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February is Black History Month, and we wanted to share some of the people who’ve influenced and inspired Red Hatters throughout their lives. We asked members of Red Hat’s Blacks United in Leadership and Diversity (B.U.I.L.D.) about black historical figures who have inspired them. Some you no doubt have heard of, others may be new to you and you’ll have the chance to be inspired by their accomplishments for the first time.

Janelle Harris, member of B.U.I.L.D. and a senior alliances partner marketing manager based in Raleigh, says that she views Black History Month as "a time to celebrate and acknowledge the accomplishments of black people in order to foster motivation, cultural pride and inspiration."

It’s also, she says, "a time to spread awareness and teach the history of black people in America, sharing little known information that may not have been taught or highlighted when learning U.S. history from a majority perspective."

Many of the people cited as inspirations are still achieving and inspiring today. When asked about a black historical figure who inspired her, Harris named David L. Steward. 

Steward is still active as the chairman and founder of World Wide Technology (WWT). Founded in 1990, WWT is a privately held IT company that has more than 6,000 employees and is headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri. Steward is one of only five black billionaires in the United States, and is 745th on Forbes Billionaires 2019 list.

Virginia Bryan, also a member of B.U.I.L.D. and a principal customer marketing manager in Raleigh shared that Katherine Johnson is one of her inspirations. Johnson, now 101 and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, made history for her work on the Project Mercury space flights.

Bryan says Johnson’s, "phenomenal expertise in math led her to making history for the NASA space program, for women’s rights, and for racial equality."

Space is a popular theme among B.U.I.L.D. members, not surprisingly. What’s more inspirational than helping mankind escape the bounds of Earth and explore the cosmos? Al Roberson, a consultant architect, named former NASA astronaut Guion Bluford as a person who has inspired him.

"Guion Bluford was the first black astronaut. He was a geek’s geek and a fighter pilot," says Roberson. "I received an autographed picture of him from a middle school trip to the Detroit Science Center and I was hooked. There was someone that looked like me that was going into space. He may not have intended to be a role model, but seeing him made all things seem more possible to me, in all fields of endeavor. I haven’t gotten to space yet, but he helped to spark my interest in science and technology, and helped me to more clearly see contributions of our people in modern science, as well as past achievements. Thank you, ‘Guy’ Bluford."

Clarence Clayton, a principal IT program manager in Raleigh, points to civil rights leader (and distant cousin) Ella Baker as one of his inspirations.

Among other accomplishments, Baker was founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in April 1960 at Shaw University, and active in the sit-in movement. Clayton says, Baker "saw a need to provide an official forum for young civil rights activists to get involved." Baker also participated in the 1961 Freedom Rides, and the 1963 March on Washington.

Sales specialist Tres Vance named Kenneth Chenault, who served as CEO and Chairman of American Express from 2001 to 2018. Says Vance, "Chenault was a business executive that broke a number of barriers by leading American Express. He has always been a prominent figure within the financial industry and in business. He is an excellent example of an executive that came from a business background and excelled through difficult times, including during the Great Recession of 2008-2010. Chenault was named Chair of the Advisory Council for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture."

Will Howard, an equity consultant with Red Hat, pointed to former United States Representative Elijah Cummings. Howard called the congressman a role model for other representatives and the African American community who spoke with "passion, conviction and eloquence." In particular, Howard noted Cummings' "tireless work during the civil rights movement" and his "stellar record" serving in the House of Representatives for more than 20 years until his passing last October.

Howard says that Black History Month "provides an annual reminder for me to take pause, reflect and celebrate the contributions and achievements of so many African Americans to our great country. Additionally, with all of the various events and programs that usually transpire over the month, it allows young African Americans to gain exposure to African American history, culture and achievements that they would not otherwise have been exposed to in elementary and high school."

The people we’ve highlighted here are just a small sampling of black people who have and continue to make significant contributions to science, industry, culture, government, and much more. We encourage everyone to take Black History Month as an opportunity to learn about some of the people who have moved the world forward that you may not already be familiar with, and to share the stories you do know.


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