There is a common thread that emerges when compiling a list of the most powerful black women that have ever lived. They all share stories of strength, perseverance, and resilience in the face of adversity.
Many black women who have been an inspiration to others have gone on to greatness. Some have parlayed their success into philanthropic causes that help those in need. Regardless of where they came from, these extraordinary women are people we can all admire.
Oprah Winfrey was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, in 1954. She overcame hardships throughout her childhood and became one of the most powerful and influential women in the world.
Winfrey started her career as a news anchor before revolutionizing daytime talk television. Her talk show ran for 25 years earning her 18 Daytime Emmy Awards.
Winfrey is on the shortlist of black women billionaires. She is currently sitting on the Forbes list with a net worth of $2.6 billion.
Winfrey built a media empire that included a magazine and a television network. She puts much of her energy into philanthropic causes, such as educating girls in South Africa.
Michelle Obama was the first African-American First Lady in US history. Her husband, Barack Obama, was the 44th President of the United States.
Born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1954, Obama, neé Robinson, attended Princeton before graduating from Harvard Law School. She worked at a law firm where she would meet her future husband.
As a passionate, articulate, and charismatic figure, Michelle was instrumental in supporting Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. She made several television appearances and delivered a powerful speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
Obama has continued her philanthropic efforts post-White House, including raising awareness for childhood obesity. She has been voted the most admired woman in America for several years running.
Coretta Scott King
Coretta Scott King was the widow of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. She was known as the “First Lady of the Civil Rights Movement” for her devotion and loyalty to her husband’s causes.
Born in Heiberger, Alabama in 1927, Coretta was a high achiever in school. She met Martin Luther King Jr. while studying music in Boston.
For the duration of her life, she was an advocate for African-American equality. She wrote her memoir, ‘My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr.’ and founded a social center in his name in Atlanta.
Coretta fought for years to have her husband’s birthday recognized as a national holiday. Made official in 1986, January 15 is a celebration of the lives of Martin Luther King Jr and his wife, Coretta.
Born in Tuskegee, Alabama in 1913, Rosa Parks (neé McCauley) was small as a child and suffered from poor health. Little did anyone know she would grow up to be one of the strongest historical figures in US history.
On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Parks boarded a bus and sat in a seat in the designated “colored” section. When the white seats became filled, the driver asked for four seats to be vacated by black people to accommodate more whites. Three black people moved, but not Rosa Parks.
Parks’ subsequent arrest led to a Montgomery bus boycott lasting 381 days. Her defiant stance that day in Montgomery led to her becoming known as the “First Lady of Civil Rights.”
Her autobiography, “My Story,” is an important and insightful history of the civil rights movement. Upon her death in 2005, Parks became the first woman ever to lie in honor at the nation’s Capitol.
Beyoncé Giselle Knowles was born in Houston, Texas, in 1981, and started singing at a young age. She was only eight when she joined her first all-girl group, Girl’s Tyme.
By 1996, the group had changed its name to Destiny’s Child. As lead singer of the group, she enjoyed great success, including two number-one singles from their 2003 release, Dangerously in Love.
Beyoncé married Jay-Z in 2008, making them one of music’s power couples with a combined worth of over $1 billion. Together they have three children, Blue Ivy and twins Rumi and Sir.
Beyoncé is the first solo artist to have her first six albums debut at number one on the Billboard 200. She isone of the best-selling music artists ever, with over 120 million records sold worldwide.
Kamala Harris is one of the most powerful black women in history. She became the first female vice president, the first African-American vice president, and the first Asian-American vice president in US history.
Born in Oakland, California, Harris served as the Attorney-General of California before representing the state in the Senate from 2017 to 2021. As a senator, she advocated for many causes, including healthcare reform, a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and a ban on high-capacity assault weapons.
Harris embarked on a campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 before withdrawing and putting her support behind eventual winner Joe Biden. Biden chose Harris as his running mate, and they successfully unseated the Trump-Pence administration.
Araminta Ross was unfortunately born into slavery in Dorchester County, Maryland, in 1822. She was regularly beaten and whipped as a child and would often run away.
She married a free Black man in 1844; that man was John Tubman. Changing her name to Harriet, Tubman would become one of the great abolitionists and social activists, helping dozens of enslaved people escape via the Underground Railroad.
During the Civil War, Tubman was a cook and nurse for the Union Army, then later became an armed scout and spy. She was the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war that liberated hundreds of enslaved people.
In her later years, Tubman was an active supporter of women’s suffrage and co-founded a nursing home for elderly black people.
Sheila Johnson and then-husband Robert L. Johnson co-founded BET, the first television network to provide exclusive content for African-American audiences.
Born in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, in 1949, Johnson would become the first African-American woman with a net worth of $1 billion. She became the first black woman to be an owner or partner in three professional sports franchises: the Washington Wizards (NBA), the Washington Mystics (WNBA), and the Washington Capitals (NHL).
Johnson is also CEO and founder of Salamander Hospitality, a company that oversees a portfolio of exclusive resorts and golf courses.
Halle Berry became the first African-American woman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress in 2001 for her performance in Monster’s Ball.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1966, Berry began her career as a model. She finished as the first runner-up in the Miss USA pageant in 1986.
One of Berry’s early big breaks came in the 1999 television film Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, for which she won a Primetime Emmy Award and a Golden Globe Award. Coincidentally, the movie is based on Dandridge being the first African-American woman nominated for an Academy Award.
All mothers are sources of strength and inspiration, and Katherine Jackson has demonstrated that in abundance.
Born in Clayton, Alabama, in 1930, Jackson became the matriarch of ten children who shaped music history. The Jackson 5, Michael Jackson, and her youngest child Janet would all have epic musical careers.
Following the death of her son Michael in 2009, Katherine would legally become the permanent guardian of his children, Prince and Paris. She embodied all of the qualities it takes to raise a large family—strength, perseverance, and loyalty.
Diana Ross was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1944, in the same neighborhood as Smokey Robinson. This connection led to her introduction to Gordon Berry, and Motown was never the same.
Ross became the lead singer of The Supremes, who were Motown’s most successful act of the 1960s and one of the world’s best-selling girl groups of all time. They had 12 number-one singles on the Billboard Hot 100, including “Baby Love” and “Come See About Me.”
When she left the Supremes in 1970, Ross continued with a successful solo career. She also showed off her acting ability, winning a Golden Globe Award and Oscar nomination for her role as Billie Holiday in the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues.
Ida B. Wells
Ida B. Wells was born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1862. She was freed by President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation during the American Civil War.
After losing her parents and a sibling to the yellow fever epidemic of 1878, she moved to Memphis, Tennessee, and found work as a teacher before becoming a journalist.
Wells’ reporting was dedicated to combating prejudice and violence and covered racial segregation and inequality. She exposed the practice of lynching, an attempt by whites to intimidate and suppress African-Americans.
Wells was a co-founder of the NAACP and continued throughout her life fighting for the civil rights movement and women’s rights.
The “Queen of Soul,” Aretha Franklin began singing gospel as a child at the church where her father was a minister. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Franklin grew up in Detroit, Michigan.
Franklin’s father enjoyed success delivering sermons in churches across the country and made friends with many celebrities. Franklin would meet people like Clara Ward, Sam Cooke, and Jackie Wilson, which inevitably made an impression on her career.
She rose to prominence in the mid-1960s with hits like “Respect,” “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
In 1987, Franklin became the first female artist to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2010, Rolling Stone ranked her number one on its list of the “100 Greatest Singers of All Time.”
Althea Gibson was the first African-American woman in tennis to break the color barrier and fend off racial bias to win a Grand Slam tournament. She has been compared to Jackie Robinson for her ability to face adversity.
Gibson won the French Open in 1956, her first Grand Slam victory. The following year, she won both Wimbledon and the US Nationals (now the US Open), then won both again in 1958. She went on to win 11 Grand Slams in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles.
Players that followed her, notably Venus and Serena Williams, have cited Althea Gibson as an inspiration for their successful careers.
Katherine Johnson was a mathematician who became the first African-American woman to work as a NASA scientist.
Born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, in 1918, Johnson contributed to the success of the first US crewed space flights with her calculations of orbital mechanics. She earned a reputation for manually solving complex calculations and pioneered the use of computers to solve orbital equations.
Her career with NASA spanned more than thirty years and was instrumental in the successful missions of astronauts Alan Shepard and John Glenn.
Angela Davis was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1944. Growing up in a segregated neighborhood where houses were bombed to drive out African-American people motivated Davis to become a political activist.
Davis was a prominent figure in the late 1960s and early 1970s with her connection to the Black Panthers. She spent a year in prison for her involvement in a courtroom takeover in 1970. Davis was acquitted of all charges.
She has continued a life of activism, focused on prison reform and gender equality. In 2020, she was included on Time‘s list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Venus and Serena Williams
One of the great sibling tandems in all of sports, Venus and Serena Williams were coached by their father Richard to excel in the world of tennis.
Born in Lynwood, California in 1980, Venus turned professional in 1994 and won US Open and Wimbledon titles (2000-2001) as well as a gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. She has since won seven Grand Slam singles.
Serena was born in 1981 in Saginaw, Michigan, and was soon on the heels of her older sister. She turned professional in 1995 and has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles. At one point, she held the number-one ranking in the world for 186 consecutive weeks.
Together, Venus and Serena have won 14 doubles titles and have never been beaten as a duo. The Williams sisters are considered to be two of the greatest tennis players in the history of the sport.
Born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1915, she is better known by her stage name, Billie Holiday. Despite a tumultuous life and a struggle with substance abuse, Holiday was one of the greatest jazz singers of the 20th Century.
Holiday was a trailblazer in the 1930s, becoming one of the first African-American women to sing with a white orchestra led by Artie Shaw.
Diana Ross would portray Holiday in the 1972 autobiographical film, Lady Sings the Blues. Her life has also been documented in the 2021 movie The United States vs. Billie Holiday.
Susan Rice was raised in Washington DC and has served her country ever since.
Born in Washington, DC, in 1964, Rice studied at Stanford University and Oxford, where she was a Rhodes Scholar. She served on President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council staff from 1993 to 1997 and, in 2008, served as the Ambassador to the United Nations under President Barack Obama.
President Obama named her National Security Advisor in 2013, where she supported significant US efforts such as the Iran nuclear deal, the Ebola epidemic, and the Paris Agreement on climate change. In 2021, Rice became the director of the Domestic Policy Council in the Biden administration.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Little Richard and Elvis Presley are credited with ushering in rock and roll and influencing countless generations of musicians. But it was Sister Rosetta Tharpe who would have a great influence on Richard and Presley.
Dubbed the “Godmother of Rock & Roll,” Sister Tharpe was one of the first musicians to strap on an electric guitar and play a fusion of gospel and rhythm & blues in the 1930s and 1940s.
Born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, in 1915, Tharpe began singing and playing guitar with her mother in an evangelical troupe, traveling around the American South. She first recorded in 1938, with her songs “Rock Me” and “The Lonesome Road” becoming instant hits.
Sister Tharpe’s name is not often in the discussion when talking about the roots of rock and roll, but there is no doubt she had a profound influence with her unique musical style.
Shirley Chisholm (neé Anita St. Hill) was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1924, and grew up in Barbados before returning to the United States and becoming a political powerhouse.
Chisholm became the first black woman elected to Congress in 1968. She represented New York for seven terms from 1969 to 1983. In 1972, Chisholm was the first African-American woman to run for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President of the United States.
Chisholm was an advocate for many worthwhile causes during her career, including racial and gender equality, as well as food and nutrition programs for the poor.
Known as the “Queen of Jazz” and the “First Lady of Song,” Ella Fitzgerald is nothing short of a legend.
Born in Newport News, Virginia, in 1917, Fitzgerald began singing at an early age. Growing up, she was influenced by the music of Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, and especially The Boswell Sisters.
Fitzgerald would prove to be one of the great singers of all time across many different genres: jazz, swing, blues, soul, and rock and roll. One of her biggest hits, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” is a collaboration with Duke Ellington that became a jazz standard.
Known to the world as simply “Ella,” she would go on to win 14 Grammy Awards over a 60-year career.
Lupita Nyong’o was born in Mexico City, Mexico, in 1983, to Kenyan and Mexican parents. She grew up in Nairobi and made her professional acting debut at age 14 as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet.
Nyong’o has credited Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg as major influences when she saw their performances in The Color Purple (1985). It was then she knew she wanted to pursue a career in acting. She studied her craft at Yale University.
She became the first Kenyan to take home an Oscar when she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in the 2013 historical drama, 12 Years a Slave. Nyong’o went on to be a powerhouse in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, portraying Nakia in the blockbuster hit of 2018, Black Panther.
Powerful Black Women, Final Thoughts
Black women have shown their power in so many ways. Standing up for equal rights in the face of adversity. Breaking down the color barrier in sports and entertainment. Building a financial empire and then turning their efforts to charitable causes to help others achieve their dreams.
The influence these powerful black women have had on future generations is immeasurable. This list is not complete; many more women of color have made incredible sacrifices and have shaped history. They are all black women we can look up to.