Throughout the nation’s history, African American women have played historic—and often pivotal—roles in shaping the foundation of the nation. Many of these women served as key figures in the struggle for civil rights, while others made major contributions to the arts, sciences and civil society in general.
With Africans arriving in the New World in 1619 to serve as slaves, it wasn’t until 1780 that Massachusetts formally outlawed slavery, the first colony to do so. During this period, there were a few African Americans living as free persons and their civil rights were sharply limited in most states. Phillis Wheatley was one of the few Black women of the Colonial period to rise to prominence. Born in Africa, she was sold at age 8 to John Wheatley, a wealthy Bostonian, who gave Phillis to his first wife, Sussana, as a handmaid. The Wheatley’s were quickly impressed by the Phillis’s sharp intellect and taught her to read and write, specifically schooling her in literature. Her first poem was published in 1767 and she would go on to publish a highly acclaimed volume of poetry, “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” (1773) before dying in 1784—impoverished—but no longer a slave.
The Atlantic Slave Trade had reportedly had ceased by 1783 (the Northwest Ordinance outlawed slavery in the future states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois), but slavery remained legal in the South. Two Black women played historic roles in the fight against slavery. Sojourner Truth, an abolitionist from New York, became active in evangelical communities and by the mid 1840s, she was speaking regularly on abolition and women’s rights in New York and New England. History would remember her famous speech, “Ain’t I A Woman,” at the Ohio’s Women’s Rights Conference in 1851.
Harriet Tubman escaped slavery then risked her life repeatedly to guide other slaves to freedom. Born in Maryland, Tubman fled north in 1849 to avoid being sold “down the river” and she would make nearly 20 trips back to the South to shepherd some 300 runaway slaves to freedom. Tubman made frequent public appearances in speaking out against slavery, and during the Civil War she served as a spy for Union forces and nursed wounded soldiers. Tubman died in 1913.
Ida B. Wells
After the Civil War, the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments granted African Americans rights they had been denied for 245 years. This progress, however, was hobbled by overt racism and discrimination, particularly in the South. Despite these barriers, a number of prominent Black women would lend their collective voices to the cause of freedom. Ida B. Wells during the 1890s would lead an aggressive campaign in print and during speeches against lynching. Wells was among the founders of the NAACP and would continue to lead the charge for civil rights, fair housing, equal education and women’s rights until her death in 1931.
In a time when few women—Black or White—were active in business, Maggie Lena Walker was a pioneer. Walker in 1903 became the first American woman to found and operate a bank, the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in Richmond, Va., and also founded the St. Luke Herald newspaper. She remained an influential person in America’s financial industry until her death in 1934. Her home in the Jackson Ward area of Richmond is a National Historic Site.
During the first decades of the 20th Century, African Americans were making great strides in politics, the arts and in culture. And while the Great Depression and World War II brought about hard times, some Black women would remain undaunted in their efforts to shine brightly. One of these women was Josephine Baker who ran away from home in her teens to travel to New York City to dazzle audiences with her singing and dancing abilities.
In 1925, Baker moved to Paris where her exotic (and sometimes erotic) nightclub performances made her an overnight sensation. During World War II, Baker nursed wounded Allied soldiers and also contributed occasional intelligence to American and British agencies. In later years, Baker would become involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Baker died in 1975 at age 68, but not before she made a triumphant comeback in Paris and in America during the early 1970s.
In literature, Zora Neale Hurson was one of the most influential American writers of her era. Her best known work, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937) remains essential reading and is considered a seminal work exploring a young girl’s struggle to forge her own destiny in the face of racial discrimination. Hurton quit writing in the late 1940s and by her death in 1960 she had become largely forgotten. It would take the work of another acclaimed author, Alice Walker, and a number of mid-century feminist scholars and writers to reintroduce Hurston to a new audience in the 1970s.
Nella Larson was a contemporary of Hurston. Her most productive period was during the Harlem Renaissance with the novels “Quicksand” (1928) and “Passing” (1929) recognized today as some of the finest examples of American modernism.
For two decades beginning in the 1950s, the civil rights movement took center stage among African American women. Among the women who had key roles in the struggle for civil rights was Rosa Parks who, for many, is one of the iconic figures in the modern civil rights era. The Alabama native was a key planner of the Montgomery, Ala. bus boycott of 1955 when she refused to relinquish her seat to a White rider. Moving to Detroit, Mich. in the late 1950s, Parks remained active in civil rights and political life until her death in 2005 at age 92.
Barbara Jordan came to national prominence as a member of Watergate Select Committee in 1973 to investigate President Richard Nixon’s involvement in the political scandal that would eventually force his resignation from office one year later. While Jordan would deliver the keynote speech at two Democratic National Conventions, years earlier in 1966 she became the first Black woman to serve in the Texas legislature and, later, would join Andrew Young as the first African Americans from a the South to be elected to Congress since Reconstruction. Jordan served in office until 1978 when she stepped down to teach at the University of Texas at Austin. Jordan died in 1996, a few weeks shy of her 60th birthday.
Shirley Chilsolm was a contemporary of Jordan. In 1972, the teacher-turned-politician became the first Black woman to run for President of the United States. Chisolm was known for her staunch opposition to the Vietnam War and spent a lifetime advocating for women’s rights. Chisholm was known for “working across the isle” and once teamed with Sen. Bob Dole to create the food stamp program; she also visited with former Georgia Gov. George Wallace—an arch rival during her era—who was recovering from an assassination attempt.
“Shirley Chisolm had the guts to speak the truth—no matter how uncomfortable or unpopular,” said Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif). “Her ‘greatest political asset,’ she once said, ‘is my mouth, out of which come all kinds of things one shouldn’t always discuss for reasons of political expediency.’ She was always ‘unbought and unbossed.’” Harris and 11 senators have introduced a bill directing Congress to commission a statue if Chisolm to be displayed in the United States Capitol.
In the 21st Century, Oprah Winfrey could be the most famous Black woman in the world. The former talk show host is a prominent philanthropist, actor/producer, publisher and social activist who recently added her voice to the on-going “Me Too” movement to speak out against sexual harassment in the workplace.
“The key to realizing a dream is not to focus on success but on significance,” Winfrey said years ago. “Even the small steps and little victories along your path will take on greater meaning.”
Mae Jamison was the first African American woman astronaut and a leading scientist and advocate for girl’s education (STEM). A physician by training, Jamison joined NASA in 1987 and served aboard the space shuttle Endeavor in 1992. She left NASA the next year to pursue an academic career and, for the past several years, she has led “100 Year Starship,” a research philanthropy dedicated to empowering people through technology.
The list of notable African American women spans all professions. While Michelle Obama served as the first Black First Lady, many other women have made great strides in encouraging more women of color to step into the once all-male bastions of power. Among these accomplished Black women are Donna Brazile, a noted political consultant; Condoleezza Rice, former United States Secretary of State; Susan Rice, former National Security Advisor; Loretta Lynch, former United States Attorney General, and Ava Duvernay and Shonda Rhimes, each an award-winning Hollywood writer and producer.