Solomon Northup (Wikimedia Commons)

Despite the standard Black History Month lessons you may have been taught in school, there’s much more to the story than slavery, civil rights and an ever-growing list of “firsts.”


Henry Louis Gates Jr., founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University and The Root's editor-in-chief, who recently wrote and executive-produced PBS’ six-part series, African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, knows that well.

Here, the historian highlights a set of his favorite triumphant, unexpected, adventurous and otherwise fascinating stories. There's the saga of 12 Years a Slave's Solomon Northup, plus 17 other tales, each of which could provide the basis of its own gripping feature film. They're all part of the black experience in America, and they're all, according to Gates, African-American history events you'll want to know about. 

Coming to America   

Juan Garrido (left) (Diego Duran, Historia de la Indias de Nueve Espana e Islas de la Tierra Firme, 1581)

1513: A century before the first “20 and odd” Africans arrived in Jamestown, Va., in 1619, Juan Garrido, a black African-Spanish conquistador, docked on the shores of modern-day Florida. He later helped Hernan Cortés take Mexico before moving on to California in search of gold.

Esteban the Explorer   

"Estavanico," by Jose Cisneros, in Cleve Hallenbeck's The Journey of Fray Marcos de Niza 

1515: A black explorer known as Esteban the Moor—just one of four survivors of a Spanish expedition that went horribly wrong—served as a guide and translator for his companions, walked 15,000 miles by 1536 and saw more of the North American continent than any explorers would until Lewis and Clark.

Path to Freedom      

PBS History Online

Late 17th Century: The first Underground Railroad from slavery to freedom ran south to Florida, at the time still a Spanish colony.

A Place of Their Own

1738: Former slaves established Fort Mose, Fla., as the first all-black town in what would become the United States. 

Washington’s Slave   

John Trumball. 1780. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.   

1776: Harry Washington, one of George Washington’s slaves, ran away from Mount Vernon and ultimately joined the British Army. At the war's end, he found safe haven in the British Zone in New York. In July 1783, onboard a ship named L'Abondance,along with 405 other black men, women and children, 43-year-old Harry set sail with his wife, Jenny, for Nova Scotia and freedom, in a settlement they named "Birchtown."

The First Sit-In  


1786: The first sit-in—a refusal to worship from the “black pews”—took place at a Philadelphia church. 

Banneker’s Almanac

1792: Benjamin Banneker, having helped survey the nation’s capital, published his first almanac, with a copy to Thomas Jefferson urging him to live up to the ideals of his Declaration of Independence.

Special Delivery   

The New York Historical Society

1849: Henry “Box” Brown mailed himself from slavery in Richmond, Va., to freedom in Philadelphia—250 miles in 27 hours.

Free Again After 12 Years   

Wikimedia Commons

1853: Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, emerged from 12 years of captivity as a slave in Louisiana; his memoir, 12 Years a Slave, quickly became a best-seller.

Sailing to Freedom 

Harpers Weekly, 1862

1862: Robert Smalls sailed from slavery to freedom, capturing a Confederate cotton steamer in Charleston, S.C., during the American Civil War.

First Juneteenth   

Courtesy of Austin History Center, Austin Public Library

1865: The first “Juneteenth” was celebrated in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, when, after the Civil War, news of the Emancipation finally arrives. 

First Senator 

Library of Congress

1870: Hiram Revels of Mississippi was sworn in as the first African American to serve in the U.S. Senate; it took another 143 years for two African-American senators to serve at the same time (Tim Scott and William “Mo” Cowan).

A Place Called Home   

Wikimedia Commons

1887: Mound Bayou, Miss., an all-black town, was founded by former slaves.

Self-Made Millionaire     

A'leia Bundles/Madam Walker Family Collection

1906: Madam C.J. Walker, the first African-American woman to become a self-made millionairebegan selling her Wonderful Hair Grower in Denver.

Epic Black Filmmaker  

Wikimedia Commons

1918: Oscar Micheaux produced his first silent film, The Homesteader. He would go on to make 44 films, becoming the most successful (and significant) African-American filmmaker of the first half of the 20th century.

Good Soldiers   

1919: The Harlem Hellfighters returned home from World War I with the prestigious Croix de Guerre from the French army.

Student Activists   

Danny Lyon/Magnum Photos

1960: Following the February 1960 sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C.,  Ella Baker and Martin Luther King Jr.  called a conference of student activists at Shaw University. The result of this April meeting was a student-led organization known as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

More Than a Dance Line   

Wikimedia Commons

1971: Soul Train premiered on U.S. television on Oct. 2; its impresario, Don Cornelius, shaped African-American music, culture and style for a generation.