This list features links to information about lives of many of South Carolina's most distinguished African Americans. It focuses on those with renowned talents and those who made major advancements or broke major racial barriers on a state, national, or global level. All the people below were either born in South Carolina or chose to spend a significant portion of their lives in our state.
Kimberly Clarice Aiken - This Columbia native was crowned Miss America in 1994 and used her fame to bring attention to the hardships of homelessness. She is the founder of HERO, the Homeless Education and Resource Organization.
Marjorie Amos-Frazier - Born in Manning, this long-time public servant and Civil Rights leader was honored in 1993 when a portion of I-26 was named for her.
Webster Anderson - Born in Winnsboro in 1933, - Sergeant First Class, US Army - Congressional Medal of Honor for service in Vietnam War
Anna DeCosta Banks - This nursing pioneer inspired countless students during her long career at the Hospital and Training School for Nurses in Charleston. Her legacy lives on long after her death in 1930; today, a wing of MUSC bears her name.
Charlotta Spears Bass - This newspaper publisher used print media to push for social reform. Her tenacity as a Civil Rights leader propelled her into politics, and in 1952 she was the first African-American woman to run for national office – Vice President of the United States.
Clayton "Peg Leg" Bates - Clayton "Peg Leg" Bates was born in the small town of Fountain Inn in 1907. He worked as a child laborer in a cotton mill, where he lost his leg. Determined to avoid pity, Bates established a successful career as a tap dancer. During the 1930s, he lit up Broadway with his unique take on classic steps. Bates broke down many racial barriers while he was touring, and famously made over 20 appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show during the 1950s and 1960s. He received the Flo-Bert Award in 1991, the Distinguished Leadership in the Arts award in 1992, and the Order of the Palmetto award in 1998. A bronze statue of him stands in his hometown of Fountain Inn.
Paul Benjamin - actor - played in such movies as Do The Right Thing, Stanley's Gig, The Five Heartbeats, Across 110th Street, Gideon's Trumpet, and Rosewood
Mary McLeod Bethune - Born to former slaves just 10 years after the end of the Civil War, this Sumter County native decided early on that education was the key to ending the cycle of poverty. In 1904, she started a small school for African-American girls which eventually became Bethune-Cookman University. Under Franklin Roosevelt she served as Special Advisor on Minority Affairs, and in 1935 she founded the National Council for Negro Women to "represent the national and international concerns of Black women." Her portrait hangs in South Carolina's State House in Columbia.
Kitty Black-Perkins - This Spartanburg native has an interesting story. After graduating from Carver High School, she moved to California and eventually become the principal designer for Mattel's Barbie, being at one point in time responsible for one-fifth of all Barbie fashions and multiple lines. Before she interviewed with Mattel, she had never owned her own Barbie doll. Her work is featured in the South Carolina State Museum.
James A. Blake, Sr. - This Marion native was the first African-American member of the South Carolina State Board of Education and later its first African-American chair.
Charles Bolden, Jr. - After graduating from the Naval Academy, this Columbia native joined the US Marines, rising to the rank of Major General. He later became an astronaut and flew four missions in space.
Chadwick Boseman - Raised in Anderson, this actor is known for his roles as Jackie Robinson in 42, fellow SC-native James Brown in Get on Up, and more recently, the superhero Black Panther in Captain American, Civil War and Black Panther.
Harold R. Boulware, Sr. - This Irmo native served as the chief attorney in Briggs v. Elliot, a class-action suit filed against the Clarendon County School District that eventually rose to the Supreme Court and ended school desegregation in the United States. He later became a judge.
James Brown - Although Georgia repeatedly tries to claim Brown for its own, the "Godfather of Soul" was actually born in Barnwell County. He spent the last 30 years of his life on an estate in Beech Island, near Aiken. Along with Dizzy Gillespie, he is South Carolina's most famous and widely-renowned musician. Dubbed "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business," he was a tireless performer – a singer, dancer, and organist who is said to have burned 700 calories per show! In addition to recording numerous soul ballads, he helped bring about the "funk revolution" of the 1970s.
Chubby Checker - Hailing from Spring Gully (near the Georgetown / Williamsburg County line), Chubby Checker (aka Ernest Evans) was born in 1941. Mostly known for his 1960 summer hit, The Twist, Checker was instrumental in changing the way people danced to music. The Twist introduced people to the concept of "dancing apart to the beat" (as opposed to slow dancing).
Septima Poinsette Clark - Known as the "Queen Mother of the Civil Rights Movement," Septima Clark was a leader in the NAACP, the Highlander School, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Working together with Esau Jenkins and Bernice Robinson, she helped establish Citizenship Schools across the South. These schools taught black people to read so they could vote, a requirement of the time. In all, these schools enabled two million African-Americans to vote. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, he asked Mrs. Clark to accompany him to Norway, saying she deserved the award as much as he did.
– Freedom's Teacher: The Life of Septima Clark - Read more about one of South Carolina's most important heroines.
James E. Clyburn - This longtime democratic politician represents the 6th district of South Carolina in the United States Congress. He was born in Sumter and has served in the House of Representatives since 1993.
Bennie Lee Cunningham, Jr. - Hailing from Laurens, Cunningham was the first black athlete to receive Clemson University's prestigious "Frank Howard Award." After his senior season, Cunningham was chosen in the first round of the NFL draft by the Pittsburg Steelers. He played in two Super Bowls, first in 1978 and again in 1979. Later, he returned to Clemson to earn his Master's Degree.
Viola Davis - Born at Singleton Plantation in St Matthews, Viola is the only black woman to be nominated three times for an Academy Award and the only African-American to win the "Triple Crown of Acting" earning two Tonys for King Hedley II (2001) and Fences (2010), an Emmy for TV's How To Get Away With Murder (2015), and the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for the screen version of Fences (2017).
Marian Wright Edelman - A native of Bennettsville, Marian Wright Edelman broke barriers in 1964 when she became the first African-American female admitted to the Mississippi Bar. She went on to found the Washington Research Project, which in turn became the Children's Defense Fund. In 2000, she was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award. The Marian Wright Edelman Public Library opened its doors in 2010 to serve all residents of Marlboro County.
Dr. Matilda Arabelle Evans - In 1897, Dr. Evans became the first African-American woman licensed as a physician in South Carolina. She opened Columbia's first hospital for African-Americans and fought to provide free medical exams for public schoolchildren. She also had a thriving independent practice where she cared for patients of all classes and color. Six children were abandoned at her practice and she raised them all, along with five children orphaned by relatives who had died.
Harvey B. Gantt - In 1968, Gantt was the first student to desegregate a South Carolina college, Clemson University. He graduated with honors and later received a Master's Degree in architecture from MIT. He was born in Charleston and now resides in North Carolina, where he has served as an elected official. He is known for his statement, "If you can't appeal to the morals of a South Carolinian, you can appeal to his manners." The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture in Charlotte is named in his honor.
Dizzy Gillespie - Born in 1917, John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie grew up in Cheraw. He taught himself to play trumpet at age 12 and began recording at the age of 20. From his early years with Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, Gillespie was known for his adventurous trumpet playing. He played a major role in the rise of bebop and modern jazz, which he also popularized with his likable personality. Gillespie's trademark upswept trumpet was supposedly adopted by the artist after one of his trumpets got bent in an accident in 1953. Groovin' High is an original Gillespie composition and was first recorded in 1945.
Vivian Glover - The Glover family left Orangeburg in 1955 when Vivian's dad received threats as a result of his role in the Civil Rights movement. Though she would travel the world with her career in media, Vivian always felt the tug of home. Her acclaimed book, The First Fig Tree, is set in Orangeburg, where she returned to live in 1992.
Dr. Charles G. Gomillion - A professor at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, this South Carolina native sued the City of Tuskegee for gerrymandering its election districts, a widespread practice designed to disenfranchise black voters. In 1960, the US Supreme Court ruled in Gomillion v. Lightfoot that gerrymandering violated the Civil Rights Act. Although this unanimous decision was hailed as a major victory, gerrymandering continues to divide and disenfranchise people and political parties today.
Janie Glymph Goree - Mrs. Goree was the first female African-American mayor in South Carolina. She served the Town of Carlisle in Union County from 1978 to 1996. The municipal building is named in her honor, as is a local street. One of nine children, she was born in the Maybinton community of Newberry County. Her parents were sharecroppers.
Dr. Wil Lou Gray - In 1931, this Laurens County native conducted successful scientific experiments to prove blacks could learn as well as whites. Determined to end illiteracy among South Carolinians, she pioneered adult education programs. She is remembered by her portrait which hangs in the State House, as well as by the school she founded, the Wil Lou Gray Opportunity School.
Jane Edna Harris Hunter - Born at Woodburn Plantation just one generation out of slavery, Jane Edna Harris Hunter had a tenuous childhood. From an early age, she moved from one household to another, working to earn her keep. Finally her desire for education was recognized by missionaries, and she was allowed to attend school. She would go on to earn both nursing and law degrees. Longing to help other young girls, she founded the Phillis Wheatley Association in Greenville.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault - This Due West daughter has made an international mark on the field of journalism. The NAACP's Legal Defense Fund helped her break the color barrier at the University of Georgia in the early 1960s. She graduated with a degree in journalism and immediately became the first African-American reporter for The New Yorker. In 1978 she gained a national television audience as a correspondent on The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. She then moved on to be the chief correspondent in Africa for National Public Radio. Building on this expertise, she next worked in Johannesburg as the Bureau Chief for CNN. Hunter-Gault has received two Emmy Awards for her work on the series "Apartheid's People." She has also earned the New York Times Publisher Award and two Peabody Awards. She is author of the 2006 book entitled New News out of Africa: Uncovering Africa's Renaissance.
Mary Jackson - This master craftswoman elevates the utilitarian sweetgrass basket to a high art. Ms. Jackson learned to make baskets at the knees of her mother and grandmother when she was just a child. As an adult, she began to realize that the baskets, made by so many in her Mount Pleasant community, represented a link to her own African ancestry. Her baskets have been exhibited in major museums throughout the country, including the Smithsonian, and in 2008 she was honored with the coveted MacArthur "Genius Grant."
Mamie "Peanut" Johnson - Born in 1935, this Ridgeway native loved baseball. However, because she was African American, she was not allowed to be part of the sport's women's league. Luckily, a scout for the all-male Negro League saw her throw and quickly signed her to the Indianapolis Clowns, where she pitched three seasons. At one of her early games, an opponent is said to have shouted, "What makes you think you can strike a batter out? Why, you aren't any larger than a peanut!" She struck him out in three pitches and the nickname stuck!
Ralph Johnson - US Marine Private First Class Ralph Johnson was a Vietnam war hero. He is one of only two South Carolina soldiers to have received the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery and sacrifice during that conflict. The veterans hospital in Charleston bears his name.
Eartha Kitt - Born on an Orangeburg County cotton farm in 1927, Eartha Kitt became a world-famous entertainer with her own star on Hollywood Boulevard. Her 1953 recording of Santa Baby and her recurring role as Catwoman on TV's Batman are familiar examples of her work. While many of her roles epitomized the Hollywood stereotype of "sex kitten," her social consciousness often made it difficult for her to land jobs. Her refusal to perform for segregated audiences effectively relegated her to European venues in the 1940s and 50s. In the 1970s, she was blacklisted by the American entertainment industry when she spoke out against Vietnam at a White House luncheon. But Eartha Kitt's career came back, time and time again. In 1997 she returned to South Carolina to perform a benefit concert at Benedict College, which helped establish a scholarship fund for dance students.
Cassandra Maxwell - In 1940 she became the first African-American woman admitted to the SC Bar. Ten years later, working in Atlanta and active in the NAACP, she assisted Thurgood Marshall on cases which ultimately overturned the legality of segregated public facilities in the South.
John Henry McCray - civil rights activist, journalist, editor and publisher of The Lighthouse and Informer
– Article - John Henry McCray recalls the fight for teacher salary equalization in South Carolina
Bernice Robinson - This Civil Rights activist, along with Esau Jenkins and Septima Clark, established Citizenship Schools to teach black people how to read the Constitution so they could register to vote, a requirement of the time. Together, they are credited with helping two million previously disenfranchised citizens gain the right to vote, making this one of the most important literacy programs of all time.
Dori Sanders - Raised on a peach farm near Rock Hill, acclaimed author Dori Sanders writes about what she knows best – farm life and family ties. Her first novel, Clover, published in 1990, became both a best seller and a literary award winner. Ms. Sanders still works on her family's farm, writing and speaking at schools and libraries during the off-season.
Modjeska Monteith Simkins - Born in Columbia in 1899, Ms. Simkins was a school teacher who was active in the South Carolina chapter of the NAACP. Her experience in the classroom helped attorneys shape a critical lawsuit against Clarendon County. The case became one of a group of similar suits from around the South that led to the US Supreme Court's 1954 decision that separate schools were not equal and thus violated the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.
Marva Smalls - This South Carolina native serves as the Executive Vice President of Public Affairs and Chief of Staff for Nickelodeon.
Robert Smalls - Beaufort slave who hijacked a Confederate steamship, disguised himself as a white captain, and sailed to Union safety ... later became a captain in US Navy and a representative in the US Congress
– More info
Dewey Tullis - As a champion of Civil Rights, Dewey Tullis led a march for the integration of the YMCA of Spartanburg and helped organize a sit-in at a local Woolworth's. Tullis remained active in the Spartanburg County community throughout his life as he was dedicated to mentoring young men.
Justine "Baby" Washington - Born in Bamberg in Novermber of 1940, this soul singer was raised in Harlem. As a solo artist, she entered the charts 16 times and was popular during the late 1950s through the early 1970s. Dusty Springfield once called Ms. Washington her favorite singer of all time.
Lt. Col. Spann Watson - On July 8, 1943, Watson and seven other pilots defeated the German Luftwaffe over the Mediterranean Sea, marking the first time black American pilots fought in air combat. As a member of the prestigious Tuskegee Airmen, he was honored by President Bill Clinton at the White House in 1998. Lt. Col. Watson received an honorary PhD in public service from Rhode Island College in 1994, and his photo hangs in the National Air and Space Museum. He is credited with having been instrumental in the official desegregation of the US military.
Colonel Walter L. Watson, Jr. - This decorated Air Force Ace was the first and only African-American to qualify as a crewmember in one of just 32 Lockheed SR-71's - nicknamed Blackbird or Habu - a top-secret aircraft that set records in speed and altitude that stand today.
Dr. Clemmie E. Webber - This St. Matthews native taught chemistry and economics at South Carolina State College (now University) and received a wide array of awards for her efforts in education. She was named the National Mother of the Year in 1993 by the American Mothers Committee of the Golden Rule Foundation, which was founded by President Franklin Roosevelt's mother Sara. She was also given the Order of the Palmetto - considered the highest award any South Carolina citizen can receive - by Governor Richard "Dick" Riley. In 2008, a portion of Boulevard Street in Orangeburg was named in her honor.
Dr. Annie Bell Ranzy Stinson Weston - Born in 1912 at Fort Motte in Calhoun County, the future Dr. Weston moved to South Carolina's state capital to attend high school. From there she received her bachelor's degree from Benedict College and her master's degree from Columbia University in New York. Upon returning to South Carolina, she served as a professor of education at her alma mater, Benedict College, for 35 years. In 1962, she was the first woman to receive a doctorate from the historically-black school. Dr. Weston was elected State Secretary of the Progressive Democratic Party in 1946. She helped lead voter registration efforts during the early Civil Rights era, and she was a powerful advocate for women in politics throughout her life. She attended the Democratic National Convention multiple times, and was in fact the first African-American woman from South Carolina to do so. She traveled extensively during her career and often lectured about politics and race. President Harry Truman appointed her to the National Committee for the Midcentury White House Conference on Children and Youth.
Frances Rollin Whipper - In 1868, her biography of Martin R. Delany was published under the pen name Frank A. Rollin, making her the first African American to publish a full-length biography. Her diary from the same year survives as the earliest known diary by a southern black woman.
Lucille Simmons Whipper - A formidable Civil Rights pioneer, Lucille Whipper was elected to various state and local offices, including the State House of Representatives, where she was the first black woman ever elected from the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester area. She also spearheaded the founding of the Avery Institute at the College of Charleston, a nationally-recognized research center for African-American history. Ms. Whipper had graduated high school at Avery. In Charleston, a stretch of US 17 is named in her honor, and she was also awarded the distinguished Order of the Palmetto.
Juanita Willmon-Goggins - In 1974 Juanita Goggins became the first African-American woman elected to the SC House of Representatives. Other significant "firsts" include being the first African-American woman to serve on the US Civil Rights Commission and the first African-American female member of South Carolina's delegation to the Democratic National Convention. Mrs. Goggins suffered from mental illness later in her life and froze to death in her home in 2010.
Preston Wilson - In 1998, this Bamberg ballplayer was a first-round draft pick for the New York Mets. He continued playing in the MLB until 2007; he is the nephew and stepson of New York Mets Hall of Fame inductee Mookie Wilson (see below).
William Hayward "Mookie" Wilson - In 1996, Bamberg's Mookie Wilson was inducted into the New York Mets Hall of Fame. He played for the Mets from 1980 to 1989 and later served as coach (1997-2002).
Sylvia Woods - This Hemingway native opened Sylvia's Restaurant in 1962 in historic Harlem and has been described by the New York Times as the "Queen of Soul Food." What began as a lunch counter has become a major destination restaurant, a catering business, a national line of canned food products, and two cookbooks.