Black History Month: Notable leaders with Illinois ties

Since 1976, every U.S. president has officially designated the month of February as Black History Month, a time to recognize the role of African Americans in U.S. history. Below is a partial list of notable African-Americans with ties to Illinois.

Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable
The first settler and resident of Chicago
 Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable was born in San Marc, Haiti, in 1745. Not very much is known about Du Sable's early life. It is known, however, that Du Sable's mother was probably killed by the Spanish when he was ten. In 1764 Du Sable and his friend Jacques Clemorgan moved from Haiti to New Orleans. Du Sable was eventually thankful for moving to New
Orleans because it was here that he and his friend Clemorgan met their future partner of a trading post in New Orleans, and later in what would become Peoria, Illinois. The young man Du Sable and Clemorgan met was Choctaw, a Native American from the Great Lakes. At the time, Choctaw was working at a Catholic mission. Read more.

John W.E. Thomas
First African-American Legislator in Illinois
Amid the glitz and celebration of America’s centennial year, November 7, 1876, was truly a date for the history books. That day saw a razor-thin Presidential election that was not resolved until the following March, it saw a ham-handed attempt to steal the body of Abraham Lincoln from his Springfield tomb, and it was the day that voters in the 2nd District elected Rep. John W.E. Thomas (R-Chicago) as Illinois’ first African-American state legislator. Read more.

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams
First American to perform open heart surgery
Born on January 18, 1856, in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, Daniel Hale Williams pursued a pioneering career in medicine. An African-American doctor, in 1893 Williams opened Provident Hospital, the first medical facility to have an interracial staff. He was also one of the first physicians to successfully complete pericardial surgery on a patient. Williams later became chief surgeon of the Freedmen’s Hospital. Read more.

Oscar De Priest 
First African-American U.S. Representative from Illinois
Oscar De Priest was the first African American elected to Congress in the 20th century, ending a 28–year absence of black Representatives. De Priest’s victory—he was the first black Member from the North—marked a new era of black political organization in urban areas, as evidenced by the South Side district of Chicago, whose continuous African–American representation began with De Priest’s election in 1928. Although he made scant legislative headway during his three terms in Congress, De Priest became a national symbol of hope for African Americans, and he helped lay the groundwork for future black Members of the House and Senate. Read more.

Jesse Owens
First American in Olympic Track & Field to win four gold medals in a single Olympiad
Jesse Owens, the son of a sharecropper and grandson of a slave, achieved what no Olympian before him had accomplished. His stunning achievement of four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin has made him the best remembered athlete in Olympic history. Read more.

Ellsworth Dansby
First African-American master sergeant 
Dansby, a graduate of Decatur High School and Millikin University, was perhaps the first to report for duty when the first black aviation unit, the 99th Pursuit Squadron of the Army Air Corps, was activated at Chanute Field in Rantoul in March 1941. The 99th later moved to Tuskegee, Ala., where it became the foundation of the Tuskegee Airmen. Read more.

Gwendolyn Brooks
First African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize.
Gwendolyn Brooks was a highly regarded, much-honored poet, with the distinction of being the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize. She also was poetry consultant to the Library of Congress—the first black woman to hold that position—and poet laureate of the State of Illinois.' Read more.

Ernie Banks
First African-American to play baseball for the Chicago Cubs
Ernie Banks was signed by the Chicago Cubs in 1953. An 11-time All-Star, Banks was named the National League's (NL) Most Valuable Player for two consecutive seasons. He hit more than 40 home runs in five different seasons. He also led the league in 1958–1959 in runs batted in. He retired in 1971 and was elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977. The beloved baseball player died on January 23, 2015 at the age of 83. Read more.

Lorraine Hansberry 
The first black playwright & the youngest American to win a New York Critics’ Circle award.
Lorraine Hansberry was born on May 19, 1930, in Chicago, Illinois. She wrote A Raisin in the Sun, a play about a struggling black family, which opened on Broadway to great success. Hansberry was the first black playwright and the youngest American to win a New York Critics’ Circle award. Throughout her life she was heavily involved in civil rights. She died at 34 of pancreatic cancer. Read more.

Harold Washington
First African-American mayor of Chicago
Harold Washington was born on April 15, 1922, in Chicago, Illinois. Washington got his start in politics in the Illinois House of Representatives, where he represented the state's 26th District from 1965 to 1976. He went on to serve in the Illinois Senate from 1977 to 1980, and then became a member of the U.S. House of Representatives (1981-83), representing Illinois' 1st District. In 1983, Washington became the first African-American mayor of Chicago. He was elected to a second term in 1987. Washington died while in office, on November 25, 1987, in Chicago. Read more.

Carol Moseley Braun
First female U.S. senator from Illinois & the first African American woman to serve in the U.S. Senate.
The first African–American woman Senator, Carol Moseley–Braun was also only the second black Senator since the Reconstruction Era.1 “I cannot escape the fact that I come to the Senate as a symbol of hope and change,” Moseley–Braun said shortly after being sworn in to office in 1993. “Nor would I want to, because my presence in and of itself will change the U.S. Senate.”2 During her single term in office, Senator Moseley–Braun advocated for civil rights issues and for legislation on crime, education, and families. Read more.

Barack Obama
First African American President of United States
Barack Obama is the 44th and current president of the United States, and the first African American to serve as U.S. president. First elected to the presidency in 2008, he won a second term in 2012. Read more.