10 Phenomenal Black Women in History You Need to Know

Happy Black History Month! We’re highlighting eight phenomenal Black women who’ve done incredible things to make America a more just, equal and beautiful place.

ANGELA DAVIS | Aretha Franklin | black history month

Happy Black History Month, friends! Well, you know we’re all about role models here at Girls Are Awesome, and today is no exception. We wanted to take a moment to highlight some truly incredible women – both from way back when, and from more recent days – that have helped the moral arc of the universe bend more towards justice, truth and beauty. We’ve picked eight who are sources of major inspiration to us, from whose lives we can all draw a ton of wisdom – but don’t think for a second that this list is exhaustive by any means! Some amazing women are purposefully left off because we’re discussing them in different pieces soon. So, keep an eye out for those, and in the meantime, enjoy this little history refresher of some of the most kickass women that have ever lived!

Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005)

ANGELA DAVIS | Aretha Franklin | black history month

Shirley Chisholm was born in Brooklyn, New York to immigrant parents who came to America from Barbados. She graduated from Brooklyn College and the Teachers College at Columbia University. In 1968, she became the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress and represented New York’s 12th congressional district for seven terms from 1969 to 1983. During her time in office, Chisholm served on the House Agriculture Committee where she worked to expand the food stamp program. Legislation she introduced also focused on gender and racial equality, and ending the Vietnam War. 

In the 1972 United States presidential election, she became the first Black candidate to seek a major party’s nomination for President of the United States, and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Though she didn’t win, Chisholm continued serving in the House of Representatives. In 1977, she was elected as Secretary of the House Democratic Caucus. Chisholm retired from Congress in 1983, and in 2015, Chisholm was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom – America’s highest civilian honor.
Want to read more about her amazing life? Here you go.

ANGELA DAVIS | Aretha Franklin | black history month

Angela Davis
(1944-)

For more than four decades, Angela Davis has been one of most influential activists and intellectuals in the United States. An icon of the Black liberation movement, Davis’s work around issues of gender, race, class and prisons has influenced critical thought and social movements across several generations. She’s a leading advocate for prison abolition, a position informed by her own experience as a prisoner and fugitive on the FBI’s top 10 most wanted list more than 40 years ago. Once caught, she faced the death penalty in California. Since being acquitted, she’s spent her life fighting to change the criminal justice system. Angela Davis is a professor emerita at the University of California Santa Cruz and continues her scholarship to this day. She lends her expertise to Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, which addresses the scourge of mass incarceration in the United States. The full doc is available on YouTube here, so be sure to check that out, and read more about her work and life here.

ANGELA DAVIS | Aretha Franklin | black history month

Sojourner Truth
(1797-1883)

Sojourner Truth was an abolitionist, suffragette and women’s rights activist who was born into slavery in New York state. The mother of five and a survivor of physical and sexual assault, Truth escaped to freedom with one of her children in 1823 and, not long after, had a divine encounter that would change the course of her life: traveling far and wide, preaching the abolition of slavery. Though she could neither read nor write, she delivered hundreds or thousands of passionate, moving lectures to that end, capturing the attention of audiences and policy-makers alike. At her eulogy, fellow abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass described her as “venerable for age, distinguished for insight into human nature, remarkable for independence and courageous self-assertion, devoted to the welfare of her race, she has been for the last forty years an object of respect and admiration to social reformers everywhere.” Among the many speeches she delivered, the best-known is titled “Ain’t I a Woman”, from the 1851 Women’s Convention in Ohio. Listen below as Kerry Washington performs it, and read more about Sojourner Truth’s incredible life here.

Josephine Baker (1906-1975)

ANGELA DAVIS | Aretha Franklin | black history month

World renowned performer, World War II spy, and activist are few of the titles used to describe Josephine Baker. One of the most successful African American performers in French history, Baker’s career illustrates the ways entertainers can use their platforms to change the world. She flourished as a dancer in several Vaudeville shows, and eventually moved to New York City to participated in the celebration of Black life and art now known as the Harlem Renaissance. A few years later her success took her to Paris. Baker became one of the most sought-after performers due to her distinct dancing style and unique costumes. Although her audiences were mostly white, Baker’s performances followed African themes and style.

When Adolf Hitler and the German army invaded France during World War II, Baker joined the fight against the Nazi regime. She aided French military officials by passing on secrets she heard while performing in front of the enemy. She transported the confidential information by writing with invisible ink on music sheets. After many years of performing in Paris, Baker returned to the United States – confronting segregation and discrimination that she had not experienced since she was a child. She often refused to perform to segregated audiences, which usually forced club owners to integrate for her shows. Baker continued to fight racial injustices into the 1970s, and adopted 13 children along the way. Read more about her life here, but fun fact: She received more than 1,000 marriage proposals in her lifetime.

ANGELA DAVIS | Aretha Franklin | black history month

Madam C.J. Walker
(1867–1919)

Entrepreneur, philanthropist, and activist, Madam C.J. Walker rose from poverty in the South to become one of the wealthiest African American women of her time. She used her position to advocate for the advancement of Black Americans and for an end to lynching. She was born on a plantation and orphaned as a child, and moved to St. Louis, Missouri in 1889 where her four brothers were barbers. In 1904, she became a sales agent for African American businesswoman Annie Turbo Malone, selling hair care products. A year later, Walker moved to Denver, Colorado, renamed herself “Madam C.J. Walker,” and with $1.25, launched her own line of hair products and straighteners for African American women, “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.” The popularity of her products meant she swas able to build a factory for her Walker Manufacturing Company. An advocate of Black women’s economic independence, she opened training programs in the “Walker System” for her national network of licensed sales agents who earned healthy commissions. Ultimately, Walker employed 40,000 African American women and men in the US, Central America, and the Caribbean. She also founded the National Negro Cosmetics Manufacturers Association in 1917. She is often credited as the first African American woman millionaire. Read more about her life here.

ANGELA DAVIS | Aretha Franklin | black history month

Marsha P. Johnson
(1945-1992)

Marsha P. Johnson was an activist, self-identified drag queen, performer, and survivor. And they were only 23 years old when police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular queer bar in New York. Over 200 patrons were taken into the street and harassed, beaten and arrested. Johnson not only stood up to the cops, but led a series of protests and demonstrations in the subsequent days demanding rights and liberation for members of the LGBTQIA+ community. A month after this, the first openly gay march took place in New York – a pivotal moment in LGBTQIA+ history.

Among the numerous things Marsha P. Johnson is known for is their kindness and generosity towards fellow members of the LGBTQIA+ community, even called “The Saint of Christopher Street”, where the Stonewall Inn is located. Johnson, together with friend Silvia Rivera, is credited with kicking off the LGBTQIA+ Rights movement, and bringing queer liberation to the national stage. Fun fact: The “P.” in Marsha P. Johnson’s name stands for “Pay it no mind” – Marsha’s response when people would ask about their gender. Read more about their life here and check out the 2017 Netflix documentary, “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” (here’s the trailer).

Ida B. Wells (1862-1931)

ANGELA DAVIS | Aretha Franklin | black history month

Born into slavery during the Civil War, Ida B. Wells was a prominent journalist, activist, and researcher. An incredibly talented writer, Wells also used her skills as a journalist to shed light on the conditions of African Americans throughout the South. After the lynching of a close friend, Wells dedicated herself to investigating lynchings and white mob violence, and published her findings in pamphlets and newspaper columns. For this, she faced tremendous violence and continued threats, often to the point where she had to move to a new city.

Wells also traveled internationally, shedding light on lynching to foreign audiences. Abroad, she openly confronted white women in the suffrage movement who ignored lynching. Because of her stance, she was often ridiculed and ostracized by women’s suffrage organizations in the United States. Nevertheless, Wells remained active the women’s rights movement. Her contributions to investigative journalism are credited among the reasons we have so much documentation and data about lynchings during the period of Wells’ life, and her fearless example of speaking truth to apathy and indifference have cemented her heroic place in history. Read more about her story here.

ANGELA DAVIS | Aretha Franklin | black history month

Rosa Parks (1913-2005)

Most historians date the beginning of the modern civil rights movement in the United States to December 1, 1955. That was the day when an unknown Black seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. This brave woman, Rosa Parks, who had worked with the local NAACP chapter for years, was arrested and fined for violating a city ordinance – but her lonely act of defiance began a movement that ended legal segregation in America, and made her an inspiration to freedom-loving people everywhere.

The bus incident led to the formation of the Montgomery Improvement Association, led by the young pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The association called for a boycott of the city-owned bus company. The boycott lasted 381 days and brought Mrs. Parks, Dr. King, and their cause to the attention of the world. A Supreme Court decision struck down the Montgomery ordinance under which Mrs. Parks had been fined, and outlawed racial segregation on public transportation. Rosa Parks’ legacy as the Mother of the Civil Rights movement, and her example to all of us, remain just as strong as they ever were. Read more about her life here.

ANGELA DAVIS | Aretha Franklin | black history month

Aretha Franklin
(1942-2018)

The reigning and undisputed “Queen Of Soul”, Aretha Franklin created an amazing legacy that spans an incredible six decades, already from her first recording as a teenage gospel star. Some of her honors include a little thing called America’s highest civilian honor, The Presidential Medal Of Freedom, a whopping eighteen GRAMMY Awards winner, a GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement and a GRAMMY Living Legend Award. Aretha Franklin’s powerful, distinctive gospel-honed vocal style has influenced countless singers across multi-generations, justifiably earning her Rolling Stone magazine’s No. 1 placing on the list of “The Greatest Singers Of All Time.” And if all that wasn’t enough – she was also the first woman ever to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The phenomenon continued performing into her 80’s, including the performance below honoring Carole King, who co-wrote the absolutely iconic “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”. Get your tissue ready, though – Our reactions are 100% Carole King, and 100% President Obama. Read more about Aretha Franklin’s life here,

ANGELA DAVIS | Aretha Franklin | black history month

Harriet Tubman
(c. 1820–1913)

Easily one of the most recognized icons in American history, Harriet Tubman was an escaped enslaved woman who became a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, leading enslaved people to freedom before the Civil War – as well as a nurse, a Union spy and a women’s suffrage supporter – all of which she did with a bounty on her own head. In 1849 and with the help of the Underground Railroad, Tubman escaped and traveled 90 miles north to freedom. She found work as a housekeeper in Philadelphia, but she wasn’t satisfied living free on her own—she wanted freedom for her loved ones and friends, too. Over the next ten years, it’s estimated her Underground Railroad network led 300 formerly enslaved people to freedom, with Tubman personally guiding at least 70. And when the Civil War broke out, Tubman worked as the head of an espionage and scout network for the Union Army. She provided crucial intelligence to Union commanders about Confederate Army supply routes and troops and helped liberate enslaved people to form Black Union regiments. The film Harriet was released in 2019 and shows the ingenuity, courage and heart this pheonomal American hero had. Here’s the trailer, as well as a link to more a little more biographical info.

Thanks to History.com, Biography.com, WomensHistory.org, Britannica.com, and NYTimes.com for biographical information about these incredible women.

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