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 pos