Famous Black Homeschoolers TOP ROW, Left to Right: Phillis Wheatley, Benjamin Banneker, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman. BOTTOM ROW, Left to Right: Lewis Latimer, Booker T. Washington, George W. Carver, Raymond Parks, Alex Haley.
Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Sadly, the modern Black Lives Matter movement is following a path of violent anarchy rather than peaceful civil disobedience like Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated.
In a video titled “George Floyd Is Not My Martyr,” black conservative commentator Candace Owens asks why black America can’t honor its moral, ethical and law-abiding heroes instead of glorifying drug users and violent criminal felons as heroes and martyrs. You’re so right, Candace! Black America has plenty of real heroes who are upstanding, successful, non-violent individuals.
We’ve put together a list of famous black people throughout American history who have made great contributions to their communities, the nation, and the world. The fact that they were self-taught or home-educated enhances their exceptional accomplishments. Famous black homeschoolers include high achievers like athletes, musicians, poets, authors, orators, activists, educators, inventors and scientists from the past and the present. Learn more about them below!
Phillis Wheatley – Poet
Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753 – 1784) was the first African-American to publish a book of poems. She was also the first woman to make a living from her writing. Born in West Africa, she was sold into slavery at the age of seven or eight and transported to North America. She was purchased by the Wheatley family of Boston, who taught her to read and write. The Wheatleys’ 18-year-old daughter, Mary, was Phillis’s first tutor in reading and writing. Their son Nathaniel also helped her. Within sixteen months of her arrival in America she could read the Bible, Greek and Latin classics, and British literature. She also studied astronomy and geography. At age fourteen, Phillis began to write poetry, publishing her first poem in 1767. Wheatley’s poems reflected several influences on her life such as the well-known poets she studied, among them Alexander Pope and Thomas Gray. Pride in her African heritage was also evident. Phillis’s writing style embraced the elegy, likely from her African roots, where it was the role of girls to sing and perform funeral dirges. Religion was also a key influence. Publication of “An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of the Celebrated Divine George Whitefield” in 1770 brought her great notoriety. In addition to making an important contribution to American literature, Wheatley helped the cause of the abolition movement. Her literary and artistic talents showed that African-Americans were equally capable, creative, intelligent human beings who benefited from an education. Phillis was set free by the Wheatleys shortly after the publication of her book.
Benjamin Banneker – First African-American Scientist
Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806) was a free African-American almanac author, surveyor, landowner and farmer. Born in Baltimore County, Maryland, to a free woman and a former slave, Banneker was taught to read by his maternal grandmother. He had little formal education, having attended a small Quaker school for only a very short time until he was old enough to help on his family’s farm. Banneker was primarily self-educated in natural history, mathematics, and astronomy. He exchanged letters with Thomas Jefferson, politely challenging him to do what he could to ensure racial equality. Banneker sent Jefferson one of his almanacs and wrote, “The colour of the skin is in no way connected with strength of the mind or intellectual powers.” Jefferson quickly acknowledged Banneker’s letter. He wrote: “I thank you sincerely for your letter of the 19th and for the Almanac it contained. I considered it as a document to which your whole colour had a right for their justification against the doubts which have been entertained of them.” Banneker was part of the group that surveyed the original borders of the District of Columbia, the federal capital district of the United States.
Frederick Douglass – Abolitionist
Despite being born into slavery, Frederick Douglass (c. 1818–1895) still managed to learn to read and write. Baltimore slaveholder Hugh Auld’s wife Sophia taught Douglass the alphabet when he was around 12, defying a ban on teaching slaves. From then on, Douglass secretly learned from The Columbian Orator, a classroom reader containing essays, speeches, and dialogues, to assist students in learning reading and grammar. In later years, Douglass credited The Columbian Orator with clarifying and defining his views on human rights. He read newspapers avidly and sought out political writing and literature as much as possible. Douglass shared his newfound knowledge with other enslaved people. When he was hired out to William Freeland, he taught the slaves on that plantation to read the New Testament at a weekly church service. Douglass tried to escape from slavery twice before he finally succeeded. Douglass married Anna Murray, a free black woman, and they settled in New Bedford, Connecticut. Douglass told his story at abolitionist meetings and became a regular anti-slavery lecturer. Douglass wrote several books, published a newspaper, and was a firm believer in the equality of all people. He became a national leader of the abolitionist movement, gaining note for his incisive antislavery oratory and writings. He was one of the most famous intellectuals of his time, advising presidents and lecturing on a range of human rights issues. He was the first African-American to be nominated for vice president of the United States. Rev. Dean Nelson, chairman of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, told The National Interest that Douglass “was always one who felt that we needed … particularly as black people, to demonstrate a level of dignity and poise. Frederick Douglass, as you may remember, was the most photographed person in the 19th century, and every photograph that you will see is a poised and distinguished African American man. Part of that reason was because of the caricatures that were around at the time, and he wanted to represent black men and black people very differently. And so, I think that Frederick Douglass would have a real problem with what we have seen in our culture with the looting, with the destruction of property. I think that that is beneath us as a people, and I think that he would be very disappointed with that type of activity that we’ve seen, really, from both sides, white and black.”
Harriet Tubman – Underground Railroad Heroine
Harriet Tubman was born a slave in 1820 or 1822, so she received no education and remained illiterate throughout her life. She did, however, gain considerable knowledge of the Bible through oral recitation, and she would often refer to Biblical passages and parables. Harriet’s dad, Ross, taught her about outdoor survival skills, such as how to follow the North Star and that moss only grows on the north side of a tree trunk. “An expert lumberjack, Ross spent much time living off the land, navigating through forests, fields and waterways,” says biographer Kate Clifford Larson. “He passed that knowledge to his gifted daughter, and she put it to good use while traveling along the Underground Railroad.” Despite her lack of formal education, Harriet did more, by far, to help black people than most of her contemporaries. Known as “Black Moses,” Harriet Tubman risked her life to lead hundreds of slaves to freedom in the North as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Infuriated slaveholders posted a $40,000 reward for her capture, but she was never apprehended. Tubman is considered the first African American woman to serve in the military. When the Civil War began, she volunteered as a scout and spy for the Union Army, and led a guerilla military mission where she helped about 750 enslaved people escape with federal troops. Harriet was no stranger to racism and her life was full of horrific injustices, but Tubman grew closer to God in her darkest days and had a faith that made her fearless. Her strength came from an unshakeable belief in the deliverer and protector of the weak. She said, “I always tole God, ‘I’m gwine [going] to hole stiddy [steady] on you, an’ you’ve got to see me through.'”
Lewis Latimer – Inventor and Patent Draftsman
Lewis Howard Latimer was one of the most creative minds of his day despite having no formal schooling. He was born to former slaves George Latimer and Rebecca Smith on September 4, 1848, in Chelsea, Massachusetts. Lewis attended grade school until the age of ten, when he began working various odd jobs in Boston to help support the family. The remainder of Latimer’s education was self-taught, fueled by his appetite for reading, learning, and drawing. He even taught himself electrical and mechanical engineering. While working as an office boy for a patent law firm, the partners noticed his talent and appointed him as journeyman draftsman and he went on to become head draftsman. Latimer worked with both Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his work on electric filament manufacturing techniques, having invented a carbon filament that improved upon Edison’s paper filament, which would burn out quickly. Latimer also has many other inventions and patents to his credit.
Booker T. Washington – Founder of the Tuskegee Institute
Booker T. Washington was born in 1856 on a plantation in western Virginia, one of the last generation of black Americans born into slavery. He became the leading voice of the former slaves and their descendants, calling for black progress through education and entrepreneurship. Educational analyst Maureen Stocker wrote, “Washington’s education began… with his own personal determination and a copy of ‘Webster’s blue-black spelling book’ that his mother gave him.” Washington himself said in his autobiography Up From Slavery, “I determined, when quite a small child, that, if I accomplished nothing else in life, I would in some way get enough education to enable me to read common books and newspapers.” From early on, Washington’s desire to read was what led him in his ambition to gain an education. Washington founded the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), a historically black college in Tuskegee, Alabama. Throughout his life, he remained a pragmatic conservative who sought to assist African-Americans in expanding their economic success in order to take responsibility for their future.
George Washington Carver – Agricultural Researcher
George Washington Carver (c. 1864-1943) the most prominent black scientist of the early 20th century, was an agricultural chemist, botanist, educator and inventor. Born into slavery just before it was abolished in Missouri, after the Civil War he was raised by Moses Carver, his former master, and Carver’s wife Susan. (George’s mom had been abducted when he was just an infant. Baby George was kidnapped at the same time, but the Carvers got him back when they found someone trying to sell him.) Susan taught George the basics of reading and writing, and the Carvers encouraged George to continue his intellectual pursuits. In 1876, they hired a private tutor for him. A kind woman named Mariah Watkins is said to have told young George, “You must learn all you can, then go back out into the world and give your learning back to the people.” This made a great impression on him. He tried to attend college in Kansas, but they refused his application because of his race. In 1891, he became the first black student at Iowa State. Carver received his master of science degree in 1896, and then he taught as the first black faculty member at Iowa State. In 1896, Booker T. Washington invited Carver to head the Tuskegee Institute’s Agriculture Department. Carver administered the agricultural research center and experimental farm, and he also founded an industrial research laboratory where he worked to popularize new crops by developing hundreds of applications for them. He promoted alternative crops to cotton such as peanuts and sweet potatoes, and came up with methods to prevent soil depletion. Carver even designed a mobile classroom to take education out to the farmers. In addition to his efforts to improve the lives of farmers, Carver was a leader in promoting environmentalism. President Theodore Roosevelt publicly admired Carver’s work.
Raymond Parks – Civil Rights Activist
Raymond was born in Wedowee, Alabama, on February 12, 1903. He taught himself to read with the assistance of his mother, Geri Parks, having received little formal education due to racial segregation as there was no nearby black school to attend. According to the Library of Congress, “Parks cultivated a thorough knowledge of current events and an appreciation for poetry. He held several jobs before moving to Tuskegee, where he learned barbering. He was working at the Atlas Barber & Beauty Shop in downtown Montgomery and was active in the Scottsboro Boys’ defense when he first met Rosa Parks in 1931.” Rosa described Raymond as “the first real activist I ever met.” His wife is the one who gained fame as an iconic civil rights leader during the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama. But an article about Rosa’s husband states, “In truth, while Rosa was certainly courageous, she was not the first black woman to be arrested protesting the segregated Montgomery bus system. Moreover, she gained attention primarily because she and Raymond were at the center of the Montgomery activist network.” Together, Raymond and Rosa worked in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP’s) programs. A biography of Rosa Parks says of her husband, “His immaculate dress and his thorough knowledge of domestic affairs and current events made most think he was college educated.”
Alex Haley – Author
Alex Haley (1921-1992) was a self-taught writer best known for his works depicting the struggles of African Americans. His father was a professor of agriculture at Texas A&M University, and his mother was a schoolteacher. Although his parents were educators, Alex was an indifferent student. He started college at age 16 but dropped out at age 17, and at the age of 18 he joined the U.S. Coast Guard. It was during his service that Alex taught himself the craft of writing. Growing up, Haley had become interested in his ancestry while listening to the colorful stories told by his grandmother. Haley’s novel Roots was a fictionalized account of his own family’s history, traced through seven generations. Roots is considered by many critics a classic in African American literature and culture. It was adapted into a 1977 miniseries that became the most-watched broadcast in TV history, a record it would hold for years. In the United States, the book and miniseries raised the public awareness of black American history and inspired a broad interest in genealogy and family history among Americans of many ethnic heritages. The New York Times said, “in searching for his own roots, Alex Haley, unschooled in history and self-taught as a writer, inspired millions.”
Venus and Serena Williams – Professional Tennis Players
The Williams sisters, Venus (b. 1980) and Serena (b. 1981) are regarded among the best tennis players of all time. They are credited with ushering in a new era of power and athleticism on the women’s professional tennis circuit. The superstar tennis sisters were coached from an early age by their parents Richard Williams and Oracene Price. Vowing to turn his daughters into champions, Williams wrote up a 78-page plan and started giving lessons to them when they were four years old. He also homeschooled Venus and Serena so they could focus on their tennis careers. Having played in competitions starting at the age of five, the two began playing professionally as teenagers and became stars of the sport in the late 1990s. They have dominated women’s tennis for over two decades. Venus and Serena are now two of the richest female athletes in the world! Venus became the first African-American player to reach No. 1 on February 25, 2002, and she has the most wins of anyone against sister Serena. In fact, Venus holds the longest women’s winning streak of the millennium. Serena holds the record for winning the most Grand Slam singles titles of all time, with a total of 23 Grand Slam tournament victories so far during her career. Neither Venus nor Serena let their adversities hold them back. Over the course of 2011, Venus grappled with an energy-sapping autoimmune disease while Serena recovered from a life-threatening pulmonary embolism. In 2017, Serena won her 23rd Grand Slam at the Australian Open while she was two months’ pregnant, beating older sister Venus, who joked that “it was unfair because it was two against one.” Serena competed in the 2018 French Open just eight months after her daughter was born – which is all the more remarkable considering childbirth complications left Serena fighting for her life. Serena announced that she will participate in the 2020 U.S. Open despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Venus celebrated her 40th birthday on June 17th with the tennis season on hold, but says she isn’t ready to hang up her racquet just yet. Former US professional tennis player Pam Shriver says the Williams sisters have helped African-American women “to feel there’s a pathway for them to the top of the tennis world.”
Jordin Sparks – Singer, Actress, Model
Jordin (b. 1989) is a singer-songwriter and actress. She rose to fame in 2007 after winning the sixth season of American Idol at age 17, becoming the youngest winner in the show’s history. On her American Idol biography, she thanked her parents, grandparents, and God for her win. Jordin’s grandmother started homeschooling her in 2006 so she could better concentrate on her singing.. Sparks has contributed to many non-profit causes since even before her appearance on American Idol. Her “I’m M.A.D. Are You?” campaign started in 2009 to cultivate community advocacy and volunteerism among teens and young adults. M.A.D. stands for Making A Difference. Her goal was to motivate others to find something they’re passionate about, maybe get a little “mad” about it, and funnel that energy into doing something positive to help another. Sparks has been married since 2017 and is the mother of two sons. “The fear of my husband leaving [the house] and potentially not coming back, the fear that the people see my son as so adorable and cute right now but in a few years might see him as a threat… We cannot ignore it anymore,” Sparks says of racism in America. “You know, we’re all humans. We all bleed the same blood. We all bleed red when we’re cut.”
Jamie Grace Harper – Christian Singer
Jamie Grace (b. 1991) and her sister were educated by their mother in the early days of modern homeschooling when few black families homeschooled. Mrs. Harper taught them how to read using the Bible and encyclopedias as textbooks, and gave them math lessons in grocery aisles. While encouraging them to explore new things and become lifelong learners, Mrs. Harper also wanted to tap into her daughters’ gifts, which for Jamie Grace meant writing songs and scripts. After bring diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome, she created a YouTube account and began posting videos of her songs online. Through her music and words, Jamie Grace hoped to encourage kids who have Tourette’s and other struggles in life. Jamie Grace said “what if we all took the time to intentionally think about others before thinking about ourselves.” She continues to be a light in the lives of others through the Jamie Grace Foundation and by teaching online courses. Jamie Grace was nominated for a Grammy and a Billboard Music Award when she was just 19. A devoted Christian and a purity advocate, Jamie Grace once said, “I Don’t Date Because I Wanna Get Married.” Her five-month courtship and subsequent wedding to Aaron Collins was “a dream come true.” They first met at an event and got to know each other on Instagram, and they now have a one-year-old daughter.
Simone Biles – Olympic Gymnast
Simone (b. 1997) is one of the top gymnasts in the world, having been introduced to the sport on a field trip to Bannon’s Gymnastix at the age of six. She trains at World Champions Centre, a gym founded and owned by her parents in Spring, Texas, where she was also homeschooled. She began homeschooling at the age of 13 because it offered her the flexibility she needed to pursue her passion. The switch from from public school to home school allowed her to increase her training from 20 to 32 hours per week. This boosted her gymnastics success during the 2012 season. She gained all of her secondary education as a homeschooler, graduating in the summer of 2015. Though she was accepted to UCLA after high school, her training schedule did not allow for her to attend. In January 2018, Biles enrolled at the University of the People, a tuition-free online college, to study business administration. Through years of hard work and determination, she has relied on her faith and family to stay focused and positive, while having fun competing at the highest level and doing what she loves. With a combined total of 30 Olympic and World Championship medals, Simone is the most decorated female gymnast in history, and she is also the most decorated World Championship American gymnast. In Simone’s autobiography, Courage to Soar, she shares the details of her inspiring personal story—one filled with the kinds of daily acts of courage that led her to the most unlikely of dreams. As a positive role model for all girls, and in particular young black girls, Simone told the TODAY show: “I feel like every black athlete or colored athlete can say that you just have to keep going for those little ones looking up to us. It doesn’t matter what you look like. You can strive for greatness, and you can be great.” Fellow Olympic gymnast Dominique Moceanu said that Biles “is everything you would hope for in a champion – humble, kind, genuine, and an overall amazing human being.”
That sounds like exactly the type of person Martin Luther King, Jr. had in mind when he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
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