Five Cool Black People in History You Should Know Better

This is an old post from Wordpress, but I think the figures profiled are still worthy of more attention, I’m reprinting the article.

It’s Black History Month, and on a couple of Facebook walls and Twitter, I’ve read complaints that African-Americans (and probably black people in Canada and the UK) hear about the same heroes such as MLK and Rosa Parks over and over again as the media goes through the motions of coverage. Okay, I can help with that. Here are five extremely cool black people in history that most of us know little about — and yet we should. In my book, PREVAIL, which is about the Italian-Ethiopian War, I discuss a few of them. Here they are, in no particular order:


What makes her interesting?

Bigger than Beyonce and long before Madonna, she was born poor in St. Louis and wound up the toast of Paris in the 1920s after she danced topless in a banana dress. Josephine wasn’t just the most famous black woman — she was the most famous woman in the world period. Hit tunes, movies, stage shows — even dolls. She got so rich, she could own her own castle and used to walk a pet leopard down the street with a diamond-studded choke-leash. She didn’t have to be outlandish for her image — it came naturally. With a voracious sexual appetite, she took lovers in the morning and afternoon and was also bisexual. She could be a bit of a dingbat, but her heart was always in the right place, and in World War Two, she acted as an agent for the French Resistance and was awarded twice for her courage and efforts.

Where can I find out more about her?

For my money, the best biography of Josephine is Naked at the Feast by Lynn Haney, which is supposed to be coming back into print. A biopic movie by HBO was done years ago, but it doesn’t begin to capture her larger-than-life personality or cover half of what she accomplished.


What makes him interesting?

Think about the 1930s and how there was no Samuel L. Jackson, no Denzel Washington, no Idris Elba, no Chiwetel Ejiofor, and it was still twenty years before Sidney Poitier. There was just Paul Robeson. And he was amazing — he could sing, he could act, he was articulate and well-read. And he was political — which pissed some people off, especially certain white people. He was not going to stay “nice” and do as he was told, carrying the burden of representing all black people, because he could think. And his conscience led him to Pan-Africanism and Communism. And he was dragged before one of the witch hunt Washington committees. Do you know how whenever there’s an item on McCarthy, and they play the old newsreel clips? They really ought to show Paul Robeson’s testimony, because he was not going to take their shit. In fact, in very blunt terms, he told them they could go to hell. Read the transcript, and it’s electrifying. The federal government then set out to destroy him… and they did. But his performances and art survive.

Where can I find out more about him?

Martin Duberman wrote an excellent biography of him. Find original recordings of “Showboat” or see the first movie version and you’ll hear a voice that will rock your world.


What makes him interesting?

From Gulfport, Mississippi, Robinson wasn’t about to let anyone tell him he couldn’t learn to fly a plane. And he did better than just learn how to fly — he could actually fix them and build them up from parts like putting together a soapbox derby racer! He made things possible for the famous Tuskegee airmen who came later, and when Italy invaded Ethiopia, he went over and led Haile Selassie’s air force… which was only a few planes, none of which had guns. He escaped Fascist Caproni fighters again and again to do courier runs and airlift the wounded. And when he came back to New York and later Chicago, thousands cheered him as a hero. And he was a hero.

Where can I find out more about him?

For the longest time, Robinson’s name seemed almost forgotten, but another son of the South, amateur historian Thomas E. Simmons was intrigued by stories about him and rescued this pioneer from obscurity. Tracking down family members, digging through records, Simmons has written two books about Robinson. His new one is just out and is called The Man Called Brown Condor. My own book, PREVAIL, relies heavily on Tom’s expertise and guidance, and I also quote Robinson’s own letters about his time in Ethiopia.


Smart, driven and courageous, she wanted to go serve as a nurse in Ethiopia, but didn’t get the chance. Instead, she ended up becoming a legend in the Spanish Civil War. Even as a nursing student, she was pushing for change — desegregation in a hospital dining room, better work conditions for her fellow African-American nurses. There are many stories about her and different versions of them, and unfortunately, it’s difficult to pin down some of the truth. What we do know is she deserves better recognition.

Where can I find out more about her?

It’s difficult. But you can start with this excellent article written by Emily Robins Sharpe, which offers a couple of photos. I wish someone would do a full book on her.


What makes him so interesting?

Or maybe you’re even thinking, “C’monnnn! There are so many famous black boxers!” Well, yes, but what makes this guy so cool is that his life story reads like a fantastic movie. First of all, he’s an African-American from New York who started life as a slave and was taken to England in the 18th century… and that’s where things really took off. As a PhD in the “Sweet Science,” he was almost completely self-taught, and he hardly ever lost. Plus he went out a success, living a happy life in retirement. If you visit London and walk around the piazza of its famous Leicester Square, you are walking on his old stomping grounds, because after he quit the ring, he opened a boxing academy and bought a pub. And he served as a mentor to another great black boxing legend, Tom Molineaux. Nicely done, mate.

Where can I find out more about him?

Good boxing histories have him, and you can start with this page here from the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Years ago, the BBC, if memory serves, did a wonderful short documentary on him, complete with recreations of scenes of his life, and I only wish I could remember its title. If someone does know, pass it along — I’ll edit this and insert it in.

So there we are… Five very cool and inspiring figures from Black History worth learning more about. And there are certainly thousands more. But hopefully this blog helps in a humble way to open the pantheon doors.

Writer person. Books - Prevail, The Karma Booth, Gangs in Canada; in June 2021, Winged Bull, a bio of Henry Layard, the Victorian era’s Indiana Jones.