History is mainly written as though all contributions were made by the few great figures we all know about, but they were also made by thousands of people sometimes called unsung heroes—people who have contributed to our society but are not discussed much.
These unsung heroes have been ignored, forgotten, or disregarded by history. In some cases, their cultural or historical contributions may have been considered unimportant because of their race, nationality, ethnicity, religion, or gender. Others have simply been lost to time. It’s our job as students and teachers of history to find these figures and introduce them to our classes in order to give students a fuller sense of the events and people who have shaped us.
How Do I Find Unsung Heroes?
I have several methods for finding these people, the most effective of which is reading newspapers—in print or online. I read our local newspapers every day, paying particular attention to articles that honor veterans, discuss local history and issues, or pertain to national anniversaries and holidays.
That’s how I discovered the Radium Girls, who painted the dials of watches built for U.S. troops with radium—to make them glow in the dark—during World War I. I discovered the Triple Nickles, the little-known all–African American 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, by reading the obituary of a local member who had served in the unit. Studying the Triple Nickles proves to students that the contributions of segregated units in the U.S. military was not limited to the well-known Tuskegee Airmen.
Reading newspapers provides a springboard to the discovery of unsung heroes, but it’s hit or miss—a bit random. To augment this strategy in a purposeful way, I seek out sources that work to uncover people whose contributions have been neglected. Last fall I attended a professional development class at the Museum of the City of New York that was based on an exhibit called “Hidden Voices.” The class celebrated untold stories of New York history, and I enjoyed learning about men and women whose contributions had been overlooked for years, including David Ruggles, an African American abolitionist who participated in the Underground Railroad. I left the class with a deeper understanding of New York history and a better appreciation for how the Underground Railroad actually worked.
Finally, I’m a huge fan of historical fiction and nonfiction. I read for small details that I can investigate further. For example, a brief mention of a figure called the Sweatshop Poet in the nonfiction book Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy, by Albert Marrin, led me to research Morris Rosenfeld, whose poem “In the Factory” describes the difficulties of factory work from the workers’ point of view. His poetry lends a firsthand perspective to our study of industrialization and sweatshops, a perspective that is rarely found in any textbook.
Why Teach About Unsung Heroes?
When we unearth new stories and new conflicts, we can conduct deeper class discussions with students, leading them to richer historical connections and better-informed evaluative judgments.
For example, when my students trace the progression from Jim Crow laws and segregation to the civil rights movement and the work of Martin Luther King Jr., I introduce the story of Moses Wright to deepen their understanding of this era. During the historic Emmett Till trial in Mississippi in 1955, Wright pointed his finger and accused two white males of the murder of Till. For what may have been the first time in American history, an African American accused a white man of a crime in open court and lived.
Evaluating more people like Wright leads students to examine history from perspectives that are not ordinarily presented in the history books. When students connect what they have previously learned with these new perspectives, I know they have a broader understanding of the topic we are studying.
One of the more important goals of teaching social studies is showing young adults that they can make a difference. They need to know they don’t have to organize a Million Man March or lead a revolution in order to be successful in creating change. Discussing the historical contributions of Samuel Gompers and Susan B. Anthony is useful, but so too is introducing lesser-known people such as labor leader Louis Tikas and suffragette Rosalie Gardiner Jones.
Tikas organized a mine workers’ strike in Colorado and lost his life as a result, but the strike precipitated mining reforms, including the end of child labor in the U.S. Jones hiked over 200 miles from New York to Washington, DC, to deliver a petition to President Woodrow Wilson, bringing national attention to the women’s suffrage movement. This march and others like it eventually led to the passage of the 19th Amendment.
Studying these lesser-known figures gives students a clear sense that ordinary people can be agents of change.
Learning about unsung heroes makes our understanding of history more inclusive. Searching for these figures can be part of your day—inspiration can be found in many places.