Black History Month
Below is just a small selection of biographies of various newsworthy individuals in the Black Community who also were or are people with a disability. There is a rich tapestry weaving the numerous threads of impact and action that these individuals have had - locally, regionally, and nationally.
We will continue to add to this list to recognize the significant contributions made to our community at large, across politics, arts, culture, civil rights, science, technology, and more.
Maya Angelou (1928–2014). Those who know of Ms. Angelou know she wrote a great deal of poetry, along with her memoirs, starting with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Those who have read her work know that her childhood was a traumatic one. At the age of eight, Maya was sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend; as a result of her trauma, she became mute for five years. (This condition is known as selective mutism.) Dr. Angelou’s writing career, which also included essays, journalism, and drama spanned 50 years.
Harry Belafonte (b. 1927). In 1956, Belafonte was a sensation for his album Calypso and “Banana Boat Song.” Over his musical and drama career, he would go on to four Grammys, a Tony, and an Emmy. What most of his fans do not know is that Harry’s dyslexia became such a source of frustration that he dropped out of high school. However, he has used his cultivated eloquence not only in the arts, but also as a political and social activist, along with his advocacy at Understood.org, an organization dedicated to supporting parents of children with learning disabilities.
BESSIE BLOUNT GRIFFIN
Bessie Blount Griffin (1914-2009) was pioneering physical therapist, inventor, and scientist, from Hickory (today Chesapeake), Virginia. Though she did not have a disability, her impact in the disability world is significant. Realizing her passion for Physical Therapy (at the time, still a relatively new area of expertise), she blended her nursing studies with her passion for dance to enhance her patients’ treatments. But she is also thought to have created one of the earliest forms of assistive technology when she invented a feeding device called “Portable Receptacle Support” that assisted many WWII soldiers who lost arms in the war, to be able to eat independently and comfortably in an upright position. Though it took three years, she ultimately received at US Patent for her invention.
Claudia L. Gordon (b. 1972) is a powerful attorney who has dedicated her career to helping individuals with disabilities. She lost her hearing as a child in Jamaica and has spent her professional life working to open up communication for individuals with disabilities and promote compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. She worked as an adviser on disability issues at the White House for President Obama and has advocated for deaf and disabled individuals through her work at the National Council on Disability, Homeland Security and the National Coalition for Disability Rights. She is currently a Senior Accessibility Strategy Partner with T-Mobile where she works to reduce or eliminate communication barriers for customers who are deaf, hard of hearing, deaf-blind, have a hearing or vision loss, or cognitive, speech or mobility disability.
Amanda Gorman (b. 1998) is the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history, intoning her powerful work, The Hill We Climb for President Biden’s inauguration in 2021. She is an award-winning writer and cum laude graduate of Harvard University, where she studied Sociology. She has written for the New York Times and has three books forthcoming with Penguin Random House. Diagnosed with an auditory processing disorder and speech impediment as a child, she never viewed them as a weakness or disability, but as one of her greatest strengths. In 2017, she was appointed the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate by Urban Word – a program that supports Youth Poets Laureate in more than 60 cities, regions and states nationally. She is the recipient of the Poets & Writers Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award, and is the youngest board member of 826 National, the largest youth writing network in the United States.
FANNIE LOU HAMER:
Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–1977). Ms. Hamer was civil rights activist who was important in efforts to help African Americans register to vote. She suffered kidney damage after have been beaten, a condition that was the source of her famous words, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
CHUCK HORTON & OLIVER JORDAN:
Sometimes individuals make a focused impact on the community in which they live. Two of those individuals are Oliver Jordan (1959-2002) and Charles Horton. Oliver was the first Deputy Mayor and Chair of the Mayor’s Commission on People with Disabilities under Mayor Ed Rendell. He linked the city’s 911 emergency phone number with a telecommunications device for the deaf and started a program that paired young people with disabilities with professionals with disabilities. He was also instrumental in making sure the Philadelphia Convention Center would be completely accessible. Following Oliver’s example 8 years later, Charles Horton served as Deputy Mayor and Chair of the Mayor’s Commission on People with Disabilities and advised three Mayors and administrations about projects and services for this population. He promoted self-advocacy and independence; helped the city ensure compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and developed workshops, community outreach, and public awareness programs. Charles continues this work with Inglis as Senior Director of Advocacy and Inclusion.
Barbara Charline Jordan (1936-1996), was a lawyer, educator and politician, who was a civil rights activist and a powerful African American voice in politics. She was the first African American elected to the Texas Senate and the first African American woman from a southern state to serve in Congress. Barbara, who had multiple sclerosis, was the first black woman to give the keynote address at a Democratic National Convention. A powerful and eloquent orator, she worked to strengthen voting rights and minimum wage laws and was a leader in the civil rights movement.
Johnnie Lacy (1937–2010). Growing up in the Jim Crow South, Ms. Lacy was acutely aware of the too numerous acts of discrimination against her and her fellow African Americans. At age 19, Lacy was diagnosed with polio and eventually needed a wheelchair to get around. From then on, she also became a disability advocate and self-advocate in the struggle to be able to attend university (a right not guaranteed at the time) and for the resources to live independently in the community. Both identities were strongly intertwined.
Wilma Rudolph (1940–1994). The “fastest woman in the world” wasn’t always fleet on foot. Wilma survived premature birth but endured several early-childhood illnesses. Recovery from infantile paralysis and a loss of strength to her left leg and foot was long and arduous. After being homeschooled for many years, when she was in high school, Wilma tried out for several sports teams; her coach was astonished by her speed. Although she was defeated at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, she became a legend four years later, at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, earning her admiration worldwide.
Kambel Smith (b. 1988), from Germantown, PA, hasn't let his autism diagnosis hold him back from creating works that are catching the eyes of critics and curators nationwide. Kambel, who was diagnosed as a child with various intellectual disabilities before being labeled as autistic, had no formal training in art or architecture, but has a natural ability to see perspective and scale without the use of measuring tools. A recipient of a Pew Fellowship grant in 2021, he builds large-scale, intricate sculptures of historical buildings out of cardboard collected from trash. When asked about the meaning of the works he creates, Kambel said, "I'm just thinking about trying to make it look like real life."
Harriet Tubman (1822–1913). Tubman is an abolitionist known for her work on the Underground Railroad, a remarkable effort to help runaway slaves to flee to safer areas. Less well known is that Ms. Tubman suffered from epilepsy as a result of a severe head injury she sustained when she was beaten by her master at age 12. Even though she needed to take many rest breaks, Tubman ventured into the depths of slave country multiple times, saving many lives.
TOM “BLIND TOM” WIGGINS:
“Blind Tom” Wiggins (1849–1908). Born blind, he was sold as an infant, into slavery, along with the rest of his family. He also survived being killed, as he had no economic value to his owners. However, Tom had access to a piano, and his talent for perceiving, remembering, and reproducing sounds was immediately apparent. Many historians also believe that Tom was on the autism spectrum, which could explain his extraordinary memory. He would go on to perform at concerts throughout the Americas and Europe. His extraordinary music has inspired lovers of music worldwide, including Elton John, who composed a song in his honor.