50 Iconic Black Trailblazers Who Represent Every State In America

There's not a single state that hasn't been touched by black excellence.
Black excellence lies at the core of America's progressions.
Black excellence lies at the core of America's progressions.
Damon Dahlen/HuffPost/Getty Images

Black History Month is finally upon us. As part of our BHM kickoff, we’ve compiled a collection of black icons from each state that have made invaluable contributions to America. The people featured in the collection have made monumental (and for the most part, understated) advancements in politics, music, sports, literature and beyond.

While the vast majority of these icons were born in the state they’re featured under, a handful of them weren’t, but did make history in the state.

Their excellence is just another reminder that we too, helped make America.

1
Alabama: Claudette Colvin
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Before Rosa Parks, there was Claudette Colvin. Born in 1939 in Montgomery, Alabama, Colvin became the first person to be arrested for rebelling against bus segregation in the city after refusing to give up her seat to a white person in 1955. At the time, Colvin was just 15 years old.
2
Alaska: Blanche McSmith
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Blanche McSmith (center left) was born in 1920 in Texas. After moving to Alaska in 1949, McSmith became president of the NAACP's Anchorage branch. A decade later, Smith made history by becoming the first black representative in the Alaska legislature.
3
Arizona: Dr. Rick Kittles
Bob Demers/UANews
Dr. Rick Kittles is a highly renowned figure in the field of genetics, known for using DNA testing to explore the ancestry of African-Americans. He currently serves as Chair of Minorities in Cancer Research at the American Association for Cancer Research.
4
Arkansas: John Cross, Jr.
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John Cross Jr. was born in Haynes, Arkansas in 1925. In 1962, Cross became a pastor at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama where civil rights activists would often convene. In 1963, the church was the site of a bomb by KKK members that killed four young girls. Cross became a leader for the grieving town by continuing his sermons and presiding over the three of the girls' funerals.
5
California: Octavia Butler
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Octavia Butler, born in 1947 in Pasadena, California, was one of few black female sci-fi writers during the high point of her career in the 1970s. In 1995, her work was prestigiously rewarded when she became the first sci-fi author to receive the MacArthur fellowship or "genius grant." With the money from the grant, Butler bought a home for her mother and herself.
6
Colorado: Larry Dunn
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Larry Dunn, born in Denver, Colorado in 1953, was the keyboardist of Earth, Wind & Fire for 11 years. He helped create the band's 1975 hit "Shining Star."
7
Connecticut: Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
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Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1908, but New York is where he made history. In 1945, Powell became the first black person to become a U.S. Representative for the state of New York. Many of the bills he proposed during his 15 years in office would eventually be included in the Civil Rights Act of 1965.
8
Delaware: Clifford Brown
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Born in Wilmington, Delaware in 1930, Clifford Brown was an accomplished jazz trumpeter who helped set the standard for the musicians who would succeed him. In 1989, the first Clifford Brown Jazz Festival, which remains an annual event, was held in Wilmington, Delaware to honor the late musician.
9
Florida: Esther Rolle
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From Broadway shows to the classic sitcom "Good Times," Esther Rolle, born in 1920 in Pompano Beach, Florida, had a prominent acting career. Audiences loved Rolle's character on TV sitcom "Maude," so much so that the show's producer Norman Lear created "Good Times" as a spinoff series in which Rolle would star.
10
Georgia: Cynthia McKinney
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Born in 1955, Cynthia McKinney of Atlanta, Georgia, became the first black woman to represent the state in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1992.
11
Hawaii: Barack Obama
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
Born in 1961 in Honolulu, Hawaii, Barack Obama made history on November 4, 2008 when he was elected to become America's first black president. His legacy has been an inspiration for citizens worldwide.
12
Idaho: Victor Wooten
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Born in Mountain Home, Idaho in 1964, Victor Wooten was a member of the jazz band Bela Fleck and the Flecktones before embarking on a career as a solo musician. Wooten is a five-time Grammy winning musician was voted one of the top bassists of all time by a Rolling Stone reader poll.
13
Illinois: Lorraine Hansberry
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Born in Chicago, Illinois in 1930, Lorraine Hansberry was the first black playwright to have their work staged on Broadway with "A Raisin In The Sun." She was also the youngest American to receive a New York Critics Circle award.
14
Indiana: Major Taylor
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Marshall Walter "Major" Taylor was born in 1878 in Indianapolis, Indiana. He was the first black person to become a champion in a sport and held seven world records by the time he retired at 32-years-old. He retired as one of the richest athletes in history.
15
Iowa: Charity Adams Earley
African American Registry
Although born in South Carolina in 1918, Charity Adams Earley made history in Fort Des Moines, Iowa when she became one of the first black female officers of the Women's Army Corps. She later became the first black woman to be commissioned by the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps.
16
Kansas: Hattie McDaniel
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Born in 1895, in Wichita, Kansas, actress Hattie McDaniel played Mammy in the classic film "Gone with The Wind." In 1940, McDaniel's made history when she became first black person to win an Oscar, taking home the award for best supporting actress.
17
Kentucky: bell hooks
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Born Gloria Jean Watkins in Hopkinsville, Kentucky in 1952, noted cultural scholar, award-winning author and black feminist who goes by the namesake of her great grandmother, bell hooks. In 2015, the bell hooks Institute was created at Berea college. The institute allows for a comprehensive study into hooks' works and theories.
18
Louisiana: Madam C.J. Walker
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Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 in Near Delta, Louisiana, Madam C.J. Walker epitomizes the term "self-made." By inventing and selling hair products, Walker became first American woman to become a self-made millionaire. Walker created a hair routine that's still popular among black women today referred to as the "Walker System." Walker donated some of her money to black organizations like the NAACP and the black YMCA.
19
Maine: William Burney
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Born in Augusta, Maine in 1951, William Burney was elected the first black mayor of the town in 1988.
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20
Maryland: Thurgood Marshall
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Thurgood Marshall was born in 1908 in Baltimore, Maryland. As NAACP Chief Counsel, in 1952, he took on the case of Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) on behalf of the plaintiffs. Marshall won the case, which deemed public school segregation to be unconstitutional. In 1967, Marshall would become an even more prolific figure by becoming the first black Supreme Court Justice.
21
Massachusetts: Phillis Wheatley
Library of Congress
Phillis Wheatley was born in Senegal in 1753 and sent overseas to Boston, Massachusetts where she would become a slave. While enslaved, Wheatley was constantly exposed to books. In 1773, she became the second woman and the first black person to have their poetry published.
22
Michigan: Carole Anne-Marie Gist
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Born in Detroit, Michigan in 1969, Carole Anne-Marie Gist made history when she became the first black Miss USA in 1990.
23
Minnesota: Toni Stone
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Born in 1921 in St. Paul, Minnesota, Toni Stone became the first woman to play in a professional men's baseball league when she joined the San Francisco Sea Lions of the West Coast Negro Baseball Leagues in 1953. Stone endured endless acts of racial and gender-based discrimination.
24
Mississippi: Fannie Lou Hamer
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Born in 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi, Fannie Lou Hamer was a relentless civil rights advocate. Hamer endured arrests, assault and being shot at by racists upset by Hamer's activism. Hamer made a notable speech at the 1964 Democratic National Convention on being black in America. She helped black citizens register to vote and created organizations to service minority families.
25
Missouri: Maya Angelou
Reuters Photographer / Reuters
Born in 1921 in St. Louis, Missouri, Maya Angelou is a renowned, poet, author and civil rights activist. Her works such as "Still I Rise" and "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings" have spanned generations. When close friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on her birthday, Angelou went years without celebrating her April 4th birthday.
26
Montana: Geraldine Travis
Courtesy of The Montana Legislative Branch
Born in 1931 in Albany, Georgia, Geraldine Travis became the first black person elected to be elected to Montana's State Legislature in 1974. She worked to advance civil rights both in and outside of government.
27
Nebraska: Malcolm X
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Born Malcolm Little in 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, Malcolm X was a fearless civil rights icon and a spokesman for the Nation of Islam. The X that replaced his last name was intended to serve as representation of the loss of his African identity. X was responsible for the popularity of the "any means necessary" philosophy which emphasizes going to any length to protect your rights.
28
Nevada: Kelvin Atkinson
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Kelvin Atkinson was born in Illinois in 1969, but he made history in Nevada when he became the first openly gay black man to serve in the state's legislature where he represented Nevada's 4th district. The following year, he and his partner also became the first gay couple to marry in the Nevada.
29
New Hampshire: Myrna Adams
University of New Hampshire
Myrna Adams made history at the University of New Hampshire by becoming the school's first administrator in 1969 where she aided black students through financial aid and advisement.
30
New Jersey: David Dinkins
STR New / Reuters
Born in 1927 in Trenton, New Jersey, Howard University alumnus David Dinkins became the first black mayor of New York City in 1989 beating opponent Rudy Giuliani and incumbent Ed Koch. Dinkins went on to teach at Columbia University and has a building named after him in Manhattan.
31
New Mexico: Sheryl Williams Stapleton
NM State Representative Sheryl Williams Stapleton/Facebook
Born in 1958 in Saint Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Sheryl Williams Stapleton became the first black woman to serve as New Mexico Legislature's floor leader in January 2017. She's served as a State House representative for New Mexico's 19th district in 1994.
32
New York: James Baldwin
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Born in Harlem in 1924, author James Baldwin's prolific works like "Go Tell It On The Mountain" and "Giovanni's Room" have become literary classics. In 1965, Baldwin, an openly gay man, was asked if his status as poor, gay, black man served as an obstacle to his success, he sarcastically replied, "No. I thought I had hit the jackpot!" He was an advocate for LGBT and civil rights.
33
North Carolina: Moms Mabley
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Born in 1894 in Brevard, North Carolina, Moms Mabley's success in the male-dominated world of comedy was rare. She was the first female comedian to perform at the Apollo theater and appeared in numerous movies. Her life would become the subject of an off-Broadway play as well as a documentary directed by Whoopi Goldberg.
34
North Dakota: Rosemary Sauvageau
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In 2012, Rosemary Sauvageau became the first black Miss North Dakota. Following two second place position in 2010 and 2011 pageants, Sauvageau, 24, persevered and resultantly, made history.
35
Ohio: Dorothy Dandridge
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Born in 1922 in Cleveland, Ohio, Dorothy Dandridge was an actress, singer and beauty icon. After starring in the 1954 film "Carmen Jones," Dandridge became the first black woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for best actress.
36
Oklahoma: Ralph Ellison
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Born in 1914 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, novelist Ralph Ellison wrote the classic 1953 National Book Award winner in fiction "Invisible Man." Ellison was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969.
37
Oregon: Geraldine Avery
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Geraldine Avery was the first black person to become a police matron in Oregon in 1954.
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38
Pennsylvania: Bayard Rustin
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Born in 1912 in West Chester, Pennsylvania, the leader of numerous civil rights movements, Bayard Rustin was a much lesser-known civil rights organizer. Rustin, who was also openly gay, worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and played a significant role in King's commitment to non-violence.
39
Rhode Island: Ruth Simmons
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Although from Texas, Ruth Simmons, born in 1945, made history in Providence, Rhode Island when she became the first black person to serve as president of Brown University in 2001. The presidency also made her the first black person to run an Ivy league University.
40
South Carolina: Althea Gibson
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After becoming the first black female professional tennis player, Althea Gibson, born in 1927 in Silver, South Carolina, would go on to become the first black person to hold a number of titles in the sport. She was the first black person to win Wimbledon and the French and U.S. Open.
41
Tennessee: DeFord Bailey
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Born in 1899 in Smith County, Tennessee, DeFord Bailey was one of country music's first black notable musicians. His harmonica skills landed him a permanent gig on a radio station until he eventually began recording and performing despite constantly facing racial discrimination.
42
South Dakota: Oscar Micheaux
Although born in Illinois in 1884, Oscar Micheaux was living in South Dakota when he wrote the book that would serve as the basis for the first full-length feature film by a black filmmaker. Micheaux, who produced both silent and speaking films that appealed to black audiences, is considered the first black successful film director.
43
Texas: Barbara Jordan
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Born in 1936, in Houston, Texas, Barbara Jordan was the first black person and first woman to represent Texas in the U.S. Congress when she became a House Representative in 1973. Additionally, Jordan made a memorable opening speech at Richard Nixon's impeachment just one year later. Although never very open about her sexuality, Jordan was in a domestic relationship with a woman for over two decades.
44
Utah: Abner Leonard Howell
Library of Congress
Abner Leonard Howell was born in 1877 in Louisiana but raised in Salt Lake City, Utah. Howell was a gifted collegiate football player who helped lead University of Michigan's Wolverines team to success although he didn't receive public acknowledgement for doing so.
45
Vermont: Alexander Twilight
Courtesy of Vermont General Assembly
Born in 1795 in Corinth, Vermont, Alexander Twilight is believed to be the first American college graduate. He is also the first black person to serve in a U.S. state legislature after his 1836 election to the Vermont General Assembly.
46
Virginia: Ella Fitzgerald
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Born in 1917 in Newport News, Virginia, 13 time Grammy-winning jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald is known as "The First Lady of Song." Fitzgerald left an abusive home at 15 years old and was forced to overcome the Depression by herself. Nonetheless, she had a remarkable career in music and went on to win the National Medal Of Arts by Ronald Reagan in 1987.
47
Washington: Yolanda Gail Devers
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Born in 1966 in Seattle, Washington, track and field athlete Yolanda Gail Devers was an avid runner during her childhood. But despite having to undergo a strenuous treatment program and facing the possibility of having her feet amputated after being diagnosed with Graves disease in 1990, Devers persevered. She went on to receive gold medals in the 1992 and 1996 Olympics' track and field segments.
48
West Virginia: Katherine G. Johnson
Carlos Barria / Reuters
Born in 1918 in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia, Katherine G. Johnson is just one-third of the trio of black women whose work with NASA in the 1950s inspired the movie "Hidden Figures." Her stellar mathematical abilities would eventually play a crucial role in the first successful space exploration by an American. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 by Barack Obama.
49
Wisconsin: Al Jarreau
Sam Mircovich / Reuters
Born Alwin Lopez Jarreau in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1940, the actor and singer is the first vocalist to earn three Grammys in three different categories. Jarreau earned three of his six Grammys in pop, jazz and R&B.
50
Wyoming: Vernon Baker
Reuters Photographer / Reuters
Born in Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1919, Vernon Baker was the only living black WWII veteran to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his military service. He received the award in January 1997 from then-President Bill Clinton.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that Baker was the first living black person to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The story has been updated to reflect that Baker was the only living WWII black service member to receive a Congressional Medal of Honor. This article also misstated that the 16th Street Baptist Church is located in Montgomery, Alabama; it is in Birmingham.

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