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Education Access Heroes and Champions from Black History

By Stephen Barker
February 28, 2023

In celebration of Black History Month, we look to the Black educators, leaders, activists, and community members who blazed the trail for generations of students of color to pursue their greatest postsecondary aspirations. 

In the United States, the struggle for equal access to higher education has been a long and difficult one, particularly for Black students. Despite facing tremendous obstacles, many Black figures throughout history have made important contributions to advancing access for students. From the inspiring leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to the powerful advocacy of Frederick Douglass, to the groundbreaking initiatives of Michelle Obama, famous Black leaders have played a vital role in shaping the landscape of higher education in America. Here, we explore the many contributions of figures who may not be household names but who also tirelessly advocated for the advancement of access to higher education for Black students.

Alexander Lucius Twilight (1795-1857)

Known as the first African American in the United States to graduate from college, Alexander Twilight grew up in Vermont and was the son of a veteran of the American Revolution. Despite being forced to work on a farm as an indentured servant, he graduated from Middlebury College in 1823. Alexander became a teacher and continued his education, studying to join the Christian ministry as a pastor. But he didn’t stop there! He eventually went on to serve as the headmaster of the Orleans County Grammar School and in 1836, became the first African American to serve in a state legislature in the United States.

Alexander Lucius Twilight, Public domain image, Courtesy Orleans County Grammar Schools

Dr. Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950)

Based on his belief that the contributions and histories of African Americans were left untold, Dr. Woodson launched Negro History Week in the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. The concept of celebrating and telling the stories of African Americans would later become Black History Month.  He also founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, known today as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH).  Dr. Woodson worked to affirm his strong conviction that education was critical in reducing racism and discrimination in the United States and dedicated his life to this cause.

Dr. Carter G. Woodson, image courtesy of West Virginia State Archives, Ancella Bickley Collection

Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955)

Mary was an American educator, civil rights activist, and founder of the National Council of Negro Women. She led several African American women’s organizations in her time, including the National Association for Colored Women and the National Youth Administration’s Negro Division. She co-founded the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), now known as the United Fund, which distributes scholarships and provides mentoring and job opportunities to African American students attending historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). There are over 500,000 students who have earned college degrees with the help of UNCF.

Mary McLeod Bethune, image courtesy of Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center NMAH, Smithsonian Institution

Linda Brown (1943-2018)

Linda Brown was just a young girl when she found herself at the center of the 1951 U.S. Supreme Court ruling from Brown v. Board of Education, which finally struck down racial segregation in schools and effectively ended the “separate but equal doctrine” of the Jim Crow era. After her parents tried to enroll her into Sumner Elementary School and were denied admission, her family joined 13 other families in a class action lawsuit brought to the court by the NAACP. The rest is history! What you may not know is that after attending Washburn University and Kansas State University, Linda became a fierce advocate for educational access for Black students as a public speaker and consultant.

Linda Brown, image courtesy of the Associated Press.

Guion Bluford (1942-present)

Bluford is a retired astronaut and was the first African American to travel into space in 1979. He later served as a member of the Board of Visitors for the United States Air Force Academy, advocating for more diversity and inclusion in the military and higher education. “I felt an awesome responsibility, and I took the responsibility very seriously, of being a role model and opening another door to Black Americans, but the important thing is not that I am Black, but that I did a good job as a scientist and an astronaut. There will be Black astronauts flying in later missions … and they, too, will be people who excel, not simply who are Black . . . who can ably represent their people, their communities, their country.”

Astronaut Guion S. Bluford, image courtesy of NASA.

Mary Hatwood Futrell (1940-present)

Futrell is a former educator and union leader who served as the president of the National Education Association (NEA), the largest teachers’ union in the United States. During her tenure, she worked to promote equal educational opportunities for all students and address discrimination and inequality issues in the education system, particularly for women and students of color. “You stay positive by believing in yourself. You don’t let somebody tell you that you can’t learn and that you should stay back just because of your situation. You can change your situation, and I think our children need more encouragement. They need more inspiration. They need to believe in themselves and to value themselves. And they need to understand education can transform you.” NEA now presents the Mary Hatwood Futrell Human and Civil Rights Award to a nominee whose activities in women’s rights significantly impact education and the achievement of equal opportunity for women and girls.

Image Courtesy of Mary Alice Hatwood Futrell

Silas Purnell (1923–2003)

When our founders were developing the OneGoal classroom model, they took inspiration from the legacy left by the College Preparation & Placement Program at Ada S. McKinley Community Center, pioneered by the late Silas Purnell. For 35 years, students came by word of mouth to his office in the Dearborn Homes housing development basement in Chicago, looking for a better future. Silas convinced college administrators to grant scholarships to promising young people who didn’t quite fit the standard college admissions profile. Silas and his supporters would string together funds to help students purchase books, clothes, plane tickets – whatever was needed to eliminate the financial barriers of college enrollment. This grassroots effort is believed to have been the largest college placement program in the US at points during Salis’ tenure. The spirit of this early college access program is part of the OneGoal DNA. We honor the memory of advocates like Silas, who helped between 40,000-60,000 young people enroll in postsecondary institutions throughout the country.

Silas Purnell, courtesy of NBC Today and Mike Leonard.

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