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Pulling Back the Curtain on Lesser-Known Black Trailblazers

“When we’re talking about diversity, it’s not a box to check. It is a reality that should be deeply felt and held and valued by all of us.”

—Ava DuVernay

At MSH, we take pride in doing our part to help you travel and live with confidence. For Black History Month, we honour some of the more unheralded Black trailblazers who did just that, and as a result, shaped history. Their contributions transcended limits and norms, representing the best of all of us.


Anton Wilhelm Amo (c. 1703–c. 1759)

As the first African to earn a doctorate degree at a European university and the first to practice philosophy in Europe since Roman times, Anton Wilhelm Amo was an academic pioneer. His pride in his African heritage formed the basis of his philosophical work, challenging the legal basis of European slavery and contesting social norms.


Mathieu da Costa (1589–1619)

While the exact details of his life continue to be debated, one thing is certain – Mathieu da Costa is considered by historians to be the first Black person to visit Canada. Working as a free man, he played the role of interpreter for Dutch and French explorers, including Samuel de Champlain, in the early 17th century.


Matthew Alexander Henson (1866–1955)

Despite being the first human to set foot on the North Pole in 1909, Matthew Alexander Henson received little to no recognition for his feat or his contributions to the expedition’s success. He received belated honours with admittance as the first African-American member of the Explorers Club (1937) and the Peary Polar Expedition Medal (1944).


Rosemary Brown (1930–2003)

At a time when racism and sexism were fashionable, Rosemary Brown became Canada’s first Black female member of a provincial legislature and the first woman to run for leadership of a federal political party. Her lifelong fight against gender, racial and social norms garnered her 15 honorary doctorates, the Order of Canada and the United Nations Human Rights Fellowship.


Wangari Maathai (1940–2011)

A fierce proponent of human rights and environmental conservation, Wangari Maathai became the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree, the first female professor in Kenya and the first Black woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize (2004). She developed the Green Belt Movement, responsible for the planting of over 51 million trees in Kenya since 1977.