Black women have been at the forefront of arts, civil rights, science, politics, and sports. They have had to overcome countless struggles and obstacles on their journeys. Many faced barriers due to the color of their skin or gender and status as second-class citizens.
Take a walk through history and appreciate the works of 17 black female historical figures who left their mark in countless fields and advanced the cause of civil rights.
1. Alice Coachman
Life: 1923 to 2014
Place of Birth: Albany, Georgia
Best Known Act: First African American woman to win a Gold Medal for the United States at the Olympic Games.
Alice Coachman studied at Tuskegee Preparation School after being given a scholarship at 16. Before this, Coachman broke jump records while competing at national and college levels. She ran barefoot in a track race for the Amateur Athletic Union’s Women’s National Championship.
In 1948, Coachman participated in the London Summer Olympics where she was the only black woman to receive a Gold Medal. She jumped an impressive 1.68 meters on her first try.
2. Harriet Tubman
Life: 1822 to 1913
Place of Birth: Dorchester County, Maryland
Best Known Act: Abolitionist, involvement with the Underground Railroad, and participation in the Civil War.
Born into slavery, Harriet Tubman escaped from the South to Philadelphia in 1849. That was despite suffering from ill-health due to a traumatic head wound inflicted by an overseer. Tubman soon returned to liberate her family, and, over time, freed numerous other slaves.
Authorities in the South placed a $40,000 bounty on Tubman, but that did not deter her from carrying out her clandestine efforts. She became known as “Moses” for her role in the Underground Railroad, and helped John Brown recruit for his ill-fated raid against Harper’s Ferry in 1859.
During the Civil War, Tubman worked as a nurse and cook. In addition to that, she acted as a scout and spy. Then, in 1863, as an armed guide for the Combahee River Raid. That rescued more than 750 people from slavery and made her the first woman to lead an armed force in the conflict.
Tubman later became a keen advocate for women’s suffrage and helped to set up a home for elderly African Americans.
3. Annie Lee Cooper
Life: 1910 to 2010
Place of Birth: Selma, Alabama
Best Known Act: Protesting in the 1965 Selma voting rights movement.
Annie Lee Cooper was already working in the Dallas County Voting League when the Selma voting rights movement took off in 1965. At the time, Cooper was working at the Dunn Nursing Home but was fired when her employers learned about her involvement in the protest. Other black employees were fired as well when they showed a similar desire to participate in civil rights.
While waiting in line to register to vote at Selma, Cooper was told to go home by Alabama sheriff Jim Clark. Having been pushed to her limit, she punched Clark after being repeatedly prodded by a billy club. Cooper spent 11 hours in hours but gained her right to vote.
4. Barbara Smith Conrad
Life: 1937 to 2017
Place of Birth: Center Point, Texas
Best Known Act: African American opera singer and mezzo-soprano.
Barbara Smith Conrad paved the way for black singers in classical music. She performed with notable opera groups like the Vienna State Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, and the Venezuelan Teatro Nacional.
She was a student performer at the University of Texas at Austin. When people learned Conrad would star next to a white performer on the same stage in 1957, the Texas legislature pressured the university to remove Conrad from the role.
However, this did not stop Barbara Conrad from pursuing her career, and Harry Bellafonte paid the way for Conrad to continue her educational journey. What’s more, Belafonte mentored Conrad when she moved to New York City. In later life, she co-directed the Wagner Theater Program and ran her studio when she wasn’t on stage.
5. Barbara Jordan
Life: 1936 to 1996
Place of Birth: Houston, Texas
Best Known Act: First African American from the southern United States to be elected into the House of Representatives.
Barbara Jordan served in the 93rd, 94th, and 95th Congress. Her Democratic term from 1973 to 1979 was thanks to her work with John F. Kennedy. They collaborated to boost black voting outreach throughout Houston’s 40 voting precincts. Due to her efforts, Jordan contributed to the Civil Rights movement by supporting and advocating for people of color to obtain the right to vote.
During the Democratic primary for 1972, Jordan received 80% of the vote. She took 85% of the vote for the 94th and 95th Congress elections.
6. Bessie Coleman
Life: 1892 to 1926
Place of Birth: Atlanta, Texas
Best Known Act: First African American and Native American woman to have a piloting license.
Five years before her death in 1926, Bessie Coleman obtained her piloting license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. That made her the first African American woman to have an international piloting license.
Coleman had an early interest in flying, and earned the nicknames “Queen Bess” and “Brave Bessie” for her courageous pursuit of her passion.
Before achieving international recognition, Coleman studied at the Colored Agricultural and Normal University. Subsequently, in 1915, she moved to Chicago with her brothers and attended Burnham School of Beauty Culture to become a manicurist at a local nail shop.
Eventually, her aviation career took off when she was accepted into the Frances Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation. By 1922, she had the distinction of being the first black woman to undertake a public flight.
7. Claudette Colvin
Life: 1939 to present
Place of Birth: Montgomery, Alabama
Best Known Act: Not giving her seat to a white woman on a bus when she was age 15.
Rosa Parks was not the only black woman who refused to give up her seat to a white individual during the Civil Rights era. Nine months before Parks, Colvin took a stand in March 1955 when she affirmed her right to sit on a bus and not relinquish her seat to a white woman who boarded after her. Her courageous act prompted two police officers to board the bus to remove Colvin for breaking the law.
Colvin had been inspired to take that leap of justice due to lessons she had heard in school for Negro History Month. How Harriet Tubman had led African Americans to freedom inspired her to take an active stance on civil rights. Colvin became one of five plaintiffs in a federal court case that struck down bus segregation in her home state.
Later in her life, Claudette Colvin moved to New York City to attend college. However, due to her record, Colvin was seen as a troublemaker. That made it difficult for her to find a job and support her college studies. Fortunately, she secured a job as a nurse aide at a Manhattan nursing home in 1969. Colvin continued her career until retiring 35 years later.
8. Coretta Scott King
Life: 1927 to 2006
Place of Birth: Heiberger, Alabama
Best Known Act: Civil rights activist and founder of the King Center in Atlanta, Georgia in 1968.
Coretta Scott King supported her husband, Martin Luther King Jr. through the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. His death in 1968 did not stop her from being a passionate advocate for peace and harmony in the African American community.
She opened the King Center only months after her husband’s death. It remains an important place of learning and has a vast collection of artifacts and images from her husband’s time as a civil rights leader.
She and King’s four children were born between 1955 to 1963. In between mothering her four children, she and King led the cause of civil rights across the United States and the world. In 1957, they visited Ghana to celebrate the nation’s independence, and also advocated in the Vatican, France, Nigeria, and Italy.
9. Daisy Bates
Life: 1914 to 1999
Place of Birth: Huttig, Arkansas
Best Known Act: Her role in the Little Rock integration crisis of 1957.
Daisy Bates’ defining moment that propelled her toward a life of civil rights activism was witnessing her mother’s murder at the hands of three white men. The tragic experience pushed her to fight for civil rights and equality for the black community.
While growing up in a foster home after her mother’s death, she met her husband-to-be when she was age 15. They relocated to Little Rock, Arkansas, and started an African American newspaper publication called the “The Arkansas Weekly,” The publication highlighted exclusive news updates concerning the Civil Rights movement.
Bates was responsible for overseeing the safety of the Little Rock Nine youth as they attended Central High School in 1957. That came three years after segregated schools were declared to be unconstitutional. She published a memoir of her experiences in Arkansas, titled “The Long Shadow of Little Rock,” in 1962.
10. Dorothy Height
Life: 1912 to 2010
Place of Birth: Richmond, Virginia
Best Known Act: President of the National Council for Negro Women for four decades.
Before she entered the Civil Rights Movement, Height was a social worker in Harlem after graduating with a Bachelor’s in education and a Master’s in psychology from New York University. Her social work position paved the way for her to become a civil rights activist.
Dorothy Height’s presidency advanced civil rights for the black community. She focused on ending African American lynching and reforming the criminal justice system as the 4th President of the National Council for Negro Women.
Her prominent position earned her relationships with prominent political figures as they regularly came to her for advice about different issues. She worked closely with former Presidents of the United States Lyndon B. Johnson and Dwight D. Eisenhower and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
11. Elizabeth Carter Brooks
Life: 1867 to 1951
Place of Birth: New Bedford, Massachusetts
Best Known Act: Promoted the importance of preserving historical architecture and participated in the civil rights movement.
Elizabeth Carter Brooks studied at Swain Free School of Design to earn her background in architecture. She began her teaching career at Howard’s Orphan Home after becoming the first African American to graduate from the Harrington Normal School for Teachers in her hometown.
At the start of the 20th century, Brooks was the first African American female to work in a public school in New Bedford. For 25 years, she faithfully taught at Taylor School.
Her civil rights activism portfolio is on a solid foundation. Brooks was the first recording secretary for the National Federation of Afro-American Women. She was the 4th President of the National Association of Colored Women’s Club between 1908 to 1912.
As the leader of these civil rights groups, she continued to promote boycotts for black civil rights and fight against white discrimination against African Americans. Later, she joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and led the New Bedford branch.
12. Ella Fitzgerald
Life: 1917 to 1996
Place of Birth: Newport News, Virginia
Best Known Act: Most recognized female jazz singer for 50 years in the 20th Century.
Because of her high popularity in singing jazz music, Ella Fitzgerald earned the nickname “The First Lady of Song”. Her jazz career earned her 13 Grammy awards and sold more than 40 million albums during her lifetime.
She collaborated with other popular jazz singers, including Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman. Fitzgerald even collaborated with Dizzy Gillespie and Frank Sinatra.
Her soft and sweet voice, sensual ballads, and upbeat swings had every theater packed to come to hear her sing. Ella Fitzgerald brought together many individuals across multiple nations and cultures because of their love of her music. That nurtured a universal bond that was important while civil unrest was causing nationwide division.
13. Emma Azalia Hackley
Life:1867 to 1922
Place of Birth: Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Best Known Act: Founder of the Colored Women’s League; founded the Vocal Norman Institute located in Chicago.
Emma Azalia Hackley lived a life of activism, education, and music. Her love of music blossomed young when she learned how to play the piano as a toddler. She excelled in her private French lessons, learned how to play the violin, and invested much time in refining her voice. Hackley earned her music degree at Denver State University.
As a concert soprano, she focused herself on social justice, racial pride, and civil rights. However, Hackley was more than a political and civil rights activist. She helped her husband edit his African American newspaper, the “Denver Statesman.” The married duo also created the Imperial Order of Libyans to inspire African Americans to love their country even as they fought discrimination throughout the nation.
14. Ethel Waters
Life: 1896 to 1977
Place of Birth: Chester, Pennsylvania
Best Known Act: First black woman on radio and to star on television and Broadway.
Ethel Waters was a jazz singer at the same time as Ella Fitzgerald whose music spanned also swing and pop genres. One of her nicknames was “Sweet Mama Stringbean” from when she would sing at nightclubs in 1913.
Waters had numerous well-received songs, including “Heat Wave,” “Coming Virginia,” and “Dinah.” Due to her success, Waters became the first African American to be the main star of a television show of her own. She was also the second woman to receive an Academy Award nomination for her musical work.
“Stormy Weather,” a 1933 recording, has been preserved by the Library of Congress’s National Recording Preservation Board. In addition, three of her records have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
15. Frances “Fannie” Barrier Williams
Life: 1855 to 1944
Place of Birth: Brockport, New York
Best Known Act: Educational reform in southern American states for black women to have more learning opportunities.
Fannie Barrier lived to educate and advocate for civil rights. She was the first African American to graduate from Brockport Normal School in pursuit of her desire to be a teacher. Williams also attended Brockport State to advance her education.
Upon graduation, she taught reading, writing, and other skills to newly freed African Americans in Washington, D.C. in the 1870s.
During her speech at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Williams professed that people of color were not well represented at the event. This inspired her to assist in founding the National League of Colored Women to broaden representation for the future.
More importantly, the organization paved the way for black women to succeed in the future as it advocated for civil rights and women’s rights. Williams was a founding member of the National Association of Colored Women in 1896.
16. Gwendolyn Brooks
Life: 1917 to 2000
Place of Birth: Topeka, Kansas
Best Known Act: First African American to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1950.
Gwendolyn Brooks penned award-winning poetry. Her book called “Annie Allen” is a coming-of-age story about a girl growing up except it is told through poetry. It touches on social problems colored people faced during that time and gender stereotypes as the character works through life.
Brooks’ work was held in high regard during the 20th Century. Her popularity as a poet steered her to become the poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. She was the first African American woman to maintain this role.
Her first and only penned novel was released in 1953, titled “Maud Martha.” In that work, Brooks highlights the main character’s life’s key events via shortened vignettes in this work.
17. Jane Bolin
Life: 1908 to 2007
Place of Birth: Poughkeepsie, New York
Best Known Act: First African American woman to become a judge in the United States.
Jane Bolin had many firsts in her life. She was the first African American woman to graduate from Yale Law School and to join the New York City Bar Association. Bolin also took the title of the first African American woman to become a part of the New York City Law Department.
Bolin studied at Wellesley College for a Bachelor’s in Arts degree after graduating high school early. Afterward, she attended Yale, becoming the first African American to graduate from there. When she became a judge, Bolin’s specialty was Family Court for the 40 years she served the justice system.
During her term, she implemented reforms that enabled black probation officers to perform the same tasks and duties as their white counterparts.
Top Black Female Historical Figures, Final Thoughts
These 17 innovative and powerful black women made a tremendous impact on society and the course of human history. Their achievements are celebrated by annual events like Black History Month in February, Women’s History Month in March, and Juneteenth every June 19th. With these events, their legacy can never be forgotten or overlooked.