Seven often-forgotten African American Women in History

In celebration of Black History month, Let’s Hear It For The Girl, is showcasing seven great African American women in history. While casting a spotlight on only seven women is an insignificant step towards remedying centuries worth of hidden figures, hopefully it will encourage all of us to look deeper and consider those history has failed to remember.

1. Cathay Williams
1842 – 1868
Soldier

“I wanted to make my own living and not be dependent on relations or friends.”

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Cathay Williams was the first African American woman to enlist in the United States army, and the only documented woman to enlist as a man.

Cathay was born into slavery in 1842.  When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Cathay was working in Jefferson City, Missouri when she was liberated by Union soldiers. She spent the remainder of the war working as a paid servant in the army. When the war was over there were very few job opportunities for African Americans, particularly African American women. Cathay desperately wanted to maintain her financial independence and decided to join the army. Women were not allowed to enlist at the time, so she made plans to disguise herself as a man and enlisted under the pseudonym, William Cathay. She easily enlisted on account of her height, measuring 5’9, and the limited medical examinations. Only her cousin and her friend knew her secret and faithfully kept it. During her time in the army she often fell sick. Despite her many hospitalisations her gender was not revealed until she had been in the army for two years. Upon discovery she was discharged. 

2. Bessie Coleman
1892 – 1926
Pilot

“The air is the only place free from prejudices.”

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Bessie Coleman was a celebrated air show artist and the first woman of African American and Native American descent to hold a pilot’s licence. While working in Chicago, Bessie heard stories from World War II veterans about flying, and soon began dreaming of taking to the skies herself. Coleman was not allowed to enrol in flying school in the USA on account of her race. Being an unstoppable force, Coleman saved what money she could, and moved to France where she was allowed to enrol and gain her pilot’s licence. Upon completing her training Coleman returned to the USA with the intention of opening a flying school for African American women. When she returned to the USA, Coleman became a popular airshow artist. Unfortunately, Coleman died while preparing for an airshow in 1926. 

3. Edmonia Lewis
1844 – 1907
Sculptor

“I don’t want you to praise me…Some praise me because I am a coloured girl, and I don’t want that kind of praise. I had rather you would point out my defects, for that will teach me something.”

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Lewis was the first professional African American sculptor. Her work, which explored classical and religious themes, received much critical-acclaim. In 1894, Lewis created a sculpted bust of Robert Gould Shaw, a civil war hero. The piece resulted in the sale of a number of copies. The money Lewis acquired through these sales funded her journey to Italy where she continued to work as artist. In 1987, Lewis created Forever Free a sculpture of a man and woman escaping slavery. Another famous work, The Arrow Maker was completed just before, in 1866. The work draws upon her Native American heritage and depicts a Native American father teaching his daughter to make an arrow.

4. Madam CJ Walker
1867 – 1919
Inventor and business owner

“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there, I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there, I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground.”

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To say Walker was a successful business woman is an understatement. After creating her own range of hair products especially for African American women, Walker became the first American woman to become a self-made millionaire. Today she continues to be remembered as one the most successful African American business owners in history.

Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, was the daughter of two recently freed parents. She was orphaned at the age of 5, married at 14 years of age to escape mistreatment at the hands of her brother-in-law, and was widowed by the time she was 20.

Walker began experimenting with home remedies and hair products following a scalp ailment that resulted in her hair loss. In 1905, Walker created a special product for African American hair, which she sold through public lectures and demonstrations. Eventually in 1908 she established Madam C J Walker Laboratories to create cosmetics and train beauticians. These beauticians, known as ‘Walker Agents’ upheld the qualities of ‘cleanliness and loveliness’ to advance the status of African Americans. Through training agents, Madam Walker empowered African American women by giving them an occupation and a steady income.

Walker was a philanthropist, and amongst her many charitable contributions, she is remembered for giving the largest charitable donation by any African American for a YMCA in Indianapolis.

Octavia Spencer is set to portray her in an upcoming television series.

Manse built by America’s first self-made millionairess to be sold, New York Post, February 2017

Secrets to Madam Walker’s Success written by her great-great grand daughter 

5. Claudette Colvin
1939 – present
Civil rights activist and nurse’s aide

“To me, God loved everyone. Why would He curse just us?”

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Claudette Colvin was riding the bus home from high school when she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger in 1955, predating Rosa Park’s protest by nine months. Colvin’s stance and arrest are not well known due to a reluctance from leaders within her community to publicise her act of defiance because she was ‘mouthy’, ‘emotional’, and pregnant to a married man at the time. It was later established she was not pregnant, but fell pregnant shortly after her refusal to give up her seat. Colvin was arrested for her actions and was later one of the five plaintiffs in Browder v Gayle, which ruled Alabama’s segregated bus system was unconstitutional.

6. Marian Edelman
1939 – present
Lawyer and children’s rights advocate

We are living in a time of unbearable dissonance between promise and performance; between good politics and good policy; between professed and practiced family values; between racial creed and racial deed; between calls for community and rampant individualism and greed; and between our capacity to prevent and alleviate human deprivation and disease and our political and spiritual will to do so.

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Marian has been an advocate for the entirety of her professional legal career. Edelman was the first African American woman to be admitted to the bar in Mississippi. After admission, she practiced law at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s office in Mississippi where she worked on racial justice issues connected with the civil rights movement.

In 1968 she moved to Washington D.C to work as legal counsel for for the Poor People’s Campaign, a project set up by Martin Luthur King Jr before his death. Eldelman founded a public interest law firm, the Washington Research Project. It was at this point that she began to focus on children and child development. In 1973 she founded the Children’s Defence Fund. The Fund continues to protect and advocate for poor children, children of colour and children with disabilities today. Much of the work completed by the Fund aims to protect children from abuse and neglect, ensure access to health care and education. Eldelman remains a prominent spokesperson for children’s rights, adoption, foster care and social reform.

Interesting fact: Eldelman met her husband, Peter Eldelman, while he was visiting the Delta slums in Mississippi as Robert F. Kennedy’s assistant in 1967.

The story of Hillary Clinton’s ‘totally confusing’ relationship with her liberal mentor, The Washington Post, 2 June 2016 

7. Mae C Jemison
1956 – present
Physician, astronaut and lecturer

Never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations.

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Mae Jemison became the first African American female astronaut when she flew into outer space on 12 September 1992 aboard The Challenger. Before her space exploration, Jemison was a physician and medical officer in the Peace Corps. Jemison applied to the NASA astronaut programme in 1985 and was one of 15 individuals chosen out of 2,000 applicants. Upon selection she was given the role of science mission specialist. In her role she conducted scientific research on herself and her fellow crew members during their eight day space journey

When Jemison left NASA in 1993, she set up the Jemison Group which studies, develops and markets science and technology to be used in everyday life. She also worked as a lecturer in the Environmental Studies Department at Dartmouth College and is a Professor at Cornell University.

Jemison continues to contribute to space exploration today. She is heavily involved in the 100 Year Starship—a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and NASA initiative, which focuses on the development and maintenance of a business plan to ensure interstellar travel can be achieved for the next 100 years.

Interesting fact: Jemison appeared in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, making her the first real astronaut to appear on the show. 

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