Women are building upon the progress of the past and playing a critical role in all facets the world’s prosperity – socially, politically, economically, and culturally. Woman of the past and present, young and old who have made their voices heard, excelled in their craft and pushed the boundaries art, music, dance, literature, social and political activism are to be remembered and celebrated. These are just a few of the many black women in American history that stood up for what they believed in and we believe should be honored.
1. Phillis Wheatley was a slave child sold to John and Susanna Wheatley in Boston on July 11, 1761. She was encouraged to study theology and the English, Latin and Greek classics. Her first poem being published at the age of twelve, “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin.” First African American to publish a book. An accomplished African American woman of letters. First African American woman to earn a living from her writing.
2. Alice Coachman despite being excluded from all organized athletic activities in Southern YMCAs and schools. Coachman trained for sprint events on dirt roads and fields, and practiced the high jump barefoot at a neighborhood playground. At the 1948 London Games she is the first African-American woman to win an Olympic event in long jump. In 1994, she created the Alice Coachman Track and Field Foundation to help young athletes pursue their dreams and former Olympians adjust to life after the games.
3. Augusta Savage, artist of the Harlem Renaissance, created portrait sculptures and was the first African American to win a sculpture commission for a World’s Fair in 1939 and first African American member of the National Association of Women Painter and Sculptors. She earned a scholarship to study in France but lost it because two white girls stated that they could not “travel or room with a ‘colored’ girl.” Augusta established the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts as a way to provide adults with art education. She became the first director of the Harlem Community Arts Center, a place where African Americans could learn about their culture through the study of fine arts.
4. Victoria H. Garvin, liberation activist and internationalist, became the first African-American woman to earn a Master’s degree in Economics from Smith College. In 1951 she helped form the National Negro Labor Council (NNLC), and became a national VP and Executive Secretary. In the late 1950s, she went to Africa, where she worked on the African Encyclopedia and lended her skills to Ghana’s nation building efforts. Vicki spoke at community events and joined rallies in support of Mumia Abu Jamal and other political prisoners. She is honored for her contributions to the freedom struggle of her people and the world’s peoples.
5. Marian Anderson was a contralto singer banned from performing at Washington’s Constitution Hall by the Daughter of the American Revolution. Eleanor Roosevelt, the first lady, resigned and sponsored the famous concert she had at the Lincoln Memorial in front of 75,000 listeners signifying equality. Marian broke color barriers at the NY Metropolitan Opera as well as supporting the civil rights movement during the 1960s, giving benefit concerts for the Congress of Racial Equality, the NAACP and the America-Israel Cultural Foundation.
6. Constance Motley became the first black woman elected to the New York State Senate as well as being the first black woman to become a judge in the New York federal court. She represented Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy and other civil rights leaders. As a young lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, she helped Thurgood Marshall write the legal brief for the Brown case. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.
7. Hallie Tanner Johnson was the first woman physician in the Southern States and first woman of any race to officially practice medicine in Alabama. She was protested against when it was time to take her state board exams but persevered through the racism to pass the exams and assisted many slaves help themselves and go into education. Hallie was a resident physician at Tuskegee University Clinic in Alabama. She also established a training school for nurses and founded a clinic to serve the health care needs of local residents.
8. Johnnie Tillmon was a prominent activist in the welfare rights movement. In order to fight against the unfair treatment by welfare caseworkers, she founded one of the first grassroots welfare mothers’ organizations called ANC (Aid to Needy Children) Mothers Anonymous, in 1963. Together with other welfare mothers, she struggled for adequate income, dignity, justice, and democratic participation. In 1972, Tillmon published an article in Ms magazine, “Welfare Is a Women’s Issue,” articulating how the welfare system controlled the lives of women on welfare and constantly placed them under the scrutiny of government authorities. She tried to broaden the horizon of the feminist movement by redefining poverty as a “women’s issue.”
9. Adrienne Sealey Hardesty is a poet, critic, public speaker and storyteller to children. She is noted for traveling through the US and abroad to inspire young people. Famous for poem “I Am A Great Somebody”, she also started her own TV show called “Learning Is the Key to Success”. Adrienne received many awards for her writing and humanitarian services. Her work is displayed in the New York Coliseum and United Nations.
10. Captain Mary Mills aka “Aunt Mary” was a certified midwife and nurse. She spent 26 years in the US Public Health Service. “Aunt Mary” established clinics, nursing schools, sanitation programs and smallpox and malaria eradication programs in Liberia, Chad, Lebanon, Cambodia and South Vietnam. She was the first woman to receive the Rockefeller Award – the highest privately supported honor for a career civil servant.
11. Loretta C. Argrett, Assistant Attorney General and author, is the first African American staff member of the U.S. Congress Committee on Taxation where she organized and managed more than 500 employees and a budget of over $65 million. She joined the Howard University Law School faculty in 1986.
12. Katherine Mary Dunham was an American dancer, choreographer, songwriter, author, educator, and activist. Dunham has been called the “Matriarch and Queen Mother of Black Dance”. She is a pioneer in the use of folk and ethnic choreography; she is one of the founders of the anthropological dance movement. Katherine danced with Les Ballet Negre, the first black ballet company in the United States. The Katherine Dunham Dance Company, formed by it’s namesake, toured in more than 60 countries, amassing cultural and theatrical experiences. She fought for racial equality and devoted much of her talent and insight to re-directing the energy of violent street gangs through the performing arts.
We hope that this list of woman will remind you of those who came before and inspire you to take action and inspire those to come.