— Women you should know

These are 11 of the black women you should be learning about in history class

6Shonda Rhimes (1970-Present)

Karwai Tang/Getty Images

She’s a self-proclaimed titan whose shows — Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, and The Catch —when combined, make up 70 hours of TV, with 45 of those hours being shows that she has not only produced, but also created. Rhimes will often juggle three or four shows in production at the same time, which air in seven languages for 30 million people. Her production company, Shondaland, employs 550 actors, writers, producers, and crew members. Did I mention she’s a single mother with three kids?

The Golden Globe winner started off at the University of Southern California. A brilliant student, she earned the Gary Rosenberg Writing Fellowship. Before her massive TV success, Rhimes wrote films like Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, and the Britney Spears masterpiece that is Crossroads. She’s not just breaking ground for herself, but she’s creating roles for people of color. Rhimes casts minorities as leading roles — not just as the funny best friend. Her shows are a reflection of the world we actually live in, and they make us wonder why more network television showrunners don’t follow her lead.

7Madam C. J. Walker (1867-1919)

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

She was born Sarah Breedlove on a Louisiana cotton plantation, and became the first female in the U.S. to become a self-made millionaire. In 1905, Walker created a line of hair care products for African Americans, after losing her hair due to a scalp ailment. The southern native was also the sole owner of her million dollar business, and worked to bring the Walker Building (an arts center) to life. Located in Indianapolis, it is now considered a National Historic Landmark.

8Patricia Bath (1942-Present)

Jemal Countess/Getty Images

With time, cataracts can lead to blindness. It’s thanks to Dr. Patricia Bath that millions of people no longer live with this condition. Specifically, she invented the Laserphaco Probe which, unlike previous procedures, has few negative side effects.  Before co-creating the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness (with the belief that sight is a human right), Dr. Bath was the first female member of the Department of Ophthalmology at Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA. 

9Moms Mabley (1894-1975)

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

It is believed that Mabley is one of the first stand-up comics, inspiring legends like Lenny Bruce. She starred in numerous films, headlined the Apollo, and had many critically-acclaimed and commercially successful comedy albums (including the gold-certified The Funniest Woman Alive, Moms Mabley at The U.N., and Moms Mabley at The Playboy Club).

She was born Loretta Mary Aiken, and survived a traumatic childhood. Both of the North Carolina native’s parents died when she was young — she lost her firefighter dad when she was 11, and lost her mother in a truck accident on Christmas. She survived rape twice, and when both attacks left her pregnant, she gave the children up for adoption. Despite these horrific obstacles, at 14, she left home to pursue her showbiz dreams. This woman was fiercely dedicated to her work. Nothing illustrates that more than when she famously kept working on the 1974 film Amazing Grace, even after having a heart attack during filming.

Ultimately, Mabley is a comedy pioneer who doesn’t get the recognition she deserves.

10Mary Fields (1832-1914)

Fields was the first black female route mail carrier in America and while she led an overall ordinary life, her accomplishments are truly extraordinary. She was known for her masculine attire and keeping a revolver hidden underneath her clothes. After ending her mailing career, Fields led a quieter life in the town of Cascade, Montana, where she made her living as a laundress.

At one point, Fields had a restaurant that wasn’t profitable because she didn’t make the poor pay for their meals. Keep in mind, this woman (whose nickname was Black Mary) was born a slave. The fact that people in a small town in Middle America loved her so much that her birthday became a town holiday (and school was even closed on that day) speaks volumes about who she was as a person.

11Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973)

Tharpe blended blues and folk, which was one of the catalysts for rock and roll. Legends like Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and Johnny Cash have openly spoken about how Tharpe  influenced them — and yet most people aren’t familiar with her work. Perhaps the fact that her legacy isn’t worshipped like the men she influenced is proof of the inherent sexism and racism that is so deeply ingrained in our society.

Born Rosetta Nubin, she got her stage name from her ex-husband by changing “Thorpe” to “Tharpe.” “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” one of her standout hits, made it to the second spot on the Billboard R&B charts. This was huge, since it was the first gospel song to do so. Known as the “Godmother of Rock and Roll,” she went on a European tour with Muddy Waters and Otis Spann. Unfortunately, a stroke in 1970 forced Tharpe to slow down and she passed three years later, leaving a noteworthy legacy behind her.

2Continue reading
newsletter illustration

Giggles in Your Inbox