9 Influential Women in Black History You Won't Hear About in School
The conversation surrounding influential moments and people in black history often focuses on the contributions of men — leaving the vital efforts of black women by the wayside.
Before Selma premiered nationwide earlier this year, for example, many mainstream discussions about the titular city's voting rights marches focused on leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rep. John Lewis. But Selma also introduced many Americans to black women who directly influenced organizing efforts at the time, like Annie Lee Cooper, Diane Nash, Amelia Boynton and Viola Jackson. Before the movie, most people would've been hard-pressed to recall any of these women — and there are so many others whose names won't ever be known.
That's why it's important to make sure black women's contributions are always part of our conversations about history. While some are more well-known than others, lack of mainstream recognition doesn't make these women's efforts any less significant to our country's progress.
Here are just a few of the many black women whose work helped change America, and the world, as we know it.
Fannie Lou Hamer
Hamer is best known for championing black voting rights, especially in her home state of Mississippi, one of many hotbeds for racially motivated voter suppression. She worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to drive black voter registration, despite encountering violence and threats from white supremacists who often worked to intimidate or violently attack blacks attempting to vote.
Hamer brought the issue to the national spotlight during the 1964 Democratic National Convention, pointedly calling out Mississippi's all-white delegation. Hamer's eventual, televised testimony of the struggle was so powerful that President Lyndon Johnson called an impromptu press conference to get it off the air.
Marsha P. Johnson
Johnson was a leader during the standoff that culminated in the infamous Stonewall Riots, a rallying cry against police surveillance and harassment of people in New York's LGBT community during the 1960s. Today, the anniversary of Stonewall is commemorated annually via pride parades held across the U.S.
A black transgender activist, Johnson's efforts also including mentoring and helping to provide housing for homeless LGBT youth, AIDS activism with the organization Act Up and founding organizations to serve trans communities. Her work is chronicled in the documentary Pay It No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson.
Madam C.J. Walker
Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, is widely regarded as one of the first American women to become a self-made millionaire. Prompted by her experience with early hair loss during the 1890s, Walker created hair care remedies primarily with black women in mind. A brilliant and tenacious businesswoman (deemed a "marketing magician" by Henry Louis Gates Jr.), Walker began by selling door-to-door.
Early successes allowed Walker to more widely manufacture her products and cultivate a team of around 40,000 brand ambassadors — a recipe that bolstered her name-recognition and her wealth and, according to Gates, provided her "Walker Agents" with "with avenues up out of poverty." Her philanthropic efforts included sizable donations to the YMCA, the NAACP and other black cultural organizations.
Mary McLeod Bethune
After struggling to balance school with working on a plantation to help support her family, Bethune went on to become an educator herself, founding the Daytona Educational and Industrial Institute for girls in 1904. Bethune's successful stewardship and fundraising for the school eventually gave way to a 1932 merger with the Cookman Institute to form what's now known as Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black college.
Bethune's educational leadership and advocacy efforts also positioned her as a civic leader and political activist, earning a number of presidential appointments. According to the National Council of Negro Women, which Bethune also founded, Bethune was "was the first African-American woman to be involved in the White House" and "served as the informal 'race leader at large'" under Franklin D. Roosevelt. Her Daytona Beach home is now a National Historic Landmark.
Although she lived mere blocks away from an all-white elementary school, segregation forced Ruby Bridges to travel for miles every day to attend an all-black kindergarten. Then, in 1960, Bridges was thrust into the national spotlight at the tender age of 6, as the first black child to racially integrate an all-white elementary school in the South. The move came less than a decade after the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education ruling struck down school segregation.
Reactions to her presence, and to the idea of school desegregation generally, precipitated protests that came with threats of violence. Bridges and her mother had to be escorted to the school by federal marshals because other officials in the area weren't willing to protect her. Despite the racist backlash, Bridges and her family held firm, helping pave the way for other students who would follow in her path. Now, decades later, she still publicly speaks about her experience.
Height spent decades working for racial equality and women's rights, and her work often centered the ways in which racism and sexism were inextricably linked struggles for black women. As one of the organizers of the 1963 March on Washington, where King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, Height was the only woman seated on the speaker's platform. But, as Height told NPR in 2003, the male-dominated planning and programming didn't schedule any women, including her, with time to speak.
Height was instrumental during the YWCA's integration efforts and acted as the first director of its Center for Racial Justice. She also co-founded the National Women's Political Caucus and served on the boards of several national civic organizations, including as national president of the historically black service sorority Delta Sigma Theta. Among her many accolades, Height received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994.
Lorde's identity as a black lesbian unquestionably shaped her poetry, scholarship and activism in relation to the struggles of women, blacks, LGBT people and various marginalized groups. Lorde's writings and speeches addressed the need for solidarity across struggles against oppression and, in particular, why an awareness of intersectionality is paramount. Her 1973 poetry collection, From a Land Where Other People Live, was also nominated for a National Book Award.
Baker's decades of work included an array of both racial and economic justice efforts. She held posts with some of the most influential groups during the Civil Rights Movement, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the NAACP. Shortly after black college students organized a sit-in at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, Baker set up a meeting with the young activists that culminated in the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960.
The group helped organize the 1961 Freedom Rides to fight segregation in interstate bus and train systems. SNCC also heavily drove black voter registration in the South during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964.
Chisholm was the first black woman elected to Congress in 1969 from her district in New York City, and she served for 14 years.
She began her career in education administration, having earned a master's degree in elementary education from Columbia University, and went on to serve as a consultant to the New York City Bureau of Child Welfare. In the years following, her experience led her into political arena, where she served as a state legislator for three years before heading to the U.S. House of Representatives. Chisholm was one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus shortly after her election. After roughly two terms in Congress, Chisholm entered the 1972 presidential race in the Democratic primary, making her the first black candidate to run for a major party nomination.