10 African American Female Firsts

8 March 2014

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Most of the women on this list lived during times when they were not expected to excel but to know their place in society. These African-American women became the first to accomplish a variety of things. Some of these achievements we may take for granted these days but others are still astonishing. 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
In 1892 Sissieretta Jones became the first African-American woman to sing at Carnegie Hall.  She was a versatile performer and her repertoire included grand to light opera through to the popular music of the day.  The composer Dvorak was so impressed with her voice that he wrote a solo for her.  She was known as ‘Black Patti’ after the Italian opera singer Adelina Patti.  Finding many theater doors blocked because of her color Jones decided to do her own thing and started her own troupe of players.  Although she toured successfully with this musical mélange (advertisements for the troupe announced they would be performing ‘coon comedy’ and ‘coon songs’) she retired in 1915.  This was to devote her time to her sick mother.  Jones died in poverty in 1933.

Maggie L Walker: First President of a Bank
Maggie L Walker was born just two years after the American Civil War and received an education through the Lancaster School in Virginia.  She returned to that school to teach and studied accountancy in the evenings.  Through sheer hard work she became the Secretary-Treasurer of the Grand Order of Saint Luke in 1899.  More hard work followed as she successfully turned the fortunes of the order around.

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
It was all in hair and beauty for Madame CJ Walker.  She was not only the first African-American female millionaire but the first recorded woman of any nation to achieve this status through her own work.  Born in 1867 she was a landmark for her family – its first member to be born as a free person.  Like many entrepreneurs her ideas sprang from her own needs.  She had the idea for a line of hair care products when her own began falling out.

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
Although Josephine Baker became French in 1937, ten years earlier she became the first African-American woman to headline an international movie.  The film was called La Sirène des Tropiques, which is easy enough to translate in to English.  She was also the first African-American female artist to perform – at her own insistence - to an integrated concert hall in the US (in Las Vegas).  Moreover, she was the first to become a major international artist and is such is looked upon as a founding figure by the likes of Tina Turner and Diana Ross.

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
Mae Jemison became the first African American woman to travel in space when she went into orbit aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor on September 12, 1992. After her medical education and a brief general practice, Jemison served in the Peace Corps from 1985 to 1987, when she was selected by NASA to join the astronaut corps.

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.

So, what happened to number ten? Where is she? There are so many more African-American women who could have been included here.  Sarah Jane Woodson Early was the first to be a College Professor in 1858.  In 1866 Cathay Williams became the first to join the American Army – even though she did it under an assumed male identity.  In 1879 Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first to graduate from nursing school.  Also in 1885 Sarah E Goode applied and was granted a patent for her Cabinet Bed design, the first African-American woman granted a patent.

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?



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