18 Black Creative and Business Professional Career Firsts

In honor of Black History Month, we’re highlighting outstanding black creative and business professionals throughout history to present day who were and are pioneers in their industry, and also in their communities.

Representing industries and fields we work with at FindSpark — from advertising and photography to film and business, there’s a story for everyone.

Starting back as far as 1700s and to present day, these individuals both inspire us and remind us of the work that still needs to be done to create diverse workforces across industries.

FindSpark 21 Black Creative and Business Professional Career Firsts

Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753 – December 5, 1784) was the first published African-American female poet. Born in West Africa, she was sold into slavery at the age of seven and transported to North America. She was purchased by the Wheatley family of Boston, who taught her to read and write, and encouraged her poetry when they saw her talent. She was published in 1773.

Joshua Johnston, also known as Joshua Johnson, was a portraitist active in Baltimore, Maryland between 1790 and 1825, and the first African American to gain recognition as an artist. Primarily a painter of members of the slave-holding aristocracy, he was rediscovered by Baltimore genealogist and art historian J. Hall Pleasants in 1939.

William Wells Brown was an African American antislavery lecturer, groundbreaking novelist, playwright and historian.  He is widely considered to have been the first African American to publish works in several major literary genres. Known for his continuous political activism especially in his involvement with the anti-slavery movement, Brown is widely acclaimed for the effectiveness of many of his writings.

Freedom’s Journal, started on March 16, 1827 in New York City, was the first African American owned and operated newspaper in the United States. A weekly four column publication printed every Friday, Freedom’s Journal was founded by free born African Americans John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish . The newspaper contained both foreign and domestic news, editorials, biographies, births and deaths in the local African American community, and advertisements. Editorials deriding slavery, racial discrimination, and other injustices against African Americans were aimed at providing a counter weight to many of the white newspapers of the time period which openly supported slavery and racial bias.

Author Harriet E. Wilson is believed to be the first African American woman to publish a novel in the United States. Her fictional autobiography, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, in a Two-story White House, North. Showing that Slavery’s Shadows Fall Even There was printed in 1859 by the Boston publisher George C. Rand and Avery.

Sherman Leander Maxwell (December 18, 1907 – July 16, 2008) was an American sportscaster and chronicler of the Negro league baseball league. Many veteran journalists of his day, including Sam Lacy of the Baltimore Afro-American, believed that Maxwell was the first African American sports broadcaster in history. It was an assertion that many in the mainstream press also accepted, and Maxwell himself sometimes stated that he had in fact been the first.

Oscar Micheaux was the quintessential self-made man.  Novelist, film-maker and relentless self-promoter, Micheaux was born on a farm near Murphysboro, Illinois.  He worked briefly as a Pullman porter and then in 1904 homesteaded nearly 500 acres of land near the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota.  Micheaux published novels in Nebraska and New York and made movies in Chicago and Los Angeles, where he was the first African American film director.

Zelda Wynn Valdes (June 28, 1905 – September 26, 2001) was an African-American fashion designer and costumer. In 1948, she opened her own shop on Broadway in New York City which was the first in the area to be owned by an African American.

Gordon Parks (November 30, 1912 – March 7, 2006), born into rural poverty, was a noted African-American photographer, musician, writer and film director, who became prominent in U.S. documentary photojournalism in the 1940s through 1970s—particularly in issues of civil rights, poverty and African-Americans—and in glamour photography. As the first famous pioneer among black filmmakers, he was first African-American to produce and direct major motion pictures—developing films relating the experience of slaves and struggling black Americans, and creating the “blaxploitation” genre. He is best remembered for his iconic photos of poor Americans during the 1940s (taken for a federal government project), for his photographic essays for Life magazine, and as the director of the 1971 film Shaft.

Louis Emanuel Lomax (August 16, 1922 – July 30, 1970) was an African-American journalist and author. He was also the first African-American television journalist.

Madame C.J. Walker, one of the first Black millionaires, made her fortune manufacturing and distributing cosmetics and hair-care products for Black women. In addition to her retail business, Walker owned the Walker Theater in Indianapolis, and produced training and promotional films about her cosmetics factory. These films, Bowser declares, “offered a visual record of women’s work history” and the “development of cottage Industries.”

Arthur Mitchell, co-founder and Artistic Director Emeritus of Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH), America’s first African American ballet company, was born in New York City, on March 27, 1934. Under Mitchell’s direction, Dance Theatre of Harlem rose to become one of the premier ballet companies in the United States, performing full-length neoclassical ballets, nationally and internationally from 1971 until the company’s performing hiatus in 2004. Mitchell served as the Artistic Director of DTH from the company’s first performance at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City in 1971, until his retirement as artistic director in 2009.

Clarence Matthew Baker (December 10, 1921 – August 11, 1959) was an American comic book artist who drew the costumed crimefighter Phantom Lady, among many other characters. Active in the 1940s and 1950s Golden Age of comic books, he is the first known African-American artist to find success in the comic-book industry.

Nancy Alene Hicks Maynard (1 November 1946 – 21 September 2008) was an American publisher, journalist, former owner of The Oakland Tribune, and co-founder of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. She was the first African-American female reporter for The New York Times, and at the time of her death, The Oakland Tribune was the only metropolitan daily newspaper to have been owned by African Americans.

Sheila Crump Johnson (born January 25, 1949) is an American businesswoman, co-founder of BET, CEO of Salamander Hotels and Resorts, and the first black American female billionaire.

Filmmaker Julie Dash was born on October 22, 1952 in Queens, New York. She received her B.A. in film production from City College of New York in 1974 and went on to earn a two-year fellowship to the Center for Advanced Film Studies at the American Film Institute (AFI) in Los Angeles.  At AFI, Dash studied under filmmaker Jan Kadar and produced Four Women, an experimental dance film that received the 1978 Gold Medal for Women in Film award at the Miami International Film Festival.  Dash continued her graduate studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, where in 1977 she directed Diary of an African Nun, an adaptation of a short story by Alice Walker.  In 1985, she earned her M.F.A. in Film & Television production at UCLA. Dash was the first director for a major Hollywood studio.

Ursula M. Burns (born September 20, 1958) serves as Chairman (since May 2010) and CEO (since July 2009) of Xerox. As such, she is the first black-American woman CEO to head a Fortune 500 company. She is also the first woman to succeed another woman as head of a Fortune 500 company, having succeeded Anne Mulcahy as CEO of Xerox. In 2014, Forbes rated her the 22nd most powerful woman in the world.

Channing Dungey is an American television executive who in 2016 became the first African American president of ABC Entertainment Group. This also makes her the first black president of a major broadcast TV network. Previously, Dungey worked as ABC’s head of drama and oversaw the development of ABC Studios shows such as Scandal, Criminal Minds, How to Get Away with Murder, Quantico, Army Wivesand Once Upon A Time.

About the Author

Emily is Founder and CEO of FindSpark. Passionate about the power of social media and networking; Emily has spoken at numerous colleges, conferences, and events including The International Youth Leaders Assembly at The United Nations, SXSW Interactive, Internet Week, Mediabistro's Social Media Bootcamp, Time Inc, Columbia University, and New York University, among others. Emily is also an adjunct professor, teaching social media and career courses at multiple colleges. Learn more about having Emily speak at your next event and follow her on twitter @EmilyMiethner.

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