Black American Women Writers

From Recreate by Marsha Hatcher
From Recreate by Marsha Hatcher. Marsha Hatcher/SuperStock/Getty Images

African American women writers have helped bring the Black woman's experience to life for millions of readers. They've written of what it was like to live in bondage, what Jim Crow America was like, and what 20th and 21st century America has been like for Black women. On the following paragraphs, you'll meet novelists, poets, journalists, playwrights, essayists, social commentators, and feminist theorists.

Updated by Robert Longley 

Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley (1753 - 1784), an American slave educated by her owner. She began writing poetry at the age of thirteen and is recognized as the country's first notable African-American poet.
Phillis Wheatley (1753 - 1784), an American slave educated by her owner. She began writing poetry at the age of thirteen and is recognized as the country's first notable African-American poet. MPI/Getty Image

Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753 - December 5, 1784) was the first published African American poet and one of the most widely read poets in pre-19th century America. Born in Gambia or Senegal, West Africa, she was seized by slave traders at age seven and transported to Boston aboard a slave ship called The Phillis. In August 1761, she was purchased “for a trifle” by the wealthy Wheatley family of Boston who taught her to read and write, immersing her in studies of the Bible, astronomy, geography, history, and literature.

Published in London in 1773, Wheatley’s anthology Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral—in which she declares that her love of freedom had come from having been a slave—brought her fame in England and colonial America and was praised by prominent Americans including George Washington.  

In the late 17th century, American abolitionists cited her poems as evidence that Black people were just as capable as Whites of excellence in both artistic and intellectual pursuits. Her name by then a household word in the colonies, Wheatley’s achievements catalyzed the antislavery movement. 

Old Elizabeth

Illustration of a slave auction, 1850.
Illustration of a slave auction, 1850. Nawrocki/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Old Elizabeth (1766 - 1866) was born an enslaved person in Maryland in 1766. Elizabeth’s father, a devoted member of the Methodist Society, exposed her to religion while reading to his children from the Bible. In 1777, at age eleven, Elizabeth was sold to a plantation owner several miles from her family. After returning to her family for a few years, she was sold twice, finally to a Presbyterian minister who freed her from enslavement in 1805. Now a free 39-year-old Black woman, Elizabeth traveled and preached. After several towns refused to accept a woman minister, she held prayer meetings in private homes in Virginia, Maryland, Michigan, and Canada. At age 87, she moved to Philadelphia.

In 1863, at age 97, she dictated her best-known work, Memoir of Old Elizabeth, a Coloured Woman, to Philadelphia publisher John Collins. In her words, Elizabeth exposed the desperation felt by so many young enslaved Americans. 

“On reaching the farm, I found the overseer was displeased at me … He tied me with a rope, and gave me some stripes (administered a whipping) of which I carried the marks for weeks. After this time, finding as my mother said, I had none in the world to look to but God, I betook myself to prayer, and in every lonely place I found an altar. I betook myself to prayer, and in every lonely place, I found an altar. I mourned sore like a dove and chattered forth my sorrow, moaning in the corners of the field, and under the fences.”

Maria Stewart

The masthead of weekly abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, 1850.
The masthead of weekly abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, 1850. Kean Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Maria Stewart (1803 - December 17, 1879) was a free-born Black American teacher, journalist, lecturer, abolitionist, and civil rights activist. Born to a free Black family in Hartford, Connecticut in 1803, she lost both of her parents at age three and was sent to live in the home of a white minister and his wife. She worked in the home as a servant until age 15 while developing a lifelong affinity for religion. Despite receiving no formal education, Stewart became the first American woman known to have spoken before a mixed audience of Black and White men and women, as well as the first American woman to speak publicly on women’s rights and the abolition of slavery.

After publishing a collection of her lectures in his newspaper, The Liberator, prominent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison recruited Stewart to write for The Liberator in 1831.

Stewart’s writings reveal her deeply held concern for the plight of Black Americans. “Every man has a right to express his opinion,” she wrote. “Many think, because your skins are tinged with a sable hue, that you are an inferior race of beings … It is not the color of the skin that makes the man, but it is the principle formed within the soul.” 

Harriet Jacobs

Harriet Jacobs's only known formal portrait, 1849.
Harriet Jacobs's only known formal portrait, 1849. Gilbert Studios/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Harriet Jacobs (1813 - March 7, 1897) was a formerly enslaved Black American author and activist. Born into enslavement in North Carolina, Jacobs was sexually abused by her enslavers for years. In 1835, Jacobs escaped, hiding for the next seven years in a tiny crawlspace in the roof of her grandmother’s house. In 1842, she fled to the North, first to Philadelphia, then to New York City where she gained her freedom and became active in the abolitionist movement organized by Frederick Douglass.

In 1861, she published her autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. A frank portrayal of the brutality of slavery and the sexual abuse suffered by enslaved Black women at the hands of their white enslavers. “The degradation, the wrongs, the vices, that grow out of slavery, are more than I can describe,” she wrote. “They are greater than you would willingly believe.”

During the Civil War, Jacobs used her notoriety as an author to raise money to help Black refugees. During Reconstruction, she traveled to the Union-occupied parts of the South where she founded two schools for fugitive and freed enslaved persons.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary

1844 advertisement for the Liberty Line, part of the Underground Railroad between the United States and Canada.
1844 advertisement for the Liberty Line, part of the Underground Railroad between the United States and Canada. Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

Mary Ann Shadd Cary (October 9, 1823 - June 5, 1893) was an American writer, anti-slavery activist, educator, lawyer, and the first Black woman to edit and publish a newspaper in North America. After the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act, she became the just the second Black American woman to earn a law degree, graduating from Howard University School of Law in 1883 at age 60.

Born into a free Black American family in Wilmington, Delaware, Shadd Cary’s father wrote for the abolitionist newspaper the Liberator and helped escaped enslaved Black Americans secure passage to Canada on the Underground Railroad. Educated at a Quaker school in Pennsylvania, she later moved to Canada where she started a school for Black Americans in Windsor, Ontario. In 1852, Shadd Cary wrote articles encouraging other Black Americans to seek freedom in Canada. In her writings, Shadd Cary urged Black Americans to “do more and talk less” about the atrocities of slavery and their need for justice. In urging the need for persistence in the struggle for racial equality, she is remembered for her best-known quote, “It is better to wear out than to rust out.”

In 1853, Shadd Cary founded The Provincial Freemen, a weekly newspaper for Black Americans, especially escaped enslaved people. Published in Toronto, the Provincial Freemen’s slogan was “Devoted to antislavery, temperance and general literature.” During 1855 and 1856, she traveled across the United States delivering stirring anti-slavery speeches demanding total racial integration and equal justice for Black people. After the Civil War, Shadd Cary worked alongside Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the women's suffrage movement

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

From The Slave Auction by Frances E.W. Harper
From The Auction of enslaved people by Frances E.W. Harper. Public Domain Image

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (September 24, 1825 - February 20, 1911) was a Black American poet, author, and lecturer who became a household name in the 19th century. The first Black American woman to publish a short story, she was also an influential abolitionist and women’s suffrage activist.

The only child of her free Black American parents, Frances Harper was born on September 24, 1825, in Baltimore, Maryland. After tragically becoming orphaned at age three, she was raised by her aunt and uncle, Henrietta and William Watkins. Her uncle, an outspoken abolitionist and Black literacy advocate founded the Watkins Academy for Negro Youth in 1820. Harper attended her uncle’s academy until age 13 when she went to work in a bookshop. Her love for books and writing bloomed in the shop and at age 21, she wrote her first volume of poetry.

At age 26, Harper left Maryland and began teaching in New York. It was there, with the Civil War looming, that she decided to devote her writing skills to the antislavery effort. With the support of William Still—father of the Underground Railroad—Harper’s poem Eliza Harris and other works were published in abolitionist newspapers including the Liberator and Frederick Douglass’ North Star. After leaving Philadelphia in 1854, Harper traveled across the United States and Canada lecturing on slavery and the struggle for women’s rights. In 1859, her short story The Two Offers appeared in the Anglo-African Magazine making it the first short story published by a Black American woman. 

Charlotte Forten Grimké

Charlotte Forten Grimké
Charlotte Forten Grimké. Fotosearch / Archive Photos / Getty Images

Charlotte Forten Grimké (August 17, 1837 - July 23, 1914) was a Black American abolitionist, author, poet, and educator, best known for her journals describing her privileged childhood and her involvement with the antislavery movement.

Born to free Black parents in Philadelphia in 1837, Charlotte Forten’s wealthy family was part of Philadelphia’s elite black community. Her mother and several of her relatives were active in the abolitionist movement. Educated at home by private tutors, she attended a private secondary school in Salem, Massachusetts. In 1854, she moved to Salem, Massachusetts, where she attended a private academy for young women as the only Black student in a class of 200. In 1856, she joined the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society and received her instruction in teaching at Salem Normal School.

In the late 1850s, Grimké became deeply involved with influential abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Lydia Maria Child, who encouraged her to publish her poems in the antislavery newspapers The Liberator and The Evangelist. After Union troops occupied parts of the coastal Carolinas in 1861, she taught newly emancipated Black Americans on the Sea Islands of South Carolina. As one of the few northern Black American teachers to recount her experiences during the Civil War, her highly acclaimed collection of journals, “Life on the Sea Islands,” was published by The Atlantic Monthly in 1864. 

Lucy Parsons

Lucy Parsons, 1915 arrest
Lucy Parsons, 1915 arrest. Courtesy Library of Congress

Lucy Parsons (1853 - March 7, 1942) was a Black American labor organizer, radical and self-proclaimed anarchist best remembered as a powerful public speaker. Born an enslaved person near Waco, Texas, Parsons’ involvement in the labor movement began following her marriage to radical white Republican newspaper editor Albert R. Parsons. After moving from Texas to Chicago in 1873, Lucy wrote frequently for Albert’s pro-labor newspaper, The Alarm.

In 1886, Parsons gained fame for her nationwide speaking tour to raise money for the legal defense of her husband Albert who had been sentenced to death for his alleged involvement in the Haymarket Square Riot and Bombing in which a Chicago policeman was killed. On December 21, 1886, one of her most powerful speeches, “I am an anarchist” was published in the Kansas City Journal. “The Constitution says there are certain inalienable rights, among which are a free press, free speech, and free assemblage,” she said. “The meeting at Haymarket square was a peaceable meeting.”

After Albert was executed in 1887, Lucy Parsons founded and wrote for The Freedom, a newspaper addressing issues such as workers’ rights, lynching, and Black convict leasing in the South. In 1905, Parsons was the only woman asked to address the founding convention of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and in 1931, she spoke in defense of the Scottsboro Boys, nine young Black American men accused of raping two white women on a train stopped in Paint Rock, Alabama. 

Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Ida B. Wells, 1920
Ida B. Wells, 1920. Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett (July 16, 1862 - March 25, 1931), known for most of her career as Ida B. Wells, was a Black journalist, activist, teacher, and early civil rights leader who fought to end racism, sexism, and violence. Using her skills as an investigative reporter, she exposed the often-brutal injustices suffered by Black Americans in the South during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Born into enslavement in Mississippi during the Civil War, Wells was freed in 1863 by the Emancipation Proclamation. She was educated at Rust University’s high school for formerly enslaved persons, and later at Fisk University. After losing her parents to the yellow fever epidemic of 1878, she and her siblings moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where she taught school to keep her family together.

In 1892, Wells became co-owner of the activist Memphis Free Speech newspaper. In March of the same year, she as was forced to leave town after her article harshly condemning the lynching of three Black men enraged many prominent Memphis whites. The burning of the offices of The Memphis Free Speech by an angry mob launched her career as an anti-lynching crusader and pioneering investigative journalist. While writing for some of the leading newspapers of her era, Wells traveled across the world protesting lynching and exposing racial injustice. In 1910, she helped co-found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In her later life, Wells worked for urban reform and racial equality in the growing city of Chicago. 

Mary Church Terrell

Mary Church Terrell
Mary Church Terrell. Stock Montage/Getty Images

Mary Church Terrell (September 23, 1863 - July 24, 1954) was an activist and journalist, who fought for racial equality and women’s suffrage. As an honors graduate of Oberlin College and the daughter of one of the South’s first Black millionaires, Terrell was part of the growing Black upper class who used their social influence to fight for racial equality.

Terrell’s passion for activism arose in 1892 after an old friend was lynched by a mob of whites in Memphis simply because his business competed with theirs. While she joined with Ida B. Wells-Barnett in her anti-lynching campaigns, Terrell’s writing expressed her belief that, rather than depend on whites or the government, Blacks themselves could best help end racial discrimination by lifting themselves through education, work, and community activism. Her term for this strategy, “Lifting as we climb,” became the motto of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), the group she helped found in 1896.

Seeing the right to vote as essential to lifting-up both Black women and the entire Black race, Terrell wrote and spoke tirelessly for women’s suffrage. Throughout her lifetime, Mary Church Terrell fought for both racial and gender equality, writing that she belonged “to the only group in this country that has two such huge obstacles to surmount … both sex and race.”

Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Alice Dunbar-Nelson
Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Adapted from a public domain image

Alice Dunbar-Nelson (July 19, 1875 - September 18, 1935) was a poet, journalist, and political activist. Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, to mixed-race parents, her Black, White, Native American, and Creole heritage endowed her with the deep understanding of race, gender, and ethnicity she expressed in her writing.

After graduating from Straight University (now Dillard University) in 1892, Dunbar-Nelson taught in the New Orleans public school system. Her first book, Violets and Other Tales was published in 1895 when she was just 20. Published during the early 1900s, her poems, short stories, and newspaper columns took on complex issues including the effects of racism on Black family life, work, and sexuality. Through her involvement with the Harlem Renaissance artistic movement of the 1920s, Dunbar-Nelson rose to prominence as an activist writer.  

As a political activist, Dunbar-Nelson worked as an organizer of the women’s suffrage movement in the mid-Atlantic states, and in 1924, lobbied the U.S. Congress for passage of the ill-fated Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. In her later life, her poems were published in prominent Black newspapers and magazines such as the Crisis, Ebony and Topaz.

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Angelina Weld Grimké

Portrait of American journalist, teacher, playwright, and poet Angelina Weld Grimke (1880 - 1958).
Portrait of American journalist, teacher, playwright, and poet Angelina Weld Grimke (1880 - 1958). Interim Archives/Getty Images

 Angelina Weld Grimké (February 27, 1880 - June 10, 1958) was a Black American poet, journalist, and playwright born in Boston, Massachusetts, to an influential biracial family of Civil War-era abolitionists and civil-rights activists. The niece of abolitionist and poet Charlotte Forten Grimké, she graduated from the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics—a school dedicated to the advancement of women—in 1902 and later attended summer classes at Harvard University while teaching English in Washington, D.C.

In the early 1900s, Grimké launched her writing career with short stories and poetry expressing her concerns about the devastating effects of racism on Black people in America. Many of her works were published in the NAACP newspaper, the Crisis, edited by civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois. As one of the writers involved in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Grimké’s writings were included in the group’s anthologies The New Negro, Caroling Dusk, and Negro Poets and Their Poems. Among her most popular poems are “The Eyes of My Regret,” “At April,” and “The Closing Door.”

Grimké’s best-known play Rachel was produced in 1920. Performed by an all-black cast, Rachel portrays a young Black American woman living in the North during the early 1900s, who vows never to bring children into a land ruined by racism. As one of the first plays dealing with racism written by a Black author, the NAACP said called it, "The first attempt to use the stage for race propaganda in order to enlighten the American people relating to the lamentable condition of ten million Colored citizens in this free republic.”

Georgia Douglas Johnson

Published song with words by Georgia Douglas Johnson
Published song (about 1919) with words by Georgia Douglas Johnson, music by H. T. Burleigh. Courtesy Library of Congress

Georgia Douglas Johnson (September 10, 1880 - May 14, 1966) was a Black American poet, playwright, and significant part of the Harlem Renaissance artistic movement.

Born in Atlanta, Georgia, to parents of mixed racial ancestry, Johnson graduated from Atlanta University Normal College in 1896. After graduation, she worked as a school teacher. She left teaching in 1902 to attend the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio. While still living in Atlanta, her first poem was published in 1905 in The Voice of the Negro literary journal. In 1910, Johnson and her husband to Washington, D.C. After the death of her husband in 1925, Johnson supported her two sons by working at the U.S. Department of Labor while writing poetry, short stories, and plays in her spare time.

At her humble Washington, D.C. rowhouse, which became known as the “S Street Salon,” Johnson hosted regular meetings of writers of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Countee Cullen and W.E.B DuBois. In 1916, Johnson published her first poems in the NAACP’s magazine Crisis. From 1926 to 1932, she wrote a weekly column, “Homely Philosophy,” that appeared in several Black American publications. A well-known figure in the national Black theatre movement, Johnson wrote numerous plays, including Blue Blood and Plumes.

Jessie Redmon Fauset

Poet and Critic Jessie Redmon Fauset.
Poet and Critic Jessie Redmon Fauset. Library of Congress/Corbis/Getty Images

Jessie Redmon Fauset (April 27, 1882 - April 30, 1961) was a Black American editor, poet, and novelist. As a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance movement of the 1920s, Fauset’s writing vividly portrayed Black American life and history.

Born in Camden County, New Jersey, Fauset grew up in Philadelphia and attended the Philadelphia High School for Girls. Possibly the first Black female student to attend Cornell University, she graduated with a BA in classical languages in 1905. After college, she worked as a teacher in Baltimore and Washington, D. C.

Fauset’s literary career began in 1912 writing poems, essays, and reviews for the NAACP’s official magazine, The Crisis, edited by W. E. B. Du Bois. Taking over as literary editor of The Crisis in 1919, Fauset introduced several previously unknown Black writers such as Langston Hughes and Claude McKay to a national audience. In his autobiography The Big Sea, Langston Hughes wrote of her, “Jessie Fauset at The Crisis, Charles Johnson at Opportunity, and Alain Locke in Washington were the three people who midwifed the so-called New Negro literature into being. Kind and critical—but not too critical for the young—they nursed us along until our books were born.” 

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston, photo portrait by Carl Van Vechten
Zora Neale Hurston, photo portrait by Carl Van Vechten. Fotosearch/Getty Images

Zora Neale Hurston (January 15, 1891 - January 28, 1960) was a famous Black writer and anthropologist whose novels, short stories, and plays portrayed the struggles of Black Americans in the South. For her works and her influence on many other writers, Hurston is considered one of the most important female writers of the 20th century.

Born in Notasulga, Alabama on January 15, 1891, both of Hurston’s parents had been enslaved. After completing high school at Morgan College, Hurston earned an associate’s degree from Howard University and a BA in anthropology from Barnard College in 1928. As a key participant in the Black cultural Harlem Renaissance movement, she worked alongside other prominent writers such as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen.

Though the short stories she had been writing since 1920 gained Hurston a following among Black Americans, it was her 1935 novel Mules and Men that gained her fame among the general literary audience. In 1930, Hurston collaborated with Langston Hughes in writing the play, Mule Bone, a comedic portrayal of Black life. Her classic 1937 book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, broke with literary norms by focusing on the experiences of a black woman. As an anthropologist, Hurston specialized in the study and portrayal of Black culture and folklore. Living temporarily in Haiti and Jamaica, she studied and wrote about the religions of the African diaspora

Shirley Graham Du Bois

Shirley Graham Du Bois
Shirley Graham Du Bois, by Carl Van Vechten. Carl Van Vechten, Courtesy Library of Congress

Shirley Graham Du Bois (November 11, 1896 - March 27, 1977) was a Black American writer, playwright, and civil rights activist.

Born Lola Shirley Graham in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1896, she studied music composition at the Sorbonne in Paris, France, from 1926 to 1931, when she entered Oberlin College as an advanced student, earning a B.A. in 1934 and a master’s degree in music in 1935. While still a student at Oberlin, Graham’s 1932 musical drama Tom Tom was widely acclaimed. In 1936, she was appointed director of Federal Theatre No. 3 of the Chicago Federal Theater Project where her plays Little Black Sambo and Swing Mikado were wildly popular. In 1943, Graham went to work as a writer for the NAACP under the direction of W.E.B. Du Bois, whom she married in 1951.

Shortly after their wedding, W.E.B. Du Bois was indicted for “un-American" activities.” Though he was acquitted, the couple was upset by the incident and frustrated by the civil rights movement’s the lack of progress in the United States. In 1961, they immigrated to Ghana where they gained citizenship. After the death of her husband, Shirley Graham Du Bois moved to Cairo, Egypt, where she continued to work for the causes of people of color worldwide. 

Marita Bonner

Marita Bonner
Image courtesy of Amazon.com

Marita Bonner (June 16, 1898 - December 6, 1971) was a Black American writer, playwright, and essayist associated with the Black cultural Harlem Renaissance movement of the 1920s.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Bonner attended Brookline High School where she wrote for the student newspaper, the Sagamore. In 1918, she enrolled in Radcliffe College majoring in Comparative Literature and English. She also founded the Boston chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, a sorority dedicated to public service and assisting the Black community. After graduating from Radcliffe, Bonner taught at Bluefield State University in Bluefield, West Virginia, and later at all-Black Armstrong High School in Washington, D.C. When both of her parents died in 1926, she turned to her writing seeking comfort. Published in December 1925 by the NAACP’s Crisis magazine, her first essay, “Being Young - A Woman - And Colored” spoke to the discrimination and marginalization faced by Black women, urging young Black women to call on their inner strength to cope with the situation.

With the success of her essay, Bonner was invited to join a circle of Washington, D.C. writers who met regularly at poet and composer Georgia Douglass Johnson’s “S Street Salon.” Over the next five years, she wrote a popular series of short stories published in Crisis and the National Urban League’s Opportunity magazine. Bonner enjoyed her greatest literary success during the 1930s as a prolific short story writer. Like all of her works, her stories stressed the self-betterment of Black persons, particularly women, through pride, strength, and education.

Regina Anderson

WPA Federal Theater Project in New York:Negro Theatre Unit:"Macbeth" (1935)
WPA Federal Theater Project in New York:Negro Theatre Unit:"Macbeth" (1935). National Archives and Records Administration

Regina M. Anderson (May 21, 1901 - February 5, 1993) was an American librarian, playwright, and patron of the arts who was responsible for advancing the careers of many Black artists of the New York Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s.

Born in Chicago on May 21, 1901, Anderson attended colleges including Wilberforce University in Ohio and the University of Chicago before earning a Master of Library Science degree from Columbia University. She started her career as a librarian in the New York Public Library System. By producing numerous literary and drama series, and art exhibitions, she first minority to be named a supervising librarian at the New York Public Library. In her Harlem apartment, Anderson often hosted meetings of Black American writers, singers, and actors who launched the Harlem Renaissance.

In 1924, Anderson joined W.E.B. Du Bois in forming the Krigwa Players, a troupe of Black actors performing plays by Black playwrights. In 1929, the Krigwa Players formed the Negro Experimental Theater. The group produced numerous plays, including several written by Anderson under her pen name of Ursula Trelling. Presented in 1931, her play Climbing Jacob's Ladder, about a Black man being lynched while people prayed for him, led to Broadway roles for many of the actors. Along with helping to bring the WPA’s Federal Theater to Harlem, the Negro Experimental Theater inspired similar Black theater groups across the United States. Future well-known Black playwrights including Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry, and Imamu Amiri Baraka credited Anderson for opening the doors to their careers. 

Daisy Bates

Daisy Lee Bates, president of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP, with Black students barred from the Little Rock Central High School, 1957.
Daisy Lee Bates, president of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP, with Black students barred from the Little Rock Central High School, 1957. Bettmann/Getty Images

Daisy Bates (November 11, 1914 - November 4, 1999) was a Black American journalist and civil rights activist best known for her role in the 1957 integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Born in the tiny sawmill town of Huttig, Arkansas in 1914, Daisy Bates was raised in a foster home, her mother having been raped and murdered by three white men when she was three years old. Learning at age eight that no one was prosecuted for her mother's murder and that the police had largely ignored the case, Bates vowed to dedicate her life to ending racial injustice. After settling in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1914, she started the Arkansas State Press, one of the few Black American newspapers dedicated to the Civil Rights Movement. Along with serving as editor, Bates regularly wrote articles for the paper.

When the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregated public schools unconstitutional in 1954, Bates rallied Black American students to enroll in all-white schools across the South, including those in Little Rock. When white schools refuse to accept Black students, Bates exposed them in her Arkansas State Press. In 1957, as president of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP, Bates selected nine Black students to enroll in all-white Central High School in Little Rock. Often driving them to school herself, she protected and advised the nine students, known as the Little Rock Nine. Bates’ work for school integration brought her national fame. In 1988, her autobiography, The Long Shadow of Little Rock, won the American Book Award

Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks, 1967, 50th birthday party
Gwendolyn Brooks, 1967, 50th birthday party. Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images

Gwendolyn Brooks (June 7, 1917 - December 3, 2000) was a widely read and much-honored poet and author who became the first Black American to win a Pulitzer Prize. 

Born in Topeka, Kansas, Brooks moved with her family to Chicago when she was young. Her father, a janitor, and her mother, a schoolteacher and classically trained pianist, supported her passion for writing. At just 13, her first published poem, “Eventide,” appeared in American Childhood.

By the time she turned 17, her poems were being published regularly in the Chicago Defender, a newspaper dedicated to Chicago’s Black community. While attending junior college and working for the NAACP, Brooks began writing the poems describing the realities of the urban Black experience that would comprise her first anthology, A Street in Bronzeville, published in 1945. In 1950, her second book of poetry, Annie Allen, portraying the struggles of a young Black girl growing into womanhood while surrounded by violence and racism was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. At age 68, Brooks became the first Black woman to be appointed as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, the position now known as Poet Laureate of the United States.  

Lorraine Hansberry

Lorraine Hansberry 1960
Lorraine Hansberry 1960. Archive Photos / Getty Images

Lorraine Hansberry (May 19, 1930 - January 12, 1965) was a Black American playwright and activist, best known for her classic 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun, and for becoming the first Black playwright and the youngest American to win a New York Critics’ Circle award.

Born on May 19, 1930, in Chicago, Illinois, Lorraine Hansberry’s parents contributed generously to the NAACP and Urban League. When the family moved to a white neighborhood in 1938, they were attacked by neighbors, leaving only after being ordered to do so by a court. Her father appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in its famous Hansberry v. Lee decision declared racially restrictive housing covenants illegal. Hansberry attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison majoring in writing, but withdrew after two years and moved to New York City. In New York, she wrote for Paul Robeson’s activist Black newspaper, Freedom, from 1950 to 1953. In 1957, she joined the lesbian and LGBTQ civil rights organization, the Daughters of Bilitis as a writer for their magazine, The Ladder. While her articles on feminism and homophobia openly exposed her lesbianism, she wrote under her initials, L.H., for fear of discrimination.

In 1957, Hansberry wrote A Raisin in the Sun, a play about a struggling Black family in a tiny Chicago tenement. In naming her play, Hansberry borrowed from a line in the poem “Harlem,” by Langston Hughes: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” Opening on March 11, 1959, at New York’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre, the A Raisin in the Sun was an instant success. With a run of 530 performances, it was the first Broadway play written by a Black American woman. At age 29, Lorraine Hansberry became the youngest American to win a New York Critics’ Circle award.

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison, 1994
Toni Morrison, 1994. Chris Felver/Getty Images

Toni Morrison (February 18, 1931 - August 5, 2019) was an American novelist and college professor noted for her understanding and skill in relating the Black female experience through her writing.

Toni Morrison was born in Lorain, Ohio, to a family with a deep appreciation for Black culture and history. She received a B.A. from Howard University in 1953, and an M.A. from Cornell University in 1955. From 1957 to 1964, she taught at Howard. From 1965 to 1984, she worked as a fiction editor at Random House Books. From 1985 until her retirement 2006, she taught writing at the State University of New York in Albany.

Published in 1973, Morrison’s first book, The Bluest Eye tells the story of a young Black girl who prays every day for beauty. Though it has been praised as a classic novel, it has also been banned by several schools due to its graphic details. Her second novel, Song of Solomon, tells the story of a Black man’s search for self-identity in the face of racism. Published in 1977, the novel brought Morrison fame, winning the coveted National Book Critics Circle Award. Her critically acclaimed 1987 novel Beloved, is based on the tragic true story of a runaway enslaved woman who chooses to kill her infant daughter to save her from a life of enslavement. In 1993, became the first Black American woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for Beloved. 

Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde lecturing, words on blackboard are Women are powerful and dangerous
Audre Lorde lecturing at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, New Smyrna Beach, Florida, 1983. Robert Alexander/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934 - November 17, 1992) was a Black American poet, writer, feminist, womanist, and civil rights activist. A self-described “black-lesbian feminist mother lover poet,” Lorde’s work exposed and condemned the social wrongs of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia.

Born to West Indian immigrant parents in New York City, Lorde published her first poem in Seventeen magazine while still in high school. Lorde earned a BA from Hunter College and an MLS from Columbia University. After working as a librarian in the New York public schools throughout the 1960s, she taught as the poet-in-residence at historically Black Tougaloo College in Mississippi. While teaching English at John Jay College and Hunter College in the 1990s, Lorde served as poet laureate of New York.

Published between 1968 and 1978, Lorde’s early collections of poetry, such as Cables to Rage and The Black Unicorn, included poems of protest fulfilling what she considered her “duty” to “speak the truth as I see it …” First published in 1978, Lorde’s poem, Power, expresses her outrage over the 1973 murder of Clifford Glover, a ten-year-old Black boy, by a racist police officer. When she learned that the police officer had been acquitted, Lorde wrote in her journal, “A kind of fury rose up in me; the sky turned red. I felt so sick. I felt as if I would drive this car into a wall, into the next person I saw.” Also a noted prose writer, Lorde’s National Book Award-winning collection essays, Burst of Light, considers the use of fear of racism as a catalyst for change: “I am listening to what fear teaches. I will never be gone. I am a scar, a report from the frontlines, a talisman, a resurrection. A rough place on the chin of complacency.”

Angela Davis

Angela Davis, 2007
Angela Davis, 2007. Dan Tuffs/Getty Images

Angela Davis (born January 26, 1944), is an American author, political activist, and professor who once appeared on the FBI’s most-wanted list.

Born to a Black American family in Birmingham, Alabama, Davis was exposed to racism as a child. Her neighborhood was called “Dynamite Hill” due to the number of homes bombed by the Ku Klux Klan. She was also friends with the young Black girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing of 1963. After studying philosophy at the University of Frankfurt in West Germany, Davis studied at the University of California, San Diego, before getting a Ph.D. from the Humboldt University of Berlin in East Germany. She was fired as an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles for her membership in the Communist Party. A strong supporter of prison reform, Davis took up the cause of three Black inmates. In 1970, guns belonging to Davis were used in an attempt to help the inmates escape from a California courtroom. When she was charged with conspiracy to murder, Davis went into hiding and was listed as one the FBI’s “Most Wanted.” Captured and jailed for over a year before being acquitted in 1972. In 1997, Davis co-founded Critical Resistance, an organization dedicated to ending the prison industrial complex.

Davis has also authored several books on classism, feminism, racism, and injustices within the U.S. prison system, including Women, Race, and Class, Women, Culture and Politics, Are Prisons Obsolete?, Abolition Democracy, and The Meaning of Freedom. Today, Davis continues to lecture on race, women’s rights, and the criminal justice system at many prestigious universities.

Alice Walker

Alice Walker, 2005
Alice Walker, 2005, at opening of Broadway version of The Color Purple. Sylvain Gaboury/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Alice Walker (born February 9, 1944) is an American poet, essayist, novelist, and social activist, who focuses on the issues of racism, gender bias, classism, and sexual oppression. An outspoken feminist, Walker created the term womanist to refer to “A Black feminist or feminist of color” in 1983.

Alice Walker was born in 1944 in Eatonton, Georgia, to sharecropping farmers. When she was eight, she was involved in a BB gun accident that left her permanently blinded in her left eye. She poignantly described the mental trauma of the resulting scar tissue in her 1983 essay “Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self.” As valedictorian of her class, Walker received a scholarship to Spelman, a college for Black women in Atlanta. After transferring to Sarah Lawrence College in New York, she traveled as an exchange student in Africa and received her BA in 1965. From 1968 to 1971, Walker wrote as writer-in-residence at Jackson State University and Tougaloo College. In 1970, she published her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, the story of a Black tenant farmer who, driven by the futility of life in the segregated South, deserts his wife and son to go North.

One of America’s best-selling writers, Walker cemented her literary status with her Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel, The Color Purple. Adapted into a popular movie by Steven Spielberg, the book tells the story of a 14 years old Black girl in rural Georgia whose children are given away by her sexually-abusive father, also the father of her children, who is also the father of the children. Walker’s poetry collections include Hard Times Require Furious Dancing, Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart, and Her Blue Body Everything We Know: Earthling Poems. Along with the Pulitzer Prize, she has won an O. Henry Award and a National Book Award.

bell hooks

Bell Hooks, 1988
Bell Hooks, 1988. By Montikamoss (Own work) [ CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

bell hooks, the pen name of Gloria Jean Watkins, (born September 25, 1952) is an American author, activist, and scholar whose writing explores the relationships between race, gender, and social class, often from the perspective of Black women.

Born to a working-class family in the small, segregated town of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, hooks wrote her first book, Ain’t I a Woman at age 19. She decided then to write under her pen name, the name of her grandmother. She spells it in all lowercase letters to direct the reader’s attention to the massage of her words rather than to herself. She earned a B.A. in English literature from Stanford University in 1973, an M.A. from the University of Wisconsin in 1976, and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1983.

Since 1983, hooks has published dozen of books while teaching at four major universities. In 2004, she became a professor at Berea College, a tuition-free, liberal arts college in Kentucky. In 2014, she founded the bell hooks Institute. In her books such as Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black (1989), Black Looks: Race and Representation (1992), and Where We Stand: Class Matters (2000), hooks conveys her belief that a woman’s true sense of value is determined by a combination of her race, political beliefs, and economic worth to society. In her very first book, Ain’t I A Woman, hooks revealed the basis of her Black feminist theory when she wrote, “A devaluation of black womanhood occurred as a result of the sexual exploitation of black women during slavery that has not altered in the course of hundreds of years.”

Ntozake Shange

Ntozake Shange, 2010
Ntozake Shange, 2010, at premiere of "For Colored Girls" at Ziegfeld Theatre, New York City. Jim Spellman/WireImage/Getty Images

Ntozake Shange (October 18, 1948 - October 27, 2018) was an American playwright, poet, and Black feminist whose work is recognized for frankly addressing race, gender, and Black power.

Born Paulette Linda Williams to upper-middle-class Black parents in Trenton, New Jersey, Shange’s family moved to the racially segregated city of St. Louis, Missouri when she was eight. Caught up in the forced desegregation resulting from the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, Shange was bussed to a previously all-white school where she was subjected to overt racism and physical harassment. Shortly after earning B.A. and M.A. degrees in American Studies from Barnard College and the University of Southern California, she separated from her first husband and attempted suicide. Determined to regain her strength and self-identity, she adopted her African name: Ntozake, “she who comes with her own things” and Shange, “who walks like a lion.”

As a successful writer, Shange focused on her experiences as a Black woman in America. Her Obie Award-winning 1975 play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, combines poetry, song, and dance to tell the stories of seven women, identified only by their color. With brutal honesty and emotion, Shange tells the story of each woman’s struggle to survive the double subjugation of sexism and racism in a white-dominated America. Shange’s awards included fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Fund and a Pushcart Prize.