9 Black women you should have learned about in history class
This article was originally written by Hoodo and published March 30th, 2017. It has since been expanded with new reporting by Kitty Lindsay.
March is Women’s History Month, and to honor the occasion, we’re creating space for the women history forgot. For the women who deserve a place in our textbooks. For the women whose voices should echo. This series is for them.
Black women rule the world, or at least they should (if only the white supremacist patriarchy would just wither away). But Black women aren’t waiting for the world to change—they’re making change happen and shaping the future. Like the Black women who made a female president possible, for example. Or the “hidden figures” who took American astronauts to the moon in the 1960s. Or the Black women warriors of the blockbuster film Black Panther who showed us what the face of heroism can—and does—look like.
And that’s just the very tip of the enormous iceberg of Black women’s badassery. Because when it comes to their remarkable contributions to politics, science, art, and more, Black women have been forging new paths, shaking up the status quo, dismantling oppressive systems, and fighting for justice and inclusivity across communities since…well, forever.
But rarely do Black women receive the recognition they deserve. That’s why this Women’s History Month, we’re bowing down to Black excellence and honoring nine Black women (past and present) whose #BlackGirlMagic not only made history, but made the world a better place, too.
Here are just a few Black women history-makers you need to know.
1Maya Angelou (1928-2014)
Poet. Actor. Activist. Filmmaker. Maya Angelou’s many creative talents made her a multi-hyphenate way before it was popular for artists like J.Lo to do it all. Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1928, Angelou (née Marguerite Johnson) grew up crisscrossing the country, spending much of her childhood in her grandmother’s care in Stamps, Arkansas before moving to San Francisco, California as a teen to live with her mother. While in the Bay Area, Angelou worked as a dancer and adopted the stage name “Maya Angelou.” After giving birth to her son at 17, Angelou made another big move, this time to New York City, where she acted in stage plays and musicals, nurtured her writing talent as part of the Harlem Writers Guild, and joined the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement as a coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
But Angelou’s best creative works were still to come. After returning to the United States after a years-long stint in Africa, Angelou wrote I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, her first of six autobiographies. The book became an instant American classic, and remains required reading for high school students across the United States. Angelou went on to write more than a dozen other titles, including children’s books, poetry, and essay collections. She also received an Emmy nomination and a Tony nomination for her acting skills, over 50 honorary degrees, and even directed a major motion picture, Down in the Delta. And in 2011, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Angelou died in 2014, but her artistic—and activist—legacy continues to inspire.
2Alicia Garza (1981-present), Patrisse Khan-Cullors (1984-present), and Opal Tometi (1984-present)
Trayvon Martin was just 17 years old when George Zimmerman, a so-called “neighborhood watch captain,” shot and killed him in 2012. Law enforcement officials in Florida charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder, but ultimately failed to deliver justice for Trayvon, and Zimmerman was acquitted in 2013.
Heartbroken, but inspired to take action, three radical Black organizers—Alicia Garza, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, and Opal Tometi—created #BlackLivesMatter, a Black-centered justice movement, that same year. By providing Black communities tools and strategies to organize and build local power, Black Lives Matter (BLM) aims to affirm Black humanity, combat anti-Black racism across the United States and globally, and broaden political will to address the violent (and often deadly) oppression of Black communities by the state and vigilantes.
It all started when Garza, an Oakland-based workers’ rights activist, took to Facebook following 2013’s devastating verdict: “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.” Khan-Cullors, Garza’s friend and a fellow activist, added the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. Then, New York-based immigration activist Tometi joined the effort, and BLM was born.
Some six years on, the need for BLM remains critical in the United States and abroad, as demonstrated by the countless Black lives lost to violence at the hands of law enforcement every year since its founding. Today, BLM’s member-led network consists of 40 chapters worldwide.
3Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005)
“Unbought and Unbossed.” That was Shirley Chisholm’s signature campaign slogan when she made a bid to become the first Black woman elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1968. She won, and for seven terms in Congress, Chisholm made a name for herself as an outspoken advocate for women, children, and people of color. And though she was the sole Black woman in an almost entirely white, almost entirely male Congress, Chisholm refused to be sidelined. While in Congress, Chisholm co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus, advocated for the Equal Rights Amendment, and championed Title IX, which prohibited sex discrimination in federally funded education and sports programs.
Before she became a Democratic congresswoman, though, Chisholm worked as a nursery school teacher. After she earned her Master’s degree in early childhood education from Columbia University, Chisholm joined the New York City Division of Day Care as a consultant. Then, in 1964, Chisholm ran and was elected to the New York State Assembly, where among her many legislative accomplishments, she facilitated the passage of unemployment insurance for domestic workers. Four years later, she made history as the United States’s first Black congresswoman.
But the Oval Office called. And in 1972, Chisholm broke new ground (again!), becoming the first Black candidate for a major party’s nomination for president of the United States and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.
Chisholm received the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 2015.
4Shonda Rhimes (1970-present)
Serious question: If you’ve never seen a Shonda Rhimes-created TV show, then what are you even doing with your life? At one time, Rhimes’s television series Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How To Get Away with Murder, and The Catch made up 70 hours of TV, 45 hours of which she not only created, but produced, too. Rhimes’s must-see TV line-up attracted so many eyeballs that ABC—the network that aired Rhimes’s shows—made a night of it, dubbing the Thursday night block of drama, drama, and more drama “Shondaland.” And Rhimes’s Shondaland series have gone global, too, airing in 256 territories in 67 languages for an audience of 30 million people worldwide in 2016.
But before Rhimes became a superstar showrunner, she was an academic overachiever, with an undergraduate degree in creative writing from Dartmouth and an MFA in screenwriting from the University of Southern California. Shortly after grad school, Rhimes wrote the cult-teen classic Crossroads, The Princess Diaries sequel The Princess Diaries 2: A Royal Engagement, and HBO’s Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, which won a Golden Globe.
Today, the popularity of Rhimes’s signature ABC series like Grey’s Anatomy and How To Get Away with Murder shows no signs of waning. And in 2017, Rhimes inked a multi-year production deal with Netflix to develop even more Shondaland projects. We say “YES!” to years of Shondaland content to come!
5Madam C. J. Walker (1867-1919)
It’s a rags-to-riches story for the ages.
Born on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana in 1867 to former slaves, Sarah Breedlove (aka Madam C.J. Walker) became an orphan at 7, and worked in cotton fields with her older sister. At 14, Breedlove married, and just a few short years later, was widowed with a young child. Desperate to find a way out of poverty, Breedlove moved to St. Louis, Missouri in 1889 and worked as a laundress and cook to make ends meet.
Then, in a fateful twist, Breedlove developed a scalp disorder that caused much of her hair to fall out, so she began experimenting with home remedies and store-bought hair-care treatments to tame her mane. She started using a product called “The Great Wonderful Hair Grower,” which was packaged and sold by Black businesswoman Annie Turnbo Malone. Convinced of the treatment’s hair-growing properties, Breedlove joined Malone’s team of Black women sales agents and, a year later, relocated to Denver, Colorado. There, she set up (beauty) shop and launched her own line of hair-care products and straighteners for Black women, rebranding herself “Madam C.J. Walker.”
From there, “Madam C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower” grew fast. In 1910, Walker opened the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company in Indianapolis, Indiana. The company not only manufactured cosmetics, it trained beauticians in sales, too. These training programs made economic independence possible for the Black women Walker employed across the country, which was important to Walker.
In addition to Black women’s economic empowerment, Walker also donated much of her energy and wealth to community development and expanding opportunities for Black people. In her time, she contributed to the YMCA and the NAACP, paid tuition for six Black students at the Tuskegee Institute, and built the Walker Building, a Black arts and culture center in the heart of Indianapolis.
Today, Walker is widely considered one of the first Black women in the U.S. to become a self-made millionaire. Walker died the sole owner of her business, which was valued at over $1 million, in 1919.
6Dr. Patricia Bath (1942-present)
If we had to choose only one word to describe Dr. Patricia Bath, it would be “visionary.”
It appears that from a young age, Bath’s forward-thinking brain made people stop and look. At just 16, Bath became one of only a handful of students to attend a National Science Foundation-sponsored cancer research workshop. Her findings during the project caught the eye of the program’s head, and he included her discoveries in a scientific paper he wrote and presented at the conference. Her contributions generated so much buzz, Mademoiselle magazine awarded Bath its Merit Award in 1960.
Then, after completing her high school education in only two years, Bath earned her undergraduate degree at Hunter College in 1964 and her doctoral degree at Howard University in 1968. In 1973, following a fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University, Bath became the first Black person to complete a residency in that medical practice. Two years later, Bath broke another barrier, becoming the first female faculty member in the Department of Ophthalmology at the Jules Stein Eye Institute at the University of California Los Angeles.
But Bath’s most eye-popping achievement happened in 1986. That’s when she invented the Laserphaco Probe, a breakthrough laser treatment for patients suffering from cataracts. In 1988, she received a patent for the device, becoming the first Black female doctor to receive a patent for a medical purpose. Today, the Laserphaco Probe operates worldwide, and with its help, patients who have been blind for years—decades, even—have recovered sight.
Did we mention Bath co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness (AIFPB), too? Out of sight!
7Jackie “Moms” Mabley (1894-1975)
Black, queer, and funny as hell, Jackie “Moms” Mabley’s larger-than-life personality and standout stand-up comedy stylings made her a star.
Born in Brevard, North Carolina in 1894, Mabley (née Loretta Mary Aiken) learned to laugh in order to cope with trauma at a very young age. When she was 11, her father died suddenly. Later, her mother was killed in a truck accident on Christmas Day. And by her early teens, Mabley had been raped twice, and given birth to children from both men. (She put both children up for adoption.)
But Mabley didn’t give up her dream of a career in show business. At 14, she left home and took her act on the road, joining the Black vaudeville circuit—known as “the Chitlin’ Circuit”—as a comedian alongside future comedy legends like Red Foxx. Borrowing the name of an old boyfriend, Mabley performed as Jackie Mabley before receiving the nickname “Moms” from fellow comedians who appreciated her willingness to mentor them.
Over the course of her show business career, Mabley made movies (Paul Robeson’s Emperor Jones, Killer Diller, and more), appeared on Broadway (in Zora Neale Hurston’s Fast and Furious: A Colored Revue in 37 Scenes), and became the first woman comedian to be featured at The Apollo. She went on to rack up more appearances than any other performer in the theater’s history. Her comedy recordings made audiences LOL, too, including her gold-certified debut album, The Funniest Woman Alive.
Mabley died in 1975, having inspired countless comics across gender identities, including, most famously, Whoopi Goldberg.
8Mary Fields (1832-1914)
Mary Fields (aka “Stagecoach Mary”) didn’t give a damn about her bad reputation. Born into slavery around 1832 in Tennessee, after Fields was freed, she ended up in Ohio where she found work as a groundskeeper at a convent in Toledo. But her tell-it-like-it-is nature didn’t go over so well with the nuns. In fact, she raised eyebrows right away. When asked about her journey to Toledo, she told one of the nuns that she was ready for “a good cigar and drink.”
But Fields refused to tamp down her boldness. According to historical records, the sisters complained about her quick temper and “difficult” nature. Fields didn’t win any friends, either, when she argued with the nuns about her wages, behavior that most likely shocked the white sisters who expected Black people to do as they were told.
The convent’s Mother Superior warmed up to her, though. And when Fields’s new friend moved to a convent in Cascade, Montana and later fell gravely ill, Fields headed there to care for her. But while she dutifully served the nuns in Cascade, some in the community—particularly the bishop—did not like that Fields drank liquor, smoked, fought with guns, and dressed in men’s clothing, and she was kicked out.
Then, in 1895, Fields joined the U.S. Postal Service as a star route carrier. The job? To deliver mail via stagecoach and to protect it from thieves and bandits en route. For a gun-toting hothead like Fields, it was a dream job. And so, Fields became only the second woman—and the first black woman—to serve in that role. Over time, Fields became known by locals as “Stagecoach Mary.”
Talk about blazing your own trail.
9Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973)
You may not recognize her name, but you know Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s sound. Known as “the Godmother of Rock ‘N’ Roll,” Tharpe mixed Delta blues, New Orleans jazz, and gospel music to create a fresh, new musical style that made the whole world sit up and listen: rock ‘n’ roll.
Tharpe was born Rosetta Nubin in Cotton, Arkansas in 1915. Her parents were both singers, and her mother also played the mandolin. At age 4, Tharpe began singing and playing guitar, and then at 6, she joined her mother as a regular performer in a touring evangelical troupe. Billed as a “singing and guitar-playing miracle,” Tharpe and her mother performed throughout the American South before settling in Chicago, Illinois in the mid-1920s.
Then, in 1938, Tharpe moved to New York City and signed with Decca Records. That year, Tharpe recorded four gospel songs for Decca, and all four tracks (“Rock Me,” “That’s All,” “The Man and I,” and “The Lonesome Road”) became smash hits. It was music to Decca’s ears: Tharpe was one of the nation’s first commercially successful gospel singers. In no time, Tharpe’s crossover appeal (she played her music in both churches and secular clubs) took gospel music mainstream and made her a star. And her hybrid sound—and masterful guitar playing—influenced generations of rock ‘n’ roll musicians, most notably Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Little Richard.
Tharpe toured the United States and Europe performing her signature gospel sound until her death in 1973. She was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame posthumously in 2018.