Famous Black Women in History Who Changed the United States

Mary McLeod Bethune knew that education was key, but she also knew it was difficult for young Black children to achieve, particularly in the segregated South. After struggling to go to school and working on a plantation to help support her family, she became an educator and, in 1904, founded the Daytona Educational and Industrial Institute for Girls, according to PBS. See the article to learn more about this and many other inspirational women that made a difference.

When you think of famous Black women to look up to, your mind might wander to Michelle Obama, Serena Williams, or Beyoncé. But these contemporary role models are far from the first influential Black women in history who made lasting change in the United States.

The ground-breaking firsts stretch back centuries, beyond Rosa Parks and Katherine Johnson — one of the mathematicians for NASA who had a hand in sending Americans to space for the first time. It’s important to remember these women and how they made society what it is today — during Black History Month, and all year ‘round.

“One can tell a great deal about a people, about a nation, by what it deems important enough to remember,” as Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, wrote in The Guardian.

Nadia Valentine, a former broadcasting major at Drake University, emphasized the importance of remembering significant Black figures from the past in an interview with Teen Vogue. Nadia, who is Black, said her mother, who is white, used to ask her to spend time looking up influential Black historical figures after school during every Black History Month.

“We’re completely overlooking contributions made by people who were disenfranchised for hundreds and hundreds of years and who are still disenfranchised,” she said.

That’s why she said it’s crucial to remember how Black women shaped the world we live in — whether they’re crafting laws in Congressfighting for the right to vote, or just inventing better ways to brush your hair. Here are some of the Black women whose advancements transformed U.S. history.

Mary McLeod Bethune

Educator Mary McLeod Bethune sits at a desk possibly in the Chicago Defender offices 1942. Ms. Bethune wrote a regular...

Mary McLeod Bethune knew that education was key, but she also knew it was difficult for young Black children to achieve, particularly in the segregated South. After struggling to go to school and working on a plantation to help support her family, she became an educator and, in 1904, founded the Daytona Educational and Industrial Institute for Girls, according to PBS. Her educational activism and leadership set her up to be a political activist. She went on to found the National Council of Negro Women, and worked in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, where she served as the informal “race leader at large.”

Claudette Colvin

American Civil rights activist Claudette Colvin 7th April 1998

Though we’ve all heard the story of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, most of us don’t know that Colvin did the same thing — nine months before Parks did. She was only 15 at the time, and was one of the first Black activists to openly challenge the law. As she told Teen Vogue in a 2017 interview, “The whole movement was about young people saying we want more from America.”

Ida B. Wells-Barnett

A man looks at a mosaic image of Ida B. Wells at Union Station on Sunday August 23 2020 in Washington DC.
Born as an enslaved woman, Ida B. Wells-Barnett grew up to become one of the best known journalists in U.S. history and a leading anti-lynching and women’s suffrage advocate. She published countless articles and books documenting the horrors of lynching in the late 19th and early 20th century South, as the U.S. National Park Service documented, and also served as a founding member of the NAACP, the National Association of Colored Women, and the Alpha Suffrage Club.

Barbara Smith

Famous Black Women in History Who Changed the United States

If you’re familiar with the term “identity politics,” you have Barbara Smith to thank. Smith was a founder of the Combahee River Collective, an anti-capitalist revolutionary organization founded by radical Black lesbian feminists in 1974. Smith and the CRC argued that our identities — our faith, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality — all powerfully influence our politics and how we experience the world. As Marian Jones wrote in Teen Vogue, the CRC argued that “all the systems that oppress Black women oppress everyone else too.”

Madam C.J. Walker

A photograph of Sarah Breedlove driving a car she was better known as Madam C.J. Walker the first woman to become a...
Before Mary Kay, there was Madam C.J. Walker. Walker is widely regarded as one of the first ever self-made American, female millionaires. She created hair-care solutions and remedies with Black women in mind and sold them door-to-door. She eventually created a brand people recognized, widely manufactured her products, and hired 40,000 ambassadors since the company’s inception to help her sell her products, according to Mic.

Tarana Burke

This image may contain Human Person Blonde Girl Female Teen Kid Child Woman Paola Egonu Head Face and Hand

Without Tarana Burke, there would be no #MeToo movement. The feminist activist coined the phrase back in 2006 to describe the pervasive nature of sexual abuse and assault. But the hashtag #MeToo exploded in 2017 after allegations of rape against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein triggered an avalanche of public allegations against figures in media, music, journalism, and more. Burke told Teen Vogue that she remembers thinking “nobody’s going to believe a 44-year-old black woman from the Bronx started this.” But she did, and she remains a powerful advocate against sexual violence today.

Ruby Bridges

Ruby Nell Bridges at age 6 was the first African American child to attend William Franz Elementary School in New Orleans...

Bridges proved that you don’t have to be an adult to change history. Her activism started at just six-years-old. In 1960, she was the first Black child to racially integrate an all-white elementary school in the South. On her first day of school at William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana, she had to be escorted through an angry crowd of white parents and students by four federal marshals.

Fannie Lou Hamer

Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegate Fanny Hamer speaks out for the meeting of her delegates at a credential...

Hamer was a civil rights movement activist from Mississippi who fought for African Americans’ right to vote, often helping them to register. She worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, fighting against racial segregation and violent voter suppression in the South. She was also one of the founders of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

Lyda D. Newman

Famous Black Women in History Who Changed the United States

Like Walker, Newman gravitated toward a career involving the hair-care industry. Newman got a patent for her invention, the first synthetic hairbrush, in 1898. Her innovation allowed for easier access to the bristles in order to clean out the brush. In addition, she introduced synthetic bristles. Before her invention brushes used animal hair, such as a boar’s. Her invention made brushing long locks a more hygienic process.

Marsha P. Johnson

Image may contain Marsha P. Johnson Face Human Person and Hair

Johnson was a Black transgender woman and activist most known for her involvement with the Stonewall Inn riots — a 1969 uprising against police brutality by New York City’s LGBTQ community. At the time, it was illegal to serve openly LGBTQ people alcohol or for them to dance with one another. Raids at bars occurred regularly. In the summer of 1969, police officers clashed with patrons at Manhattan’s Stonewall Inn — but they fought back, leading to days of demonstrations that kicked off the LGBTQ movement as we know it today. The actual identity of who threw the first brick is still debatable, but some people credit Johnson as the person who may have been the one to do it. Johnson “really started it” that night, according to David Carter’s 2004 book Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution. Johnson went on to become a prominent voice in the fight for LGBTQ equality and was an activist during the 1980s AIDS epidemic, according to Mic.

bell hooks

Black feminist Bell Hooks during an interview for her new book

bell hooks means so much to so many young Black women. The renowned feminist writer, critic, and professor is synonymous with Black feminism, penning books like Ain’t I A Woman? and Teaching to Transgress that empowered Black girls and women to bring their whole selves to school and work. hooks explained how capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy work together to silence Black female voices, and how to fight back against these forces.

Sojourner Truth

The autobiography of abolitionist Sojourner Truth formerly an enslaved woman and originally Isabella Van Wagener.

The title of bell hooks’ best known books is drawn from a famous quote by another famous Black woman in history: Sojourner Truth. Truth, a formerly enslaved woman, was one of the most influential leaders of the abolition movement and women’s rights activist. At a speech at the Women’s Convention in 1851, she said, “I have borne 13 children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”

Shirley Chisholm

25th January 1972 US Representative Shirley Chisholm of Brooklyn announces her entry for Democratic nomination for the...

Chisholm made history by being the first Black woman elected to the House of Representatives in 1968. She represented New York in Congress for 14 years, advocating for early education and child welfare policies. She eventually ran for president as a Democrat in the 1972 race, becoming the first Black candidate to run for a major party nomination. Chisholm’s infamous campaign slogan was “unbought and unbossed.” She was also one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1971, as well as the Congressional Women’s Caucus in 1977.

Mae Jemison

American engineer and astronaut Mae Jemison works in zero gravity in the centre aisle of the Spacelab Japan science...

Jemison made out-of-this-world progress for Black women. In 1992, she became the first Black woman to fly to space on the space shuttle Endeavour. She was also the first Black woman admitted to the astronaut training program, in 1987.

Octavia Butler

Octavia E. Butler

Thanks to Donald Trump, Americans have heard the phrase “Make America Great Again” more times than the Pledge of Allegiance. But sci-fi novelist Octavia Butler utilized the slogan, likely drawing on Reagan’s 1980 campaign message, “Let’s Make America Great Again” almost 20 years before Trump in her 1998 book Parable of the Talents, according to Fusion. The dystopian novel depicts a future United States in which slavery has been reintroduced and a fundamentalist Christian sect has taken control, systematically purging the country of non-Christian faiths. Butler was also an award-winning Black writer — the first science fiction writer to be awarded the MacArthur fellowship, also known as the genius grant, among other awards, The New York Times reported.

Audre Lorde

AfricanAmerican writer feminist poet and civilrights activist Audre Lorde poses for a photograph during her 1983...

This lesbian, Black, female poet’s 1973 collection, From a Land Where Other People Live, was nominated for a National Book Award and increased America’s awareness of intersectionality, or the convergence of race, gender, and class that can put particular groups at a disadvantage or lead to discrimination. Lorde’s identity shaped her speeches and writings about the struggles of women, Black people, and the LGBTQ community, according to Mic.

Michelle Obama

This image may contain Michelle Obama Human Person Crowd Audience Electrical Device Microphone Speech and Flag
US First Lady Michelle Obama speaks at a rally for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in Durham, New Hampshire, on November 7, 2016. / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)AFP/GETTY IMAGES

What would this list be without Michelle? Of her many accomplishments, Obama was the first Black woman to serve as the First Lady of the United States and is an accomplished lawyer who attended both Princeton University and Harvard Law School. She’s held high-profile roles at the University of Chicago Medical Center and launched a number of efforts advocating for childhood health.

Laverne Cox

Laverne Cox attends her 50th birthday celebration at Magic Hour at The Moxy Hotel Rooftop on May 26 2022 in New York City.

Today, Laverne Cox is one of the most famous transgender women in the United States. But she couldn’t have known what was in store when she was cast in the ABC Drama Dirty Sexy Money back in 2007. As she shares in her bio, that role made her “the first openly transgender actor to have a recurring role on a prime-time television show.” Cox has gone on to grace the covers of TIME and Cosmopolitan; star in TV shows like Orange Is the New Black; and appear in films like Promising Young Woman. She remains a leading advocate for LGBTQ rights and representation.

Sadie Alexander

Economist and civil rights activist Sadie Alexander

Sadie Alexander was the first Black woman economist in the United States. This trailblazing math whiz devoted her career to challenging segregation and taking on institutions that kept Black people from advancing financially. That work included serving as the first woman secretary of the National Bar Association, fighting to desegregate the military, and serving on President Harry Truman’s Special Committee on Civil Rights. “I knew well that the only way I could get that door open was to knock it down, because I knocked all of them down,” she famously said.

Lucy Diggs Slowe

Lucy Diggs Slowe crop

Serena and Naomi owe a debt of gratitude to Lucy Diggs Slowe, the first Black woman to ever win a national tennis title in 1917. Like so many famous Black women of her generation, Slowe was so much more than her job title. Yes, she was a great athlete, but she was also an educator who became Howard University’s dean of women, and a champion of civil rights who helped found the nation’s first Greek-lettered sorority for Black women, Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA).

Johnnie Tillmon

Johnnie Tillmon

One of the biggest influences on Martin Luther King Jr. was a former sharecropper and mother of six named Johnnie Tillmon. As chairperson of the National Welfare Rights Organization, Tillmon advocated for a guaranteed standard of living for all people, be they stay at home mothers or members of the workforce — an early push for the movement for “guaranteed income” or “universal basic income” that’s seen renewed interest in recent years. This radical approach to welfare was eventually adapted by MLK and helped shape the civil rights movement.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on January 27, 2023.

You can read the original article here.