Recognizing the contributions of Black changemakers

24 January 2024

Learn about notable Black changemakers from Virginia and North Carolina, as recognized by Virginia and North Carolina state governments.

Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington


Born in Franklin County, VA, Booker Taliaferro Washington was an American educator, author, orator, and adviser to multiple presidents of the United States. Between 1890 and 1915, Washington was the dominant leader in the African American community and of the contemporary black elite.

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Maggie L. Walker

Maggie L. Walker


Born in Richmond, VA, Maggie Lena Walker was an African-American businesswoman and teacher. Walker was the first African-American woman to charter a bank and serve as its president in the United States. As a leader, Walker achieved successes with the vision to make tangible improvements in the way of life for African Americans.

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Mary Smith Peake

Mary Smith Kelsey Peake


Born a free person in Norfolk, VA, Mary Peake devoted her life to the education and betterment of African Americans. A seamstress by day, Peake violated state law to teach her fellow blacks at night. She founded the first black school in Hampton at Brown Cottage in September 1861. Her school was a forerunner of Hampton University.

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John Mitchell

John Mitchell Jr.


As editor of the Richmond Planet, Mitchell was a leading voice in favor of racial equality and against segregation. Influential in Jackson Ward, the Black Wall Street of America, Mitchell founded and served as president of the Mechanics Savings Bank. Born a slave in Richmond shortly before the end of the Civil War, Mitchell's mother taught him to read. Her son went on to serve as a city alderman and even ran for governor in 1921.

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Gregory Hayes Swanson

Gregory Hayes Swanson

1924–1992 | ATTORNEY AT LAW

Gregory Hayes Swanson, a Danville native, was a 26-year-old practicing lawyer when he filed a federal lawsuit to gain admission to UVA to pursue a master’s in law. The law faculty had supported his entry, but the UVA Board of Rectors opposed it. After he won his lawsuit, he was admitted in 1950, setting a precedent for racial integration at the University. Swanson was the first African-American student admitted to the University of Virginia.

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Sissieretta Jones

Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones


Born in Portsmouth, VA in 1869, Matilda Sissieretta Jones studied music at the Providence School of Music and the New England Conservatory in Boston. She was a trailblazing African American pioneer of the concert and theatrical stages and sang for several U.S. presidents and at the 1803 Chicago world’s fair. Her popularity spanned the globe, and she received medals and lavish gifts from many foreign heads of state.

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George Henry White

George Henry White


Born in Bladen County, NC, George Henry White was a prominent African-American attorney and politician, serving as a U.S. Congressman from North Carolina's 2nd congressional district between 1897 and 1901. Notably, he was the last African-American Congressman during the early Jim Crow era, the sole African American in Congress during his tenure. White played a crucial role in advocating for African-American civil rights, working towards federal oversight of elections and introducing the first bill in Congress to make lynching a federal crime. After leaving office, he became a successful lawyer and banker, co-founding the town of Whitesboro, New Jersey, and leaving a lasting legacy in civil rights activism.

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Nina Simone

Nina Simone 


Born in Tryon, NC, Nina Simone (Eunice Kathleen Waymon) was an influential American singer, songwriter, pianist, composer, and civil rights activist. Simone aspired to be a concert pianist and faced racial discrimination when denied admission to the Curtis Institute of Music. She gained recognition by playing piano at an Atlantic City nightclub and, adopting the name "Nina Simone," became a jazz vocalist. Simone recorded over 40 albums between 1958 and 1974, and inspired generations of musicians. Her music, spanning various genres, addressed racial inequality during the Civil Rights era, making her a key figure in activism. Despite difficulties, her profound impact on music and social consciousness earned her Grammy nominations, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2018), and recognition as one of the 200 Greatest Singers of All Time by Rolling Stone in 2023. 

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Maria Elizabeth Beasley

Maria Elizabeth Beasley 


Maria E. Beasley was born in Bethenia, NC, and became an entrepreneur and inventor known for her significant contributions to the field of mechanics. Growing up with a passion for mechanics, she patented fifteen inventions between 1878 and 1898, showcasing her diverse skills, including innovations like an improved footwarmer, a life raft with collapsible metal floats, a revolutionary barrel-hooping machine, and an anti-derailment device for trains.

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John Coltrane

John William Coltrane 


Born and raised in North Carolina, John Coltrane moved to Philadelphia after graduating from high school, where he studied music. Working in the bebop and hard bop idioms early in his career, Coltrane helped pioneer the use of modes and was one of the players at the forefront of free jazz. He led at least fifty recording sessions and appeared on many albums by other musicians, including trumpeter Miles Davis and pianist Thelonious Monk. Over the course of his career, Coltrane's music took on an increasingly spiritual dimension, as exemplified on his most acclaimed album A Love Supreme and others. He is among the most influential and acclaimed figures in the history of jazz and 20th-century music. Decades after his death, Coltrane remains influential, and he has received numerous posthumous awards, including a special Pulitzer Prize, and was canonized by the African Orthodox Church.

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Anna Julia Cooper

Anna Julia Cooper 


Anna Julia Haywood Cooper was an influential American author, educator, sociologist, and activist. Born into slavery in Raleigh, NC, she received a scholarship to Saint Augustine's Normal School, showcasing academic prowess. Cooper faced adversity as a teacher and principal at M Street High School in Washington, D.C., advocating for classical education over vocational programs. A prolific writer, her notable work, "A Voice from the South," is considered a pioneering piece of Black feminism. Achieving her Ph.D. from the Sorbonne in 1924, she became the fourth African-American woman with a doctoral degree. Cooper's lifelong commitment to education and activism continued through her presidency at Frelinghuysen University until her death at 105 in 1964.

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