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Harriet Tubman was born between 1820 and 1822, and died in 1913. She was a courageous and committed abolitionist and played a critical role in facilitating the escape of innumerable slaves. Herself, the victim of severe abuse while being enslaved, Tubman was a life-long fighter for the rights of African-Americans and women. Her portrait was originally scheduled to appear on the US $20 bill beginning in 2020, the first African-American to be chosen for that honor. The honor, however, was “postponed” by Donald Trump.
Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin (August 31, 1842 – March 13, 1924) was editor of the Woman's Era, the first national newspaper published by African American women with an intended African American audience in mind. She was an active abolitionist and, with her husband, recruited black soldiers for the Union Army. Working in many women’s organizations with both black and white women, Ruffin formed the American Women’s Suffrage Association in Boston with Julia Ward Howe and Lucy Stone and and led “The First National Conference of the Colored Women of America.”
Kaya Thomas (1995-) is an American computer scientist, app developer, and writer. Notable for her contributions to the iOS app, Calm, she also developed the app, We Read Too, which houses a collection of children’s books by authors of color.
Maggie Kuhn (August 3, 1905 – April 22, 1995) was an American activist. She founded the Gray Panthers movement, after she was forced to retire from her job at 65, the mandatory age of retirement at the time. The Gray Panthers aided in nursing home reform and fighting ageism, claiming that "old people and women constitute America's biggest untapped and undervalued human energy source." Kuhn was a champion for human rights, social and economic justice, global peace, integration, and for a collective understanding of mental health issues. Alongside her activism, she cared for her mother, who had a disability, and her brother who suffered from mental illness.
Charlotte Louise Bridges Forten Grimké (August 17, 1837 – July 23, 1914) was a poet, and educator raised in Philadelphia by an abolitionist family. She educated freedmen during the Civil War in South Carolina, and was the first African American hired by the Eppes Grammar School in Salem to teach white students in a public school. She was a founding member of the Colored Women’s League and the National Association of Colored Women.
Fannie Lou Hamer (October 6, 1917 – March 14, 1977) was co-founder and vice-chair of the Freedom Democratic Party, which she represented at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. She was a voting and women’s rights champion and advocate in getting women of all races into government positions. She organized Mississippi’s Freedom Summer, working with SNCC and was co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus. Hamer was a victim of forced sterilization when she received a hysterectomy by a white doctor without her consent. The third annual women’s march on January 19, 2019, was dedicated to Hamer's life and legacy.
Adelina Otero-Warren, the first Hispanic woman to run for U.S. Congress and the first female superintendent of public schools in Santa Fe, was a leader in New Mexico’s women's suffrage movement.
Anna Julia Haywood Cooper (1858 – 1964) Born into slavery, Cooper was an author, activist, educator, sociologist, one of the most prominent African-American scholars in United States history. She received her PhD in history from the Sorbonne in 1924, as just the fourth African-American woman to earn a doctoral degree, and Master’s at Oberlin College. Her book, A Voice from the South, is widely considered one of the first commentaries on black feminism.
Angelina Weld Grimké (1880 – 1958) rose to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance. As a journalist, teacher, playwright, and poet, “Race” became a major theme in her life due to the fact that her mother was white and her father was half-white. Considered a "woman of color" by society at the time, she often conveyed these themes in her work, and was one of the first American women of color to have a play publicly performed.
Rachel Carson (1907-1964) A marine biologist and nature writer, Rachel Carson catalyzed the global environmental movement with her 1962 book Silent Spring. Outlining the dangers of chemical pesticides, the book led to a nationwide ban on DDT and other pesticides and sparked the movement that ultimately led to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825 – 1911) was an abolitionist, suffragist, poet, teacher, public speaker, writer, and one of the first African American women to be published in the United States. Working as a seamstress and then teacher, Harper aided in the getting refugee slaves to Canada via the Underground Railroad. In 1853, she started political activism with public speaking after joining the American Anti-Slavery Society. In an emotional speech before the National Women’s Rights Convention, Harper advocated for equality, inserting Black suffragist sentiment within the woman's suffrage movement.
Barbara Charline Jordan (1936 – 1996) was the first African American elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction, and the first Southern African American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. An attorney, teacher and activist legislator, she was perhaps best known for her opening comments at the Nixon/Watergate hearings, and keynote address at the 1976 Democratic Convention, as the first African-American and first woman to do so.
Stacey Yvonne Abrams (1973 - ) served in the Georgia House of Representatives from 2007 to 2017. In 2018, Abrams lost a Gubernatorial race, in which she was the first African-American and female major party nominee, due to acts of voter suppression. Abrams is a staunch supporter and activist for voter rights, and is credited with turning the red state of Georgia blue during the 2020 general presidential election and for winning two senate seats in the 2021 Georgia state runoff election.
Mary Jane McLeod Bethune (1875 – 1955) the daughter of slaves, was an American educator, stateswoman, philanthropist, and civil rights activist. She founded the National Council for Negro Women and was appointed as a national adviser to president Franklin D. Roosevelt, with whom she worked to create the Federal Council on Negro Affairs. Bethune was the sole African-American woman officially a part of the US delegation that created the United Nations charter and was one of the few women in the world to serve as a college president at that time.
Amelia Isadora Platts Boynton Robinson (1911 – 2015) was a leader of the civil rights movement, partaking in the 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery where she worked with Martin Luther King. As a young girl Boynton campaigned for Suffrage and, in 1934, registered to vote in Alabama where there was an established disenfranchising constitution. As the first female African American to run for office in Alabama, she also became the first woman to run as a Democrat. Boynton was a guest of honor at the ceremony when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
Dolores Huerta (1930-) Co-founder of the United Farm Workers Association, Dolores Clara Fernandez Huerta is one of the most influential labor activists of the 20th century and a leader of the Chicano civil rights movement.
Daisy Bates (1914 – 1999) was an American civil rights activist, publisher, journalist, and lecturer who played a leading role in the Little Rock Integration Crisis of 1957. As co-publishers of the Arkansas State Press, she and her husband were leaders in developing a voice for what would be the civil rights movement. In 1954, after Arkansas refused to enroll black students in schools despite the Brown v. Board of Education decision, she and her husband editorialized about the need for reform and urged immediate action. Her leadership in the NAACP, advocacy and dedication led her to become the organizer and mentor of the students known as “The Little Rock Nine”.
Ruby Hurley (1909 – 1980) was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement and administrator for the NAACP. She was part of the committee which has set up a performance by the brilliant opera singer Marian Anderson after she was blocked from performing at Constitution Hall by the DAR. The committee pulled off an event on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial which was attended by more than 75,000 people. She subsequently worked for the NAACP organizing youth and college students, set up offices, aided in the investigations of the murders of George W. Lee and Emmett Till.
Dorothea Dix (1802-1887) was an early 19th century activist who drastically changed the medical field during her lifetime. She championed for both the mentally ill and indigenous populations. By doing this work, she openly challenged 19th century notions of reform and illness. Additionally, Dix helped recruit nurses for the Union army during the Civil War. As a result, she transformed the field of nursing.
Grace Hopper (1906-1992) “At a very young age Grace Murray Hopper showed an interest in engineering. As a child, she would often take apart household goods and put them back together. Little did her family know, her curiosity would eventually gain her recognition from the highest office in the land.”
Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000) “was an Austrian-American actress and inventor who pioneered the technology that would one day form the basis for today’s WiFi, GPS, and Bluetooth communication systems. As a natural beauty seen widely on the big screen in films like Samson and Delilah and White Cargo, society has long ignored her inventive genius.”
Alice Paul (1885-1977) “A vocal leader of the twentieth century women’s suffrage movement, Alice Paul advocated for and helped secure passage of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, granting women the right to vote. Paul next authored the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923, which has yet to be adopted.”
Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) “In the early 20th century, at a time when matters surrounding family planning or women’s healthcare were not spoken in public, Margaret Sanger founded the birth control movement and became an outspoken and life-long advocate for women’s reproductive rights. In her later life, Sanger spearheaded the effort that resulted in the modern birth control pill by 1960.”
Rosa Louise McCauley Parks (1913 – 2005) is best known for her pivotal role in the providing the impetus to launch the Montgomery bus boycott. 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Parks refused to give up her seat in the “colored section” of a bus for a white passenger when the “whites-only section” was full. Parks was the perfect person to work with the NAACP to challenge charges of civil disobedience. Her case became bogged down in the state courts, but an alternative case was eventually successful. Parks continued to work with Martin Luther King, Edgar Nixon and others, was active with The Black Panthers and worked in defense of political prisoners.
Jo Ann Gibson Robinson (April 17, 1912 – August 29, 1992) was an activist during the Civil Rights Movement and educator in Montgomery, Alabama. She earned multiple graduate degrees and taught at the college level. After joining the Women’s Political Council her suggestion of a boycott against bus segregation was rebuffed by the other members. In 1950 she became head of the organization and after Rosa Parks was arrested, Robinson, along with Ralph Abernathy, and other members of the WPC and, a couple of her students printed up 52,000 flyers, passed them out and the boycott campaign began.
Audre Geraldine Lorde also known by the pseudonyms of Gamba Adisa or Rey Domini (1934-1992) Is an essayist and poetess American , militant feminist, lesbian, and civil rights activist. As a poet, she is known for her technical mastery and emotional expression, as well as for her poems expressing the anger and outrage at the civil and social discrimination she observes throughout her life. Her poems and prose focus on issues of civil rights, feminism and the exploration of black female identity. She is one of the literary figures of the Black Arts Movement and was a New York Poet Laureate.
Brilliant Alice Augusta Ball was born on July 24, 1892, in Seattle, Washington. She was one of four children. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington in pharmaceutical chemistry. Two years later, she earned a second degree in pharmacy. With her pharmacy instructor, she published a 10-page article in the prestigious Journal of the American Chemical Society titled, "Benzoylations in Ether Solution." This kind of accomplishment was very rare for not only African American women, but women of any race. She moved to Hawaii to work on her master’s degree in chemistry.
In 1915, Alice Ball became the first graduate of African American heritage, the first African American and the first woman chemistry professor at the University of Hawaii's chemistry department. She revolutionized the use of chaulmoogra by successfully isolated the ethyl esters from the oil to make an injectable form to treat leprosy. Chaulmoogra had been used in the treatment of leprosy for hundreds of years, but only with moderate effect, and could have negative effects when applied to the skin. Her technique allowed the oil from the seed of the chaulmoogra tree to be injected and absorbed in the blood. Her newly-developed technique became the primary treatment for leprosy up until the onset of antibiotics, ca. 1940. It is reported that in some primitive areas, her treatment is still used. At that time, many lepers were sent to Hawaii to be isolated from the main population. Her treatment allowed hundreds of people with leprosy to return home. She became ill before publishing her work. She returned to Seattle just before her death on Dec. 31, 1916. Her exact cause of death is uncertain. It was speculated that she died of chlorine poisoning, due to exposure that occurred while teaching in the laboratory. Her original death certificate was altered, the cause of death was changed to tuberculosis.
Author Dean, chemist and president of the university, continued her work but never gave her credit for her breakthrough. Dean published her findings; but for years they were known as the Dean Method. In 1970, historians uncovered the truth. The University of Hawaii did not recognize her work for nearly 90 years. In 2000, the university finally honored Ball by dedicating a plaque to her on the school's lone chaulmoogra tree. On the same day, the former Lieutenant Governor of Hawaii, Mazie Hirono, declared February 29, Alice Ball Day, which is now celebrated.
One cannot help but wonder what other marvelous work she could have accomplished had she lived longer than 24 years.
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Anne Brown's father was a physician and the child of a slave; her mother was Irish, Cherokee, and Black. She was born August 9, 1912, it was reported she had perfect singing pitch by her first birthday. At 16, she entered Juilliard as the first African American vocalist. In 1933, as a graduate student at Juilliard, she heard Gershwin was planning to write an African American Opera, so she wrote him a letter. Gershwin and Anne started collaborating and the part of Bess became a significant role in his opera. Anne is attributed with creating much of that role. She started each session by singing Summertime.
In 1936, when the opera was to be performed at the National Theater in DC, Blacks were not able to buy tickets. She told Gershwin, "I will not sing at the National. If my mother, my father, my friends, if Black people cannot come hear me sing, then count me out.” “I remember Gershwin saying to me, 'You're not going to sing?' And I said to him, 'I can't sing!'" Anne confided that, due to her demands, the rules were changed. When the curtain came down on the final performance of Porgy and Bess, segregation was reinstated.
Brown toured Europe as a concert artist from 1942 to 1948. She did so also out of frustration from not being able to secure serious roles, due to continued racial prejudice. She felt her career chances were limited because of her skin color, even though she had a very light complexion. She stated: “Though there is no place on earth without prejudice. In fact, a French journalist wrote an article during one of my tours, asking: 'Why does she say she is colored? She's as white as any singer. It's just a trick to get people interested. Can you imagine? Of course, I was advertised as a Negro soprano. What is a Negro soprano?”
She also stated that she felt her ability to find work was easier abroad. She settled in Norway, bringing a daughter from a previous marriage with her. She married Norwegian ski jumper, Thorleif Schjelderup, a medalist at the 1948 Winter Olympics. They had a daughter together. Anne worked at the Norwegian Opera, but due to asthma, she eventually started coaching voice.
In 1998, Anne Brown received the George Peabody Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Music in America from the Peabody Institute. She had been tentatively admitted 70 years earlier, but was denied entrance when they saw her skin color. She was also made an honorary citizen of Baltimore in 1999. In 2000, she was awarded Norway's Council of Cultures Honorary Award. She died March 13, 2009, age 96.
This charming video of Anne was made a few years before her death: Gershwin & Bess: A Dialogue with Anne Brown (excerpt)
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Claudette Colvin (Born September 5, 1939) is a pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement. On March 2, 1955, she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus I Montgomery Alabama. She relied on the city's buses to get to and from school, because her parents did not own a car. Colvin was a member of the NAACP Youth Council, and had been actively learning about the Civil Rights Movement in school. The bus was full, and Colvin was asked to give up her seat for a white person; she refused, stating she paid the same as everyone else. The police were called, and she was arrested and physically removed from the bus. Colvin said, "Young people think Rosa Parks just sat down on a bus and ended segregation, but that wasn't the case at all.” Claudette Colvin was the fifteen-year-old that inspired and motivated Parks.
Fred Gray, Claudette Colvin's attorney, had a plan after the incident with Colvin. Someone else needed to be arrested, so Gray could take a stand. And according to their lawyer, Fred Gray, Parks was waiting to be asked to get off the bus. Rosa was an acquaintance and was an adult. She was advised to resist, if and when, she was asked to move or vacate the bus. Colvin was among the four plaintiffs included in the federal court case filed by civil rights attorney, Fred Gray, on February 1, 1956, as Browder v. Gayle. She testified before the three-judge panel that heard the case in the United States District Court. On June 13, 1956, the judges determined that the state and local laws requiring bus segregation in Alabama were unconstitutional.
According to Gray, Colvin was the truly, extremely brave one since she was so young, and had no back-up at the time when she refused to cooperate. She moved to New York, since she had difficulty finding employment in Montgomery. Similarly, Parks moved to Detroit. Claudette Colvin worked as a nurse’s aide in a retirement home for 36 years. In my opinion, that is a character of a persistent caring person. She had two sons.
It could be said, she was the spark that ignited the Montgomery bus boycott movement; she rarely told her story once she moved to New York City. She has stated, "I feel very, very proud of what I did," “I do feel like what I did was a spark and it caught on. I'm not disappointed. Let the people know Rosa Parks was the right person for the boycott.”
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Elizabeth Van Lew was born on October 12, 1818, in Richmond, Virginia. She was educated in a Quaker school in Philadelphia, which solidified her view against slavery. She was an abolitionist and philanthropist, who built and operated an extensive spy ring for the United States, during the Civil War. After her father’s death, she freed the slaves her father owned and kept many of them as paid employees. Elizabeth used her entire cash inheritance of $10,000 to purchase and free some of their former slaves' relatives. Elizabeth's brother was a regular visitor to Richmond's slave market, where, when a family was about to be split up, he would purchase them all, bring them home, and issue papers of manumission.
Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, she, along with her mother, cared for wounded and captured soldiers, providing food, medicine and books. These activities were frowned upon by the Confederate. She harbored and aided escaped soldiers, hiding some in her large home. Prisoners passed on information that she shared with the Union commanders. She aided civilians on both sides. Her feminine skills, including female charity, and at times, odd behavior aided her in not being exposed. Her status as a wealthy woman from a prominent family also helped. She is credited with gaining "the greater portion of intelligence in 1864-65.” Upon meeting Grant after the war, he stated, "You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war." He appointed her postmaster in Richmond. Just as victory was in sight, she raised the giant (18 ft x 9 ft) flag over her home. It was the first United States flag to fly in the city, since Virginia had seceded.
After the war, it was understood she was a spy. She had used her entire large fortune to assist in intelligence activities. She found herself deserted and without funds after trying in vain to receive a pension from the federal government. However, she received funds from the grandson of Paul Revere, Union Col. Paul Joseph Revere, whom she had aided, along with other Bostonians. But, she remained a social outcast in her local community for the remainder of her life.
She died on Sept 25, 1900, age 81. She was buried in a vertical position facing North, as she had wished. Elizabeth Van Lew was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame in 1993. Several books & films & TV series were made about her life.
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