1619 Project was a long-form investigative journalism initiative led by New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones that aligns the founding of the United States with the beginning of slavery on the American continent. The project was launched in August 2019 as a multi-part publication in the Times magazine along with live events, a podcast, and a book project. Its publication launched a years-long political debate about what constitutes the nation’s founding and how society frames the role of slavery in relation to its historical narratives.
Julian Abele (1881 – 1950) was an architect who designed a number of prominent academic buildings including the Widener Memorial Library at Harvard University (1912–15), Philadelphia's Central Library (1917–27), and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (1914–28). He was the primary designer of the west campus of Duke University (1924–54). Abele designed furniture, and he created (in pencil and watercolor) exquisitely detailed architectural drawings.
Laini (Sylvia) Abernathy (dates unknown) was a Chicago-based artist, designer, and activist who participated in the Black Arts Movement. She designed a number of jazz album covers, including for Sun Ra, Roscoe Mitchell, and Joseph Jarman.
African Diaspora represents the approximately 140 million people whose direct ancestors dispersed across the globe either by force (during the transatlantic slave trade between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries) or by choice (in the modern period), bringing culture, knowledge, skills, rituals, beliefs, and aesthetic choices. The diaspora represents the heterogeneity of African-ness at its roots and in its expressions across the globe, including in the particular ways it is translated through art and design.
Afrofuturism is a multi-disciplinary aesthetic movement that places African diasporic identity at the center of cultural and technological imagination, drawing from history, fantasy, science fiction, socio-geo-politics, and modern environmentalism. Among the seminal creators of Afrofuturism are Sun Ra, Octavia Butler, Renee Cox, Ytasha Womack, Nnedi Okorafor, Ikire Jones, and Selly Raby Kane
Afrikan Alphabet is a book on Afrikan typography written by Zimbabwean graphic designer Saki Mafundikwa and published in 2004.
Benjamin Banneker (1731 – 1806) was an almanac author, surveyor, and clock designer who used his knowledge of astronomy to map the geographical boundaries of Washington, DC at the city’s founding.
Gwendolyn Barrett (1902 – 1981) was an artist, writer, and journalist whose illustration work graced the July 1926 cover of Opportunity magazine.
Miriam Benjamin (1861 – 1947) was an inventor and chair designer who invented the Gong and Signal Chair, which was later adopted by the US House of Representatives and whose technology informed the design of airplane-flight attendant call buttons. Benjamin received her law degree at Howard University and became a Solicitor of Patents. There is some speculation that she was also a composer.
Lerone Bennett, Jr. (1928-2018) was a Mississippi-born historian, writer, and a long-time editor at Ebony magazine. He wrote Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America (1962), a book that established 1619 as a pivotal moment in the founding of the United States. In an article he wrote for Ebony in 1968, he debunked the savior mythology of Abraham Lincoln, writing, “The man’s character, his way with words and his assassination, together with the psychological needs of a racist society, have obscured his contradictions under a mountain of myths.”
Black Arts Movement was a collective of cross-disciplinary artists and activists during the 1960s and 70s that essentially rejected the western, white-dominant cultural canon. Among its participants were Maya Angelous, Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, Hoyt W. Fuller, Nikki Giovanni, Rosa Guy, Audre Lorde, Haki R. Madhubuti, Larry Neal, Dudley Randall, Ishmael Reed, and Sonia Sanchez.
Black Quantum Futurism is a Philadelphia-based artists and literary collective founded by Moor Mother (Camae Ayewa) and Rasheedah Phillips. Their work proposes “a new approach to living and experiencing reality by way of the manipulation of space-time in order to see into possible futures, and/or collapse space-time into a desired future in order to bring about that future’s reality.”
Thomas (Tom) Burrell (born 1939) is an advertising executive who founded the Chicago-based ad agency Burrell Communications Group (originally named Burrell McBain Advertising) in 1971. He famously stated, “I had to convince clients to understand that black people are not dark-skinned white people,” and re-shaped both the image of Black people in advertising and invented targeted (v. mass) marketing in the advertising business.
Octavia Butler (1947 – 2006) was an award-winning science fiction author born in Pasadena, California, whose seminal work, The Parable Series (also known as the Earthseed Series), published in the 1990s, featured a world struggling to survive amid religious fundamentalism, human-made environmental disaster, unsustainable wealth gap, and corporate greed. Butler continues to be read, studied, and celebrated for the depth and prescience of her work; and in 2021 NASA named a Mars rover landing site in her honor.
Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012) was a sculptor and graphic artist born in Washington, DC but worked for much of her career in Mexico City at the Taller de Grafica Popular and later became a Mexican citizen. An activist-artist, Catlett was known as a social realist whose work remarked on and captured the lives of women, African Americans, the poor, and laborers.
Combahee River Collective (1974 – 1980) was a Black, lesbian, feminist, socialist, activist group named for Harriet Tubman’s famous act of liberation at the Combahee River Ferry site in 1863. The founders—most notably Barbara Smith, Demita Frazier, and Beverly Smith—wrote a statement of purpose that included the assertion, “We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us. Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters and our community which allows us to continue our struggle and work.”
David Crosthwait (1898 – 1976) was a Nashville-born engineer, inventor, and industrial designer who acquired thirty-nine US patents and eighty international patents for his development of air ventilation, central air conditioning, and heat transfer systems.
Emory Douglas (born 1943) is a Michigan-born graphic designer known for his iconic print work for the Black Panther party. Douglas first learned about commercial design in a print shop before studying graphic design in college, where he joined the Black arts movement and joined creativity with activism.
W.E.B. DuBois (1868 – 1963) was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance —writer, publisher, lecturer, and cultural scion—DuBois has recently gained new fame for his infographics, which were compiled in 2019 into the book W. E. B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America that quite literally represent Black experiences in the United States through design. The book has become a seminal text for graphic design students and experienced designers alike who are constantly challenged to transform complex data in accessible visual form.
Phil Freelon (1953- 2019) was a Philadelphia-born architect who led a consortium of architecture firms known as Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup. The consortium designed the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Freelon also designed the Museum of the African Diaspora (San Francisco), Amistad Research Center at Tulane University (New Orleans), Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture (Baltimore), Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture (Charlotte), and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights (Atlanta).
Theaster Gates (born 1973) is a Chicago-based artist, designer, activist, and educator whose work responds to the disinvestments of civic institutions in Black and impoverished communities. Among his many projects, the Stony Island Arts Bank and Rebuild Foundation have revitalized under-resourced Black communities in Chicago by centering art, design, and community space.
Chuck Harrison (1931 – 2018) was a Louisiana-born American industrial designer, inventor, and educator. Harrison was the first Black executive to work at Sears, Roebuck & Company where he managed the design group, making over 750 consumer products from sewing machines to Craftsman tools. Harrison actively mentored Black design students ensuring that new generations of designers saw pathways to success for Black designers and leaders.
Dorothy Hayes (1935-2015) was an Alabama-born graphic designer who fought against racism and sexism throughout her career. Earning a degree in graphic arts from Cooper Union, Hayes was devoted to mentoring young Black designers. In 1970, she and Joyce Hopkins curated an exhibition titled, “Black Artists in Graphic Communication,” which featured forty-nine young Black graphic designers. In addition to teaching and mentoring, Hayes led her own design firm, Dorothy’s Door.
Thomas L. Jennings (1794 – 1876) was a New York-born inventor and activist whose 1821 dry cleaning innovation earned him the first patent awarded to an African American inventor in the United States. He used the fortune he earned to fund the abolitionist movement. Later in life, he became assistant secretary for the First Annual Convention of the People of Color in Philadelphia, PA.
Caroline R. Jones (1942 – 2001) was a Michigan-born advertising executive who co-founded, with Frank Mingo, the Black-owned firm Mingo-Jones in 1977.
Eli (Elvin Elias Lee) Kince (dates unknown) is a Cleveland-born author, educator, designer, historian, and self-taught fine artist who wrote, Visual Puns in Design: The Pun Used as a Communication Tool (out-of-print), published in 1982.
Frederick McKinley Jones (1893 – 1961) was a Cincinnati-born inventor, designer, and entrepreneur who held sixty-one patents and earned the National Medal of Technology (1991). Among his more notable designs are portable air cooling units, a portable x-ray machine, and movie ticket dispensers.
Marjorie Joyner (1896 – 1994) was a Virginia-born inventor, educator, and activist whose permanent wave technology that included a protective cap for the scalp earned her the first patent awarded to an African American woman in the United States.
Gerald (Jerry) Lawson (1940 – 2011) was a Brooklyn-born electrical engineer who designed the first video game console with a removable game cartridge (the Fairchild Channel F) in 1976. His design was adopted by and became popularized with the Atari gaming console.
Esther Mahlangu (born 1935) is a South African Ndebele artist from the Gauteng region, located north of Pretoria. Through her bold, geometric large scale paintings, Mahlangu has championed the preservation of her Ndebele culture, making her the first Ndebele artist to transfer the traditional Ndebele style wall paintings to canvas, exhibiting them both in South Africa and globally. Among her many accomplishments, she has painted murals and collaborated with brands including BMW and Rolls-Royce.
Noel Mayo (born 1937) is a New Jersey-born industrial designer and design educator who founded the first Black-led industrial design firm in the United States in 1964 whose clients have included NASA, the US Department of Commerce and Agriculture, IBM, and Black and Decker.
Elijah McCoy (1844 – 1929) was an Ontario-born inventor and engineer, who acquired fifty-seven patents including some for his innovations of the steam engine. As the child of enslaved parents who had escaped bondage via the Underground Railroad, McCoy returned to the United States as a young adult, settling in Detroit, Michigan where he lived, worked, and developed his inventions.
Garret Morgan (1877 – 1963) was a Kentucky-born, Ohio-based inventor, engineer, community leader, and entrepreneur whose patents included designs for smoke hoods for firefighters, the three-light traffic signal, and a number of hair straightening products. Morgan also founded the Black-owned newspaper, the Cleveland Call.
Organization of Black American Culture (1967 – 1992) was a Chicago-based, cross-disciplinary artist collective originally formed as Committee for the Arts by Hoyt W. Fuller, Conrad Kent Rivers, and Gerald McWorter. The members held workshops and produced a number of plays, murals, and magazines.
Jerry Pinckney (1939-2021) was a Philadelphia-born illustrator and writer of children’s books who worked principally in watercolor. In 1964, he illustrated The Adventures of Spider: West African Folktales, the first in a lifetime of stories that centered tales and characters from across the African diaspora. He won multiple Caldecott honors, in part for his retellings of children’s stories to correct the past harms of racist depictions. In his words, “I see storytelling itself as part of African American resistance .”
Robert Robinson Taylor (1868 – 1942) was a North Carolina-born architect and designer who was the first African American student admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Working closely with Booker T. Washington to develop the curriculum and programming for Tuskegee University, Taylor designed many of the original campus buildings. He designed several libraries, academic and administrative buildings, and a Masonic temple.
Reynold Ruffins (1930 – 2021) was a cofounder of PushPin Studios. Ruffins was a New York-born and -based graphic designer, painter, and illustrator whose work can be seen in both corporate branding, as well as over a dozen children’s books.
Norma Sklarek (1926 – 2012) was a Harlem-born architect whose work includes the US Embassy building in Tokyo, Japan (with Cesar Pelli) and Terminal One station at Los Angeles International Airport.
Richard Spikes (1878 – 1963) was a Dallas-born inventor, whose innovations in automotive design introduced directional signals, safety brakes, and automatic gears and transmissions to cars, trucks, and buses, earning him over ten patents. In addition to his innovations in automotive technology, he developed the pressure-dispense beer tap, which revolutionized the saloon and beer industries.
Sun Ra (1914 – 1993) was an experimental, Afrofuturist jazz musician born in Birmingham, Alabama where he was originally named Herman Poole Blount. A multi-instrumentalist, Sun Ra led his band, the Arkestra, through both sonic and visual cosmic journeys across time and space.
Valerie Thomas (born 1943) is a Maryland-born scientist and inventor who acquired a patent for the illusion transmitter, which has innovated the experience of 3D video games, movies, and experiences. Her invention has been used by NASA since she introduced it in 1980.
Jack Travis (born 1952) is an architect and educator born in the South Bronx, New York who designed the home of filmmaker Spike Lee, and served as architectural consultant for Lee’s film, Jungle Fever. He launched an initiative titled AC/DC (Afri-Culture/Design-Culture), now Studio Africulture, in 1994 to document, disseminate, and educate the public about the contributions of African diasporic architects and architecture.
Madame C.J. Walker (1867 – 1919) was a Louisiana-born inventor, entrepreneur, and activist (originally named Sarah Breedlove) who famously built her fortune designing innovative products, packaging, and marketing and advertising strategies for cosmetics and hair care products specifically targeted to African American customers.
Paul R. Williams (1894 –1980) was a Los Angeles born- and based-architect whose seminal works include the Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport, LA’s 28th Street YMCA, the Stanley Mosk Courthouse, the UCLA Botany Building, Woodrow Wilson High School, and several celebrity homes. His versatility as a designer meant that he could design buildings in any number of architectural styles, including Tudor-revival, French Chateau, Regency, French Country, and Mediterranean.
Ytasha Womack (dates unknown) is the Chicago-born author and filmmaker whose seminal text, Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture (2013) has contributed to new scholarship in the transdisciplinary movement.
 Langer, Emily. “Jerry Pinkney, children’s book illustrator who celebrated African American people and culture, dies at 81,” Washington Post, October 22, 2021