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21 Black American Women You Should Know

In honor of Black History Month 2022, we wanted to share a few Black women who have made history that you might not know about..

Barbara Jordan (1936-1996) represented Texas in the US House of Representatives from 1972-78 and was the first Black congresswoman from the Deep South. In 1976, she became the first Black women to deliver a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention

Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977) was the vice-chairperson of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, as well as a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee which organized the Freedom Summer voter registration drives.

Angela Davis (1944-) is a Black feminist activist and academic, known for her affiliation with the Communist Party. She is a professor at the University of California – Ssanta Cruz and is an author of over ten books on class, feminism, race, and the US prison system.

Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005) Congress is more diverse now than it’s ever been. However, when Chisholm was attempting to shatter the glass ceiling, the same couldn’t be said. During the racially contentious period in the late ’60s, she became the first Black woman elected to Congress. She represented New York’s 12th District from 1969 to 1983, and in 1972, she became the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Her campaign slogan: “Unbought and Unbossed” rings even louder today. Senator Kamala Harris recently paid tribute to Chisholm in her presidential campaign announcement by using a similar logo to Chisholm’s.

Carol Moseley Braun (1947-) was elected in 1992 to represent Illinois in the US Senate. She was the first Black women elected to the US Senate, the first Black US Senator from the Democratic Party, the first woman to defeat an incumbent US Senator in an election, and the first female US Senator from Illinois.

Claudette Colvin (1939-)

Before Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, there was a brave 15-year-old who chose not to sit at the back of the bus. That young girl was Colvin. Touting her constitutional rights to remain seated near the middle of the vehicle, Colvin challenged the driver and was subsequently arrested. She was the first woman to be detained for her resistance. However, her story isn’t nearly as well-known as Parks’.

Annie Lee Cooper (1910 – 2010)

The Selma, Alabama, native played a crucial part in the 1965 Selma Voting Rights Movement. But it wasn’t until Oprah played her in the 2014 Oscar-nominated film, Selma, that people really took notice of Cooper’s activism. She is lauded for punching Alabama Sheriff Jim Clark in the face, but she really deserves to be celebrated for fighting to restore and protect voting rights.

 Dorothy Height (1912 – 2010)

Hailed the “godmother of the women’s movement,” Height used her background in education and social work to advance women’s rights. She was a leader in the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and the president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) for more than 40 years. She was also among the few women present at the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Bessie Coleman (1892 -1926)

Despite being the first licensed Black pilot in the world, Coleman wasn’t recognized as a pioneer in aviation until after her death. Though history has favored Amelia Earhart or the Wright brothers, Coleman—who went to flight school in France in 1919—paved the way for a new generation of diverse fliers like the Tuskegee airmen, Blackbirds, and Flying Hobos.

Ethel Waters (1896 – 1977)

Waters first entered the entertainment business in the 1920s as a blues singer, but she made history for her work in television. In addition to becoming the first African American to star in her own TV show in 1939, The Ethel Waters Show, she was nominated for her first Emmy in 1962.

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917 – 2000)

Today, Brooks is considered to be one of the most revered poets of the 20th century. She was the first Black author to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for Annie Allenand she served as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, becoming the first Black woman to hold that position. She was also the poet laureate of the State of Illinois, and many of her works reflected the political and social landscape of the 1960s, including the civil rights movement and the economic climate.

Alice Coachman (1923 – 2014)

Growing up in Albany, Georgia, the soon-to-be track star got an early start running on dirt roads and jumping over makeshift hurdles. She became the first African American woman from any country to win an Olympic Gold Medal at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London. She set the record for the high jump at the Games, leaping to 5 feet and 6 1/8 inches. Throughout her athletic career, she won 34 national titles—10 of which were in the high jump. She was officially inducted into the National Track-and-Field Hall of Fame in 1975 and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame

Jane Bolin (1908 – 2007)

A pioneer in law, Jane Bolin was the first Black woman to attend Yale Law School in 1931. In 1939, she became the first Black female judge in the United States, where she served for 10 years. One of her significant contributions throughout her career was working with private employers to hire people based on their skills, as opposed to discriminating against them because of their race. She also served on the boards of the NAACP, Child Welfare League of America, and the Neighborhood Children’s Center.

Maria P. Williams (1866 – 1932)

Thanks to the early accomplishments of Williams, as the first Black woman to produce, write, and act in her own movie in 1923, The Flames of Wrath, we have female directors and producers like Oprah, Ava DuVernay, and Shonda Rhimes. Beyond film, the former Kansas City teacher was also an activist, and detailed her leadership skills in the book she authored, My Work and Public Sentiment in 1916.

Marsha P. Johnson (1945 – 1992)

Before the Netflix documentary brought Johnson’s story to life with the documentary, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson by David France, many people were unfamiliar with the influential role she had on drag and queer culture. Johnson, a Black transwoman and activist, was at the forefront of the LGBTQ movement. In addition to being the co-founder of STAR, an organization that housed homeless queer youth, Johnson also fought for equality through the Gay Liberation Front.

Minnie Riperton (1947 – 1979)

Mariah Carey is heralded for her whistle register, which is the highest the human voice is capable of reaching. But Riperton perfected the singing technique years before and was best known for her five-octave vocal range. The whistling can be heard on her biggest hit to date, “Lovin’ You.” The infectious ballad was originally created as an ode to her daughter, Maya Rudolph, of Bridesmaids and Saturday Night Live fame. However, before she could become a household name, she died in 1979 at the age of 31 from breast cancer.

Mae Jemison (1956 – )

Mae Jemison wasn’t just the first African American woman who orbited into space aboard the shuttle Endeavour. She’s also a physician, teacher, a Peace Corps volunteer, and president of tech company, the Jemison Group. She continues to work towards the advancement of young women of color getting more involved in technology, engineering, and math careers.

Rose Marie McCoy (1922 – 2015)

McCoy’s name may not be instantly recognizable, but she wrote and produced some of the biggest pop songs in the 1950s. In an industry dominated by white males, McCoy was able to make her mark through her pen, even if she couldn’t through her own voice. Her songs, “After All” and “Gabbin’ Blues” never quite took off on the charts, but she was courted by music labels to write for other artists, including hit singles for Big Maybelle, Elvis Presley, and Big Joe Turner. So now when you hear Presley’s “Trying to Get You,” you’ll remember the name of the African American woman who wrote it.

Ella Baker (1903-1986)

Baker was an essential activist during the civil rights movement. She was a field secretary and branch director for the NAACP and also co-founded an organization that raised money to fight Jim Crow Laws. Additionally, Baker was a key organizer for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). But what was perhaps her biggest contribution to the movement was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which prioritized nonviolent protest, assisted in organizing the 1961 Freedom Rides, and aided in registering Black voters. The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights exists today to carry on her legacy

Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951)

After being diagnosed with cervical cancer at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951, a sample of Lacks’s cancer cells were taken without her consent by a researcher. And though she succumbed to the disease at the age of 31 that same year, her cells would go on to advance medical research for years to come, as they had the unique ability to double every 20-24 hours. “They have been used to test the effects of radiation and poisons, to study the human genome, to learn more about how viruses work, and played a crucial role in the development of the polio vaccine,” Johns Hopkins said.

In 2017, Oprah starred in and executive produced HBO’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, adapted from the book by Rebecca Skloot.

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895)

Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first Black female doctor in the United States. After attending the prestigious Massachusetts private school West-Newton English and Classical School, she worked as a nurse for eight years until applying to medical school in 1860 at the New England Female Medical College. She was accepted and would go on to graduate four years later. Though little is known of her career, PBS reported that she worked as a physician for the Freedman’s Bureau for the State of Virginia. She later practiced in Boston’s predominantly Black neighborhood at the time, Beacon Hill, and published A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts.

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