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18 History-Making Black Women You Probably Didn't Learn About In School

Civil rights heroes, poets, sports stars, and more.

Images of Althea Gibson and Mae Jemison, two Black women from history whose stories are rarely taugh...
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Any time of year is an excellent one to learn about Black women in history who accomplished incredible things, but have been neglected by historians — particularly those who've been excluded from your high school or college curricula. Beyond Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman, there are thousands of Black women who broke barriers — in sport, medicine, literature, politics, and every other sphere — and deserve much greater recognition.

According to the National Council for the Social Studies, not knowing about these extraordinary Black women is common. "Only one to two lessons or 8–9 percent [sic] of total class time is devoted to Black history in U.S. history classrooms," the organization says. They recommend curriculum "from a Black perspective with topics specifically geared towards the Black experience" to help improve the superficial knowledge many kids are left with after Black history lessons.

History isn’t fixed in textbooks; it’s a continual process of discovery you can take part in no matter what your knowledge base is. Even if you're done with school, you can still learn, which where this list of 18 Black women you should know about comes in. From civil rights activists, to poets, sports stars, and state leaders, knowing these women’s stories is essential — and long overdue.

1

Althea Gibson

Unless you're a longtime tennis fan, you may not be familiar with Althea Gibson, who was the first Black woman to compete at Wimbledon in 1951, according to the International Tennis Hall Of Fame, opening doors for Black athletes everywhere. And she didn't just compete — her victories are legendary. She went on to win singles titles at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958, and the Associated Press named her Female Athlete of the Year those same two years in a row.

In 2016, Serena Williams recognized her accomplishments when she tweeted, "Althea Gibson paved the way for all women of color in sport." And though Gibson is most famous for her tennis skills, that wasn't the only sport she played. Gibson became a professional golfer in 1963, just years after winning her tennis titles.

2

Amelia Boynton Robinson

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Amelia Boynton Robinson helped organize the 1965 Selma March and became the first Black woman to run for Congress in Alabama. Although she didn't win, her campaign raised much-needed awareness about voter discrimination. After she died at 104, former President Barack Obama recognized her legacy in an official statement. "She was as strong, as hopeful, and as indomitable of spirit — as quintessentially American — as I’m sure she was that day 50 years ago,” he said. “To honor the legacy of an American hero like Amelia Boynton requires only that we follow her example — that all of us fight to protect everyone’s right to vote.”

3

Jane Bolin

Jane Bolin was a trailblazer for women of color who practice law — she was the first Black woman to graduate from Yale Law School and became the nation's first Black woman judge in 1939, according to the New York Times. Bolin ruled on important family court cases throughout her career and worked with former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to support a program that aimed to root out crime among young boys. In addition, as the Times pointed out, she ruled against the assignment of probation officers based on race.

4

Daisy Bates

After moving to Little Rock, Arkansas, Daisy Bates helped start one of the first Black newspapers that was entirely dedicated to the Civil Rights Movement, The National Women's History Museum notes. The civil rights activist served as president of her local NAACP chapter and eventually played a huge role in ending school segregation in Arkansas by organizing the Little Rock Nine — a group of nine Black students who integrated Central High School. Arkansas recognizes the third Monday in February as Daisy Gatson Bates Day to celebrate her legacy.

5

Miriam Makeba

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While there are incredible women of color in U.S. history, it's important to recognize the work done by Black women around the world. Miriam Makeba was a South African singer who spoke out against apartheid for decades, according to The Guardian. After her death in 2008, South Africa's former president Nelson Mandela said, "She was South Africa's first lady of song and so richly deserved the title of Mama Africa. She was a mother to our struggle and to the young nation of ours."

6

Alexa Canady

Dr. Alexa Canady became the first Black woman neurosurgeon in the U.S. in 1981, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. She helped save thousands of lives — mostly children, according to Changing the Face of Medicine — during her 20-year career. Her home state of Michigan recognized her milestones by inducting her into the Woman's Hall of Fame in 1989, and she was named Teacher of the Year by the Children's Hospital of Michigan.

7

Claudette Colvin

While Rosa Parks made history for all the right reasons, Claudette Colvin refused to give up her bus seat for a white person months before Parks did, per NPR. She was only 15 years old at the time. So, why isn't her name mentioned as frequently as Parks' is? “My mother told me to be quiet about what I did,” Colvin told the New York Times in 2009. “She told me: ‘Let Rosa be the one. White people aren’t going to bother Rosa — her skin is lighter than yours and they like her.’” She told the publication that in her heart, she knew that Parks was the right person to become the heart of the Civil Rights movement.

8

Marsha P. Johnson

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Marsha P. Johnson was an LGBTQ activist and trans woman who helped lead the Stonewall riots. A 2017 Netflix documentary investigating her death drew attention to her legacy, as well as the continued violence against transgender women of color today. The New York Times says that in addition to being a drag performer, Johnson worked with homeless LGBTQ young people and people with HIV or AIDS.

New York City's Greenwich Village memorialized Johnson's contributions with a monument in May 2019, just down the street from the Stonewall Inn. “The LGBTQ movement was portrayed very much as a white, gay male movement,” New York City first lady Chirlane McCray told the Times. “This monument counters that trend of whitewashing the history.”

9

Constance Baker Motley

A lawyer, activist, and the first Black woman to become a federal judge and serve in the New York State Senate, Constance Baker Motley lived a revolutionary life during the civil rights era. While practicing law, she focused on civil rights cases, per the New York Times, and once even represented Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. On top of that, she won the nine out of 10 cases she argued in front of the Supreme Court.

10

Dr. Mae Jemison

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Dr. Mae Jemison became the first Black woman astronaut to travel into space in 1992, and her accomplishments don't end there. Today, she's a doctor, former Peace Corps officer, and engineer. In addition, she leads the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's 100-Year Starship program, which aims to send humans outside of our solar system in the next century, Space.com says.

11

Marian Anderson

Marian Anderson was the first Black person ever to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955, per PBS. She was also the first Black woman invited to perform at the White House. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan gave her the National Medal of Arts, according to Anderson's official website.

12

Gwendolyn Brooks

The Poetry Foundation describes Gwendolyn Brooks as "one of the most highly regarded, highly influential, and widely read poets of 20th-century American poetry." In fact, she was the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1950. Her poems described the everyday life of Black Americans in cities like Chicago, where she grew up.

13

Mary Mahoney

Mary Mahoney became the first licensed Black nurse in the U.S. in 1879, according to the National Women's History Museum. She couldn't work in a hospital because of the discrimination people of color faced in the 19th century, so she spent years as a private nurse instead. Later, she cofounded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) in 1908, and gave its convention's opening speech the very next year, the National Women's History Museum highlighted. And after the 19th Amendment was ratified years later, she became one of the first women registered to vote in Boston.

14

Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer fought for Black people to have the right to vote and suffered permanent injuries because of police beatings, per PBS. In 1964, she ran for Congress as a member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which she helped found. The party pushed back against the Democratic Party's all-white delegation in Mississippi that year. And even after the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, she continued to speak out against voting discrimination.

15

Dorothy Height

Dorothy Height was a civil rights activist who's considered the "unsung heroine" of the civil rights era, according to The New York Times. She advocated for improving the lives of Black women and also pushed for women's rights. In addition to leading the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years, she helped found the National Women’s Political Caucus alongside feminist activists like Gloria Steinem. She received the Congressional Gold Medal for her work in 2004.

16

Sylvia Mendez

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Sylvia Mendez and her Mexican-Puerto Rican family fought to integrate schools years before Brown vs. Board of Education. Thanks to their determination, California became the first state to desegregate schools in 1946. Former President Barack Obama awarded her with the Medal of Freedom in 2011.

17

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

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The U.S. hasn't ever had a woman president (yet), but other regions of the world are ahead of us. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first woman president in Africa in 2006 when she was elected president of Liberia. Her term ended earlier in 2018 amidst controversy, but Johnson Sirleaf, who is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, made history nonetheless.

18

Phyllis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley, who was kidnapped from Senegal at the age of seven or eight, was enslaved in the U.S. in the 1760s, per the Poetry Foundation. As a person enslaved in the household, she was given an unusual literary education. In 1773, she became the first Black person, and only the second woman, to publish a book of poetry in America, when her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published. She immediately became famous in England and the U.S. The Wheatleys emancipated her in the same year, and she went on to meet George Washington and earn the praise of Thomas Paine.