Countless Black women have blazed trails, broken barriers, and made inspiring achievements throughout American history. Far too many of them get much less recognition today than they deserve. Here are three that you may never have heard of – and whose stories everyone should learn.
Madam C.J. Walker
In chronological order, we’ll begin with Madam C.J. Walker. Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, Walker was the first female self-made millionaire in America (a Guinness World Record). Born in Louisiana, Walker was the fifth child in her family, and the first of her siblings to be born free.
When a scalp disorder caused her to begin losing hair in large amounts, C.J. was inspired to create her own solution. She created a line of homemade products and a system (the “Walker Method”) for using them. It was a fast success when she began selling her products.
In a short amount of time, C.J Walker hired a team of saleswomen to help her. As business grew, she opened not only a factory. She followed it with a beauty school. Later, when the company was incorporated in 1910, a larger headquarters was also built. And while she built up the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Co., Madam Walker built up her community too. She made it a point to promote female talent within the company. She donated to the Black YMCA, to the NAACP, and other organizations. She gave funds to schools, and provided scholarships for women. She also donated generously to causes outside of the U.S.; using her fame and her funding to support Black people seeking equality across the world.
By the time of her passing in 1919, her business had an annual revenue of more than $500,000 (close to $8 million today). Plus, other assets of likely more than $1 million. Today, Madam Walker’s products are still being sold. There is a Netflix series about her life. And, several organizations are operating in dedication to carrying on her legacy.
Constance Baker Motley
Born in 1921, Constance Baker Motley became a judiciary powerhouse.
Motley was a woman of firsts, and a central figure in many civil rights milestones. She was the first Black woman to be accepted at Columbia Law School when she was 23. It was an auspicious start; future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall hired her to work for him at the NAACP while she was in school. While clerking for him, Motley would draft the complaint for the landmark case, Brown v. Board of Education.
Motley spent a 20-year tenure working for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York. While there, she argued ten cases before the Supreme Court. She was the first Black woman, and one of the first women of any color to do so – and she won nine of them.
Despite hostilities faced due to both her race and gender, Constance Baker Motley continued to take on civil rights cases. She represented Martin Luther King Jr. in cases such as that of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. She helped James Meredith gain admission to the University of Mississippi. And always, she did so while fully aware of the danger.
In 1964-65, Motley moved on to politics, and served as the first Black woman in the state Senate. The following year, she was appointed to serve as U.S. District Court judge for the Southern District of New York. There, she went on to become senior judge, and held that role until she passed away in 2005.
Her great accomplishments are largely unknown in the mainstream. Despite this, Constance Baker Motley’s role in the Civil Rights Movement cannot be overstated.
Dr. Mae Jemison
Dr. Mae Jemison was the first Black woman astronaut. She was also the first Black woman sent into space. But those aren’t her only impressive accomplishments.
Born in 1956, Dr. Jemison is an engineer, physician, and NASA astronaut. She is an author, philanthropist, and speaker of four languages. She’s even acted in a few sci-fi features! Graduating high school at 16, she then entered undergraduate studies at Stanford University. After earning dual degrees (Chemical Engineering and African American Studies), Jemison studied medicine at Cornell.
While there, Dr. Jemison made time to lead an American Medical Student Association study in Cuba. She then worked for a while at a refugee camp in Thailand. After completing her doctorate in 1981, she served in the Peace Corps as a medical officer in West Africa. There, she worked with the NIH and CDC on several research projects, before returning to the States.
After a few years of working in private practice, Dr. Jemison applied to the NASA astronaut training program. It paid off. In June 1987, Dr. Mae Jemison became the first Black woman to accepted into the program. She was one of just 15 people selected from thousands of applicants. In September of 1992, Jemison took the week-long mission on the space shuttle Endeavor. On this historic mission, she became the first Black women to go into space.
Having accomplished this feat, Dr. Jemison left NASA in 1993. Her first post-NASA project? To be the first real astronaut to appear in an episode of Star Trek. She created an international space camp for students (The Earth We Share ). She started the nonprofit Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, and a technology consulting group.
Since her time at NASA, Dr. Jemison has taught at Dartmouth and Cornell. She serves on the board of directors for multiple corporations. And she’s received many awards, accolades, and honors over the years. Now, she leads 100 Year Starship, an initiative to create the ability for humans to travel beyond our solar system within the next century.