Great Black Women Who Made History
One can tell a great deal about a people, about a nation, by what it deems important enough to remember
“One can tell a great deal about a people, about a nation, by what it deems important enough to remember,” said Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. With Black History Month soon closing, we want to stay true with our ethos and mission and honor some of the Black and African American women who contributed to shaping the world we live in today.
History has been written by white men, that’s undeniable. Yet, today we can make a conscious decision to rewrite history and include those names, lives, and stories that have been scraped off. Today, we can learn about Black and African American women’s experiences, gain new perspectives, and celebrate role models that look more like us and that could inspire this generation and those to come.
From activists to authors, from politicians to artists, these are just 20 of the many women whose lives and actions should be celebrated during Black History Month and every day.
** Black and African American women’s contributions are enormous, more than we could ever count, so this is certainly not an exhaustive list.**
- Ana Nzinga, Queen of Ndongo and Matamba
Ana Nzinga was a controversial yet powerful African woman who stood up against the Portuguese Empire, who wanted to overthrow her.
In 1624, Ana became queen of Ndongo, a state to the east of Luanda. The kingdom was under the attack of both Portuguese and neighboring African tribes, so Nzinga proposed to become an intermediary rather than a supply zone in the slave trade and gained the favor of Portugal. Unfortunately, she was betrayed by her allies and flew with her people further west, where she founded the state of Matamba. To reinforce the military power of her newly born state, Nzinga offered refuge to all the runaway slaves and Portuguese African soldiers and fomented rebellion within Ndongo itself. By the time of her death, Matamba was a prosperous nation that could deal with the Portugueses on an equal footing.
- Sojourner Truth
“I will not allow my life’s light to be determined by the darkness around me.”
Born into slavery, Soujourner Truth not only escaped her faith in 1826 but she also became a fierce abolitionist and early activist for civil and women’s rights. Her famous speech ‘An’t I a Woman?’ delivered in 1851 during the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention is still one of the most popular and cited. It’s a call for equal human rights, justice, and respect.
We all owe Soujourner a piece of our freedom.
- Maggie Lena Walker
“The only way we can kill the lion of prejudice is to stop feeding him.”
Daughter of a former slave, Maggie Lena Walker was a teacher and a businesswoman. She was the first black woman to form a bank and the first woman ever to be a bank president in the United States. She even ran for governor of Virginia once!
Her accomplishments are extraordinary, especially because she did it all before women were allowed to vote and the civil rights movements started. Chapeau!
- Madam C.J. Walker
“Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them.”
Born Sarah Breedlove, this woman is widely known as the first ever female self-made millionaire in America.
After battling with hair loss herself, due to a scalp disorder, Sarah created her first hair product ‘The Wonderful Hair Grower’. It was immediately a sensation. She started to create more products and remedies with Black women in mind and built her own brand. That’s when she changed her name to Madam C.J. Walker and began to open beauty salons, storefronts, factories, and even schools to teach Black women to care for their hair and train them to sell her products.
Madam C.J. Walker’s business created thousands of jobs for Black women and paved the way to success and financial independence for many of them.
- Fannie Lou Hamer
“Nobody is free until everybody is free.”
Fannie was a powerful voice for civil rights in Mississippi, where she fought for African Americans’ right to vote, work, and prosper. She worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee for a while, getting as many African Americans as possible to register to vote in the state. She was also one of the founders and leaders of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
For her efforts and contributions, she rightfully earned her spot in the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
- Daisy Bates
“Surely the world we live in is but the world that lives in us.”
Did you know that Daisy Bates has an official state holiday in her honor in Arkansas? Well, she does and it’s totally deserved too!
Daisy was an activist, journalist, and lecturer and played a key role as a supporter and guide for the black students who wanted to enroll in the Arkansas public schools together with the white students. She courageously defied segregation, helping the Little Rock Nine attend school. She firmly believed that education is a right for everyone, regardless of their race or background.
She also served as a member of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration and continued her work for her fellow African American citizens until her death.
- Rosa Parks (and Claudette Colvin)
“I knew someone had to take the first step and I made up my mind not to move.”
A celebration of inspirational Black women wouldn’t be complete without a mention to the so-called ‘First Lady of the Freedom Movement’.
We all know the story of how she refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger in Montgomery. Her act of defiance became a movement, the ‘Montgomery Bus Boycott’, and turned her into an international icon of the fight against racism and segregation.
She was also an important member of the NAACP and the Black Power Movement. When she died, her body was taken to the Capitol. She was the first woman and second black person to be buried there.
Sara Parks was not the only one and probably not even the first black person who refused to abide by the rules of racial segregation. Are you familiar with the name Claudette Colvin? Claudette was only 15 when she challenged the law and refused to relinquish her seat on public transport nine months before Parks. A gesture worth remembering today and always.
- Harriet Tubman
“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”
Not only did Harriet Tubman escape slavery she also succeeded in freeing more than 700 black slaves in her life through the Underground Railroad.
She was a fighter, a scout, and a spy during the Civil War. Her charisma was able to mobilize people of all kinds to change the world together. She’s, with reason, one of the most famous protagonists of the abolitionist movement and a symbol of courage.
- Audre Lorde
“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”
Audre Lorde was a writer, poet, and political activist who not only voiced her frustration about the exclusion of Black women from the feminist movements in the ‘60s but introduced the idea of intersectionality, which is the convergence of race, gender, and class differences that can create a serious disadvantage for some groups of people. People like Audre, of course. Because she was a Black woman and also openly lesbian.
Her poetry collection ‘From a Land Where Other People Live’ was nominated for a National Book Award and consecrated Audre as a living legend for the LGBTQIA+ community of New York.
- Loretta Lynch
“Everyone wants to be seen. Everyone wants to be heard. Everyone wants to be recognized as the person they are and not a stereotype or an image.”
Lorette Lynch served as the United States Attorney General from 2015 to 2017. She was the second woman and the first Black woman to be nominated for the position.
Daughter of a rebellious Black woman who fought segregation and discrimination her own way and a preacher who always believed that people should be rewarded for their value, not their race or gender, Loretta was set from childhood to become an important piece of American history.
- Dorothy Height
“I want to be remembered as someone who used herself and anything she could touch to work for justice and freedom… I want to be remembered as one who tried.”
Dorothy Height is often referred to as the ‘Godmother of Civil Rights’. She was President of the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years and dedicated her life to helping Black women gain equality of treatment and opportunities.
Dorothy also participated in the anti-lynching protests and was the main organizer of the March on Washington, which purpose was to advocate for the civil and economic rights of African Americans. Her long life was spent at the service of people, and we thank her for that.
- Bessie Coleman
“The air is the only place free from prejudice.”
Bessie Coleman was a tenacious woman who became the first woman of African American descent and the first of Native American descent to be a pilot.
At that time, there were no schools of aviation for women or Black people in the United States. So saved up as much money as she could and went to France to train. She was the only non-white student, of course, but that didn’t discourage her. She got her international pilot’s license and became a successful air show pilot in Texas. She even started a plan to open a school for African American aviators. Unfortunately, her premature death at just 34 years old prevented her from seeing all her dreams come true, but we all know she was the inspiration behind the advancement of aviation in the Black community.
- Angela Davis
“We have to talk about liberating minds as well as liberating societies.”
Angela Davis is synonymous with activism. Even today!
She was an important member of the radical counterculture movement and the civil rights movements of the ‘60s. A former member of the Black Panther Party and the Communist Party, Angela is known for always telling her truth, which got her into trouble more than once. She was even targeted by the FBI and imprisoned.
She’s more than a civil rights activist. She’s always been involved in the feminist movement and the prisoners’ rights. Today she focuses on spreading the knowledge about intersectional feminism and fighting the injustice of the prison system in the United States.
- Shirley Chisholm
“I’m looking for no man walking this earth for approval of what I’m doing.”
Shirley Chisholm made history by being the first Black woman elected to Congress and the first Black candidate to run for president as a Democrat in 1972. She paved the way for Barack Obama, Kamala Harris, and all African American Politicians who are serving the United States in the most recent times.
During her life, Shirley also fought for child welfare, education, and Black women’s reproductive rights. She was fierce and determined to succeed. What an inspiration!
- Maya Angelou
“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”
Maya Angelou was a poet, author, and civil rights activist who changed the artistic landscape for many Black women writers forever. By telling her story, by sharing her pain and joy through beautifully printed words she gave a voice to the voiceless and break barriers for African American writers everywhere.
- Nina Simone
“I tell you what freedom is to me. No fear.”
This incredibly talented singer and songwriter doesn’t need any introduction. Her voice is unmistakable, raspy at times, at times soft as cream. Nina Simone explored many genres, including jazz, r&b, blues, folk, gospel, and more.
Her life and experiences as a Black woman are reflected in her music, as she believed that it’s an artist’s duty to reflect their time. She did that through her songs and also by passionately speaking at protests and marches of the civil rights movements.
- Mae Jemison
“Don’t let anyone rob you of your imagination, your creativity, or your curiosity. It’s your place in the world; it’s your life. Go on and do all you can with it, and make it the life you want to live.”
Dr. Mae Jemison became popular for being the first Black woman to be admitted to the astronaut training program in 1987 and the first to fly to space in 1992 on the space shuttle Endeavour.
As a child, she loved science and…dancing. She studied and performed some paid gigs in her youth, but her passion eventually led her to become a doctor. She served in West Africa on a program to provide medical assistance over there and, upon her return, she decided, against all odds, to become an astronaut.
She now sponsors programs and camps to help spark children’s interest in STEM. What a woman!
- Serena and Venus Williams
“The success of every woman should be the inspiration to another. We should raise each other up.” – Serena.
“You have to believe in yourself when no one else does. That makes you a winner right there.” – Venus.
Two of the world’s best tennis players also happened to be sisters. Serena and Venus are very competitive; that’s not a secret to anyone. Yet they’ve always supported each other and shown the world that you can be a winner and still have respect for your opponent.
- Oprah Winfrey
“I am a woman in process. I’m just trying like everybody else.”
We’re huge fans of Oprah Winfrey!
She’s probably the most prominent Black woman’s voice of our days. Her career spans TV, movies, and books. Since her first national talk show in 1986, she accomplished so much and achieved such an enormous success that it’d be unfair not to mention her contribution as a Black woman who made history.
- Byoncé Knowles
“I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. I only have to follow my heart and concentrate on what I want to say to the world. I run my world.”Beyoncé
We know it can be considered audacious (to say the least!) to add Beyoncé to this list, together with Black women who fought slavery and discrimination. However, we believe that celebrating Black women’s successes is an ongoing process and cannot be limited to activists, politicians, and authors.
Beyoncé has been singing and dancing for decades, becoming one of the most popular and loved female role models in the world. 20 Grammy awards and other prizes are the indisputable measures of her talent, but what strikes the most is her confidence and how she uses her influence to propel the modern feminist movement and help women step into their personal power. If anything, we need more Beyoncés to run the world!
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