7 Leaders in History Who Quietly Changed the World

Monuments and museums give us the opportunity to learn about the leaders who had a major influence on our world. Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Margaret Thatcher, Nelson Mandela… the list of famous leaders goes on. But what about the people who quietly changed the world? Those who did what they knew was right even in times when they were disenfranchised, undervalued or unrecognizable? Meet seven leaders in history whose courage, perseverance, intelligence and morality helped mold our world into what it is today.

1. Carter G. Woodson

Woodson was effectively the person who created what we now know as Black History Month. He was an author and educator who lobbied for schools and organizations to participate in a program he created that focused on African-American history during the height of America’s Jim Crow laws. He is author of the powerful 1933 book The Mis-Education of the Negro, which is a required reading in many of today’s schools.

“Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.” — Carter G. Woodson  “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.” — Carter G. Woodson


2. Nellie Bly

Bly, born Elizabeth Cochran, was a journalist who launched a new kind of investigative journalism. She took on her pen name as Nellie Bly after writing a scathing response to an op-ed piece in the Pittsburgh Dispatch that disparaged women who worked outside the home. In turn, the newspaper’s editor offered her a position as a writer. Bly went on to take a different position at New York World in 1887. There she wrote her breakthrough exposé on the atrocious conditions of a mental asylum after committing herself as a patient in the facility for 10 days. Her last major story was the outcome of her traveling around the world in 72 days (inspired by the famous Jules Verne novel).

“Energy rightly applied and directed will accomplish anything.” — Nellie Bly  “Energy rightly applied and directed will accomplish anything.” — Nellie Bly


3. Frank Wills

Wills is the reason the Watergate scandal initially became public knowledge. When he was 24, he worked as a security guard at the Watergate office building, which was also headquarters for the Democratic National Committee. One day, he discovered a piece of duct tape covering a door’s latch to prevent it from locking, so he removed the tape and continued on with his rounds. When he made it back to the same door 30 minutes later, he saw more tape on the lock and immediately called the police. That one act of doing what was right, without hesitation or question, led to five arrests and questioning that initiated investigations in the Watergate scandal.


4. Edmonia Lewis

Lewis was the first professional African-American and Native American sculptor. After overcoming significant familial challenges that cost her her education, Lewis began to create portraits of famous abolitionists. By selling these pieces of artwork, she was able to finance her first trip to Europe, where she eventually settled in Rome and made a life for herself as a sculptor and artist in a field that was primarily filled with white men. Her determination and grit to succeed made her stand out both as a person and an artist. Very little of her works remain intact, but her work is a unique cross-section of Italian marble carved into American symbols.

“Sometimes the times where dark and the outlook was lonesome, but where there is a will, there is a way. I pitched in and dug at my work until now I am where I am.” — Edmonia Lewis  “Sometimes the times where dark and the outlook was lonesome, but where there is a will, there is a way. I pitched in and dug at my work until now I am where I am.” — Edmonia Lewis


5. Ada Lovelace

Lovelace, a British mathematician, is recognized as the first computer programmer. Despite being from an aristocratic family, her mother insisted that her teachings be in math and science, and not in the traditional status-driven activities. She began studying under the inventor Charles Babbage, known as the father of the computer, and was enraptured with his work. Babbage asked Lovelace to translate an article about his machine from French to English, and while she did, she added her own comments that ended up being three times longer than the article. In turn, her work was published, and the code she created was the first written computer program.

“Understand well as I may, my comprehension can only be an infinitesimal fraction of all I want to understand.” — Ada Lovelace  “Understand well as I may, my comprehension can only be an infinitesimal fraction of all I want to understand.” — Ada Lovelace


6. Robert Smalls

Smalls was an African-American who freed himself from slavery during the American Civil War by commandeering a Confederate ship in the Charleston Harbor in South Carolina. His work and influence were extremely influential in President Lincoln’s acceptance of African-American soldiers in the U.S. Army and Navy. Smalls returned to South Carolina after the war, where he went on to become a U.S. state representative.


7. Miriam Makeba

Makeba, also known as Mama Africa, was widely known as a singer and actress, a U.N. goodwill ambassador and a civil rights activist from South Africa. She advocated against apartheid in South Africa through her artistic work, and was partially responsible for popularizing African music among Western audiences when she came to the United States to collaborate with Harry Belafonte. After the overturning of apartheid in the early 1990s, Makeba was allowed to return to South Africa, and only did so at the convincing of recently released leader Nelson Mandela. Soon after Mandela’s presidential election, Makeba was selected as a goodwill ambassador for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

“If you are going to wear blinders, then you do not know the world.” — Miriam Makeba  “If you are going to wear blinders, then you do not know the world.” — Miriam Makeba

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