The Big 10 with Jeff D'Alessio: Black history heroes

The Big 10 with Jeff D'Alessio: Black history heroes

In Part 1 of our Black History Month-inspired miniseries, we asked 25 familiar faces to think back to their childhood days and tell us about the African American figure they found most inspiring or intriguing.

Come back next Sunday for Part 2, featuring a panel of 40, including Steve Harvey, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Jason Heyward, Aisha Hinds, Leon Dash and Gus Johnson.


Became first black coach to win a Super Bowl when his Colts beat Lovie Smith's Bears in 2007

"The person who caught my attention when I was young was Dorie Miller. He enlisted in the Navy to fight in World War II but because the Navy was segregated at the time, he was only allowed to be a mess attendant.

"My dad went through a similar situation. He wanted to be in the Air Force but because of segregation, he ended up going to Tuskegee and joining the Airmen there.

"Dorie Miller was at Pearl Harbor when it was attacked. When the ship he was on was hit, he went to a gunning station and, even though he had never been allowed to train with the weaponry, shot down three Japanese fighter planes.

"That story inspired me as a kid not to let racism stop you. My dad always gave us the same message. Don't let anyone else put boundaries on what you can do. Be ready to make the most of any situation and don't complain about problems — do what you can do to make the situation better."


22-time Grammy nominee won best R&B album for 'Voyage to India.' Album No. 8, 'Worthy,' came out Friday.

"For me, it was Harriet Tubman. This may sound strange but I felt like I was related to her. Harriet Tubman felt like a familiar energy and that made her very human to me. I was fascinated by what she accomplished and some of her challenges around mothering and how long she lived.

"And then there was Stevie Wonder. While he wasn't a historical figure, something about him just felt like the quintessential black experience. The albums 'Songs in the Key of Life' specifically, really just felt like a celebration of blackness in a way that didn't register as current, but timeless — and for me at 4, 5, 6 years old, that felt like black history."


Funnyman's filmography includes 'The Original Kings of Comedy,' 'Barbershop'

"The story of Marcus Garvey intrigued me the most. He was an organizer who was able to reach thousands of people in several countries and seven continents in the 1920s, long before social media or modern forms of communication.

"His idea to start a black-owned shipping company showed the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that inspired me to think beyond my circumstance as a young man growing up in a single-parent home."


UI assistant professor of creative writing, author of 2018's critically acclaimed 'Heads of the Colored People'

"As an elementary school student at a predominantly white school, black history was not a big part of my curriculum. But my parents and church communities filled in a lot of those gaps.

"I'll never forget how accessible Rosa Parks made herself, even during her late 70s, when she not only visited my church but also let each person in a very long line meet with her. This interaction with a living icon made a big impact on me, made history suddenly both real and aspirational."


aka Apollo Creed from the first four 'Rocky' movies

"Jackie Robinson was the first athlete I remember reading about. The book was in the public library of the segregated school I attended.

"It opened my eyes to a black man who was written about as a hero. Both Mr. Robinson's accomplishments, under duress, and the way in which he persevered has had a lasting effect on me."


Lone solo artist in history to win back-to-back Record of the Year Grammys, for 1973's 'The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,' 1974's 'Killing Me Softly with His Song'

"I was very inspired by Miss Hightower, who was my teacher when I was a little girl. I skipped several grades and was always the youngest and smallest child in my classes. Miss Hightower looked out for me and protected me from kids who tried to pick on me.

"She encouraged me to never give up and guided me to make good choices. My world was small back then and as a little black girl in North Carolina, she was my hero at a time I most needed it."


Harvard professor in 2009 became first African American to win Pulitzer Prize for History

"I was inspired by the life of James Baldwin, the writer. I wanted to be a writer myself, and I was very interested to see how he made his way in the world of writing when so few black people were able to do that.

"Getting to meet him once, when I was an adult, was a real highlight for me."


Founding director, Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture

"I remember being inspired and amazed when I learned about Crispus Attucks, an African American killed in the pursuit of America's liberty during the Boston Massacre.

"I grew up as the only black kid in the elementary school. And there was never any mention of anyone black, either in the textbooks or by the teachers.

"But during the celebrations about the American Revolution, suddenly there was a black figure, a black hero that allowed me to feel pride in my heritage and gave me the opportunity make my classmates realize that blacks had a long history and involvement in shaping this nation.

"Other than my father and grandfather, Crispus Attacks was my first African American hero."


Co-founder, Black Lives Matter

"I was always enthralled by the story of Frederick Douglass, amazed by his vision and how wide-ranging his analysis was, even for his time.

"His writings and his story moved me at a very young age. And I thought to myself: If people like Harriet Tubman and others could do so much in their time, surely one day I could build on their incredible legacy."


Four-time Emmy winner best known as co-host of NBC's 'Today' show from 1982-97, host of HBO's 'Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel' since 1995

"Although I admit it sounds shallow and trite, I was always most fascinated by my father's journey.

"Richard D. Gumbel, Jr. went from poor kid in the south to decorated World War II vet, to Georgetown law — when no southern law school would accept him — to the bench in the circuit court of Cook County, where in 1972, he died in his chambers.

"Since I was just a child, I've tried mightily to even approach the lofty standards of achievement, dignity and behavior he always exemplified."


Won 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction for 'Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America'

"It was Malcolm X. His boldness. His uncompromising posture. His obvious love for black people. His willingness to fight for his loved one.

"And he seemed so cool to my middle school eyes when Spike Lee's 'Malcolm X' came out and I jumped into his autobiography."

"If someone could do it so long ago, why couldn't I today?"


First black female U.S. Secretary of State (2005-09)

"The African American figure who fascinated me the most was Harriet Tubman and the stories of the Underground Railroad.

"Her tremendous courage and unwavering faith still inspire me today."


Former Chicago TV reporter, host of 'CNN Tonight'

"When I was growing up, for just about everyone, I think it was Dr. King who was the most fascinating and inspiring. Shirley Chisholm was also inspiring to me. I ran for senior class president in high school in large part because of her.

"If she could become the first black woman to be elected to Congress, I could certainly be elected class president."


Baseball Hall of Famer won 1987 National League MVP award while a Cub

"I was a kid in elementary school when I attended an assembly and the guest speaker was Cassius Clay.

"We were briefed about his background and his current status as a heavyweight fighter. The rest is history."


Editor-in-chief, The Root

"When I was a child, the famous black American I was most interested in was Jackie Robinson. I thought it was fascinating that this intelligent, college-educated student-athlete was chosen to integrate baseball not just for his skills, but for his temperament, considering all the abuse he would have to face as the first black person in a long-segregated sport.

"His story resonated with me, as a black person attending integrated schools where — at times — I faced both racial and gender discrimination, from both teachers and students. His story was very instructive on managing your emotions considering the amount of terrible stress you might be under. I found that relatable, as a kid who dealt with a lot of bullying growing up.

"Mostly, it was the fact that in the end he persevered and forever changed American sports, is what ultimately mattered to me. I chose to stay the course in my schooling and stay grounded in my truth and I, in the end, did thrive and persevere. It's an important lesson."


40 years ago, her greatest hit — 'I Will Survive' — reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts

"I found the life story of Scott Joplin fascinating and inspiring because during a time in America when blacks weren't allowed to do much of anything, this talented young man managed to work at what he loved and was great at

"I thought it was wonderful that he had the courage to travel all over the country in such a racially hostile climate, perhaps even giving some people pause as to why they felt blacks were so different from themselves."


Former Cook County judge and two-time UI trustee earned two degrees in C-U

"In fifth and sixth grade, I attended Mahalia Jackson Elementary School on Chicago's south side. I was fascinated by the fact that a black woman had her name on a school.

"At that time, civil rights icons Jessie Jackson and Martin Luther King, Malcom X and Stokely Carmichael were names being batted about. But I was impressed by the woman who I learned was a gospel singer and civil right activist and the most powerful woman in the United States at that time."

"Assemblies centered on her story were amazing. She was a role model in the sense that I felt I could achieve because she did. Very inspirational."


Coming this fall from UI creative writing director: 'Buzzing with Questions: The Inquisitive Mind of Charles H. Turner'

"Charles H. Turner, a pioneering African American entomologist, will fascinate anyone interested in science and discovery.

"Turner received his graduate degree in zoology from the University of Chicago. He settled in St. Louis, where he taught in a local high school and carried out numerous studies of bees and other insects.

"Despite the hurdles of discrimination, Turner would make lasting contributions to the study of entomology and behavioral psychology. This was a man who would stay up all night just to watch a spider. I admire his passion, dedication and determination to practice science."


Merck CEO the first black man to lead a major pharmaceutical company

"Thurgood Marshall — for his advocacy for civil rights, which culminated in Brown vs. Board of Education."


One-time UI student became in 1992 first African American woman to be elected to U.S. Senate

"My father made a point to introduce me to potential role models. The person I most gravitated to was a healer: Dr. Alvenia Fulton.

"She mixed herbal compounds and created diets for people. She was very wise."


Professor/author checks in at No. 53 on the Root's list of the 100 most influential African Americans, ages 25 to 45

"Rosa Parks' story really inspired me. In fact, I produced and starred in the fourth grade class play about her life, after reading about her story in children's biography of MLK.

"I liked her because she taught me that women had a powerful role to play in the struggle for Civil Rights. And I appreciated that she stood up for her principles, even at great risk to herself. I think, remembering my challenges as a nine-year-old as one of few black children in a predominantly white classroom, that she also gave me an example of how to be proud of being black and some sense of the fight it took for me to be able to be in that classroom."


Georgetown grad turned stand-up comedian made Huffington Post's list of '18 Funny Women You Should Be Following on Twitter'

"Growing up, I remember learning that Madam C.J. Walker was the first black female entrepreneur in America to become a millionaire. Wikipedia clarification: 'Walker was considered to be the wealthiest African American businesswoman and wealthiest self-made woman in America at the time of her death in 1919.'

"It stood out to me because her business was beauty products, and my mom sold Mary Kay cosmetics at the time. I lived in Indianapolis, where we would frequently drive by the Madam C.J. Walker building downtown. This was a manufacturing plant built in 1927 that was later declared a national historic landmark in 1991.

"I always thought it meant she was from Indianapolis. She wasn't, but considering that I thought she was, it helped me to be able to imagine achieving big things for myself."


Best-selling author, 'An American Marriage'

"When I was a little kid, I was completely obsessed with the botanist and inventor, George Washington Carver. During Black History Week, my first-grade teacher read off a list of all the things he learned to make from peanuts. While everyone else saw peanuts as just a snack, he saw the potential for hundreds of products.

"I wondered how it would feel to be so smart."


First African American U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security (2013-17)

"The answer is easy: Henry Aaron. I followed him intensely when he was chasing the Babe from 1971 to '74."

WILLIE GAULT (far right)

Olympic sprinter and '85 Bears' top receiver best known for his pet project, 'The Super Bowl Shuffle'

"Muhammad Ali, because of his stance, his confidence, his style and his truth."

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