7 Must Know Influential Black Women Throughout History That You Should Be Aware Of

These unsung pioneers, including must-know influential Black Women, affected American history, and you should be familiar with their names and biographies to appreciate their significant contributions.

Black History Month traditionally highlights the enduring legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the determination of Rosa Parks, and the bravery of Harriet Tubman. While these shining lights were essential to the advancement of basic human and civil rights for African-Americans, American history is replete with innumerable unsung heroes and remarkable Black women who played equally vital roles in securing the liberties we all enjoy today.

1. Bridget “Biddy” Mason

Bridget “Biddy” Mason, a slave, arrived in San Bernardino, California, with her master in 1851. In 1850, California joined the Union as a free state, which meant that if he did not leave the state within 30 days, his property might suit for freedom. That is just what Mason did.

Mason used her abilities as a midwife, nurse, and businesswoman to prosper, purchasing property in what is now downtown Los Angeles (her money is estimated to be worth approximately $6 million today).

She was the first Black billionaire in Los Angeles real estate, but she also gave back: She created a school and orphanage and co-formed the First African Methodist Episcopal (FAME) Church, which is still in existence.

2. Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who was born a slave in Mississippi, devoted her life to ending lynching, a widespread form of punishment for African-Americans, after friends were hanged for operating a successful grocery shop. As the proprietor of two publications, The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight and Free Speech, she courageously advocated for the abolition of lynching and the right to vote. She continued to advocate for Black women and civil rights despite being in conflict with white suffragettes who wanted to eliminate race from the pursuit of voting rights. The Pulitzer Prize was awarded posthumously to Ida B. Wells-Barnett “for her excellent and courageous reporting on the brutal and vicious violence against African Americans during the lynching era.”

3. Deborah Nash

In February 1960, Diane Nash was one of the first Black persons to eat lunch at the Post House Restaurant in the Greyhound Bus Terminal in Nashville, Tennessee, thanks to the efforts of African-American students who opposed segregated dining in the early 1960s. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to her as “the main force behind the nonviolent assault on lunch counter segregation.”

Nash, never one to rest on her laurels, also played a major part in maintaining the Freedom Rides, illegal interstate bus rides for white and Black college students in the South that challenged segregation on buses and airports.

Nash was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Selma Voting Rights Movement, among other accomplishments.

4. Ella Baker

In February of 1960, a group of African-American college students in Greensboro, North Carolina, refused to leave a lunch counter when they were refused service. Ella Baker, who served as executive secretary of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) at the time, arranged a meeting with them. She considered young, up-and-coming activists an asset to the civil rights struggle and desired to assist them. This gathering gave birth to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

In 1964, Baker helped organize Freedom Summer, a campaign to eradicate racism in Mississippi and register African voters, who were routinely harassed or attacked at the polls, in a safe environment.

Baker was also a co-founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged all-white Democratic delegations.

5. Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm

Shirley Chisholm, despite early potential in a political career, became a kindergarten teacher. Politics was a white man’s game at the time. In 1964, she successfully ran for the New York State Legislature, and four years later, she became the first African-American woman to serve in Congress, where she was known as “Fighting Shirley.” She served seven terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was the first African-American woman to serve on the crucial House Rules Committee, which regulates how legislation is considered.

Shirley Chisholm was the first Black person to seek the candidacy of a major political party for president in 1972. Her candidacy inspired other women to follow her example and cleared the path for women to be taken seriously as candidates for president of the United States.

6. Astronaut Mae Jemison

Mae Jemison, M.D., a persistent high achiever, attended Stanford University on a scholarship at the age of 16 (!) and graduated with degrees in chemical engineering and African American studies. During her medical school years at Cornell University, she worked in a refugee camp for Cambodians in Thailand.

Jemison joined the Peace Corps in West Africa in 1983 as a medical officer, supervising the health care of U.S. Embassy personnel and Peace Corps volunteers. Her other responsibilities included working on numerous projects, one of which involved the development of a hepatitis B vaccine.

Yet, that is not the case. In 1992, while aboard the Endeavour, she became the first Black female astronaut, fulfilling a childhood ambition.

Dr. Jemison encourages young people to appreciate science wherever she travels.

7. Vice President Kamala Harris

Vice President Kamala Harris is familiar with breaking glass ceilings. She is the first woman, the first person of African heritage, and first person of South Asian ancestry to be chosen as vice president of the United States. Yet, this is only the most recent of her accolades. In 2017, she became the second Black woman, the first South Asian U.S. senator in history, and subsequently the first African-American and first woman to serve as California Attorney General.

Harris, a proud California native, has won triumphs for homeowners affected by the foreclosure crisis, defended climate change, and is a prominent advocate for the LGBTQ community.

Vice President Harris, a proud alumna of Howard University and member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, is a “shero” to women everywhere.

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