17 Black Women In History You Probably Didn’t See In Your History Textbook

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It's Black History Month, which means that schools around the nation will have curriculum focused on notable Black people for the next four weeks (as opposed to, say, all year). I always enjoyed the things I learned during Black History Month, but I realize now how woefully under-educated I was on the accomplishments of people of color. I knew about Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman, but it wasn't until college that I started learning about less-famous Black women in history who still managed to accomplish incredible things. Even as an adult now, I'm still learning about revolutionary women of color who I can't believe I've never heard of.

According to the National Council for the Social Studies, my not knowing about these extraordinary women is common. Even when teachers make an effort to properly teach Black history year-round, students are still woefully uninformed. "Only 1 to 2 lessons or 8–9 percent of total class time is devoted to Black history in U.S. history classrooms," the organization says in an article. 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. But even if you're done with school, you can still learn, which is why I've made a list of 17 Black women you should know about — and continue to talk about all year long.

1. Althea Gibson

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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. In 2016, Serena Williams tweeted, "Althea Gibson paved the way for all women of color in sport." Even though Gibson is most famous for her tennis skills, she was also a golf star.

2. Amelia Boynton Robinson

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Amelia Boynton Robinson helped organize the 1965 Selma March and became famous after being beaten by Alabama police officers during the protests. She's also the first Black woman to run for Congress in Alabama, according to theWashington Post. Although she didn't win, her campaign raised much-needed awareness about voting discrimination. She died at the age of 104.

3. Jane Bolin

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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 female judge in 1939, according to The New York Times.

4. Daisy Bates

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Bates's childhood was a traumatic one — her mother was assaulted and murdered by white men when she was a child. PBS says that her childhood trauma changed her deeply: "Throughout her life — even at the height of her acclaim — Daisy Bates would know loneliness and a feeling of being on the outside looking in." Still, Bates became a civil rights activist who pushed for integration in Arkansas and advocated for the Little Rock Nine.

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 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

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Dr. Alexa Canady became the first Black female neurosurgeon in the U.S. in 1981, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. She helped save thousands of lives during her 20-year career.

7. Claudette Colvin

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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. Why isn't her name mentioned as frequently as Parks'? In a 2009 interview with The New York Times, Colvin shared why Parks made history. “My mother told me to be quiet about what I did,” she told the publication. “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.’”

8. Marsha P. Johnson


You may be familiar with Marsha P. Johnson thanks to the Netflix documentary investigating her death released last year — she was an LGBTQ activist and trans woman who helped lead the Stonewall riots, according to Essence.

9. Constance Baker Motley

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A lawyer, activist and the first Black woman to become a federal judge, 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. She once represented Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

10. Dr. Mae Jemison

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Dr. Mae Jemison became the first Black female astronaut to travel into space in 1992, but she's accomplished even more than that. She's a doctor, former Peace Corps officer and engineer, according to NASA.

11. Marian Anderson

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Marian Anderson was the first Black person of any gender 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 the National Medal of Arts, according to Anderson's official website. She passed away in 1993.

12. Gwendolyn Brooks

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The Poetry Foundation describes Gwendolyn Brooks as "one of the most highly regarded, highly influential, and widely read poets of 20th-century American poetry." She was the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1950.

13. Mary Mahoney

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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.

14. Fannie Lou Hamer

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Fannie Lou Hamer fought for Black people to have the right to vote and suffered permanent injuries thanks to police beatings, per PBS. Even after the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, she continued to speak out against voting discrimination.

15. Dorothy Height

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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 pushed for women's rights. She received the Congressional Gold Medal 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.

17. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

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

This isn't an exhaustive list by any means, but these women and countless others deserve to be recognized for the ways they've changed the world. Thanks to their efforts, women of color today are well set up to make history ourselves.