To mark International Women’s Day here are ten African-American women who changed (and continue to do so) lives and perceptions through their deeds, challenging attitudes not only because of their gender but their color too.
Phillis Wheatley: First to Publish a Book
Phillis Wheatley took her first name from the ship that carried her from Africa in bondage at the age of seven. She was ‘lucky’ enough to be sold to the Wheatleys of Boston who seemed to have been liberal slave owners, if that is not too much of an oxymoron. They encouraged her, after teaching her literacy skills, to write poetry. This she took to with fervor and became the first African-American woman to have a book published in 1773.
She underwent a trial to prove that she had in fact written her poems as many refused to believe, because of her race and gender, that she was capable of such work. Although feted by the rich and famous of the day, Wheatley failed to find a publisher for a second volume and tragically died in childbirth at the age of thirty one.
Sissieretta Jones: First to sing at Carnegie Hall and Madison Square Garden
Maggie L Walker: First President of a Bank
Her consistent dream had been to run a bank operated for and by African-Americans. This dream came true in 1903 when she opened the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank. To give an idea of the currency and popularity of her plan, an amazing $9,430.44 was deposited on the first day. The bank still runs today, as the Consolidated Bank and Trust Company with assets of over one hundred and sixty million dollars.
Madam CJ Walker: First Millionaire
Her business began small and grew. Known for her philanthropy she left two thirds of her money to educational institutions and to various charities. Her company saw, for thousands of African-American women, a realistic alternative to domestic labor when they became salespeople for her. Her daughter A’Lelia was to be an instrumental female figure in the Harlem Renaissance.
Lucy Diggs Slowe: First Major Sports Title and College Dean
The Williams sisters are not quite the first wave of black tournament winning tennis players that many imagine. Going back to 1917, Lucy Diggs Slowe won the first ever tournament of the American Tennis Association. Although she probably would not wished to be remembered only for her sporting achievements it did lead to other activities. She was asked to create the first junior high school for the District of Columbia in 1919 and ran the school for three years. 1922 saw the offer of College Dean of Women at Howard University. She remained at Howard for the remainder of her career – an additional fifteen years. A woman of many firsts she also was an original founder of the first African-American female sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha which is still going today.
Bessie Coleman: First Airline Pilot
Not the first Queen Bess in history, certainly, but the first woman so nicknamed to become an airline pilot. Bessie Coleman was working as a manicurist in a barber shop she was inspired by stories of pilots returned from the First World War to seek a career in aviation herself. She took French lessons in Chicago and in 1920 she found herself training in France (the French were a little more liberated in terms of gender and color than the US at that time). The year later she achieved her pilot’s license. In fact she was the first American of any race or gender to acquire an International Pilot’s License.
At the end of 1921 when she returned to the States she became a media star as an exhibition pilot. She became so popular that she was even offered a role in a movie, but walked off the set when she realized that she was expected to fit in with the common racial stereotypes of the day. On a routine flight on April 30 1926 her plane failed to come out of a practice nose dive and she was thrown over five hundred feet to her death.
Sadie Alexander: First PHD
Born in 1898, Sarah Tanner Mossell Alexander (Sadie to her friends and how she would be known throughout life) she received her PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in 1921. Another first, the Pennsylvania Bar accepted her in 1927 and she was the first African-American women to do that as well. This was at a time when women in general, let alone women of color were still struggling for equal rights in what was very much considered a man’s world. She practiced law until 1982 and died .seven years later.
Josephine Baker: First to Star in an International Movie
A supporter of Civil Rights, she was the only woman to speak at the famous Martin Luther King Jr March On Washington in 1963. She died in 1975 and due to her war time activities as a spy for the French she was the first American woman of any color to be buried with full French military honors.
Mae Jemison: First in Space
She resigned from NASA in 1993 to form a company researching the application of technology to daily life. She has appeared on television several times, including as an actress in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Jemison holds nine honorary doctorates in science, engineering, letters, and the humanities.
Yet if you are reading this and just happen to be an African-American girl or woman, then this tenth spot on our list is for you. It is for what you will and do achieve in your life. What will it be?