"When you do the common things in life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world."
—George Washington Carver
Throughout history, there have been individuals of uncommon intellect whose expertise spanned multiple disciplines.
These polymaths made groundbreaking strides not just in one area but across several fields of human endeavor.
When we examine the annals of innovation, science, arts, and activism, there are many black polymaths whose names deserve remembrance. They overcame prejudice and oppression to reshape our society in aspects we still benefit from today.
We will explore some of history’s most remarkable yet overlooked black polymaths.
From Benjamin Banneker’s accomplishments in astronomy and engineering in the early American republic, to W.E.B. Du Bois' seminal contributions across history, sociology, literature and activism at the turn of the 20th century—to present-day figures like astronaut Mae Jemison pushing boundaries in space exploration.
These individuals demonstrated intellectual depth and versatility that challenged misconceptions about the capabilities of their race.
Benjamin Banneker was a pioneering polymath who excelled in fields ranging from science to the arts.
Born a free black man in Maryland, Banneker received little formal education but went on to make major contributions as a self-taught mathematician, astronomer, inventor, and author.
Banneker's accomplishments in engineering and innovation were remarkable given his lack of access to traditional schooling.
He constructed the first striking clock built completely in America, modeling the internal mechanisms himself based on borrowed watches. This clock continued working accurately until his death decades later.
Banneker also pioneered advances in irrigation, documenting his work in journals to share practical knowledge with other farmers.
In astronomy, Banneker accurately predicted lunar and solar eclipses and computed ephemerides tables of celestial bodies' positions over years.
This work disproved racist assumptions of his era about the intellectual abilities of African Americans. He shared his almanacs and equations with scholar Thomas Jefferson, calling for racial equality.
Banneker's mathematical expertise was instrumental in land surveying.
Appointed to a commission surveying territory for Washington D.C, he calculated alignments and boundaries for major thoroughfares that still stand today. This highly skilled work helped draft the original plans for the capital.
Throughout his life, Benjamin Banneker proved existing prejudice wrong through his intellectual accomplishments as a self-taught scientist and academic.
Thomas L. Johnson was a 19th century polymath who broke racial barriers in law, politics, diplomacy, activism, scholarship and mathematics. Johnson stands out as one of the most educated African Americans of his time.
After escaping slavery in Kentucky as a teenager via the Underground Railroad, Johnson earned university degrees in mathematics and law.
He became the first African American mathematician in America to receive a PhD, completing his doctorate at the University of Chicago in 1897.
Beyond academics, Johnson was appointed minister to Liberia by President Benjamin Harrison, skillfully representing America abroad as a diplomat.
Domestically, he worked as an attorney and passed the bar exam in Washington D.C. during a period when black lawyers were rare.
Johnson was also an influential activist and politician.
He led a black delegation to meet President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House to protest racial injustices. As president of the Colored Convention Movement, he called for civil rights advancements across education, transportation, voting rights and more.
Throughout his life, Thomas L. Johnson leveraged his scholarly intellect to break barriers across disciplines. He served as a professor of mathematics, classics, and economics at several black universities while continuing his activism.
Johnson's multifaceted legacy as a lawyer, professor, mathematician, diplomat, and civil rights pioneer reflects the breadth of his brilliance as an African American polymath in the 1800s.
He paved the way for future black scholars and leaders.
William Edward Burghardt "W.E.B." Du Bois was a prolific African American scholar and activist whose intellectual impact spanned sociology, history, education, literature, economics and politics.
Du Bois' seminal sociological work, The Philadelphia Negro, was the first scientific study of an African American community in the United States.
He also conducted groundbreaking economic studies on black households and businesses.
Du Bois applied empirical, statistical methods to understand black life—an innovative approach for his time.
In history, Du Bois produced enduring texts examining the Black experience after Reconstruction, such as Black Reconstruction in America. His 1935 magnum opus Black Reconstruction profoundly influenced historical analyses of the post-Civil War period.
As an activist, Du Bois co-founded the NAACP and championed Pan-Africanism, spearheading anti-colonialism efforts globally.
He edited The Crisis magazine for decades as a leading voice for civil rights. His prolific articles and essays illuminated lynching, voting rights, and education access for African Americans.
Du Bois was the first African American to earn a PhD from Harvard, where he became an influential professor.
He wrote highly regarded books like The Souls of Black Folk, synthesizing sociology, history, musicology, literature and psychology.
George Washington Carver was a prolific agricultural scientist and inventor whose discoveries with peanut and sweet potato crops revolutionized agriculture in the American South.
Born into slavery, Carver overcame barriers to receive an undergraduate and masters degree in botany and agricultural studies.
At the Tuskegee Institute, he pioneered research on crop rotation and agricultural chemistry.
Carver invented over 300 commercial products derived from peanuts and sweet potatoes, drastically improving the diets and livelihoods of poor Southern farmers.
As a botanist, Carver identified over 100 new fungi species and conducted groundbreaking research on fungal plant diseases. His trailblazing work in mycology and plant pathology included discoveries of bacterial and fungal crop diseases which he identified through microscope analysis.
Carver was also a skilled chemist, devising innovative techniques to create paints, dyes, plastics and gasoline from agricultural crops.
His recipes and processes enabled farmers to utilize peanuts and sweet potatoes in a wide array of household goods.
As an educator, Carver taught generations of African American students agricultural chemistry and the importance of sustainability. His teachings reached beyond the classroom through conferences and outreach to rural Southern communities on crop methods.
The brilliance of George Washington Carver underscores how one remarkably inventive individual uplifted his nation's agriculture, food systems, and rural economies through scientific inquiry.
His research as a botanist, chemist, and agricultural scientist remarkably improved life for millions, cementing his legacy as an American polymath.
Katherine Johnson pioneered new frontiers in physics and mathematics that were pivotal to America's early space program. A mathematician prodigy, Johnson specialized in complex manual calculations and data analysis for flight trajectories.
Johnson demonstrated mathematical excellence from a young age, graduating high school and college early. She was handpicked to be one of three African American students integrated into West Virginia's graduate school programs.
At NASA, Johnson calculated launch windows, emergency return paths, and orbital mechanics for the Mercury and Apollo programs.
Her mathematical computations were essential to NASA's first manned space flights. She plotted backup navigation charts for astronauts in case of electronic failures.
During the Apollo 11 mission, Johnson's work on predicting the moon's orbit and computing spacecraft trajectories ensured astronauts could sync their orbits to meet the moving lunar landing site.
Her brilliance enabled the decisive moon landing.
Beyond the space race, Johnson co-authored scientific papers outlining advanced mathematical principles.
She led the trajectory analysis team for decades. Katherine Johnson's pioneering physics calculations steered American astronauts into space and back, cementing her legacy as a pivotal force behind aeronautics breakthroughs.
Mae Jemison is an engineer, physician, and NASA astronaut who became the first African American woman to travel into space in 1992. Jemison's groundbreaking career has pushed boundaries across science, exploration, and education.
Jemison graduated college at age 16 before earning a medical degree from Cornell University.
She served in the Peace Corps as a physician in Liberia and Sierra Leone, then entered NASA's astronaut training program in 1987 after returning to the United States.
Selected for the seven-member crew of the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1992, Jemison conducted experiments in bone cell research during her eight days orbiting Earth as the first black female astronaut on a NASA spaceflight.
Her stellar performance demonstrated the capabilities of women and African Americans in space exploration.
Jemison has continued advocating for science education, founding an international science camp for youth promoting technology skills.
She teaches environmental studies at Dartmouth College, while leading research on solar power satellites as an engineer.
Mae Jemison's career has expanded humanity's horizons, both into space and on Earth.
As an engineer, doctor, astronaut, inventor and educator, she exemplifies black excellence across STEM arenas.
Neil deGrasse Tyson is an eminent astrophysicist and one of the most widely-known science communicators of our era. As director of the Hayden Planetarium, he interprets complex discoveries about the cosmos for mass audiences.
Tyson graduated from Harvard before earning his PhD in astrophysics from Columbia University. He has authored extensively on stellar evolution, dwarf galaxies, the structure of Saturn's rings and the history of space exploration.
As an academic, Tyson's research focuses on star formation and the structure of the Milky Way galaxy.
He has advanced discoveries about the cosmic distance scale based on observed supernovae.
Tyson also chaired committees on the U.S. space program's future.
Beyond pure research, Tyson is celebrated for making astrophysics accessible and engaging to non-scientists.
He has written popular books on space, hosted television shows, and given viral speeches and interviews explaining the wonders of astronomy.
From his early days becoming a champion high school wrestler to his current status as today's "rockstar scientist," Neil deGrasse Tyson demonstrates that intellectual discovery does not have to be confined to the ivory tower.
His work as an astrophysicist, author and prominent black science educator has indelibly shaped our society's enthusiasm for the cosmic mysteries that surround us.