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September 17, 2021

Notable Americans

AP Photo/Matt Rourke


AP Photo/Michael Conroy


As part of our Constitution Day, U.S. Embassy Beijing is highlighting the achievements of fifteen #NotableAmericans, which show the rich diversity of the United States as well as highlight the contributions immigrants have made to our country.  Please follow our hashtags #EPluribusUnum and #NotableAmericans to learn more about these American heroes.

General Benjamin O. Davis Jr.

General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.
Col. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. at an air base in Italy
  • African-American U.S. Air Force General
  • Commander of Tuskegee Airman Group of African American airman who fought in World War II

General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. (12/18/1912 – 7/4/2002) was a United States Air Force general and commander of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of mainly African American airmen who fought in World War II.  He entered the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York in 1932.  During the four years of his Academy term, Davis was isolated by his classmates because of his race, never having a roommate and having to eat by himself.  His classmates hoped that this would push him to quit the Academy. The “silent treatment” however, had the opposite effect, pushing Davis to graduate and become the fourth black graduate of West Point.  During World War II, Davis was commander of the 99th Fighter Squadron and the 332nd Fighter Group, which escorted bombers on air combat missions over Europe.  Davis flew sixty missions in P-39, Curtiss P-40, P-47 and P-51 Mustang fighters.  He later became the first black brigadier general in the United States Air Force. On December 9, 1998, he was advanced to four-star general by President Bill Clinton.

Rear Admiral Gordon Pai’ea Chung-Hoon

Rear Admiral Chung-Hoon at the Naval Academy
USS Chung-Hoon (DDG 93)
  • Chinese-American admiral in the U.S. Navy
  • Received Navy Cross and Silver Star for heroism in World War II

Rear Admiral Gordon Paiʻea Chung-Hoon (7/25/1910 – 7/24/1979) was an admiral in the United States Navy,who served during World War II and was the first Asian American flag officer.  A flag officer is someone who is authorized to fly their own command flags – representing the branches of the United States Armed Forces.  Chung-Hoon attended the United States Naval Academy and graduated in May 1934, becoming the first Asian American, U.S. citizen graduate of the academy.  He received the Navy Cross and Silver Star for conspicuous gallantry and extraordinary heroism as the commanding officer of the USS Sigsbee from May 1944 to October 1945.  After his ship was struck by a kamikaze plane, causing massive fires and damage to the ships engines and steering, Commander Chung-Hoon successfully directed his men in putting out the fires and saving the ship while continuing to fight more kamikaze planes.  In his honor, the US Navy DDG 93 guided missile destroyer was named after him, the only US Navy ship ever named after a Chinese-American.

Patsy Matsu Mink

Patsy Mink
Formation of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus
  • Third generation Japanese-American Hawaiian who became the first woman of color to serve in Congress
  • Co-founded Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus to promote Asian American and Pacific Islander issues

Patsy Matsu Mink (12/6/1927 – 9/28/2002) was the first Hawaiian woman and first woman of color elected to Congress.  Patsy was a third-generation Japanese American, born on a sugar plantation camp in Paia, Hawaii, on the island of Maui.  After being rejected by 12 medical schools for being a woman, Patsy Mink pursued a law degree at the University of Chicago.  Before Hawaii became a state, Mink became the first woman with Japanese ancestry to serve in the Hawaiian Territorial Legislature.  After Hawaii became the 50th state in 1959, in 1965, Mink won a post in the U.S. House of Representatives, where she served six consecutive terms.  She then served as Assistant Secretary of State in the Department of State’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs under the Carter administration.  Following that, Patsy returned to the House of Representatives where she served from 1990 to 2002.  In 1994 she co-founded the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, which seeks to promote Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) issues.

Dalip Singh Saund

Dalip Singh Saund
  • Dalip Singh Saund with VOA India

    Indian-American Congressman

  • First Asian, Indian-American, and first Hindu to be elected to Congress

Dalip Singh Saund (9/20/1899 – 4/22/1973) was the first Asian American, the first Indian American, and the first Hindu to be elected to Congress.  Dalip was born in India in 1899 and came to the United States to originally study agriculture, but ultimately obtained a master’s degree and a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Berkeley, California.  He moved to Southern California during the Great Depression and worked as a farmer for more than 20 years before starting his own fertilizer business in the early 1950s.  Though he became politically active, Saund wasn’t able to run for political office because federal law prevented him from becoming a U.S. citizen.  After successfully campaigning for the right of South Asians to become naturalized citizens, he naturalized in 1949 and soon ran for office as a local judge.  He served four years as a judge before being elected to Congress in 1954.

Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu

Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu
Dr. Wu in Columbia University
  • Chinese-American physicist
  • Known as the “First Lady of Physics” and the “Chinese Marie Curie” for her groundbreaking work in physics

Chien-Shiung Wu (5/31/1912 – 2/16/1997) was known as both the “First Lady of Physics” and the “Chinese Marie Curie,” making significant contributions to physics during her long career.  Chien-Shiung was born in Jiangsu, China, and moved to the United States in the 1930s to study physics at the University of California, Berkeley, where she completed her doctorate in 1940.  In 1944, Wu joined the research staff at Columbia University in 1944, where she worked on the Manhattan Project, which helped the United States develop the atomic bomb during World War II.  Her research, including the “Wu experiment”, helped colleagues receive the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics.  Wu herself received the inaugural Wolf Prize in Physics in 1978.  Despite her scientific accomplishments, Wu still faced gender discrimination in her field.  Wu fought for equal pay for women scientists throughout her career, and eventually became the first woman to serve as president of the American Physical Society.

Franklin Edward Kameny

Franklin E. Kameny
Frank Kameny attending Pride
  • LGBTQI+ American activist
  • Fought to end employment discrimination of LGBTQI+ Americans by Federal Government

Franklin Edward Kameny (1925-2011) was an American gay rights activist, considered one of the most significant figures in the American civil rights movement.  Born in New York City, after serving in the Army he received a master’s degree and doctorate in astronomy from Harvard University.  In 1957 he was fired from his position in the Army Map Service for being gay, leading him to become an early activist in the gay rights movement in America.  In 1965 he protested the unfair treatment of LGBTQI+ Americans by the U.S. Federal Government in front of the White House, the first demonstration of its kind.  He continued to provide legal support to LGBTQI+ Americans who were fired by the federal government, and his activism led to the signing of Executive Orders by President Bill Clinton in 1995 and 1998, which lifted the ban on security clearances for LGBTQI+ federal employees and outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation in the federal civilian workforce.

Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson working at the United States Fish and Wildlife Service
Rachel Carson conducting marine biology research
  • American marine biologist and environmentalist
  • Silent Spring book helped start the environmental movement in the United States

Rachel Carson (5/27/1907 – 4/14/1964) was an American marine biologist, author, and conservationist whose influential book Silent Spring (1962) and other writings advanced the global environmental movement.  Originally from a small town in Pennsylvania, Carson received a master’s degree from John Hopkins University in 1932 and had planned to obtain a doctorate when she paused her studies to support her family during the Great Depression by working at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries.  There she began her career as a biologist before becoming a nature writer in the 1950s.  Her widely praised bestseller The Sea Around Us won a U.S. National Book Award.  Silent Spring was her fourth book, and it studied environmental problems caused by chemical pesticides, particularly DDT.  Silent Spring had a major impact on the nascent environmental movement in the United States.  The book raised environmental awareness on the ecological impact of pesticides, and to the banning of DDT and other harmful pesticides in the United States.  In 1980, Carson was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter.

Mary Jackson

Mary Jackson
Mary Jackson working at NASA Langley Research Center
  • African-American mathematician and NASA engineer
  • NASA’s first black female engineer, she worked to support women in science, engineering and mathematics positions in NASA

Mary Jackson (4/9/1921 – 2/11/2005) was an American mathematician and aerospace engineer whose work contributed greatly to the development of America’s space program.  A gifted mathematician, Mary Jackson was recruited to work at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which became NASA in 1958.  She worked in the segregated computing section at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory before accepting an offer to work in the laboratory’s supersonic pressure tunnel.  She was recommended to enter a training program that would allow her to become an engineer, but she needed to first complete graduate level math and physics courses which were only offered at a then-segregated high school.  Jackson got special permission to join white peers in the classroom, completed the courses, and earned the promotion, becoming NASA’s first black female engineer in 1958.  Her story features in the movie “Hidden Figures” (2016).  Later in her career Mary worked to support women in science, engineering, and mathematics positions at NASA.  In 2021, the headquarters of NASA in Washington, D.C. was renamed the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters.

Sally Ride

Sally Ride 1979 NASA Portrait

Sally Ride in Space
  • American Astronaut and physicist
  • First American woman and youngest American astronaut in space, first LGBTQI+ astronaut

Sally Kristen Ride (5/26/1951 – 7/23/2012) was an American astronaut and physicist.  Born in Los Angeles, California, she joined NASA in 1978, and in 1983 became the first American woman in space.  She remains the youngest American astronaut to have traveled to space, having done so at the age of 32.  After flying twice on the Space Shuttle Challenger, she left NASA in 1987.  Ride worked for two years at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Arms Control, then at the University of California, San Diego, as a physics professor.  Previously married to another astronaut, after her death her obituary revealed she was in a private, long-term relationship with former Women’s Tennis Association player Tam O’Shaughnessy.  In 2013, she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  She is now recognized as the first LGBTQI+ space traveler.

Duke Kahanamoku

Duke Kahanamoku
Early picture of Duke surfing
  • Hawaiian, “The Big Kahuna” sports and entertainment star
  • Helped popularize surfing, now an Olympic sport in Tokyo 2020 games

Duke Kahanamoku (8/24/1890 – 1/22/1968), nicknamed “The Big Kahuna,” was a towering figure in the world of sports and entertainment, who popularized the sport of surfing.  Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1890, Kahanamoku was a five-time Olympic medalist in swimming, having competed in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, and the 1924 Olympics in Paris.  Kahanamoku also was an alternate for the U.S. water polo team at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles.  Following his trail-blazing athletic career, Kahanamoku worked as an actor, sheriff and surfer, helping to popularize the Hawaiian sport of surfing to a new generation of surfers all over the world.  Surfing made its Olympics debut this year in the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games.

Cesar Estrada Chavez

Cesar Chavez
Cesar Chavez talking to students
Cesar Chavez talking to students
  • Mexican-American civil rights activist
  • Helped push for labor rights for migrant workers, form United Farm Workers Union

Cesar Chavez (3/31/1927 – 4/23/1993) was an American labor leader and Latino civil rights activist. Along with Dolores Huerta, he co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), which later merged with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) to become the United Farm Workers (UFW) labor union.  Born in Yuma, Arizona to a Mexican American family, after serving in the navy he moved to California and worked in the Community Service Organization (CSO) to help laborers register to vote.  He is best known for his non-violent efforts to gain better working conditions for the thousands of migrant workers who labored on farms in California and throughout the West for low wages and under severe conditions.  In 1994 he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Oksana Masters

Oksana rowing
Oksana at the World Rowing Cup
  • Ukrainian-American athlete
  • Celebrated Paralympian who has participated in four Paralympics

Oksana Masters (6/19/1989 – ) is an Ukrainian-American Paralympic rower and cross-country athlete.  Born in Ukraine, due to radiation-induced birth defects caused by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident, Oksana was born with legs of different lengths without weight-bearing bones, five webbed fingers on each hand and no thumbs, and six toes on each foot.  Masters was adopted by her American mother at age 7 and moved to Kentucky.  She started rowing in 2002 when she was 13, soon after began to row competitively.  Oksana has competed in four Paralympics — in rowing, cross-country skiing, biathlon and road cycling — and has won a total of eight medals, including two golds.

Rita Moreno

Rita Moreno
Rita Moreno holding a recording of the West Side Story soundtrack
  • Puerto Rican actress, dancer and singer
  • EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) award winner who has pushed for greater representation of Latinos in media

Rita Moreno (12/11/1931 -) is an American actress, dancer and singer; whose career has spanned over 70 years.  Born in Puerto Rico, Rita moved to New York City with her mother in 1936, and began her film career during the Golden Age of Hollywood.  She landed several major roles during this time, including supporting roles in musical films Singin’ in the Rain (1952), The King and I (1956), and West Side Story (1961).  Rita is one of the few artists to have achieved EGOT status, having won and Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony; She has also received 2009 National Medal of the Arts; 2004 Presidential Medal of Honor; and 2015 Kennedy Center Honor for her contributions to American culture through the performing arts.  Throughout her career, Rita has pushed for greater representation of Latinos in media.

George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver
Poster highlighting Carver’s achievements
  • African-American agricultural scientist and inventor
  • Helped develop techniques to improve soil depleted by farming

George Washington Carver (1864 – 1/5/1943) was an American agricultural scientist and inventor who promoted alternative crops (peanuts and sweet potatoes) to cotton and farming methods to prevent soil depletion.  He was one of the most prominent black scientists of the early 20th century.  Carver was born into slavery, and after slavery was abolished, his family pushed him to continue his education.  He became the first black student at Iowa State University and received his master’s degree there in 1896.  As a professor at the Tuskegee Institute (founded in 1881 to train African-Americans in agriculture and industry), he developed techniques to improve soils depleted by farming.  Apart from his work to improve the lives of black farmers, Carver was also a leader in promoting environmentalism.

Joyce Chen

Joyce Chen
Joyce Chen’s Cook Book
  • Chinese-American chef and entrepreneur
  • Joyce Chen Cook Book helped introduce Chinese cuisine to America

Joyce Chen (9/14/1917 – 8/23/1994) was a Chinese-American chef, restaurateur, author, television personality, and entrepreneur, who helped introduce and popularize Chinese cuisine in the United States.  Born in Beijing, China, Joyce immigrated to the United States in 1949, moving to Cambridge, Massachusetts.  After discovering her home cooked Chinese snacks she made for a bake sale sold out within an hour, she was inspired to open her first restaurant in 1958.  In 1962, she published her influential cookbook, the Joyce Chen Cook Book, which helped popularize northern-style Chinese cuisine in the United States.  Joyce coined the name “Peking Raviolis” for potstickers, invented a design patent for a flat bottom wok with a handle (also known as a stir fry pan), and developed the first line of bottled Chinese stir fry sauces for the US market.  She was known as the “Chinese Julia Childs,” firmly establishing Chinese cuisine in the United States.  Her accomplishments and influence on American cuisine were honored by the US Postal Service and by the city of Cambridge.