12 Famous Black Families Who Have Left Their Mark on American History
This year's Black History Month theme, The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity, reminds us that Black experiences are not homogenous, nor are the legacies Black families can leave behind.
The 2021 Black History Month theme is The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity. It's a theme which emphasizes just how abstract notions of family can be and that the experiences of Black families in particular are not a monolith.
"The Black family knows no single location, since family reunions and genetic-ancestry searches testify to the spread of family members across states, nations, and continents," explains the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. "The family offers a rich tapestry of images for exploring the African American past and present."
Without diverse depictions of the Black family, it's impossible to imagine the true scope of the contributions that Black people have made in American society. Sade Lythcott, CEO of the National Black Theatre in Harlem, also believes there is a healing power in embracing the idea of a "collective family" within our communities.
"I have always been taken by the vernacular of the Black Arts movement; introducing the terms Brother and Sister to refer to each other," says Lythcott. "Creating a unifying rallying call to our community that we are in fact more than neighbors, but family. This has always resonated as powerful medicine to me. Holistically reclaiming our agency in the making of our own destiny, in it together through whatever may come our way. That's power."
Being a Black family in America is not a homogenous experience. Yet, there are many famous Black families that have been deliberate about becoming pillars in American society, whether in the field of sports, entrepreneurship, performing arts, education, or politics. As we commemorate the contributions of Black men and women throughout Black History Month 2021, these husbands, wives, and parents can teach us both about the past and how to build a better future rooted in racial equality.
While Jay-Z and Beyonce are known for topping the charts and being trail-blazers in the world of music, they have consistently shown that their influence and financial success are a means to creating opportunities for disenfranchised communities. From Beyonce's Beygood Foundation to Jay-Z's Shawn Carter Foundation, this power parenting duo continues to create infrastructures for funneling resources to those in need.
The dynamic Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were pillars in the performing arts community as well as in the film industry. Married for many decades until the passing of Davis in 2005 (Dee passed nine years later), the couple often acted in movies together, but they also lived a life committed to social activism. They fought for Black rights during the Civil Rights Movement, and were close friends with Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and many others. Both Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were named into the NAACP Image Hall of Fame Awards, awarded the National Medal of Arts, and received Kennedy Center Honors.
Ciara is a singer, songwriter, and dancer while husband Russell Wilson is a highly-decorated NFL quarterback. Together, the millennial parents have been bold in declaring their faith in God and they've consistently made business decisions that model what it truly means to create generational wealth, invest in the lives of others, and nurture their own home life. In 2014, Wilson founded the Why Not You Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to educating and empowering children.
We often hear familiar names mentioned in the context of the Civil Rights Movement, but the assassination of Harry T. and Harriette Moore on December 25, 1952 served as a major catalyst for change. Harry T. was an educator, and he founded the first branch of the NAACP in Brevard County, Florida. His wife Harriette was also an educator and they both played a major role in fighting for equal rights for educators in the South, housing inequalities, the removal of barriers for voter registration, and much more. Their assassination was one of the first that led to a national outcry against racial injustice towards Black people.
Earvin "Magic" Johnson is a legendary five-time NBA champion. However, it's his work off the court with his wife Cookie that continues to make an impact on history by empowering Black communities economically. Magic Johnson Enterprises, which is worth more than $700 million, aims to provide quality entertainment and products alike to ethnically diverse and underserved areas across the country.
Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee are famous for telling stories that influence cultural narratives without perpetuating negative stereotypes or ascribing to caricatures of Blackness in film. These parents of two young adults consistently deliver content to the masses that teaches, elevates, and inspires. Their films include Lee's Crooklyn, Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, and BlackkKlansman, as well as Lewis Lee's adaptation of The Watsons Go to Birmingham.
Being Black and well-educated is nothing new. But representation of this demographic was missing on the global scale—until recently. As the first Black-identifying President and First Lady, Barack Obama and wife Michelle have forever left their mark on American history. Together with their daughters, they shifted deep-rooted thought patterns which systemically weakened the Black family dynamic in America and have paved the way for future generations to do the same.
As the head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Thurgood Marshall served as chief attorney on the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case which ended racial segregation in schools. Marshall and his first wife Vivian Burey Marshall were married for 25 years until her death, and Thurgood credited Vivian as the one who helped him to be a better student and leading lawyer. Marshall later went on to becoming the first Black U.S. Supreme Court Justice.
While Stephen Curry is known as one of the best 3-point shooters in NBA history, it's his character and respect for his wife Ayesha Curry that's leaving a lasting legacy on today's generation. Both are generous philanthropists, and Curry's production company Unanimous Media has helped to produce the faith-based film Breakthrough, Emanuel, and the forthcoming animated version of Good Times, the first sitcom to feature a two-parent Black family on television.
Geoffrey Holder was an actor, director, musician, artist, and costume designer who made many contributions to Black culture and the world of performing arts. He worked extensively with Alvin Ailey and The Dance Theatre of Harlem, on the Broadway shows House of Flowers and Firebird, which won two Tony awards. Holder married renowned actress, dancer, and choreographer Carmen de Lavallade, who performed as the prima ballerina in Samson and Delilah, and Aida at the Metropolitan Opera. Holder and de Lavallade were married for almost 60 years until his death in 2014. Their life together was portrayed in the documentary Carmen and Geoffrey.
Al Roker and Deborah Roberts have been consistent in exuding excellence in their respective careers in journalism and are known for treating others with the utmost respect. Married for over 25 years, they have each forged separate career paths that showcase their integrity and commitment to their work and family. Currently the weather forecaster on Today, Roker has worked at NBC for 40 years. Roberts is an Emmy-winning reporter known for her work as an ABC News Correspondent, and appearances on programs such as 20/20, Good Morning America, The View, Nightline, and many others.
John H. Johnson created a legacy by becoming one of the most successful Black publishers in American history. After graduating from college, Johnson created the publication Negro Digest, and later he started Ebony and Jet which grew to become major influencers of Black culture. Eunice Johnson, his partner in publishing, was best known as the founder of the Ebony Fashion Fair, an international annual event that highlighted fashion for Black women.