Talk about hidden figures. In today’s Daily Dose, we’ve put together some of the untold stories behind some of the most remarkable, inspiring and ruthless individuals in history, from badass women to unsung Black pioneers to long-forgotten monsters. This is what they didn’t teach you in school. Class is now in session.
Sean Braswell, Senior Writer
unsung black pioneers
1. Isaac Burns Murphy
This champion Black jockey read thoroughbreds like Hank Aaron read pitchers and dominated Churchill Downs like Tiger Woods dominated Augusta National. According to one tally, Murphy, who was born into slavery, won 530 of 1,538 races, a 34 percent rate that still dwarfs the greatest all-time official tallies in horse-racing record books. He would win his last Kentucky Derby in 1891 — before retiring as the first person ever to win it three times.
Born in rural Georgia to a large, poor Black family, Bullard stowed away on a ship bound for the U.K. in 1912 and ended up in Liverpool, where he launched his career as a formidable boxer. He later moved to France, joined the French Foreign Legion and became the first Black fighter pilot. If that wasn’t enough, Bullard managed one of the most fashionable jazz clubs in Paris after World War I and served as a spy for the French Resistance during World War II.
The first Black woman in America to earn a medical degree, Dr. Crumpler served as a nurse for the Freedmen’s Bureau during the Civil War, where she helped minister to the medical needs of as many freed slaves as she could. That experience gave her the opportunity to treat an unprecedented number of patients, and like Florence Nightingale, who wrote at length about medicine following her wartime service, Crumpler composed a medical treatise that was not only historic but also invariably useful.
For many Americans, the racial justice progress and setbacks from the end of the Civil War to the civil rights era of the 1960s are little studied or understood. But what occurred during the 100 years in between has had lasting effects on Black American advancement and race relations (or lack thereof). Our policy debates today on housing, education, public health, segregation and much more can be traced directly to this period. It’s high time for more education about the white backlash to Reconstruction, and the campaigns of terror against Blacks, argues professor Christina Greer.
When the American colonies went to war with the British, the 14-year-old Forten enlisted to fight for a prospective country that did not even consider him one of its citizens. After several years of fighting, including a stint as a prisoner of war aboard a British vessel, Forten returned to Philadelphia, where he would become one of the most successful Black businessmen in the new nation, pumping his time and his money into the twin causes of abolitionism and civil rights.
Each year, the Moguls in the Making business plan pitch competition offers Historically Black College and University (HBCU) students an opportunity to learn and practice vital skills. Five students from Alabama A&M University won the second annual competition, which took place virtually this month, with their proposed solution to the lack of access to quality food and nutrition education in Detroit. The event gives 50 students — grouped into teams of five from 10 HBCUs — an opportunity to develop and present business plans aimed at solving key issues in the context of today’s economic and social climate. The competition is presented by Ally Financial Inc., the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and entertainer and entrepreneur Big Sean’s foundation, the Sean Anderson Foundation. Winners receive scholarships and internship opportunities with Ally.
For a week in the late summer of 1921, planes buzzed, machine guns rattled, gas hissed and bombs whistled through the air around Blair Mountain, West Virginia. The Battle of Blair Mountain was the biggest fight in a conflict known as the Coal Wars. After a five-day standoff between private security forces and impoverished coal miners trying to unionize, President Warren G. Harding declared martial law in West Virginia and sent in the U.S. Army to put an end to the coal miners’ resistance.
In 1966, a 27-year-old Nigerian student union president named Issac Boro declared the oil-rich Niger Delta region from which he hailed a sovereign republic and himself the head of state. Nigeria had been an independent country for only six years when about 150 volunteer soldiers joined Boro to wage guerrilla war against the Nigerian government. It didn’t go well for the secessionists: After 12 days, the experiment was over, the revolutionaries were jailed, and Boro was charged with treason and sentenced to death.
In 1989, Madrid officials decided to expropriate the land of Cerro Belmonte, a humble suburb in the capital’s north — a decision that sparked an unlikely independence movement. Authorities planned to redevelop what they termed 19 “bags of urban decay,” but the residents of Cerro Belmonte refused to sell their homes. When protests didn’t work, they threatened to seek independence from the city, and so the Kingdom of Cerro Belmonte was born, a move that prompted city officials to remove the suburb from the redevelopment plan.
On Dec. 6, 1917, Finland’s Parliament voted to leave post-revolution Russia, engineering its own exit from a superpower. Though it initially looked like a clean break, the departure sowed seeds for a disastrous civil war that erupted a year later amid the Continent-wide upheaval of World War I. Still, Finland has maintained a stable independence and is now a peaceful, high-income success. Other nations that were in a similar boat in 1917 — like Ukraine — remained under the Soviet thumb and went in a starkly different direction.
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Throughout history, Black Americans have not been able to enjoy the same access to the American Dream as their white counterparts. So how do we move forward in a positive way? Watch the real, raw and heated debate featuring former NBA star Jalen Rose, comedian Aida Rodriguez, former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, author Ta-Nehisi Coates and more, as they diagnose the problems and find real solutions to repair a fractured dream.
The world’s most successful buccaneer might have been Chinese — and a woman. Ching Shih instilled fear in the hearts of merchants across the China Sea in the early 19th century. During her relatively short run as a pirate lord, this ruthless and cunning woman went from being a prostitute to commanding the infamous “Red Flag Fleet.” At the height of her success, Ching Shih’s pirate armada boasted 1,600 ships, and she commanded more than 70,000 male and female pirates, spies and suppliers.
Born in what is now Ukraine, 24-year-old Lyudmila Pavlichenko joined the Soviet army in 1941 and became a sniper. She was a formidable hunter, one reputed to have killed 187 people in battle over the course of 10 weeks in 1941. After hanging up her rifle, Pavlichenko became a military historian. While once she talked openly about being proud of killing Nazis, she later admitted that her first kill was difficult — that she had trembled and wondered if her target truly believed in Hitler’s cause.
Julie d’Aubigny, aka Mademoiselle Maupin, was the renowned daughter of a clerk in the court of Louis XIV. Born around 1673, she was taught fencing by her father, and eventually ran away with a swordsman. The couple traveled the countryside, showing off their fencing skills to the public. Once, while attending a royal ball dressed as a man, she was challenged to three duels in a single evening — and won them all. D’Aubigny later became an opera star and inspired a French novel.
They started off largely ignored, with no budget and no media coverage of their dominant play. They became global superstars with their 1999 World Cup victory, powered by Mia Hamm’s brilliance and Brandi Chastain’s sports bra celebration seen round the world. As their on-field triumphs continue along with their epic fight for equal pay, the women of U.S. soccer are an American tale unlike any other.
For France, Joan of Arc is the ultimate national heroine. But French-controlled Martinique has another young female heroine, Lumina Sophie dite Surprise. Lumina was a revolutionary leader who, despite being pregnant, organized a movement in 1870 against those who would oppress the island’s Black population. During a revolution that lasted only five days, Lumina led a group in torching plantations where their ancestors had worked as slaves before being arrested and sentenced to life in prison with hard labor.
Unlike the contributions of her husband, famed civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, Graham Du Bois’ accomplishments have largely been forgotten. But she achieved rare heights for women of her era. She penned Tom-Tom, the first all-Black opera, and also authored biographical texts about Black historical figures like inventor George Washington Carver. And when her husband was accused of being a communist during the Red Scare, Graham Du Bois rallied to his defense by giving speeches nationwide.
This 19th-century Bolivian president loved four things: sex, booze, gambling and having it all. Born near Cochabamba in 1820, Melgarejo ran away from home at age 9 and entered the army, eventually rising to power via a coup in 1864. Legend has it that the drunken president once stripped the British ambassador, tied him to a donkey and paraded him around (before ousting him from the country). A few months after losing power himself in 1871, Melgarejo was shot dead by his ex-lover’s brother.
This tattooed American serial killer likely committed 21 murders and more than 1,000 rapes of young boys and men around the globe during the early 20th century. In New York, he once hired 10 sailors to work on his yacht, lulled them to sleep with alcohol and shot them dead. Unlike charismatic and cunning serial killers like Ted Bundy, Panzram was nothing if not brutally honest. “For all of these things, I am not the least bit sorry,” he seethed from his prison cell. “I hate the whole damned human race including myself.”
This female slave owner has gone down in history as the epitome of antebellum Louisiana cruelty. Born to a wealthy clan in 1787, LaLaurie was abused and neglected by her husband and took out her frustrations on her human property. Once, 19 slaves mysteriously disappeared during a fire at her mansion and survivors were found streaked with blood from whiplashes, their limbs dislocated and their wounds devoured by maggots.
Gilles de Montmorency-Laval — the famed Baron de Rais who fought alongside Joan of Arc at the Siege of Orléans — was later put on trial for the ritualistic murder and torture of scores of children in 1440. Before his sadistic crimes were uncovered, Gilles de Rais was one of the richest feudal lords of 15th-century France, a status that allowed him to kidnap poor children without raising suspicions. For his bravery in Orléans, he was awarded the prestigious title of Marshal of France, but he was found guilty at his trial and executed by hanging.