The first enslaved Africans landed in North America in 1619 to begin a life of forced, unpaid labor, harsh living conditions, and cruel treatment. The Southern economy grew dependent on slave labor, and the terrible institution was not abolished until after the American Civil War. Although slavery ended almost 150 years ago in the United States, its legacies of racism, prejudice, and the struggle for equal treatment persist today.
Eighteenth-century inventor and astronomer Benjamin Banneker was widely known and respected in his time. Most of what he knew, he taught himself. His letter to Thomas Jefferson asked the future president to reconsider his racial prejudices. Later, abolitionists would use Banneker as proof that people of any race can be equally intelligent.
Booker T. Washington rose from his slavery beginnings to become a national leader in education and civil rights. Beginning his career as a teacher and developing into a renowned speaker, Washington's influence is still felt today through Tuskegee University, which he originally founded.
Born into slavery, Frederick Douglass was struck by the unfairness and cruelty of slave life and escaped as a young man to the North. A skilled speaker and writer of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Douglass became a fierce fighter for the end of slavery and later led the early civil rights movement.
W. E. B. Du Bois was born a few years after the end of the Civil War, and he dedicated his life to the fight for racial equality. Du Bois was highly educated, and he used his knowledge to speak out against segregation and the commonly held belief that blacks were inferior to whites.
Throughout her life, Mary McLeod Bethune worked tirelessly to increase women's opportunities, from education to the military to the right to vote. Her activism led her to the White House as a consultant for several presidents. There, she helped advance important civil rights agendas.
Sojourner Truth was born into slavery. Freed before its abolition, she dedicated her life to speaking out against inequality in all forms. She became one of the nation's foremost abolitionists and an important women's-rights advocate.