African Americans | Tennessee Vacation

African Americans

Writers and artists, inventors and educators, scientists and singers are part of Tennessee’s rich African American heritage, including Pulitzer winner Alex Haley.

From the cries that sounded after Martin Luther Kings history changing I have a dream speech to cheers that follow notes belted out by Aretha Franklin, Tennessee has heard the sounds and felt the impact of some of the nations most prolific and revered African American figures. Listed below are some of Tennessees most notable.

Richard H. Boyd
This African American minister and businessman, who was the founder and head of the National Baptist Publishing Board and a founder of the National Baptist Convention of America, Inc., was inducted posthumously into the Music City Walk of Fame for preserving music of former slaves through hymnals and songbooks.

Henry A. Boyd
With his father, Richard H. Boyd, Henry Boyd founded the Nashville Globe. As controller of the editorial content, Boyd relentlessly promoted the idea that business enterprise offered the best mechanism for advancement, both personally and as a race.

Judge Joe Brown
This popular politician and television celebrity was the first African American prosecutor in Memphis. He oversaw the last appeal of James Earl Ray and later became a judge on the State Criminal Court of Shelby County.

Henry Alvin Cameron
A graduate of Fisk University, Henry Alvin Cameron is known for his work as a science teacher, basketball and baseball coach at Pearl High School in Nashville. He served as president of the Middle Tennessee Teachers Association, Secretary of the Tennessee Aid Association, as well as several other important roles.

The Clinton Twelve
Following the U.S. Supreme Courts 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, federal judge Robert Taylor ordered Clinton High School to be the first among Tennessee public schools to integrate. The twelve black students who attended Clinton High School came to be known as the Clinton Twelve. On February 10, 2006, three of the Twelve reenacted their walk to school to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1956 integration.

Dr. Mark Dean
Holding more than 20 patents—including three of IBMs original nine PC patents—and credited as the leader of the team that developed the 1-gigahertz chip, this Jefferson City native and UT engineering graduate is remembered as an instrumental part in the invention of the personal computer.

Joseph & Beauford Delaney
Born in Knoxville, these brothers found a common love for art. Joseph spent 56 years living and producing his art in lower Manhattan, SoHo and Union Square. Beauford established himself in the bohemianism scene of Greenwich Village. As they got older, Josephs art leaned toward expressionism while Beaufords art became increasingly abstract and nonrepresentational.

Fisk Jubilee Singers
This group of vocal artists and students at Fisk University in Nashville preserve the unique American musical tradition of Negro spirituals by singing and traveling worldwide. They have entertained kings, queens and European leaders, have been featured on PBS and received the 2008 National Medal of the Arts from President George W. Bush.

Aretha Franklin
Queen of Soul Franklin, born in Memphis, was the first female artist inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame and holds the record for most Best Female R&B Vocal Performance awards.

Nikki Giovanni
A Knoxville-born poet and Grammy nominee, Nikki Giovanni is currently a Distinguished Professor of Literature at Virginia Tech. She also teaches part-time at her alma mater, Fisk University.

The Rev. Al Green
This American gospel and soul music singer has sold more than 20 million records. Rolling Stone named him on their list of 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Al Green in 1995, referring to him as one of the most gifted purveyors of soul music.

Alex Haley
Buried near his childhood home in Henning, the prolific journalist began as a writer for Playboy, where he interviewed such influential subjects as Muhammad Ali, Miles Davis, Martin Luther King, Jr. His book Roots: Saga of an American Family won Haley an award from the Pulitzer board and his book The Autobiography of Malcolm X was named by Time as one of the ten most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century.

W. C. Handy
Known widely as the Father of the Blues, W. C. Handy is among the most influential American songwriters of all time, credited with giving the blues its contemporary form. While he was not the first to publish music in the blues form, he brought the genre into a dominant force in American music.


Isaac Hayes
American songwriter, musician, singer, actor and producer was one of the creative geniuses behind the Southern soul music label Stax Records. He won an Academy Award for the Theme from Shaft and 3 Grammy awards.

Benjamin Hooks
Memphis native served as executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1977 to 1992. Throughout his career as a Baptist minister and practicing attorney, he was a vocal campaigner for civil rights in the United States.

B. B. King
The blues legend and his famous custom guitar Lucille got their start in Memphis Sun Studios. B.B. King has received multiple awards for his accomplishments, including being named third on Time magazines list of the ten best electric guitarists.

James Raymond Lawson
An accomplished physicist and alumnus university president acquired an infrared spectrophotometer for Fisk University, his alma mater. Lawson was the first student at Fisk to receive a degree in physics, with a record of impressive leadership as university president during the turbulent mid-1960s through mid-1970s.

James Napier
This influential leader aided the growth of a free black community in Nashville by authoring legislation to allow the hiring of black school teachers, police officers and firefighters, and became the first African American to preside over the Nashville City Council. Secretary of the Treasury Napier, under President William Taft, established the nations first bank owned and operated by African Americans.

Gregory D. Ridley Jr.
A master artist, Ridley enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a teacher, museum coordinator and advisor on the arts, including faculty appointments to Alabama State University, Grambling State University, Tennessee State University, Fisk University and City University of New York. His latest major work, A Story of Nashville, can be seen in Nashvilles public library.

Carl Rowan
One of the most prominent black journalists of the 20th century, Rowan was the first African American with a nationally syndicated column. He was among the first African Americans to be an officer in the U.S. Navy, frequently appearing on news programs such as Meet the Press.

Wilma Rudolph
Born in Clarksville, Rudolph suffered from polio as a child. She later became a star member of Tennessee State Universitys track team. On September 7th, 1960, Rudolf became the first American woman to win 3 gold medals in the Olympics. June 23rd is Wilma Rudolph Day in Tennessee.

Stanley Scott
Stanley Scott became the first African American general assignment reporter for the Associated Press. He was the only reporter present when Malcolm X was assassinated. Later, Scott worked on the communications staffs of presidents Nixon and Ford.

Bessie Smith
One of the most popular female blues singers of the 1920s and 1930s, this Empress of the Blues, born in Chattanooga, is often regarded as one of the greatest singers of her era.

Tina Tuner
Born Anna Mae Bullock, the career of this American musical legend has spanned more than 50 years. She has been named the Queen of Rock n Roll and been called one of the greatest singers of all time” by Rolling Stone magazine.

Perry Wallace
As professor of law at Washington College of Law, Wallace was the first African American varsity athlete in the Southeastern Conference, playing basketball for Vanderbilt University.

Ida B. Wells
This iconic journalist, speaker and activist served as an early leader in the civil rights and suffragist movements. She earned a name for herself with her documentation of lynching and for refusing, 71 years before Rosa Parks, to give up her seat on a train. Wells founded the National Association of Colored Women and founded the National Afro-American Council, which later became the NAACP.

Oprah Winfrey
Actress, talk show host, entertainment executive and philanthropist, Oprah Winfrey has been named the wealthiest African American of the 20th century. Oprah is a graduate of Tennessee State University.