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21 Creatives Who Shaped Black Culture

by Sarah Berkman, Asia Clark and Valerie Gunn

You may not know their names, but these Black trailblazers shaped culture as we know it today. We wanted to dig deeper and highlight the lesser known Black creatives throughout time. That’s how we came to identify 21 iconic individuals who made an impact in art, music and more by bringing their fresh perspectives. Get to know them below.

Entertainment and Art

Entertainment, art, and literature play a defining role in how we interact with the world. Through visual, performative and written art, these Black pioneers shaped culture as we see it today.

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Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784)

Phillis Wheatley Peters was one of the most well-known poets in the 1700s. Phillis was an enslaved member of the Wheatley household in Boston where she learned to read and write. Over time, Phillis wrote many poems that became published at presses in both New England and England. Phillis became a household name amongst literate colonists, and her achievements became a catalyst for the antislavery movement.

William Dorsey Swann (1858-1954)

William Dorsey Swan is the first officially documented drag queen dubbed "the queen of drag." In the 1880s, "The Queen" hosted secret drag balls in Washington D.C. These gatherings allowed Swann to break barriers within the LGBTQ+ community. He started by being a part of the first known instance of violent resistance in 1896, setting the stage for LGBTQ+ rights. He was also the earliest recorded person to take legal and political measures to protect the LGBTQ+ community's right to gather.

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Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951)

Oscar Micheaux was a pioneering Black author and filmmaker. He is considered to be the most famous producer of race-based films. He started his own publishing company and production company to create an avenue for Black creatives. In 1919, he became the first Black person to make a film. He wrote, directed, and produced his films starring pioneering Black actors such as Evelyn Preer and Flo Clements. He went on to direct and produce over 40 films in his career.

Aubrey Lyles (1883-1932) & Flournoy Miller (1885-1971)

Aubrey Lyles and Flournoy Miller were performers, playwrights, songwriters, lyricists and producers. Together, they created the comedy duo called Miller and Lyles. Through their performances, they were able to develop comedy devices performers use today such as a prizefighting routine, which contrasted Miller's height and Lyles' short stature; completing each other's sentences; and "mutilatin'” language phraseology. Lyles and Miller performed in the first major Black musical titled Darkydom and authored plays, including Shuffle Along, which inspired a 2016 adaptation written by George C. Wolfe. George's version became the first musical written, directed and performed entirely by Black artists on Broadway.

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James Van Der Zee (1886-1983)

James Van Der Zee played a key role in documenting the Harlem Renaissance. Van Der Zee began photographing Black communities in 1900. In 1916, he opened a photography studio with his wife called Guarantee Photo Studio and throughout the 1920s and '30s continued to capture the lively and spirited personalities of middle-class Black families and celebrities, including figures such as Marcelino Manuel da Graça, Mamie Smith and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.

Aaron Douglas (1899-1979)

Aaron Douglas is recognized as one of the most accomplished and influential visual artists of the Harlem Renaissance. After graduating with a Fine Arts degree from the University of Nebraska, he accepted a position as an art teacher at Lincoln High School in Kansas City, Missouri, where he was one of only two Black teachers at the school. After two years, he resigned to fulfill his dream of moving to New York and quickly became heavily involved in the arts and culture scene in Harlem. His career gained momentum in the 1930s, eventually becoming a prominent member of the Harlem Renaissance. Douglas’s stylistic elements like bold, solid fields of color have influenced other Black artists in affirming Black identity in their works.

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Katherine Dunham (1909-2006)

Katherine Dunham was a dancer, choreographer and creator. After graduating from the Moscow Theater, Dunham founded the Negro Dance Group, which performed at Chicago Beaux Arts Theater. Dunham revolutionized dance in the 1930s by seeking out the roots of dance within the Black diaspora and transforming these movements into compelling artistic choreography, known as the Dunham Technique, that's practiced to this day.

Nadine Ijewere (1992-present)

Nadine Ijewere is a UK photographer of Nigerien-Jamaican descent. As a photographer, she is known for emphasizing the diversity of her models by capturing a variety of cultural communities, including the Black diaspora and its cultural intricacies. Early in her career, at the age of 26, Nadine became the first woman of color to shoot the cover of Vogue. You can follow her on Instagram at @nadineijewere.

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Amanda Gorman (1998-present)

Amanda Gorman is the youngest poet in U.S. history to speak at an inaugural event. Amanda began her award-winning career as a cum laude Harvard grad. She earned many more achievements, including a Genius Grant from OZY Media, as well as recognition from Scholastic Inc., YoungArts, the Glamour magazine College Women of the Year Awards and the Webby Awards. She has three books on the way with Penguin Random House and has written for the New York Times. Amanda has spoken at events and venues across the country, including the Library of Congress and Lincoln Center. You can follow her on Instagram at @amandascgorman.

Beauty and Fashion

The fashion and beauty industries have a deep history of discrimination and exclusion, but these talented trailblazers overcame many obstacles and have left a lasting impact. You may know Rihanna’s Fenty or Virgil Abloh’s Off-White and work for Louis Vuitton, but here are a few lesser known — but just as noteworthy — industry changemakers.

Bernadine Anderson (1942-present)

Bernadine Anderson was Hollywood’s first Black female makeup artist. She tried many times to break into the industry but was denied because of her race leading her to file a class action lawsuit against the studios for discrimination in the late 1960s. Shortly after, she landed an apprenticeship with Warner Bros, which helped launch her career. In addition to working on Coming to America and Vampire on Brooklyn, she has had notable clients such as Jane Fonda and Eddie Murphy.

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Stephen Burrows (1943-present)

Stephen Burrows is a renowned fashion designer known for being the first Black designer to gain international fame. Soon after studying at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Burrows opened Stephen Burrows World at department store Henri Bendel, where his infamous use of color blocking and bright jersey knits captured the vivacity of the disco era. Burrows was one five American designers invited to show his clothes on the runway in Versailles, France (also known as the Battle of Versailles), for which he received glowing reviews — leading to international fame. He has since received several awards for his lifetime achievements in the fashion industry. You can follow him on Instagram at @stephenburrowsworld.

Ruth Carter (1960-present)

Ruth E. Carter is an Academy Award-winning costume designer who has brought her skills to more than 60 diverse film and television projects. She got her start in 1988 when Spike Lee recruited her to design the costumes for his film School Daze. Since then, she has created costumes for generation-defining films like Black Panther, Selma, Malcolm X, and more. Ruth is an expert storyteller whose costume designs have enabled actors like Oprah Winfrey, Denzel Washington and Chadwick Boseman to transform into the roles we now know them for. Carter was honored by the Costume Designers Guild with a Career Achievement Award and by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science who awarded her the Academy Award for Best Costume Design. You can find her on Instagram at @therealruthcarter.

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Raisa Flowers (present)

Raisa Flowers is a makeup artist who’s made it her mission to uplift marginalized people, advocating specifically for people of color, plus-size folks and LGBTQ+ rights. Raisa started her career in makeup only 7 years ago, but in that short time has made a name for herself in the industry. She has assisted on Pat McGrath's elite makeup team for labels like Calvin Klein, Coach, Anna Sui and more. She's also walked runways as a model for Gypsy Sport, Maison the Faux and Savage x Fenty, as well as being featured in campaigns for Chromat, ASOS and #client Nike. Her editorial credits span across Vogue, Paper, i-D, Allure, and more. You can find her on Instagram at @raisaflowers.

Music

Music is something that brings people together, sparks joy and truly becomes synonymous with culture. Black musicians’ contributions to our musical evolution is immeasurable. There are some names we all know, like Louis Armstrong and Jimi Hendrix, but here are a few who you may not have heard of before.

Rose Marie McCoy (1922-2015)

Rose Marie McCoy was one of the most prolific songwriters of the 20th and 21st centuries. Some of history's greatest artists sang Rose's music, including Elvis Presley, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Nat King Cole, Ike and Tina Turner and more. At the start of her career, McCoy broke barriers within a predominantly white male industry, but has since written over 850 songs across six decades.

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Frankie Knuckles (1955-2014)

Frankie Knuckles, "The Godfather of House Music," created and popularized house music in Chicago in the 1980s and '90s. Knuckles performed long sets at his clubs called the Warehouse and Power Plant, laying down the groundwork for electronic dance music culture.

DJ Kool Herc (1955-present)

Clive Campbell, known as "DJ Kool Herc," is credited for originating hip-hop music in the Bronx in the 1970s. He developed the break-beat technique, which dropped the instruments and vocals in a song to create a break in the record. This break in the music also led to the creation of break dancing, where dancers performed tricks during the record breaks.

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Entrepreneur and Business

Beyond the art and music worlds, there are many Black entrepreneurs and business people who have made history. Some are household names, but many other entrepreneurs’ stories aren’t as widely known. Here are a few lesser-known people who should be celebrated.

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Annie Turnbo Malone (1869-1967)

Annie Turnbo Malone is one of the first Black women to become a millionaire. She reached this significant achievement by creating and marketing hair care products for Black women in the 20th century. Turnbo went door-to-door to demonstrate her products after being denied access to regular distribution channels. Through direct marketing and word-of-mouth, Turnbo's products became a hit. She eventually used her wealth to develop the Black community and gave a majority of her money to charity.

Robert Sengstacke Abbot (1870-1940)

Robert Sengstacke Abbot was the founder of the Chicago Defender, which became the most widely circulated Black publication in the country. He was very vocal about the Black community moving north to have more opportunity and is credited with contributing to the Great Migration of rural southern Black people to Chicago. He also founded the Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic in 1929 that continues in Chicago today and is known as the second largest parade in the US.

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Edward F. Boyd (1914-2007)

Edward Boyd was a marketing pioneer and is credited with introducing the concept of niche marketing. He spearheaded marketing efforts toward the Black consumer for Pepsi in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Boyd was the first Black man to run a nationwide sales team, and he is credited with helping America modernize their perception of Black people as consumers. This ultimately changed how brands spoke to and about the Black consumer and painted the target as a savvy consumer who should not be treated as a caricature.

Margaret Taylor Burroughs (1915-2010)

Margaret Taylor Burroughs was an artist, poet, teacher and a co-founder of the Ebony Museum (now DuSable Museum) on the south side of Chicago. Her writings were focused on exploring the Black experience with a specific bent toward children and their appreciation of their cultural identities. Burroughs was also an educator and longtime teacher at DuSable High School, where she focused on introducing her students to art. She's credited with founding Chicago's Lake Meadows Art Fair to provide opportunities for Black artists to showcase their art when there was limited opportunity elsewhere.

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Ophelia De Vore Mitchell

Ophelia DeVore Mitchell (1921-2014)

Ophelia DeVore Mitchell was a model, businesswoman and publisher who became a leading figure in the "Black is beautiful" movement. Ophelia's efforts led her to create the first modeling agency for Black models in 1946 called Grace Del Marco Models. She transformed the beauty and fashion industry to help advance and advocate for Black models’ careers. Her agency represented many notable Black figures such as Diahann Carroll, Cicely Tyson, Richard Roundtree, Gail Fisher, Trudy Haynes and Helen Williams. She also launched other business endeavors such as a charm school, a cosmetic company for Black women and a daily newspaper for the Black community.

As we celebrate the unsung innovators listed above, we encourage you to continue discovering pivotal Black creatives who are not as widely known through research and dialogue during Black History Month and beyond.