7 Inspiring Black Women Throughout History You Should Know About
Traditionally, Black History Month focuses on the enduring legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the resolve of Rosa Parks, and the courage of Harriet Tubman. While these bright lights were crucial to gains in basic human and civil rights for Black people, American history is filled with countless unsung heroes and inspiring Black women who played equally important roles in the freedoms we all enjoy today.
The Real Estate Mogul: Bridget "Biddy" Mason (1818-1891)
In 1851, the enslaved Bridget "Biddy" Mason found herself in San Bernardino, California with her owner. Unbeknownst to him, California had entered the Union as a free state in 1850, which meant if he didn't leave the state within 30 days, his property could sue for freedom. And, that's just what Mason did.
Once she obtained her freedom, Mason used her skills as a midwife, nurse, and businesswoman to thrive, purchasing property in what is now downtown Los Angeles (by some estimates, her fortune would be worth about $6 million today).
She became the first Black millionaire in real estate in Los Angeles but gave back, too: She founded a school and orphanage and co-founded the First African Methodist Episcopal (FAME) Church that still exists today.
The Anti-Lynching Crusader: Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931)
Born enslaved in Mississippi, Ida B. Wells-Barnett dedicated her life to putting an end to lynching—a common punishment for Black people—after friends were lynched for owning a successful grocery store. The owner of two newspapers, The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight and Free Speech, she bravely called for an end to lynching and for the right to vote. The latter placed her at odds with white suffragettes who wanted to remove race from the quest for voting rights, but she continued advocating for Black women and civil rights anyway. Ida B. Wells-Barnett was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize "for her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching."
The Activist: Diane Nash
Black students who challenged segregated dining in the early 1960s saw their pressure pay off in February of 1960 when Diane Nash became one of the first Black people to eat lunch at the Post House Restaurant in the Greyhound Bus Terminal in Nashville, Tennessee. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described her as the "driving spirit in the nonviolent assault on segregation at lunch counters."
Not one to rest on her laurels, Nash also played a crucial role in sustaining the Freedom Rides, illegal interstate bus rides for white and Black college students throughout the South that challenged segregation on buses and in terminals.
Among other accolades, Nash was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Selma Voting Rights Movement.
The Behind-the-Scenes Organizer: Ella Baker (1903-1986)
In February of 1960, a group of Black college students in Greensboro, North Carolina refused to leave a lunch counter where they were denied service. Ella Baker, then executive secretary of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), organized a meeting with them. She viewed young, emerging activists as an asset to the civil rights movement and wanted to do something to help. From that meeting, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was born.
In 1964, Baker went on to help organize Freedom Summer, an effort to end racism in Mississippi and safely register Black voters, who were regularly intimidated or attacked at the polls.
Having worn many hats, Baker was also a co-founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which was aimed at challenging all-white Democratic delegations.
The Trailblazer: Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (1924 -2005)
Despite showing early promise in a political career, Shirley Chisholm became a nursery school teacher. At the time, politics was a white man's game. But in 1964, she successfully ran for the New York State Legislature and, four years later, became the first Black woman in Congress where she was nicknamed "Fighting Shirley." She served seven terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was the first Black woman to serve on the House Rules Committee, the powerful committee that controls how legislation is debated.
In 1972, Shirley Chisholm was also the first Black person to seek the nomination for president of a major political party. Her run gave other women the courage to follow her lead and paved the way for women to be taken seriously as candidates for the job of president of the United States.
The Go-Getter: Astronaut Mae Jemison
Always a high-achiever, Mae Jemison, M.D., attended Stanford University on a scholarship at 16 (!) and graduated with dual degrees in chemical engineering and African American studies. During medical school at Cornell University, she worked at a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand.
In 1983, Jemison joined the Peace Corps in West Africa as a medical officer, overseeing health care for members of the U.S. Embassy and Peace Corps volunteers. Her additional responsibilities included working on multiple projects including one that developed a vaccine for hepatitis B.
But that's not it. Fulfilling a childhood dream, in 1987, she became the first Black female astronaut, too, flying to space aboard the Endeavour in 1992.
Wherever she goes, Dr. Jemison encourages young people—especially youth—to love science.
The Glass Ceiling Breaker: Vice President Kamala Harris
Vice President Kamala Harris is no stranger to shattering glass ceilings. She's the first woman, first Black person, and the first person of South Asian descent to be elected as vice president of the United States. But that's just the latest of her accolades. In 2017, she became the second Black woman and first South Asian U.S. Senator in history and later, the first African-American and first woman to serve as California Attorney General.
A proud daughter of California, Harris scored victories for homeowners impacted by the foreclosure crisis, defended climate change, and is a known advocate for the LGBTQ community.
A proud graduate of Howard University and member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, Vice President Harris is a "shero" to girls all over the world.