Black History Month: Celebrating Black Senior Leaders in History
This Black History Month, we want to celebrate and highlight the accomplishments of Black leaders who continued to inspire right into their senior years. Many people today are familiar with and rightly honor the work of notable figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. But there are plenty of less heralded names out there who also deserve recognition. Here are just a few notable Black names in history (both distant and recent) who, well past 55, inspired others with their drive, passion, and hard work.
Carrie Meek: Starting in Congress at 66
When Carrie Meek won her congressional seat in 1992, she was 66 years old—and became the first Black person to represent the state of Florida since the Reconstruction era. Within her first year, she secured a spot on the House Appropriations Committee—unheard of for a freshman member of Congress. During her ten years until she retired at age 76, she focused on issues affecting both her constituents and her age group, including immigration, natural disaster support, and retaining funding for welfare programs affecting minorities and the elderly.
Edna Lewis: Popularizing Southern cuisine into her 70s
Edna Lewis established herself as a leading champion of traditional Southern cuisine during a time when female chefs were very few—and Black female chefs numbered even less. Early in her career, she opened a New York restaurant popular with mid-century icons Marlon Brando, Tennessee Williams, and Eleanor Roosevelt. At age 55, Lewis showed no signs of slowing down, writing The Edna Lewis Cookbook in 1972 and would continue with several more in the following decades. And at age 72, she returned to being a chef in Brooklyn in 1988, before officially retiring a few years later.
Benjamin Oliver Davis, Sr: Combating military racism into his 60s
As the first Black general for the US Army, Davis worked to develop and implement desegregation of European-based US forces during World War II. He was often assigned to duties that avoided putting him in command of white troops or officers, but he eventually rose through the ranks to become the first Black colonel for the US Army in 1930. At age 62, he was promoted to brigadier general and continued serving until age 70. After retiring from active duty, he then served as adviser to the military on racial discrimination, pushing for full integration of armed force.
Nichelle Nichols: Breaking depiction stereotypes
Actor Nichelle Nichols continues to work well into her 80s today after contributing to many firsts in her industry. In her 1966 role as Uhura in Star Trek: The Original Series, she was among the first actors to portray a Black woman outside of the maid and housekeeper image. In addition, Nichols was one of the first Black actors to play a character on a television series in science fiction, and one where her character was treated without focus on race, helping to set a new standard in entertainment for multiculturalism and a sense of coexistence with equality. Nichelle was also the first Black person to place her handprints in front of TCL Chinese Theater on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and she continues to act well into her 80s today.
Percy Julian: Determined chemistry pioneer into his 70s
Percy Julian is regarded as one of the most influential chemists in the modern age, and the first Black chemist elected to the National Academy of the Sciences—all without a high school degree. With no high schools in his area accepting Black students, he applied to DePauw University and took high school–level classes at night—and still graduated first in his class. He would later earn international acclaim for his work on developing a drug for glaucoma in 1935, as well as recognition for his synthesis of cortisone. Despite his success, he still found that his race was a factor in denying him academic and research positions. At the age of 55, he established his own laboratory complete with scales and balances. After selling that at age 64, he founded the Julian Research Institute, a nonprofit organization that he ran until his death ten years later.
Marian Anderson: Touring at 60
A recipient of a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Marian Anderson was considered one of the greatest contralto singers of her time. However, while achieving success in the 1920s and1930s, she was still refused opportunities to sing because of her race. But she is noted as the first Black singer to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1955—at the age of 58—and two years later, embarked on a 12-nation tour on behalf of the US Department of State.
Black History Month was created as a way to honor the accomplishments of Black Americans that have often been brushed over or neglected. These six leaders are just a few of the many influential people who have made a difference in their industries and inspired others to do the same.