Black History Month: Revolutionary Creators and Pioneers

Here's a salute to some of the black cultural icons who changed 20th-century America.

From medicine to music to sports and more, these African-American legends altered the courses of their fields, and the nation, forever.

  • ELLA FITZGERALD

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    A jazz singer whose career stretched from the 1930s to the 90s, Ella Fitzgerald is one of the most influential vocalists in history. Her legendary pipes earned her the attention of actress/bombshell Marilyn Monroe, who used her star power to circumvent the segregationist policies that kept Fitzgerald from performing at a prominent L.A. nightclub. Monroe’s intervention helped to spur on Fitzgerald’s already skyrocketing career, and led to a lifelong friendship between the two women.

  • PERCY JULIAN

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    Percy Julian was a pioneering scientist if there ever was one. After living in the basement of a white fraternity as an undergrad in exchange for being the frat butler, he got his PhD in Vienna. He later discovered a way to create steroids from soybeans, allowing him to bypass the then-common method of using, um, horse d**ks. His other achievements are too numerous to list, but they’re listed in a helpful scroll at the end of this video as drunk historian Allan McLeod looks on in wonder.

  • PRINCE

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    “Purple Rain.” “When Doves Cry.” “Cream.” Whole books can — and have — been written about Prince’s contributions to music. Then there’s his inimitable style, which Charlie Murphy foolishly mocks during a game of pick-up basketball. It’s unclear whether Prince could actually float in the air after dunking, but he’s a phenomenon either way.

  • JOE LOUIS

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    As one of the most prominent American athletes of his time, Joe Louis had a lot at stake in his 1936 heavyweight bout against Germany’s Max Schmeling. Not only was Louis a hero in the African-American community, but his fight also symbolized the struggle between the U.S. and the newly empowered Nazi regime. Louis may not have won his first encounter with Schmeling, but he made sure he was ready for the 1938 rematch.

  • LOUIS ARMSTRONG

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    Legendary musician and bandleader Louis Armstrong started early, buying a cornet from a pawnshop and learning to read music as a child. But what really made him stand out was his ability to make the horn “talk.” It had to be heard to be believed, but narrator Daryl Johnson does his best to give you the gist.