A Brief History
On July 16, 1862, we commemorate the birthday of a significant African-American woman, Ida Wells (who first developed statistics on lynching in the US). In honor of this historic Black American Woman, today we choose to highlight the accomplishments of Eight Great Black American Women, having previously recognized “8 Great Black American Men.” There is no significance to the order of the list, so feel free to opine about who should be rated in what order if you wish. Also, feel free to nominate other American women of African descent that you would add to the list. (Hint: In politics and entertainment alone, you could find dozens of candidates. How about Black businesswomen? We are just barely touching on science and industry, so feel free to nominate those categories as well.)
1. Michelle Obama, first African American First Lady of the United States.
Not only was Michelle Obama the first African American woman to serve as the First Lady of the United States by virtue of being married to President Barack Obama, she is also the mother of 2 wonderful girls and a scholar in her own right, having been awarded a Juris Doctor degree from Harvard University with her undergraduate law school at Princeton. Now 54 years old, Michelle Obama (nee Robinson) is the third US First Lady to have earned a post graduate degree, the second to have earned a Doctorate (Hillary Clinton being the first). Along with employment in the legal field prior to becoming First Lady, Michelle has been an advocate for literacy and education, health and fitness, and proper nutrition, all particularly among children. She is consistently among the most admired women in the United States and is a great role model for girls and women.
2. Ida Wells, journalist, organizer, activist.
Born as a slave in 1862, Wells, also known as Ida Bell Wells-Barnett, went on to fame as a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and achieved a high level of education at Freedman’s School, Rust College, and Fisk University. Wells was a well known journalist and activist, chronicling the scourge of lynching Black Americans. Suffering gender discrimination even from African American men involved in the Civil Rights Movement, Wells also was active in the never ending quest for Women’s Rights, including Women’s Suffrage. She was probably the most famous African American woman of her time (1862-1931) and was the founder of several organizations. Considered a radical by some of her contemporaries, Wells was one of the few American women at the time (1895) to retain her own last name after marriage, adding her husband’s name to hers with a hyphen as is common today. (Wells-Barnett) Wells also toured Europe to educate Europeans about race relations and the prevalence of lynching in the United States. Of course, Wells has been remembered with many honors, having appeared on US Postage, having buildings named in her honor, and awards granted in her name.
3. Oprah Winfrey, media mogul and influential role model.
Her television show ruled the airwaves and her book club could make or break a new book. The first African-American billionaire, Oprah was so dominant that she could deliver millions of votes to a political candidate with her endorsement. Somehow, she even found time to star in movies. Believed to be (by Forbes international) the only African-American billionaire in North America, Oprah is the first black female to become a self-made billionaire, owing most of her fortune to her media empire. In fact, Forbes says Oprah was the only ethnic African billionaire in the world from 2004 to 2006. Often listed as one of the most powerful or influential women in the world, Oprah is also well known as a philanthropist, having given away at least $400 million to educational causes. She is a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her media empire includes a magazine as well as television and movies. Her name is often mentioned as a preferred candidate for President despite her never holding public office.
4. Althea Gibson, tennis pioneer.
On July 6, 1957, women’s tennis star Althea Gibson of Harlem, New York (born in South Carolina) became the first ever person of African ancestry to win the prestigious Wimbledon tennis tournament in England. Not only did Althea achieve this notable “first,” but she also had become the first Black tennis player to win a “Grand Slam” event by winning the 1956 French Open as well. Top that with being the first person “of color” to have won the US Nationals (that would become the US Open) in 1957, and winning Wimbledon and the US Nationals again in 1958! Gibson compiled 11 Grand Slam wins (6 doubles), was the AP Female Athlete of the Year in 1957 and 1958, and of course, is in the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. (Honorable mention to Serena Williams, the finest female tennis player of her era.)
5. Rosa Parks, Civil Rights activist.
Born in Tuskegee, Alabama in 1913, as Rosa McCauley, Parks certainly lived through some serious racial discrimination in the segregated American South. She became famous for instigating the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956 and her role in the Civil Rights movement. This icon of Civil Rights died in 2005 at the age of 92 and has been often discussed as an appropriate person to have her image placed on the $10 or $20 bill of US currency. The Montgomery Bus Boycott achieved the landmark US Supreme Court ruling Browder v. Gayle States Supreme Court decision that declared the Alabama and Montgomery segregation laws unconstitutional. Parks has been recognized by numerous awards and honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. Time Magazine called her one of the 20 Most Influential and Iconic People of the 20th Century.
6. Harriet Tubman, Underground Railroad operative and Union Spy.
On March 10, 2018, as we have done every March 10 since 1990, Americans celebrated Harriet Tubman Day, a holiday signed into law on March 9, 1990, by President George HW Bush. Tubman, an escaped African American slave, famously made 13 rescue missions into the slave holding Southern states to rescue at least 70 slaves via her network for escaped slaves known as the “Underground Railroad.” An advocate for the abolition of slavery, Tubman also served as a Union spy during the American Civil War and advocated for women’s suffrage after the Civil War. Born into slavery in Maryland in 1820 (or 1822), she once suffered a head injury from a heavy object thrown by the slave owner at a different slave, an injury which gave the religious minded woman “visions” throughout her life. When the American Civil War broke out, Tubman served as a cook and then as a nurse, transitioning into the highly dangerous roles as an armed scout and as a spy. In 1863 she guided an expedition into South Carolina that freed 700 slaves. Tubman’s activism went from the abolition of slavery to a struggle for Civil Rights for women and African Americans, church involvement, and the establishment of an old folks home for African Americans. Living on charity and in ill health in her last years, Tubman died of pneumonia in 1913, having achieved a degree of fame by that time
7. Sojourner Truth, Civil Rights and Women’s Rights activist.
Born a slave in 1797 New York as Isabella Baumfree, Truth grew up speaking only Dutch, and was sold with a flock of sheep for $100 in 1806. Her new master was cruel and harsh, never hesitating to beat young “Belle” with sticks. Luckily, Belle was again sold in 1808 ($105, inflation it seems), her new owner selling her only a year and a half later. Belle became a Christian and worked variously as a housekeeper, once finding herself accused of murdering the head of the household, but was acquitted. In 1843 Belle had another religious epiphany and became a Methodist, and changed her name to Sojourner Truth. She then began her long mission of fighting for the abolition of slavery and for Human and Civil Rights for African-Americans. In 1850 her book (memoirs), The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave was published, and her 1851 famous speech, Aint I a Woman?, brought her further fame. The landmark speech was delivered at the Akron, Ohio Women’s Rights Convention. Truth made it clear that Human and Civil Rights were being demanded for women of all races, as well as for African-American people. (Written accounts of her speech vary, especially as to imposing on her a Southern dialect, which of course was not at all how she spoke.) Truth was now a popular speaker at suffragist and abolitionist meetings, as well as women’s rights events. Several of her speeches along the way became famous. Read more about this Great Black American Woman in our article dated “November 26, 1883: Sojourner Truth, African-American Heroine Dies“.
8. Mary McLeod Bethune, University Founder.
An education pioneer and not surprisingly a Civil Rights activist, she founded Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls, which later became the Bethune-Cookman College. Mary also served as President of the College, a rare opportunity for a female during the early to mid-20th Century. Upon her death in 1955, Bethune was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. She has also appeared on a US postage stamp and has a building named in her honor. Her life’s work included organizing and advocating for women within the Civil Rights movement, including founding the National Council of Negro Women and working on behalf of Black women within the NAACP and other organizations. Mary was also an advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt and has been referred to as “The First Lady of the Struggle.” In 1930 she was named #10 on a list of America’s Greatest Women. (As an interesting bit of trivia, this All-American woman was born in a log cabin in South Carolina in 1875.)
9. Bonus Round! African American Women Inventors and Scientists.
Marjorie Joyner, inventor of the permanent wave machine for hair styling (first African American woman to receive a patent), also founded a sorority, co-founded the United Beauty School Owners and Teachers Association in 1945 (with Mary McLeod Bethune), and she also worked to raise money for Black colleges.
Mary Kenner, inventor of several household items, receiving 5 patents for her inventions.
Ruane Jeter, inventor of the toaster (which makes her my favorite person on this list!) and several office and stationery items such as the stapler and staple remover.
Alice Parker, inventor of the natural gas central heating furnace.
NASA mathematicians/scientists commemorated in in the 2016 movie, Hidden Figures (based on the book by the same name). These ladies include Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Johnson Vaughan, and Mary Winston Jackson.
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For more information, please see…
Anderson, Becca. The Book of Awesome Women. Mango, 2017.
Lerner, Gerda. Black Women in White America: A Documentary History. Vintage; Reprint edition, 1992.