. college and the first to win an election to a public office. He joined his home-state legislature of Vermont in 1836.

Born in 1924, Patricia Roberts Harris pioneered even more firsts. She was appointed U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg in 1965, a member of President Jimmy Carter’s Cabinet, and the head of Howard University School of Law – all firsts for African American women! Ms. Harris graduated from George Washington University’s Law Center in 1960 at the top of her class. While acting as Carter’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, she fought for fair housing and employment practices for black Americans.

Finally, we celebrate Lisa Perez Jackson, a civil servant, engineer, and chemist who in 2008 became the first African American to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Ms. Jackson grew up in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward with her adoptive family. An alumna of Tulane University and Princeton University, Ms. Jackson served briefly as then New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine’s Chief of Staff in 2008; she was the first African American woman to hold that post. Soon though, she was chosen by President Obama to become the new EPA Administrator where she cracks down on polluters and harmful greenhouse gases. Plus, we hear she makes a stellar gumbo!

Little Known African Americans in Education & Academics

The education of African Americans was forbidden under slavery, but many slaves risked their lives to educate themselves. The fight for fair and equal educational facilities, staff, materials, and advancement was not without difficulty, and could not have been accomplished without the tireless efforts of men like Alexander Crummell, who in 1897 founded the first school dedicated to African-American learning and women like Gloria Blackwell. Ms. Blackwell was a veteran teacher at Clark University and an instrumental player in the fight to desegregate schools. She filed and won several lawsuits against discriminatory organizations.

There’s also Septima Poinsette Clark, a leading civil rights activist, educator, and humanitarian who is often referred to as the “queen mother of the Civil Rights movement.” In the 1940s, Ms. Clark worked with the NAACP and Thurgood Marshall on a case that fought for equal pay for black teachers. She also worked relentlessly to increase literacy among African Americans, training teachers and helping to establish citizenship schools. Thanks to her efforts in the South, she is said to have had a hand in enabling nearly 700,000 African Americans to get registered to vote.

Participate in Black History Month with Direct

We may be just an insurance company, but at Direct Auto Insurance we applaud the accomplishments of Black Americans of the past, present, and future, and are proud to serve our diverse communities around the United States.