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Facts about famous black people in history

Facts about famous black people in history

Read on to learn about black leaders and significant individuals in recent history and living memory. 

We passionately believe black history shouldn’t just be taught in October during Black History Month, read more about this in our decolonising the curriculum pledge. So we have put together a list of awesome people we think children (and adults) should know about. All of these influential people would be great to focus on in your teaching throughout the academic year.

Teaching the people included below covers many aspects of the Primary History National Curriculum, especially the KS1 National Curriculum objectives


Mary Seacole (1805 - 1881)

A photo of Mary Seacole
Mary Seacole was arguably the first nurse practitioner in the world. 

Mary Jane Grant was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805. She was a British-Jamaican nurse, healer and businesswoman. Her father was a Scottish soldier, and her mother was a Jamaican nurse. Mary travelled a lot around the Caribbean using her knowledge of traditional medicine and European medicine. 

In 1854 Mary travelled to England and asked the War Office to send her to the Crimea as an army nurse. The British War Office refused to employ her as an army nurse. Mary decided to go to the Crimea anyway. She paid for her trip and she founded the British Hotel in the Crimea. The British Hotel provided food and beds for sick and injured soldiers. Mary would visit the battlefield to nurse the wounded. She became known as Mother Seacole. 

Mary was posthumously awarded the Jamaican Order of the Merit. In 2004 she was voted the greatest black Briton. 


Harriet Tubman (1822 - 1913)

Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman helped over 70 slaves to escape from slavery in the USA.

Harriet Tubman was born into slavery around 1822. She worked on a plantation in Maryland and was treated badly. When she was a teenager an overseer threw a large heavy object that hit Tubman. From then on she suffered headaches, seizures, dizzy spells and would often suddenly fall asleep. Tubman managed to escape in 1849 using something called 'The Underground Railroad'. The Underground Railroad was a network of secret safe houses who helped slaves escape the slave states. After about three weeks she made it to Pennsylvania which was a free state. Tubman became one of the most successful conductors of ‘The Underground Railroad’, helping over 70 slaves to escape. Even after slavery was made illegal in the US, Tubman continued to devote her life to fighting for equal rights and caring for other people. 

Did you know…? Tubman used to change the tempo of the songs she sang to tell passengers on The Underground Railroad if it was safe to come out. 

If you would like to know more about Harriet Tubman read our detailed fact blog about her. 

Teachers if you are looking for a ready-to-teach lesson featuring Harriet Tubman then have a look at our Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad lesson for UKS2.

Bessie Coleman (1892 - 1926) 

Bessie Coleman
Bessie Coleman the first African American woman and the first Native American to hold a pilot license.

Bessie Coleman was born in 1892. She was interested in flying, but at the time African Americans, Native Americans and women had no opportunities to learn to fly in the US. Coleman saved up money and obtained sponsorship so she could go to flight school in France in 1920. She then became a high profile pilot, taking part in stunt air shows. Coleman died in 1926 when she was thrown from a plane that unexpectedly went into a dive. 

Did you know…? Despite Coleman's fame, her death wasn’t mentioned in most of the media. However, 10,000 mourners attended ceremonies to mark her death. 

Sir Learie Constantine (1901 - 1971)

Sir Learie Constantine (1901 - 1971)
Sir Learie Constantine was the first black peer in the House of Lords.

Sir Learie Constantine was born in 1901 in Trinidad. He moved to Nelson, Lancashire, in the UK in 1928. Constantine was a cricketer, lawyer and politician. He played cricket for the West Indies and the Lancashire League club, Nelson. He was an advocate against racial discrimination and was influential in the passing of the 1965 Race Relations Act in Britain. The Act outlawed discrimination of people based on their colour, race, ethicnic or national origins. In 1963 he was involved in the Bristol Bus Boycott. The boycott resulted in the employment of the first non-white conductor in the Bristol Omnibus Company. In 1962 he was knighted and in 1969 he was made a life peer. 

Did you know…? Constantine successfully sued a hotel company in 1943 when they refused to let his family stay there because of the colour of their skin. 

Nelson Mandela (1918 - 2013)

Nelson Mandela (1918 - 2013)
Nelson Mandela was the first black president of South Africa. 

Photo Attribution: Image © copyright John Mathew Smith 2001

Nelson Mandela was born in 1918 in South Africa. We was involved in the anti-apartheid (apartheid means segregated) movement in his 20s and he joined the African National Congress in 1942. He directed a peaceful nonviolent campaign against the government's racist policies for 20 years. In 1962, he was put in prison for 27 years for political offenses. In 1991 Mandela became the first black president of South Africa after winning the country’s first democratic election. In 1993, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for breaking down South Africa’s apartheid system.

Did you know…? Nelson Mandela was the first person in his family to attend school. 

Maya Angelou (1928 -2014)

Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou was a civil rights activist and an author. 

Maya Angelou was born in 1928. She was a civil rights activist, a poet, author, actress, screenwriter and dancer. Angelou had a challenging childhood. During World War II, she won a scholarship to study dance at the California Labor School. While in California, she became the first Black female cable car conductor in San Francisco. She has written 36 books and performed her poems at many notable events, including President Bill Clinton's 1993 inaugural ceremony. She published her work at a time when black female writers were marginalised. 

Did you know…? Her memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was the first nonfiction best seller by an African American woman. 

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 - 1968)

Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a leader of the civil rights movement in the USA

Martin Luther King Jr. was born in 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. He was an activist who gave inspirational speeches and played a pivotal role in ending legal segregation in the US. King made his famous ‘I have a dream' speech in 1963. He advanced civil rights through nonviolence and civil disobedience. In 1955, King led the Montgomery bus boycott. The Montgomery bus boycott asked people not to ride the bus and show their support of Rosa Parks on the day of her trial. He was involved in creating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. King was assassinated in 1968. 

Did you know…? King was also a Baptist minister. 

Teachers if you are looking for a ready-to-teach lesson about Martin Luther King Jr. then have a look at our Martin Luther King Jr. lesson for UKS2.

Ruby Bridges (1954 - )

Ruby Bridges

Ruby Bridges was the first African-American child to go to a white Southern elementary school.

Ruby Bridges was born in Mississippi in 1954. When she was 4, she moved to New Orleans. At this time in the USA, some states had segregation laws. Bridges lived in a state that had required educational segregation by law. When she was 6, Bridges became the first African-American child to go to a white Southern elementary school. So many people were angry about this that Bridges had to be escorted to class by US marshals. Only one teacher in the school agreed to teach her and for one year she was the only pupil in her class. By her second year in the school, Bridges had other children in her class and was able to walk to school without federal marshals.  

Did you know…? Ruby Bridges features in a Norman Rockwell painting. This painting was displayed in the White House on the request of Barack Obama.

If you would like to know more about Ruby Bridges read our detailed fact blog about her. 

Teachers if you are looking for a ready-to-teach lesson featuring Ruby Bridges then have a look at our Ruby Bridges lesson for KS1.

Mae Carol Jemison (1956 - )

Mae Carol Jemison
Mae Carol Jemison was the first black woman to travel into space.

Mae Carol Jemison was born in 1956. She is an American engineer, physician and former NASA astronaut. In 1983 Jemison joined the Peace Corps and served as a medical officer, some of her responsibilities in this role included supervising the pharmacy, providing medical care, developing guidelines for health and safety issues and helping research vaccines. In 1987 she was the first black woman to travel into space when she served as a mission specialist on Space Shuttle Endeavour

Did you know…? Jemison has a dance studio in her home and has choreographed and produced several modern jazz and African dance shows. 

Wangari Muta Maathai (1940 - 2011) 

Wangari Muta Maathai
Wangari Muta Maathai was a social, political and environmental activist. 
Photo attribution: Kingkongphoto &

Wangari Muta Maathai was born in 1940 in Kenya. In 1971 she became the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a PhD at the University of Nairobi in Kenya. In 1977 she founded the Green Belt Movement which focused on planting trees and environmental conservation. Maathai encouraged women to plant tree nurseries by looking for tree seeds in local forests and growing trees local to the area. She paid the women a small amount for each seedling that was planted. She fought for women's rights and democracy. In 2004 she became the first African woman to win the Nobel Prize. She was awarded it for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.

Did you know…? Maathai was one of the eight flag-bearers at the 2006 Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony in Italy. 


Sir Lenny Henry CBE (1958 - )

Sir Lenny Henry
Lenny Henry co-founded the charity Comic Relief. 
Photo credit: mynewsdesk (wikimedia)

Lenworth George Henry was born in 1958 in Dudley. He is a British actor, comedian, singer, TV presenter and writer. His parents had emigrated to England from Jamaica. They named him after Dr Lenworth, the doctor who delivered him. 

In 1985 he co-founded Comic Relief with Richard Curtis. In 1988 the first ever Red Nose Day was celebrated. Over 150 celebrities and comedians took part in an evening-long BBC broadcast. This broadcast was watched by 30 million viewers and raised over £15 million. Comic Relief is still an annual event on British TV. 

Lenny was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1999. He was knighted in 2015 for services to drama and charity. 

Barack Obama (1961 - )

Barack Obama
Barack Obama was the first African American president of the US. 

Barack Obama was born in 1961 in Hawaii. He is a politician and an attorney. His father left soon after he was born and his parents divorced two years later. In 2008 he was elected the 44th president of the USA. He was reelected in 2012. Obama worked to improve equality in the USA. In 2009 Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize for "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples." 

Did you know…? Obama's first book titled, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, has been printed in more than 25 languages. 


Marcus Rashford MBE (1997 - )

Marcus Rashford
Marcus Rashford is a professional footballer well known for his work to eradicate food poverty. 
Photo credit: Кирилл Венедиктов (wikimedia)


Marcus Rashford was born in 1997 in Manchester, England. He has played for Manchester United from the age of 7, playing his first match for the first-team in 2016. He is a campaigner against racism, homelessness and child hunger in the United Kingdom. He has set up several food poverty campaigns and received a lot of coverage during the COVID-19 pandemic when he teamed up with the charity FareShare, to deliver meals to children who were no longer receiving free school meals. Rashford has been praised for using his platform to be a political activist and to drive societal change. 


In October 2020 Marcus was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for his efforts to eradicate food poverty.



Let us know if you think there is someone we should add to this list.

We would love to see some of the learning your children do for Black History Month. Tweet us your work to @PlanBeeTeaching and we'll retweet it. 

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