It is Black History Month and we thought it would be nice to look at some known and not so known figures in Black history as well as some modern leaders pushing Black history forward. One of the things we embrace at Gravity Speakers is giving a voice and platform to underrepresented groups. Often times these underrepresented groups display incredible courage, overcoming the odds and systems that work against them and alienate them. We are proud to have an amazing group of African-American speakers, leaders, and activists in our network of speakers. Let’s take a look at some Black leaders in history and how their principles of leadership are still present in the next generation of black leadership.
Born on April 4th, 1839 the story of Robert Smalls is one of courage, excellence, and inspiration. Smalls was born in Beaufort, South Carolina. His mother was a house servant and his father was likely his master Henry McKee. In order for him to fully understand the plight of the field slaves his mother asked that he work in the fields. When he was 12 he was sent away to work in Charleston and ended up working in the shipyards. Robert learned the ways of his oppressors by watching keenly as they used hand signals. He became highly knowledgeable in all manner of seamanship. He married at 17 to Hannah Jones who had two daughters already and they later had a daughter together and a son who died at the age of two.
Robert hoped to buy his wife and children out of slavery but after sending most of his wages to his master it would have taken him decades to save enough to buy their freedom. In 1861 the American Civil War began and Smalls was assigned to steer the CSS Planter. He watched and waited for the officers to go to shore and he recruited some other ship slaves and they hijacked the boat. He used the hand signals he learned dressed as a Confederate soldier to get past the five Confederate points on his way to freedom while picking up his wife and kids and the family of other crewmen. He put up a white flag and narrowly avoided being shot out of the water by Union forces.
Robert went on to become a pilot of many vessels in the Union army and even became a captain of the Planter which he originally escaped on. Aside from his military duty he also learned to read and write and supported programs to raise money for the education and development of ex-slaves. After his military career, he went into business serving the needs of freedmen. He also founded the Enterprise Railroad with what would end up being one the most impressive commercial ventures of Charleston’s black elite. He also published a black-owned newspaper, the Beaufort Southern Standard.
From business, he went into politics becoming the first African American elected into the United States House of Representatives. He went on to advocate for Black rights and education. Smalls journey highlights a pattern of Black leadership. He came from oppression and an environment where he was the minority. He learned the ways of his oppressors, waited for an opportunity, recruited others, made a bold move, found new allies, proved himself to those allies, rose in power and influence, and used that power to create activism and education. You will see this pattern is almost identical with other Black leaders. On a monument by his grave, his final words are engraved, “My race needs no special defense for the past history of them and this country. It proves them to be equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.”
Born Araminta Ross on January 29th, 1822 into slavery in Dorchester County Maryland. Tubman was whipped and beaten by various masters as a child. In one incident a slave owner threw a heavy metal weight at another slave and it hit her in the head causing dizziness, pain, and bouts of hypersomnia throughout her life. Her father taught her to lumber and this is where she came in contact with freed black sailors who shipped the wood to the North. Tubman learned about secret communications and an underground railroad of people willing to help slaves with safe-houses and transportation to get to freedom.
In 1844, she married John Tubman and renamed herself Harriet after her mother. When her master died, his widow planned on selling the slaves and Harriet fled with her two brothers for fear they would be separated. The way was hard and they started to turn back when she had a dream which later inspired her to follow the North star to Philadelphia. She then returned 13 times to free her family and others and earned the nickname Black Moses. From there she served in the Union army as a nurse, scout, and spy and in 1863 was the first woman in military history to plan and lead a military raid that liberated over 700 slaves.
After the war, the 13th amendment abolished slavery, the 14th amendment expanded citizenship, and the 15th amendment gave voting rights to formerly enslaved black males. Though she accomplished a lot she was not even close to done. She continued to raise funds for schools and hospitals and then in 1888 worked on getting women the right to vote. On her deathbed, her last words were, “I’m going to prepare a place for you.”
Once again we see in her life a similar pattern, she was born into an environment of oppression, learned the ways of her oppressors, aligned with others under the same oppression, waited for her opportunity, made a bold move, found allies, proved herself to her new allies, became an activist and promoted education and pushed for higher power to be used to further her cause. Let’s look at one more example in the early tech space.
Born on August 26th, 1918 in White Sulphur Springs West Virginia, Katherine was the youngest of four children. Katherine’s mom was a teacher and her father worked at a hotel. She ignored her environment and excelled in math at an early age. African Americans were only offered schooling up to the eighth grade at that time. Her family managed to enroll her in high school at the age of 10. Her abilities could not be denied and she graduated at age 14. She took a break to focus on family after becoming pregnant and became the first African American to attend graduate school at West Virginia University. She was one of the first to integrate graduate schools after the Supreme Court ruling on Missouri Gaines v. Canada in 1938.
Eventually, she decided on a career as a research mathematician which was both difficult for women and even more difficult for African Americans to enter. She moved into a male-dominated space to lead the way once again in unaccepting environments. She became part of the group of human computers which did complex calculations before computers were created. The movie Hidden Figures released in 2017 tells the story of her and other African American women who made it possible for humans to reach outer space. Not only was she separated as a woman in a male-dominated workplace, she was further marginalized by being separated into the colored women computers group. She exemplified the point that results, leadership, and tenacity could overcome hostile, unfair, and unsupportive environments. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 from Barack Obama.
Her history shows the same pattern of Black leadership, coming from an oppressive environment, she educated herself, learned the ways of the oppressors, made bold moves, found allies, proved herself to her allies, and helped educate, inspire, and pave the way for others by being willing to be the first to pioneer black leadership in unwelcoming environments.
These are just some of a multitude of historical Black leaders but I see the powerful principles of Black leadership in every one of these amazing people. At Gravity Speakers, we are blessed to have modern African American leaders, pioneers, and activists that are following the same pattern of Black leadership as those who came before them. They are going into environments where women and people of color are rare or don’t exist. They are willing to trailblaze and create where nothing existed. They make bold moves, find strategic allies, and educate and advocate along the way while creating influence and power that can be used to set an example and support more people of color. We are proud to be an ally, supporter, and advocate for the Black leaders of today. Here is a list of some of the amazing leaders we are able to work with and you can too. Book them for your next event.
Arlan Hamilton – Outstanding entrepreneur leading the way in venture capital for underrepresented founders, women of color, and LGBT.
Sheena Allen – Founder of Capway a neobank, Forbes 30 Under 30, and advocate for inclusion in tech.
Mike Brown – Pro-athlete turned coder, CEO of Win-Win a platform for athletes and influencers to monetize their fanbase.
Morgen Bromell – Technologist working to make technology more accessible for people of color through justice-based initiatives and activism.
Dawn Dickson – Serial entrepreneur currently working on PopCom an automated retail company using facial recognition, AI, and blockchain to generate valuable customer data.
Ugwem Eneyo – Co-founder and CEO of Solstice Energy Solutions specializing in the use of IoT for energy management with a passion for creating opportunities in Africa.
Harold Hughes – CEO of bandwagon an analytics and identity management company focused on creating personalized experiences.
Sky Kelley – Founder of Avisare, software that fosters an inclusive ecosystem for small businesses.
Russell Ladson – Creative technologist driving the intersection of technology and design for better human to human experiences.
James Norman – Serial entrepreneur in multiple verticals building his first business at age 16, now focusing on OTT media and consumer video consumption behaviors.
Amiah Sheppard – Director of Backstage Accelerator LA, educating founders on ways to harness their socio-cultural backgrounds to achieve their goals.
Kimberly Seals Allers – Award-winning journalist, author, and advocate for maternal and infant health as well as the intersection of race, policy, and culture.
Phil Gwoke – International speaker helping people reach their highest calling through motivation, education, and support.
Roderick Jefferson – An award-winning veteran in sales enablement.
Sarita Maybin – Communications expert who teaches people how to deal with tough situations and stay positive.