Unsung Black Figures

The life stories of unrecognized Black figures whose achievements have contributed to the world.

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Unsung Black Figures
August Wilson (left), Mary Ellen Pleasant (middle), and Marie Van Brittan Brown (right) are some of the most important unrecognized Black figures.
Fajr Eutsey

During Black History Month, communities often highlight the Black innovators of the world. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman are some of the most mentioned figures in regard to Black history. The legacy of Black innovators is impactful and necessary, so it’s also important to bring awareness to those who don’t get as much coverage in the media or in textbooks.  

Born in 1814, Mary Ellen Pleasant was an African-American entrepreneur and financier in the 19th century. This African and French descendant was briefly raised in Philadelphia before heading to Nantucket, Massachusetts for school at the age of seven. In her late twenties, Pleasant left Nantucket and inherited money from her first husband, money that helped fund her future endeavors.

In 1852, Pleasant moved to San Francisco during the Gold Rush and became a money lender, collecting interest off of lended money. The success of this business led to her involvement in the gold industry, investing in silver, gold and property. According to CNBC, Pleasant and her business partner, Thomas Bell, had an investment portfolio worth 30 million dollars, equating to over 860 million in current time. 

Alongside her business pursuits, Pleasant financially contributed to the abolitionist movement, an effort designed to end slavery in America. Pleasant also employed African Americans in her establishments. Pleasant later lost her fortune after losing a lawsuit initiated by Bell’s wife, Teresa. Despite financial losses, Pleasant’s life story highlights her versatility and intellect in regard to business and acquiring wealth. 

Marie Van Brittan Brown was an African American nurse and inventor, widely known for creating the first home security system. According to Princeton’s Council on Science and Technology, Brown’s contraption consisted of a motorized video camera that was hooked to her front door. The invention included a microphone and speaker for communication along with an alarm for alerting the police via radio.

In 1969, Brown’s patent for her security system was approved but, due to costs of widespread implementation, she couldn’t achieve great financial benefits. Still, Brown is respected in the world of technology, seeing as her invention ultimately contributed to the billion-dollar industry of security. Brown’s invention is one of the reasons why millions of people feel safer in their homes today. 

August Wilson was an award-winning playwright who wrote plays that explored African-American culture and history in the 20th century. According to Dartmouth University, Wilson's play “Fences” won the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award. Two of Wilson’s plays have been adapted into films and his literary talent continues to inspire writers, filmmakers, and other creatives around the world. 

These individuals are a small percentage of a much larger population of Black figures that have changed history, transformed the country, and contributed to society. Kean University encourages students to learn more about the Black innovators and to acknowledge their extraordinary lives.

Happy Black History Month, Cougars!