5 Influential African Americans from Kentucky

February is Black History Month, and to celebrate this year, we are recognizing some of Kentucky’s most influential African Americans from history.

Willa Brown


Born in Glasgow, Kentucky, Willa Brown was the first African American woman to earn a pilot’s license in the United States. She was also the first African American woman to run for the US Congress, the first African American officer in the Civil Air Patrol, and the first woman in the US to have both a pilot’s license and an aircraft mechanic’s license. She and Cornelius Coffey co-founded the Coffey School of Aeronautics, where she trained hundreds of pilots- several of whom went on to become Tuskegee Airmen.

Alice Allison Dunnigan


From a very young age, Alice Dunnigan knew that she wanted to be a writer. She was born near Russellville, Kentucky and started writing for the Owensboro Enterprise when she was just 13 years old, and after high school went on to teach Kentucky History in the Todd County School System. In 1942, she moved to Washington DC and started writing for a black-owned newspaper. She sought and received press credentials to cover Congress and the Senate, becoming the first African-American woman to gain the accreditation. In 1948, she became the first black journalist to accompany a president, Harry S. Truman, on his campaign trip.  

Georgia Davis Powers


George Davis Powers served as a state senator in the Kentucky Senate for 21 years. She was born in Springfield, Kentucky and later moved to Louisville as a result of a tornado destroying her family’s home. She attended the Louisville Municipal College and received honorary doctorates from both the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville later in life. When she was elected to the senate in 1967, she became the first person of color and the first woman to do so. She served on the senate from January 1968 to January 1989 and sponsored many bills prohibiting employment discrimination based on sex and age.

Moneta Sleet Jr.


Most well known for his photography, Moneta Sleet Jr. was also a journalist. He was born in Owensboro, Kentucky, graduated cum laude from what is now known as Kentucky State University, and earned a master’s degree in journalism from NYU. In 1955, Sleet began working at Ebony magazine, a monthly magazine whose target audience is African Americans. Sleet worked for Ebony for 41 years, and it is during this time that he gained notoriety. He is most well known for his photograph of Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow, at her husband’s funeral. Because of this photograph, he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography.

Muhammad Ali


Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in Louisville, KY, Muhammad Ali is known as one of the most significant figures in sports from the 20th century. Often nicknamed “The Greatest”, he is thought to be one of the top heavyweight boxers of all time. Ali started training as an amateur boxer at the age of 12 and had won a gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics by the age of 18. He formally changed his name to Muhammad Ali in 1964 after becoming Muslim 3 years earlier. Besides his illustrious boxing career, Ali was also a successful spoken word artist. He released two studio albums that were both nominated for Grammy Awards.