Updated: Oct 30
Did you learn about these incredible women in your social studies or history class in school?
The stories of these women and many more like them point to a uniquely American experience of perseverance, determination, hope, resilience, and achievement in the face of formidable challenges. The stories about their struggles and accomplishments are part of the true history of the United States. Coalition for Racial Equity and Social Justice (Caolition4Justice) honor and celebrate these and other amazing black American women.
Sarah Breedlove, (Madam C. J. Walker, 1867–1919), the daughter of a former enslaved African, was an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and political and social activist. After experiencing a disorder on her scalp caused by her use of harsh hair products, she invented, developed, and marketed beauty products for black women. Madam Walker established a training program and trained “beauty therapists,” sales agents, to keep up with the enormous demand of her mail order catalog. She was the first self-made female millionaire in American history. These are only some of the earlier and prominent black American brilliant and creative minds who improved the quality of life for all Americans, offering affordable shoes, blood banks, personal computers, life-saving medical and scientific inventions, beauty products, and more.
Dr. Patricia Bath
Dr. Patricia Bath, a black ophthalmologist (b. 1942), revolutionized the field of ophthalmology when she invented the procedure for cataract surgery—the Laserphaco Probe that increased the accuracy and results of cataract surgery. She patented her invention in 1988, and she is the first black physician to receive a medical patent. She is also a trailblazer in other areas—the first black person to complete residency in Ophthalmology at New York University, the first woman to chair the ophthalmology residency in the United States, a co-founder of the American Institute of Blindness, and her research on the health disparities between black patients and other patients led to the creation of a new discipline— “community ophthalmology.”
Mary McLeod Bethune
Mary McLeod Bethune was a pioneer for education and a civil rights activist. She believed in the importance of education as a vehicle for racial advancement and worked hard to make sure that young people had the knowledge they needed to move forward. She founded Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls, which later became the Bethune-Cookman College, one of the few places where African Americans could get a college degree. She also worked with the National Association of Colored Women and eventually became its leader in 1924.
She aided several presidents and offered advice on child welfare and minority affairs. She started the National Council of Negro Women, worked with NAACP and went on to be the director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration, helping young people to find employment. After her passing in 1955, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, immortalized on a stamp and has her own council building.
Ida B. Wells
In the 1890’s Ida led an anti-lynching crusade with her work as a journalist. She wrote as a columnist for various Black publications detailing her experiences as a Black woman in the South, before owning and publishing two magazines of her own: ‘Memphis Free Speech and Headlight’, and ‘Free Speech’. She also worked as a teacher and ended up losing this position for her vocal criticism of the condition of Black schools in the city. After a few incidents of race-related murders involving local business owners and friends of hers, she decided to focus her writing fully on the injustice of white on Black murder, despite receiving death threats.
She lectured abroad to find further support from open-minded white people and took her complaints to the White House in an effort to spark legal reform to protect Black people from lynching. She also founded several civil rights organizations to help women, children and people of color and continued to write and protest until her death in 1931.
Fannie Barrier Williams
Fannie Barrier Williams | Known as: Educator, activist - Life: 1855-1944 | Fannie Barrier Williams was an influential educator and activist who was a staunch advocate for freed slaves in the South. She spoke at the World's Colombian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, expressing her concern over the lack of Blacks on the Board of Control for that cultural event. She helped found organizations such as the National League of Colored Women, the National Association of Colored Women, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She also supported women's suffrage and in 1907, was the only African-American chosen to eulogize Susan B. Anthony at the 1907 National American Women Suffrage Association convention. (Public Domain/Library of Congress)
Althea Gibson | Known as: Tennis player - Life: 1927-2003 | Althea Gibson overcame racial bias to become the first African-American tennis player to win a Grand Slam tournament — the French Championships in 1956. She went on to win four more singles Grand Slams and six doubles titles. Venus and Serena Williams, among many other women players, Black and otherwise, cite her as an inspiration. (Central Press/Hulton Archive via Getty Images)
Angela Davis | Known as: Professor, activist - Life: 1944-present | Angela Davis was a major activist in the late 1960s and early '70s. Profoundly affected by her childhood in the segregated city of Birmingham, Ala., she joined the Communist Party and became an affiliate of the Black Panthers as a young woman and ran as the Communist vice-presidential candidate in 1980 and 1984. She was arrested, tried, and acquitted for her role in a Black Panther courtroom shootout. She went on to have a distinguished academic career at institutions including Pomona College, Rutgers, and Vassar, and has remained politically active. (Express/Archive Photos via Getty Images)
Patricia Harris | Known as: Ambassador, professor - Life: 1924-1985 | Patricia Harris was a trailblazer. She was the first Black woman to serve as an American ambassador when she represented the United States in Luxembourg from 1965 to 1967, and the first appointed to a Cabinet when she was named Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in 1977. (Public Domain/Library of Congress)
Billie Holiday | Known as: Musician - Life: 1915-1959 | Billie Holiday, born Eleanora Fagan, was one of the greatest jazz singers of the 20th century. Holiday started working with Artie Shaw and his orchestra in 1938, becoming one of the first female African American vocalists to work with a white orchestra. Her singing reflected her tumultuous life, which was marred by bouts of substance abuse. Her autobiography was made into the 1972 film "Lady Sings the Blues" starring Diana Ross. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Emma Azalia Smith Hackley
Emma Azalia Smith Hackley | Known as: Musician, activist - Life: 1867-1922 | Emma Azalia Smith Hackley was a woman of many talents: singer, teacher, journalist, and activist. She learned the piano and violin as a child, studied opera in Paris, and became a choir director. She edited the women's section of The Colorado Statesman, worked as an elementary school teacher, and gave singing lessons to such artists as Marian Anderson, Roland Hayes, and R. Nathaniel Dett. Co-founder of the Colored Women's League, she combated racial discrimination all her life. (Public Domain/Library of Congress) (Library of Congress; P&P)
Elizabeth Carter Brooks
Elizabeth Carter Brooks | Known as: Educator, activist, architect - Life: 1867-1951 | The daughter of a slave owned by President John Tyler, Brooks studied architecture and design at the Swain Free School in her native New Bedford, Mass., became New Bedford's first African American teacher, founded the community's NAACP chapter, helped open the New Bedford Home for the Aged and contributed to its design. She believed that it was important to preserve buildings associated with Black history, and worked to recognize and protect them. (Public Domain/Library of Congress) (Library of Congress; P&P)
Ella Fitzgerald | Known as: Singer - Life: 1917-1996 | Certain celebrities are known just by their one name, and Ella is one of them. She was one of the greatest singers of the 20th century, despite racial bias that kept her out of famous performing venues for much of her early career. She won 13 Grammy awards and sold over 40 million albums. Fitzgerald performed with the greatest performers of the 20th century, among them Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, and Benny Goodman. (John Downing/Getty Images)
Katherine Johnson | Known as: Scientist - Life: 1918-2020 | Katherine Johnson is one of four brilliant black American female engineers and mathematicians whose work during the early years of the space race made the space travel possible through their complex calculations. The four women, Christine Darden and Mary Jackson (mathematicians), Dorothy Vaughan (computer programmer), and Katherine (mathematician), were profiled in the book and film “Hidden Figures” Johnson was a NASA mathematician whose trajectory calculations of the flight path of United States first crewed space mission helped astronaut Alan Shepard become the first American to land in space. Her skills were crucial in calculating orbital equations that led to the success of astronaut John Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission in which he orbited the Earth successfully. Johnson also was a pathfinder in her native West Virginia, where she was among the first African Americans to integrate West Virginia University. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
We can not be an equitable and just nation until our true and honest history is part of our school curriculum and taught to every student in all our schools., colleges, and universities.
Bernadine Ahonkhai, M.A., M.Ed., ED.D
Founder/President & CEO, Coalition4Justice
905 N. Bethlehem Pike, #754, Spring House, PA 19477
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