African Americans today are pop culture icons, leaders, pioneers, inventors, entrepreneurs, doctors, and judges, and so much more. However, this wasn’t always possible. There was a time that personal and professional opportunities were scarce for African Americans – even more so for African American women. From fighting against slavery to fighting for voting and civil rights, from fighting against racism to overcoming the odds and achieving unparalleled fame and success; African American have done it all. Countless Black women have left their mark on American history.
It would be difficult to include every Black woman that has contributed to the betterment of American society in a single article. It would be close to impossible to list all their struggles and achievements. The following list, therefore, includes only a few of the most prominent and important Black women in history and a brief summary of what they were/have been able to achieve.
1. Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)
She dedicated her life to fighting against slavery and achieving gender equality. She managed to escape, with her son, from her life of slavery and was the first Black woman to win a custody case against a white man in 1828. She is most famous for her speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” which she delivered at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention. She received widespread fame and recognition for her efforts in the American Civil War and was one of the first Black women to be invited to the White House.
2. Harriet Tubman (1822-1913)
Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland and remained a slave until her escape in 1849. Once free, however, she returned to help free her family members as well. She spent the next 12 years of her life helping hundreds of slaves escape to freedom by travelling along a route which came to be known as the “Underground Railroad.” During the American Civil War, she worked as a nurse, a scout and a spy for Union forces. After the war she fought for the establishment of schools and other educational institutions for the Black community and became actively engaged in women’s rights activism as well.
3. Ida B. Wells (1862-1931)
Wells was a journalist, educator and an activist. She is considered a prominent figure in the history of the early civil rights movements. She received her freedom as a result of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and dedicated her life to educating minorities. Her career in journalism focused on the plight of African Americans as well as the discrimination faced by women in general. She was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
4. Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954)
Terrell was born into considerable privilege. Her father was one of the first African American millionaires in the South and her mother was a successful Black woman in her own right. She received the best education available for a Black woman and was one of the first African American women to achieve a college degree. She was an educator, activist, journalist and suffragette. She was a member of the NAACP, the Colored Women’s League of Washington and one of the founders and the first president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). She was also one of the founding members of the National Association of College Women (later known as the National Association of University Women) and the first Black woman to be a member of the school board of a major American City.
5. Maggie Lena Walker (1864-1934)
Maggie Lena Walker not only broke racial stereotypes, but gender stereotypes as well. She was a successful businesswoman and was the first woman (of any color) to establish and serve as the president of a bank. She was born to former slaves, and received her education in Richmond, Virginia. She started her career as an educator and went on to establish a newspaper as well. In 1903, she established the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank and served as its first president. She also served as the chairwoman of the board when the bank merged with two others.
6. Rosa Parks (1913-2005)
Rosa became a part of the civil rights movement in 1932 when she married activist Raymond Parks. She joined the local chapter of the NAACP in Montgomery, Alabama in 1943.
However, she is most famous for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in December 1955. She is often, incorrectly, credited for being the first woman to do so. However, she was actively involved in the subsequent bus boycott that led to the desegregation of the city’s public transport over a year later. She remained an active civil and women’s rights activist until her death in 2005.
7. Fanny Lou Hamer (1917-1977)
Fanny Lou Hamer was the daughter of Mississippi share croppers and spent most her life working in the fields. She, and her husband, worked at the Marlow plantation until 1962 when she was fired for registering to vote. She dedicated the rest of her life to activism. While she did not have much of a formal education, she learned to read and write through bible study and passed her literacy test later on. She was one of the founders as well as the vice chairman of the Freedom Democratic Party and spoke at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) of 1964. She was an eloquent orator and some of her quotes are still famous today – the most famous one being “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” She was one of the organizers of the Freedom Summer and a co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus. She ran, unsuccessfully, for U.S Congress in 1964 and for the Mississippi State Senate in 1971. She was posthumously inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.
8. Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005)
While today, Black women hold many positions of power and authority, Shirley Chisholm was the first African American Woman to be elected to Congress in 1968. In 1972, she became the first woman as well as the first African American woman to campaign for the presidential nomination from the platform of the Democratic Party. She championed the rights of women and minorities throughout her life and was a member of various organizations such as the New York chapter of the League of Women Voters, the Democratic Party club in Brooklyn and the NAACP.
9. Maya Angelou (1928-2014)
Maya Angelou was an American author, actress, screenwriter, dancer, poet and civil rights activist. She is best known for her 1969 memoir, I know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which was the first nonfiction bestseller by a Black woman. Raped by her mother’s boyfriend as a 7 year old, she became quiet and reclusive. This incident would have a lasting impact on her life, work and activism. Over the course of her acting career, she received Tony and Emmy nominations and even won a Grammy for the audio version of a collection of her poems. He works touched on the race and gender based problems she experienced in her life and her success acted as an inspiration for countless Black women.
10. Claudette Colvin (b. 1939)
Claudette Colvin is a retired American nurse. However, she is also one of the pioneers of the civil rights movement in the 1950s. While Rosa Parks is the more famous example, Claudette Colvin is actually the first known Black woman to refuse to give up her bus seat to a white person in March 1955. She was, then, just 15 years old and was arrested for violation of an ordinance addressing segregation.
11. Oprah Winfrey (b. 1954)
Oprah Winfrey is an American TV personality, actress, author, businesswoman and philanthropist. Born into poverty in rural Mississippi, she went on to become the first North American multi-billionaire, the richest African American of the 20th century, and has been frequently called the most generous African American philanthropist. She is frequently considered one of the most influential women in the world. Her political endorsements are much sought after and carry a lot of political weight. While she is best known for her talk show and is dubbed the “Queen of All Media”, she is also a successful businesswoman and the Oprah Winfrey Network is one of her most famous ventures. Her accolades include 18 Daytime Emmy Awards, 2 Primetime Emmys, and a Tony Award, a Peabody Award and various Academy Awards and nominations. She has given away hundreds of millions of dollars in charitable donations to different causes and hundreds of scholarships. She was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2013.
12. Michelle Obama (b. 1964)
Michelle Obama is an American attorney, author and political personality. She served as the First Lady of the United Stated during her husband’s presidency from 2009 to 2017. She is the first Black woman to be the First Lady of the United States. She is a Princeton and Harvard graduate, and has worked as an attorney at prestigious law firms as well as various non-profit organizations. She has also served as the associate dean for Student Services at the University of Chicago. During her tenure as the first lady she worked for and championed many causes including women’s rights, racial equality, LGBTQ rights, education, and health awareness programs. She was actively involved in the efforts for the safe retrieval of kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria, and is a strong proponent of healthy and organic lifestyles. She is considered by many to be a fashion and pop culture icon as well.