Early African-American intellectuals - Introduction


Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley

As the popular culture seems to have overtaken the strong intellectual and artistic tradition in the African American culture, we thought it might be worth reminding our readers of this strong tradition of intellectualism and leadership, fostered through many years of hardship and struggles, and nurtured over the more than four hundred years of slavery, Dred Scott v Sandford, Plessy v Ferguson, Jim Crow, systematic racism, discrimination, and economic, social, and political disenfranchisement.

Black history did not start with the television age.  It did not start with integration or with school bussing.  It did not start with the age of 'political correctness' wherein African Americans are muzzled, out of fear of ostracization or of loosing their next television appearance.  The Civil Rights culminations of the 1960s were not the start of a culture.  They were the culminations of more than a century of activism by the collectivity of African Americans and decent whites and others of varying ethnic backgrounds and nationalities.  In fact, one could argue that the spirit of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 was even more powerful than that of 1964 and 1968 since in 1866, two-thirds of Congress willingly overrode President Andrew Johnson’s veto to enact the bill into law. 

The accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X, and other leaders of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement (albeit at the cost of their lives), were due in large part to the thoughts, the writings, and the activism of black intellectuals, activists, and artists before them such as Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Ida B. Wells, Carter G. Woodson, and others, whose body of work for almost a century, have charted their’s and our way out of slavery, Jim Crow, separation, and segregation.  

Some were born into slavery, others into segregation and Jim Crow, yet they all rose up to change the course of humanity, history, and race relations in America and the world.  Every American child should be familiar with the talent, the intellect, and the  accomplishments of Jupiter Hammon, Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Marcus Garvey, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Du Bois, Mary Church Terell, James Weldon Johnson, Mary McLeod Bethune, Carter G. Woodson, Alain Leroy Locke, and Marian Anderson, who are but only a few examples of our favorite great African American intellectuals which we choose to feature here. 

With the exception of Douglass, Washington, Du Bois, and Garvey, it is an extraordinary indictment of the reductive American educational system which graduates numerous black BS, Msc, MA, MD, Ph.Ds etc. each year, without ever having introduced them to the lives of Phillis Wheatley, Jupiter Hammon, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Alain Locke, Carter G. Woodson, Mary McLeod Bethune, and so many others who have been so instrumental in our history.

Biographies are all from public sources which are easily reasearchable and accessible for all to become knowledgable.


Jupiter Hammon & Phillis Wheatley

Jupiter Hammon and Phillis Wheatley gave us their poems and writings, for which they received acclaim and attention both at home and abroad.  Hammon was born into slavery in America while Wheatley was born in Africa and brought to America as a slave.  

Jupiter Hammon An Evening Thought 

Jupiter Hammon, An Evening Thought (Courtesy of Negro Artist Online) 

Hammon is recognized as the first African American writer to be published here in the United States, while Phillis Wheatley, in 1773 had her collection of poems first published in London, England in 1773. 

Phyllis Wheatley contributed more to society as a slave than most of us could ever dream of, as free liberated citizens in a democratic society almost 200 years later.  She counted a King of England, George III, several echelons of british aristocracy, luminaries such as French philosopher - writer Voltaire, revolutionary fighter John Paul Jones, the father of Democracy and revolutionary writer Thomas Paine, and founding father George Washington as her friends and admirers.

Phillis Wheatley  

Phillis Wheatley (Courtesy of The Library of Congress)

So good were Wheatley’s poems that many white colonists found it difficult to believe that an African slave had written such excellent poetry.  She was forced to defend the authorship of her poetry in court in 1772 when she was examined by a group of Boston luminaries, including John Erving, Reverend Charles Chauncey, John HancockThomas Hutchinson the governor of Massachusetts, and his lieutenant governor Andrew Oliver.  At the adjournment of the meeting, it was concluded that she had indeed written the poems ascribed to her, and she signed an attestation to such.  Yet, Boston publishers still declined to publish her work because she was black.  But her work  was of great interest in London where Selina, Countess of Huntingdon and the Earl of Dartmouth acted as patrons to help Wheatley gain publication.  “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral”, was published in London in 1773/1774.


Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells was tour de force who stood tall at great personal risks, to document and expose at home and abroad, the menace of lynchings and the repression and the suffering of black people in American.  She would set the precedent for others such as Irene Morgan in 1946, Sarah Louise Keys in 1955, Claudette Colvin in 1956, and for Rosa Parks who in 1956, refused to give up their seats for a white person. 

In the case of Ida B. Wells, there was no march or boycott after she was thrown off the train, but she promptly sued the railway company and won, only to have the decision overturned by a crooked state supreme court. 

Ida. B. Wells 

Ida. B. Wells

Wells was a writer, editor, publisher, suffragist, and civil rights activist who lifted the veil off America’s dirty little secrets across the pond in Europe where she was instrumental in the formation of the British Anti-Lynching Committee, which included such notables and the Duke of Argyll, the Archbishop of Canterbury, members of Parliament, and the editors of The Manchester Guardian. 

She was the ‘Angela Davis’ (on steroids) of her time, albeit with a pen.  She documented the real and psychological horrows of lynching and the pretext used by the white man (while debunking them) in three succint bullet points:

  • Necessity of the white man to repress and stamp out alleged ‘race riots.
  • Blacks were lynched because whites feared “Negro Domination” and wanted to stay powerful in the government.(Reconstruction Era)
  • Blacks had “to be killed to avenge their assaults upon women.”


Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass rose from slavery to become one of the most famous and influential abolitionist, statesman, activist, suffragist, and writer during Reconstruction.  He once famously said, "I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong”.

 Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

Douglass was a man ahead of his time.  In Ireland, he spoke up for Irish Home Rule and the efforts of leader Charles Stewart Parnell.  Concerning his own nation, he strongly believed in America’s potential to truly embody its values as the land of the free.  He recognized not only the injustice of slavery and the repression of African Americans, but he also recognized the oppression of women who were denied the right to vote at the time.  Douglass rose up from being a slave to becoming not only a leader of the abolitionist movement but he also became a fervent champion of the women’s suffrage movement.


Booker T Washington

Another former slave, utilitarian Booker T. Washington, made it his mission to educate rural African Americans at any cost, even at the cost of appeasing whites and accepting sacrifices in the African American’s aspiration for personal freedom equality.   He believed that given the circumstances at the time, this was the best course forward – earning education and advancements without antagonizing whites.  The paradox was that Negro education and advancements were antithesis to the southern whites’ mentality and would never be freely allowed.

Booker T. Washington 

Booker T. Washington

Washington’s approach would rightfully put him at odds with the next generation of black intellectuals, who sought nothing short of full equality.  He was however, the most successful and powerful black man in the country during his times, and the legendary Tuskegee Institute in Alabama remains as part of his legacy to African Americans.


Marcus Garvey

Dr. Martin Luther King and his wife Coretta Scott King, on visiting the shrine of Marcus Garvey on 20 June 1965 in Kingston Jamaica, laid a wreath and then proceeded to tell the audience that Garvey, "was the first man of color to lead and develop a mass movement.  He was the first man on a mass scale and level to give millions of Negroes a sense of dignity and destiny.  And make the Negro feel he was somebody."  

Marcus Garvey 

Marcus Garvey

Marcus Garvey was a Pan-African nationalist who created the largest populist movement in the early 1900’s.  So successful was Garvey in speaking and so effective was he at organizing, that  after the publishing of ”Negro World” newspaper commenced in August 1918, membership of his UNIA organization had grown to over two million within a year by June 1919.  By August 1920, the the International Convention of the UNIA was held with a membership of four million.  That month, with delegates from all over the world in attendance, over 25,000 people filled Madison Square Garden on 1 August 1920 to hear Garvey speak.

Marcus Garvey 1924 

Marcus Garvey (circa 1924)

He loved black people and believed in a future African homeland for dispossessed blacks in the United States.  Unlike many of is contemporaries, Garvey was not afraid of Africa, nor did he view Africa as a wasteland or with disdain.  Where his namesis W.E.B. Dubois stated in “Strivings of the Negro People” that, “he would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa”, Garvey’s frequent refrain was, “Look to Africa, when a black king shall be crowned for the day of deliverance is at hand!”

Garvey encouraged repatriation as well as development of the industrial economies of African and other black inhabited parts of the world to facilitate trade with the United States.  He was also a businessman who started a shipping company to realize such commerce as well as for the purpose of transporting those willing and wanting to connect, back to their African roots.


Marian Anderson

Marian Anderson was a diva who lit up Europe in the early 1900’s and sang at Carnegie Hall and with the New York Philharmonic, at a time when she was denied rooms in prominent hotels and dining in many restaurants in American because she was black. 

Marian Anderson 

Marian Anderson

Long before Leontyne PriceJessye Norman, or Josephine Baker, Marian Anderson was the black opera Diva of her era.  She enthralled the world with her voice, charm, and beauty.  Long before the likes of Angelina Jolie, she was officially designated as a delegate to the United Nations, with a formalization of her role as "goodwill ambassador" of the U.S in 1958.   Many moons before Aretha Franklin and Beyonce did it, Anderson serenaded Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower's and John F. Kennedy's respective 1957 and 1961 inaugurations.

Long before Maya Angelou, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, which was then just re-instituted and was awarded for "especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interest of the United States,  World Peace or cultural or other significant public or private endeavors”

Marian Anderson 1939 

Marian Anderson, 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial, in Washington, D.C.

She participated in the civil rights movement in the 1960s and sang at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 and broke down numerous barriers for African American artists in the United States.  She was the first black person to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City on January 7, 1955.  In 1957, she was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. These milestones scratch only the surface as countless awards and honorary medals would follow, in testament to the extraordinary life of Marian Anderson.


Mary Church Terrell

 Mary Church Terrell

Mary Church Terrell, circa 1906

Mary Church Terrell was an African American writer, journalist, activist, and socialite, known for her 1940 book “A Colored Woman in a White World”.   Through her father, she met Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass with whom she became especially close friends as they worked on several civil rights campaigns.  In 1909, Terrell was one of two black women (Ida B. Wells-Barnett was the other) invited to sign the “Call” and to attend the first organizational meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), where she became a founding member.  In 1913-1914, she helped organize the Delta Sigma Theta sorority.  As WWI was winding down, Terrell and her daughter Phyllis joined Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, of the Congressional Union of Woman Suffrage (CUWS), to picket the White House on issues related to the demobilization of Negro servicemen and their need for jobs. 


Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar was an African-American poet, novelist, and playwright of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  

Paul Laurence Dunbar 

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Much of his popular work in his lifetime used a Negro dialect, which helped him become one of the first nationally-accepted African American writers.  Dunbar was the first African American poet to earn nation-wide distinction and acceptance.  He wrote a dozen books of poetry, four books of short stories, five novels, and a play.  Along with Archibald H. GrimkeKelly Miller, and James Weldon Johnson, Dunbar was part of W.E.B. Du Boiss 'talented tenth' – the educated class of blacks. 


W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois was the father of modern African American intellectualism, whose totality of work would provide the basis for future generations of African Americans and the wider African diaspora.  Undoubtedly one of the greatest American intellects (black or white) of both the 19th and 20th century, W.E.B. Du Bois along with his nemesis Marcus Garvey, charted a course that would influence generations of future leaders in America, the Caribbean, Europe, and Africa.  Where Garvey was the firebrand populist, Du Bois was an intellectual elitist in the French ‘dirigeant’ model.  He envisioned his ‘Talented Tenth” as rising up and save the “the submerged”. 

W.E.B. Du Bois 

W.E.B. Du Bois

He was a writer, sociologist, political scientist, and historian.  He was the first African American Harvard PHd, leader of the Niagara Movement – activists who fought for black rights, and was a co-founder of the NAACP – where he insisted on the “C” for colored people as he intended the organization to represent all people of color, and not just blacks in America.  Du Bois once famously stated that, Education must not simply teach work, it must teach life”.

He was also the principal opponent of Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Address (dubbed the Atlanta Compromise), and he thereafter referred to Washington as "the Great Accomodator” for Washington’ unwritten deal struck in 1895 with Southern white leaders who had taken over government after the failure of Reconstruction.  The agreement naively provided that southern blacks would submit to discrimination, segregation, lack of voting rights, and non-unionized employment and in exchange, Southern whites would permit blacks to receive a basic education, some economic opportunities, and justice within the legal system. 

W.E.B. Du Bois with Paul Robeson 

W.E.B. Du Bois, with Paul Robeson

Du Bois vehemently opposed this as he and the others from the new generation of intellectuals - Archibald H. Grimke, Kelly Miller, James Weldon Johnson and Paul Laurence Dunbar - felt that African Americans should fight for equal rights, rather than passively submit to the segregation and discrimination of Washington's Atlanta Compromise.

Du Bois’s Niagarites held its second conference in August 1906, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of John Brown's birth, at the site of John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry.  In their response to Booker T. Washington's approach in his primary goal to provide employment to African Americans, Reverdy Cassius Ransom told the conference that: "Today, two classes of Negroes, ... are standing at the parting of the ways. The one counsels patient submission to our present humiliations and degradations; ... The other class believe that it should not submit to being humiliated, degraded, and remanded to an inferior place ... it does not believe in bartering its manhood for the sake of gain."

Du Bois was inspired to greater activism by the lynching of Sam Hose, which occurred near Atlanta in 1899.  Hose was tortured, burned and hung by a mob of two thousand whites.  When walking through Atlanta to discuss the lynching with a newspaper editor, Du Bois encountered Hose's burned knuckles in a storefront display.  The episode numbed Du Bois, and he resolved that, "one could not be a calm cool, and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered, and starved." Du Bois realized that "the cure wasn't simply telling people the truth, it was inducing them to act on the truth".


James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson was an influential writer, poet, educator, diplomat, statesman, activist, and NAACP leader.   He served in several public capacities over 35 years, working in education, the diplomatic corps, civil rights activism, literature, poetry, and music.

 James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson

Employed in 1916 by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as a field secretary, he built and revived local chapters of that organization. He worked fervently to oppose the race riots in northern cities and the lynchings that pervaded the South during and immediately after the end of World War I.  Johnson engaged the NAACP in mass demonstrations, such as a silent protest parade of more than ten thousand African Americans down New York City's Fifth Avenue on July 28, 1917.  In 1919, he coined the term "Red Summer" and organized peaceful protests against the racial violence of that year.


Mary McLeod Bethune

Upon her death, columnist Louis E. Martin said, "She gave out faith and hope as if they were pills and she some sort of doctor."  Mary McLeod Bethune was an activist and an educator.  On graduating from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago with hopes of  becoming a missionary in Africa, she was told that black missionaries were not needed, so she instead decided to educate blacks in America.  She believed that improvement of the conditions of black people rested with educating the women: "I believe that the greatest hope for the development of my race lies in training our women thoroughly and practically”, she once said.  So she founded a school primarily for the education of young black girls.  That school is today, Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida.

 Mary McLeod Bethune

Mary McLeod Bethune, by Carl Van Vechten, April 6, 1949

She was active in women's clubs, and her leadership allowed her to become nationally prominent.  She was a close friend of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, worked for the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, and became a member of Roosevelt's Black Cabinet, sharing the concerns of black people with the Roosevelt administration while spreading Roosevelt's message to African Americans, who had been traditionally Republican voters.

In 1938 she wrote, "If our people are to fight their way up out of bondage we must arm them with the sword and the shield and buckler of pride - belief in themselves and their possibilities, based upon a sure knowledge of the achievements of the past."  In 1939, she said, "Not only the Negro child but children of all races should read and know of the achievements, accomplishments and deeds of the Negro”.

On the overturn of Plessy v Ferguson by the U.S. Supreme Court, Bethune defended the decision by writing her opinion in the Chicago Defender in 1954: “There can be no divided democracy, no class government, no half-free country, under the constitution.  Therefore, there can be no discrimination, no segregation, no separation of some citizens from the rights which belong to all.... We are on our way. But these are frontiers which we must conquer.... We must gain full equality in education ...in the franchise... in economic opportunity, and full equality in the abundance of life.”


Carter G. Woodson

Each Black Studies or African American Studies department in universities and educational institutions across the country owe its origins to Dr. Carter G. Woodson.  He dedicated his entire life to ensuring that African Americans and their contributions were duly recognized in American and in the world.

Carter G. Woodson 

Carter G. Woodson, father of black history

He noted that African American contributions "were overlooked, ignored, and even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them." He concluded that “Race prejudice is merely the logical result of tradition - the inevitable outcome of thorough instruction to the effect that the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind."

Dr. Carter G. Woodson 

Dr. Carter G. Woodson

To that end, he called for a week of recognition – Negro History Week, which would morph into Black History Month, a period of recognition and celebration of our contributions and achievements in America and the world. The Mis-Education of the Negro remains one among his many famous studies and writings, which are still widely read today


Alain Locke

Alain Leroy Locke was the writer, philosopher, and patron of the arts who encouraged African American artists to look to their heritage, and to their communities for inspirations in their art. 

Alain L. Locke 

Alain L. Locke

On March 19, 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., proclaimed: “We’re going to let our children know that the only philosophers that lived were not Plato and Aristotle, but W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke came through the universe.”  With his book, The New Negro, he nurtured many of those young artists who would form the Niggeraticolumn of the Harlem Renaissance, a movement, which got its initial impetus from his New Negro Movement.  Writers such as Zora Neal Hurston, Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, and painter Richard Bruce Nugent, were all protégés of Alain LeRoy Locke.

Harlem Mecca of the New Negro 

Harlem, Mecca of the New Negro", article in Survey Graphic, 1925

Whereas W.E.B. Du Bois was the first African American to obtain a doctorate at Harvard, Alain Locke was the first African American Rhodes Scholar to study at Oxford University in England in 1907, having graduated Harvard magna cum laude.  His identifying, nurturing, and publishing the works of young black artists was at the heart of the New Negro Movement.  Dr. Locke was the inspiration behind race building and transformation through art.  He was also one of the first intellectuals who encouraged African American artist to embrace modernism in conjunction with African art, as he believed a focus on the African roots of black art and music would drive the Renaissance. 

Hammon, Wheatley, and Dunbar gave us poetry.  Douglass gave us integrity while Washington showed us the secret of success in a white world. Wells and Bethune taught us fearless courage while Garvey made no apologies.  Anderson sang and Du Bois, Therell, Weldon-Johnson, Locke, and Woodson gave us our intellectual selves.  They inspired the brilliance in our imbued genius.


Brought to you by Paris-based African American artist Ealy Mays



African American portalAfrican American portal


France portalFrance portal






Welcome to Ealy Mays Artworks

Celebration of over 150 years of Black Literary and Artistic development in Paris

Here you will find the works of one of the most prolific African American artists. Based in Paris, France, this selection includes current masterpieces as well retrospectives from a body of over 30 years as an ethnic artist painting in the United States, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe. Your choice of paintings, prints, posters, postcards, puzzles, memorabilia, T-shirts, collectibles, accessories,and more, is only a click away. Read more

It is the spectator and not life, that really mirrors art”  The Picture of Dorian Gray …Oscar Wilde

Newsletter Signup

Stay informed on our latest news, exhibits,events and more

Not Enough. Want to stay informed? Follow me now...