Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s 18 Black History Events You Should Know

There’s Solomon Northup’s story, plus 17 other compelling tales of the black experience in America. 

Image 1
  • images2Fslides2FSolomonNorthup-djs_3_1
    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. 

  • images2Fslides2FJuanGarrido_1
    Juan Garrido (left) (Diego Duran, Historia de la Indias de Nueve Espana e Islas de la Tierra Firme, 1581)

    Coming to America   

    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.

  • images2Fslides2FEstebanTheMoor-djs_1
    "Estavanico," by Jose Cisneros, in Cleve Hallenbeck's The Journey of Fray Marcos de Niza 

    Esteban the Explorer   

    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.

  • images2Fslides2Famazingfacts_fortmosenotag__1_1_1
    PBS History Online

    Path to Freedom      

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

  • images2Fslides2F1stblacktown_122112_575se_1

    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. 

  • images2Fslides2FHarryWashington_1
    John Trumball. 1780. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.   

    Washington’s Slave   

    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.”

  • images2Fslides2F173485607

    The First Sit-In  

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

  • images2Fslides2FBannakersAlamac-djs_1

    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.

  • images2Fslides2FHenryBoxBrown_1
    The New York Historical Society

    Special Delivery   

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

  • images2Fslides2FSolomonNorthup-djs_1
    Wikimedia Commons

    Free Again After 12 Years   

    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.

  • images2Fslides2FRobertSmalls_1
    Harpers Weekly, 1862

    Sailing to Freedom 

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

  • images2Fslides2Fjuneteenth_afrev_61613_575tlr_1
    Courtesy of Austin History Center, Austin Public Library

    First Juneteenth   

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

  • images2Fslides2FHiramRevels-djs_1
    Library of Congress

    First Senator 

    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).

  • images2Fslides2FWelcometomississippi_i-20_1
    Wikimedia Commons

    A Place Called Home   

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

  • images2Fslides2FMadamCJWalker_1
    A'leia Bundles/Madam Walker Family Collection

    Self-Made Millionaire     

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

  • images2Fslides2FOscarMicheaux-djs_1
    Wikimedia Commons

    Epic Black Filmmaker  

    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.

  • images2Fslides2FHellfighters_1

    Good Soldiers   

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


  • images2Fslides2FSNCC_1
    Danny Lyon/Magnum Photos

    Student Activists   

    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.

  • images2Fslides2FSoul_Train
    Wikimedia Commons

    More Than a Dance Line   

    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.