February is Black History Month — a time to celebrate the achievements of African Americans. Today, we highlight the role of Black women in American history.
1850: Harriet Tubman Returns to the South to Free Her Family Members from Slavery
Born into slavery in Maryland, in 1849, Harriet Tubman escaped to freedom in Philadelphia. The following year, she returned to Maryland to free her family members.
From 1950 to 1962, she returned to the South almost 20 times — helping more than 300 enslaved people escape to the North through the Underground Railroad. During the Civil War, Harriet Tubman worked as a nurse, scour, and spy for the Union Army. When the war ended, she helped to establish schools for Black people who had achieved their freedom in South Carolina. Later, she became involved in women’s rights causes.
May 29, 1851: Sojourner Truth Delivers “Ain’t I A Woman” Speech
Sojourner Truth escaped slavery to become one of the most prominent voices for abolition and women’s rights. At the 1951 Women’s Rights Convention, she delivered a searing speech titled, “Ain’t I a Woman?” The speech took aim at several issues within the abolitionist and women’s rights causes: (1) the notion that women are weaker than men; (2) the way that the women’s rights movement left out the experiences of Black women; and (3) how the abolitionists focused on Black men, to the exclusion of Black women. Here is part of her speech:
“And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? 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?”
1872: Charlotte Ray Becomes the First Black Woman Lawyer in the United States
In 1872, Charlotte Ray became the first Black woman attorney in the United States as well as the first woman admitted to the District of Columbia bar. Born in New York City to a father who was devoted to her education, she received her law degree from Howard University in 1872. Unfortunately, racism and misogyny made it impossible for her to practice as a lawyer. She ultimately became a teacher in New York City.
June 1921: Bessie Coleman Becomes the First Black Female Pilot
Bessie Coleman was born in Texas in 1892, and faced extreme poverty, discrimination and segregation throughout her childhood. After moving to Chicago as a young adult, she was intrigued by stories of pilots returning from World War I. She set a goal of becoming a pilot, but being both Black and a woman meant that she was unlikely to achieve that dream.
Instead, Bessie Coleman studied French as part of her plan to get her pilot’s license there. In 1920, she moved to France, both with her life savings and the backing of Robert Abbott, who was one of the first Black millionaires in the United States. She learned to fly in France, and in June of 1921, she was awarded an international pilot’s license by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. She returned to the United States as a hero, and performed at airshows, encouraging other Black men and women to learn to fly. Throughout this time, she refused to perform in venues where Black people were not allowed to attend. In 1926, Bessie Coleman died in a plane accident. Writer and equal rights advocate Ida B. Wells presided over her funeral.
1904: Mary McLeod Bethune Founds the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute
Mary McLeod Bethune was a Black civil rights leader and educator who was born into a sharecropping family in South Carolina. After teaching in Georgia, she moved with her husband to Florida, where she founded the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute in 1904. The goal of the institute was to provide education for Black girls. In 1923, it merged with the Cookman Institute for Men. Mary McLeod Bethune served as the president of the combined institution for 20 years. It ultimately became Bethune-Cookman University.
Over the course of her life, she also led civil rights organizations and counseled presidents on issues facing the Black community. Her advice was so invaluable that President Harry Truman invited her to attend the founding convention of the United Nations in 1945. She was the only Black American delegate who attended the convention.
1920s: Black Jazz Singer Esther Jones Performs in Signature “Boop” Style
While many of us are familiar with the cartoon character “Betty Boop,” most do not know that it was inspired by jazz singer Esther Jones, who performed under the stage name Baby Esther. She performed regularly in the Cotton Club during the 1920s, using her trademark style of inserting “boop” and other childlike sounds into her songs. Another singer adopted her style, and later sued the cartoonist and a movie company for using her image and likeness after the character Betty Boop was introduced in 1930. Video evidence showed that it was Baby Esther who created the “booping” style and image — not the white singer claiming credit for it. While Baby Esther never achieved fame or fortune in her lifetime, a piece of her lives on in the character of Betty Boop.
1936: Marian Anderson Is the First Black American to Perform at the White House
Known as one of the most significant signers of the 20th century, Marian Anderson possessed a three-octave vocal range. Throughout the 1920s, she performed throughout the U.S. and Europe. In 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt invited her to perform at the White House — making her the first Black American to do so. When the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow her to sing at a gathering in 1939, the Roosevelts asked her to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Later in life, Marian Anderson became involved in civil rights issues, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963. In 1991, she was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
1951: Althea Gibson Is the First Black American to Play at Wimbledon
Althea Gibson won her first tennis tournament at just 15 years old, after learning to play as a child in New York City. For years, she played in the American Tennis Association circuit, a league for Black players, routinely winning tournaments. In 1950, she was the first Black American to play at the Forest Hills Country Club, the site of the U.S. Open. In 1951, she was the first Black American to play at Wimbledon. She continued to play tennis through the early 1960s, dominating in both amateur and professional matches.
March 2, 1955: Claudette Colvin Refused to Give Up Her Bus Seat in Montgomery
While many of us are familiar with the story of Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a bus, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 15 year old Claudette Colvin refused to do the same nine months earlier — on March 2, 1955. She had been studying Black leaders in her segregated school, and had discussions with her classmates and teachers on the unjust Jim Crow laws that they had to follow. When she was ordered to get up from her seat by the bus driver, she refused. According to Ms. Colvin, “It felt like Sojourner Truth was on one side pushing me down, and Harriet Tubman was on the other side of me pushing me down. I couldn't get up.”
After being arrested and thrown in jail, she successfully challenged the segregation law in court along with four other women (Browder v. Gayle). Despite this, the NAACP and other civil rights organizations did not think that Claudette — an unmarried mother — made a good icon for the movement. Instead, they chose Rosa Parks to be the person who kicked off the boycott, as she was well-known and respected
1963: Dorothy Height Helps to Lead the March on Washington
Dorothy Height was one of the leaders of the Civil Rights movement, helming the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) and helping to lead the March on Washington in 1963. She is widely viewed as the godmother of the women’s movement due to her work for gender equality. In addition to her work leading the NCNW (starting in 1957), she advised the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). In 1994, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
1968: Shirley Chisholm is the First Black Woman to Serve in Congress
Shirley Chisholm started her career as an educator, earning her Master’s in elementary education in 1952. After working in the field on New York City for more than a decade, she had earned a reputation as an expert in early education and child welfare. In 1965, she was elected to represent Brooklyn in the New York State Assembly. From there, she was elected to U.S. Congress in 1968, becoming the first Black woman to serve. She held this office until 1983. During this time, she co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus. She also made a bid to win the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972 — the first Black woman to do so in a major political party. After leaving Congress, she devoted her life to civil rights and women’s rights.
2015: Misty Copeland Becomes First Black Principal Ballerina at the American Ballet Theater
Misty Copeland started ballet at the age of 13. Despite her relatively late start, she was considered a prodigy in the ballet world. In 1997, she won the Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Award as the best dancer in Southern California — at age 15. She joined the famed American Ballet Theater (ABT) in 2000, and became a soloist for the group in 2007. On June 30, 2015, she was promoted to principal dancer — the first Black woman to hold this position in the ABT’s 75 year history. Beyond her dance career, Misty Copeland has become an author, a public speaker, and stage performer. In 2015, she was named as one of the most influential people in the world by Time Magazine.
What women — or moments — would you add to this list?