Black Women Who Have Changed the World
Updated: Oct 11
February is the time we celebrate Black History Month, also referred to as African American History Month. In fact, did you know that Black History Month is also celebrated in Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the Netherlands?
So in celebration of Black History Month, I volunteered to identify black women to honor and celebrate. At the beginning of my research, I thought to myself, “How am I going to find 29 black historical women?” You see, I thought it would be awesome to showcase a woman a day for the month of February 2020, if I could find enough historical black women. To be honest, I must share with you that most of the black history I knew about was related to black men and their accomplishments. Throughout my life, I was taught and told stories about Booker T Washington, Frederick Douglass, Nelson Mandela, Alex Haley, W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, Thurgood Marshall and my favorite Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
As I am sure you know, there are currently many successful black women in the world today. However, I wanted to highlight historical black women as well as current black women of today that have made major accomplishments in their lives. I wanted to find black women that had to step out of their comfort zone to bring about change. I wanted to highlight black women that risked their lives to step out of their pre-defined cultural role so that we all could have a fuller, safer life. I wanted to highlight black women that, through their actions, have taught us that we can change the world to make it a better place for all.
Not only did I find 29 historical women, I found 40 historical women and I am sure if I kept looking I could have found many, many more! I’m sure that you will be just as impressed by their accomplishments as I am.
During this research, I found black women have made some of the most amazing contributions into the world. Here are a few examples:
A black LGBTQ activist and trans woman who led the Stonewall riots
Won an Oscar for best supporting actress in a movie
Created injectable treatments for leprosy
Developed laser technology for treating cataracts
Calculated the flight path for the first American in space
A neurosurgeon that saved the lives of many children
Helped lead the development of the global positioning system (GPS)
Taught herself Fortran (a computer language) to become a part of NASA’s Analysis and Computation Division
Like I said, this is just a few accomplishments by black women!
So here is my list of 29 amazing black women as well as a little information about the gifts each have shared with the world.
She was the first Black person ever to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955. She was also the first Black woman invited to perform at the White House. In 1986, President Ronald Regan gave her the National Medal of Arts.
Fannie Lou Hamer
She fought for Black people to have the right to vote and suffered permanent injuries because of police beatings. In 1964, she ran for Congress as a member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which she helped found.
A chemist who developed an injectable treatment for leprosy.
An ophthalmologist who developed laser technology used in treating cataracts.
A chemist who studied the relationship between cholesterol and heart health.
Dr. Mae Jemison
She became the first Black woman astronaut to travel into space in 1992. Today, she is a doctor, former Peace Corp officer and engineer. She also leads the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s 100 Year Starship Program which aims to send humans outside of our solar system into the next century.
As a mathematician, her calculations of orbital mechanics as a NASA employee were critical to the success of the first and subsequent U.S. crewed spaceflights. She calculated the flight path for Alan Shepard (the first American in space) and later checked critical flight path calculations for Apollo 13. She earned a reputation for mastering complex manual calculations and helped pioneer the use of computers to perform the tasks. The space agency noted her "historical role as one of the first African-American women to work as a NASA scientist."
Mary Jackson was a Black mathematician and aerospace engineer at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. She worked at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, for most of her career. She started as a computer at the segregated West Area Computing division in 1951. She took advanced engineering classes and, in 1958, became NASA's first black female engineer.
She was an African American mathematician and human computer who worked for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and NASA, at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. She taught herself FORTRAN and became part of NASA's Analysis and Computation Division (ACD). In 1949, she became acting supervisor of the West Area Computers, the first African-American woman to supervise a group of staff at the center.
A mathematician who worked on the processing and analysis of satellite data that helped lead to the development of the Global Positioning System (GPS).
Harriet was born a slave and yet she dedicated her life to freeing slaves. She returned to Maryland many times over a decade to rescue both family and non-family members from the bondages of slavery. In fact, she earned the nickname “Moses” after the prophet Moses in the Bible who led his people to freedom. In all of her journeys she “never lost a single passenger.” During the civil war, she also worked for the Union Army as a cook, a nurse and even a spy. At the end of her life, she was buried with military honors in Fort Hill Cemetery in New York.
Madam C J Walker
She made her fortune by developing and marketing a line of cosmetics and hair care products for black women.
She was a Caribbean-American writer and activist. She was a self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior and poet.” She empowered her readers with her moving poetry often tackling the injustices of racism, sexism and homophobia. She’s known for her poetry and memoirs such as, From a Land Where Other People Live, The Black Unicorn and A Burst of Light.
She 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.
First black woman to compete at Wimbledon in 1951. 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. She also became a professional golfer in 1963.
Dr. Alexa Canady
She became the first Black woman neurosurgeon in the US in 1981 according to the U S National Library of Medicine. She helped saved thousands of lives – mostly children.
Marsha P Johnson
She was a LGBTQ activist and trans woman who helped lead the Stonewall riots. She also worked with homeless LGBTQ young people and people with HIV or AIDS.
She was a leader in addressing the rights of both women and African Americans as the president of the National Council of Negro Women. In the 1990s, she drew young people into her cause in the war against drugs, illiteracy and unemployment. The numerous honors bestowed upon her include the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1994) and the Congressional Gold Medal (2004).
She was an American poet, singer, memoirist, and civil rights activist. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and is credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years. Her first book was, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and she was globally introduced to the world by Oprah Winfrey. She also shared a poem during the inauguration celebration for President Obama.
Mary McLeod Bethune
She was an American educator, stateswoman, philanthropist, humanitarian, and civil rights activist best known for starting a private school for African-American girls in Daytona Beach, FL and co-founding UNCF on April 25, 1944.
She was an American activist in the civil rights movement. She was best known for her pivotal role in the Montgomery, AL bus boycott. The United States Congress has called her "the first lady of civil rights" and "the mother of the freedom movement".
She was an American novelist, essayist, book editor, and college professor. Her first novel was the Bluest Eye was published in 1970. In 1988, Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for her book Beloved in 1987 and she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.
She was an American politician, educator, and author. In 1968, she became the first black woman elected to the United States Congress and she represented New York 12th congressional district for seven terms from 1969 to 1983. In 1972, she became the first black candidate for a major party's nomination for the President of the United States and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s nomination as well as the first womn to appear in a United States presidential debate.
She is an American politician serving as the U. S. Representative for California’s 43rd congressional district since 2013. As a member of the Democratic Party, Waters is currently in her 15th term in the House, having served since 1991. She is the most senior of the twelve black women currently serving in Congress.
Caryn Elaine Johnson, is professionally known as Whoopi Goldberg. She is an American actor, comedian, author, and television personality. She has been nominated for 13 Emmy Awards and is one of the few entertainers to have won an Emmy Award, a Grammy Award, an Oscar (Academy Award), and a Tony Award. She is also the second black woman to win an Academy Award for acting. Whoppi is currently the lead host of the ABC show, The View.
She is an American professional tennis player and she has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles, the most by any man or woman in the Open Era. The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) ranked her number 1 in singles on eight separate occasions between 2002 and 2017. She reached the No. 1 ranking for the first time on July 8, 2002. On her sixth occasion, she held the ranking for 186 consecutive weeks, tying the record set by Steffi Graf. In total, she has been No. 1 for 319 weeks, which ranks third among female players behind Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova.
She is an American television producer, television and film writer, and author. She is best known as the creator, head writer and executive producer of Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, and Scandal. She also served as executive producer of ABC television shows Off the Map, How to Get Away with Murder and The Catch. Shandra opened up a whole world to little Africian American girls who wanted a career in the movie industry without being an actress.
She is an American lawyer, university administrator, and writer. She graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School. In her early legal career, she worked at the Sidley Austin law firm. She subsequently worked in non-profits and as the associate dean of Student Services at the University of Chicago as well as the vice president for Community and External Affairs of the University of Chicago Medical Center. While in the White House, she served as a role model for women and worked as an advocate for poverty awareness, education, nutrition, physical activity, and healthy eating.
She is an American media executive, actress, talk show host, television producer, and philanthropist. She is best known for her talk show, The Oprah Winfrey Show. Her show was the highest-rated television program of its kind in history and ran in national syndication for 25 years from 1986 to 2011. Oprah was dubbed the “Queen of All Media” and she was one of the richest African Americans of the 20th century and North America's first black multi-billionaire. She has also been ranked the greatest black philanthropist in American history and in 2007 she was sometimes ranked as the most influential woman in the world. In 2013, Oprah was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama and honorary doctorate degrees from Duke and Harvard. In 2008 she formed her own network, Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) and invested in Weight Watchers in October 2015.
As a little black girl from the South, you did not hear a lot of good about successful people of color. Not their accomplishments, their talents, nor their gifts. In fact, I remember watching the movie Hidden Figures and being amazed that black women worked for NASA.
Lastly, there are great women all among us. I remember one day I was talking to my Minister’s grandmother and she was sharing some events of her life. She casually says to me, “I remember when we decided to stand up for our right to vote. We were done being told what to do by people that had no idea of who we were, so we decided to boycott.” She then asked if I would like a glass of ice tea. I said “yes ma’am” and we continued our conversation. So if you are given the opportunity to sit with a person of a certain age, trust me you will learn so much in a single conversation.
So please join the WNA Diversity & Inclusion Council to celebrate the lives of these 29 women as their contributions have changed many lives. My wish is that these women and their gifts will empower us all to be the best we can be.
Gloria Webb Williams, Ancient Stones Nurturing Naturals, Chapter 114
Gloria Webb-Williams is the co-founder and owner of Ancient Stones Nurturing Naturals, an all natural mineral makeup manufacturing company located in Santa Clara, CA. The company was launched in September 2003 and Gloria became the single owner in October 2014. Gloria is passionately driven to bring great products into the marketplace. She is proud to offer excellent products for individuals that are looking for natural, pure and organic cosmetics. Gloria’s company offers Concealer, Foundation, Blush, Eye Shadows, Lip Crème, Veil, Sunsation (a natural sun shield), and the world’s best makeup setting spray – Ancient Elixir© (patent pending formula). Gloria is proud to offer a product line that has allowed her customers to wear her makeup without the fear of harmful chemicals. This is the passion that drives Gloria and her products because she wants to offer an alternative to traditional makeup. Learn more here: http://www.ancientstonesmineralmakep.com/