Add these people to the list of historical figures you should know: an enslaved man who stole a Confederate ship and sailed to freedom, a woman whose cells helped create the polio vaccine, and a Founding Father who came up with "We the People." These unknown historical figures might have been forgotten by textbook writers, but they made significant contributions to the world. They overcame the odds, fought for civil rights, and even survived disasters to make a mark on history.
Like forgotten influential politicians, these historical figures made important contributions in their eras, yet they've largely been ignored by schools today. Why were so many of these important figures forgotten? When schools only cover presidents and wars, we never learn about the everyday and extraordinary people who make history.
Weigh in on the historical figures you've never heard of that teachers should tell their students about in school.
Cassius Marcellus Clay grew up in Lexington, the son of a rich plantation owner. But as an adult, Clay freed his family's slaves and founded an influential anti-slavery newspaper.
When a mob destroyed his print shop, Clay refused to bow to pressure. And when six men attacked him after Clay gave a speech against slavery, he fought them off one by one. Eventually, Clay earned a seat in the Kentucky legislature and fought in the Mexican-American War.
Clay's message even influenced Abraham Lincoln. After serving as the US ambassador to Russia, Clay told Lincoln that Czar Alexander II had freed 23 million serfs, encouraging Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
- Age: Dec. at 93 (1810-1903)
- Birthplace: Kentucky, United States of America
Robert Smalls Escaped Slavery In A Stolen Confederate Ship And Became A Congressman
On May 13, 1862, in the middle of the Civil War, an enslaved man named Robert Smalls led a crew of enslaved people to freedom. And they chose the most daring escape vehicle in history: a stolen Confederate ship. Just 22 years old, Smalls sailed the steamer past multiple Confederate checkpoints, even stopping to pick up family members along the way. Once he'd reached the open seas, Smalls sailed to the Union fleet and freedom.
After the Civil War, Smalls went into politics. After serving in the South Carolina Senate, he became a congressman. But when his state stripped Black Americans of their voting rights, Smalls left politics.
For the rest of his life, Smalls advocated for Black rights, saying, “My race needs no special defense for the past history of them and this country. It proves them to be equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.”
- Age: Dec. at 76 (1839-1915)
- Birthplace: Beaufort, South Carolina, United States of America
In 1951, a woman named Henrietta Lacks went to Johns Hopkins Hospital to treat her cervical cancer. At the hospital, scientists discovered that Lacks's cells did not die in the lab - the first so-called "immortal" cells.
Long after Henrietta perished from her cancer, the HeLa cells traveled around the world, helping scientists make critical breakthroughs in medical research. Her cells helped develop the polio vaccine and took a trip to space on a NASA mission. They've also been used for cloning and in vitro fertilization research.
Henrietta Lacks's contribution to science went largely unrecognized until the 21st century, when journalist Rebecca Skloot wrote The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
- Age: Dec. at 31 (1920-1951)
- Birthplace: Roanoke, Virginia
Bass Reeves Escaped Slavery And Became The First Black US Marshall
He was born enslaved, but Bass Reeves became the first Black US Marshall. During the Civil War, Reeves escaped slavery during a battle. He fled West, eventually settling in Indian Territory. Reeves learned how to speak Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole in Indian Territory, which helped Reeves once he became a Marshall.
According to legend, Reeves could take out a man from a quarter-mile distance with his .44 Winchester rifle.
In Indian Territory, Reeves hunted down criminals and also chased down white men who committed racial hate crimes. As Art T. Burton explains in Black Gun, Silver Star, Reeves used his position as a lawman to hold criminals accountable for lynching Black people.
- Age: Dec. at 72 (1838-1910)
- Birthplace: Paris, Texas