These twelve brave women made important contributions to society in law, activism, education, and culture throughout the 1800s and 1900s, but they’re often left out of historical literature. From founding colleges to the starting the NAACP, their work changed the course of history. These famous black women in history left their mark and deserve every bit of recognition. Read on to hear their stories.
“Mama Lena” as people called her, was the “Martha Stewart” of New Orleans—a trained chef, acclaimed cookbook author, restaurant and catering business owner, frozen food entrepreneur, TV host and cooking school teacher. With skillful élan, Richard artfully tore down racial and economic barriers in the heart of the Jim Crow South, improving the livelihoods of current and future African Americans in her community. An anthology of her recipes was collected to publish the New Orleans Cook Book—now regarded as the first Creole cookbook written by an African American.
Coleman became the first black woman to earn a pilot’s license and the first black woman to stage a public flight in the United States. Known for performing flying tricks and parachuting stunts, she remains a pioneer for women in aviation.
This writer, poet, librarian and activist was a self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior and poet.” She dedicated both her life and her poetry to confronting and addressing injustices of racism, sexism, classism, 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.
In 1813, Harriet Jacobs was born into slavery. Her owner sexually abused her for seven years before she ran away. She was forced to hide in a tiny crawlspace, where she lived with no light or ventilation for seven years. In 1842, she made her escape to Philadelphia, then relocated to Rochester, where she worked for the famous North Star abolitionist newspaper. She finally gained freedom when her friend arranged for her purchase. Later in her life, she turned her pain into passion by writing an autobiography titled Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The book gave her celebrity as an author and is still in print today.
Charlotte E. Ray
Not only was Charlotte E. Ray the first female graduate from Howard University’s law department and the first woman admitted to the Washington DC Bar, but she was the first African American lawyer in America. She opened a law office in D.C.; however, racism prevented her from building a clientele big enough to keep her practice open. This forced her to return to New York City to teach in public schools.
Anna Julia Cooper
Anna Cooper was the first African American woman to receive a Ph.D. in history. She founded the Colored Women’s League of Washington and helped open the first YWCA chapter for Black Women. In 1924, she became the fourth Black person in the United States to receive a Ph.D. and the first to receive one from the University of Paris. She retired from education at age 95.
Mary Church Terrell
Mary Church Terrell’s foray into activism began in 1892 when her friend, Thomas Moss, was lynched in Memphis. She joined Ida B. Wells in the anti-lynching campaign and dedicated her life’s work to “lifting as we climb.” This became the motto of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), which Terrell helped found. She served as president of NACW for five years, and in 1909, became one of the founding members of the NAACP.
Mary McLeod Bethune
After graduating from college, Bethune taught school but felt compelled to provide opportunities for African American girls. In 1904, with only $1.50, Bethune opened the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls in Daytona, Florida. In 1923, the school merged with the Cookman Collegiate Institute and eventually become Bethune-Cookman College, which remains a popular historically black college today. In addition to her contributions to education, Bethune served as Special Advisor on Minority Affairs under the Roosevelt administration and founded the National Council for Negro Women. After her death, she became the first woman and the first African-American honored with a statue in a public park in Washington DC.
Jane Matilda Bolin
Jane Bolin was named a Wellesley scholar at Wellesley College before receiving her BA with honors in 1928. She then attended Yale Law School, where she became the first African American woman to graduate in 1931. A year later, she was admitted to the New York Bar and began working with her father and brother at their law firm in Poughkeepsie. In 1937, she was named assistant corporate counsel in NYC’s law department. She worked this job for two years before being appointed justice of the Domestic Relations Court of the City of New York (later named Family Court). This made her the first Black female judge in America, presiding for 40 years.
Hazel Dorothy Scott
Hazel Scott grew up in the heat of the Harlem Renaissance. She was a piano prodigy from age three and at the age of eight attended The Juilliard School of Music, even though the minimum age requirement was 16. Before she was out of her teens, she had performed at the 1939 World’s Fair and become a staple at New York City’s first integrated club, Café Society. At the age of 25, she was earning today’s equivalent of $1 million a year. She regularly challenged racial stereotypes and pay disparities and refused to play for segregated audiences. Hazel went on to become the first Black woman to host her own nationally-syndicated television show.
Cassandra Maxwell was the first African American Woman admitted to the SC Bar. During the formative years of the Civil Rights Movement, Maxwell assisted Thurgood Marshall with the legal work of the NAACP. Her contributions as a strategist helped draft the case laws that would lead to the end of segregated facilities in the South. She was later appointed by President Nixon as a member of the Interim Board of Directors of the Student Loan Marketing Association.
At the age of 18, Luna, a six-foot-tall young woman, was spotted by photographer David McCabe. A year after being discovered, she moved to New York, where she landed on a cover of Harper’s Bazaar—but the painting whitewashed her race, making it difficult to tell if she was African American. In 1966, she made the cover of British Vogue, making history as the first Black cover model photographed for a Vogue franchise. Luna went on to have an international career, starring in multiple Andy Warhol films, The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus, dozens of magazine spreads, and films across Europe.
Written by Andreia Wardlaw, founder of Mother Wit Blog. Mother Wit is a blog dedicated to documenting the contributions of African American women in history in an effort to change the narrative of American history that has silenced the contributions of Women of Color. Mother Wit promotes education, representation, and empowerment.
This post was originally published on December 27, 2018, and has since been updated.