Get to Know These Important Women in Black History

Reconstruction-era vocational school
Reconstruction-era vocational school to learn sewing. Adapted from image in Library of Congress

Black women have played many important roles in U.S. history since the days of the American Revolution. Many of these women are key figures in the struggle for civil rights, but they have also made major contributions to the arts, to science, and to civil society. Discover some of these African-American women and the eras they lived in with this guide.

Colonial and Revolutionary America

Phillis Wheatley
Phillis Wheatley. Stock Montage / Getty Images

Africans were brought to the North American colonies as slaves as early as 1619. It wasn't until 1780 that Massachusetts formally outlawed slavery, the first of the U.S. colonies to do so. During this era, there were few African-Americans living in the U.S. as free men and women, and their civil rights were sharply limited in most states.

Phillis Wheatley was one of the few black women to rise to prominence in colonial-era America. Born in Africa, she was sold at age 8 to John Wheatley, a wealthy Bostonian, who gave Phillis to his wife, Sussana. The Wheatleys were impressed by young Phillis' intellect and they taught her to write and read, schooling her in history and literature. Her first poem was published in 1767 and she would go on to publish a highly acclaimed volume of poetry before dying in 1784, impoverished but no longer a slave.

Slavery and Abolitionism

Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman. Seidman Photo Service/Kean Collection/Getty Images

The Atlantic slave trade ceased by 1783 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 outlawed slavery in the future states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. But slavery remained legal in the South, and Congress was repeated divided by the issue in the decades leading up to the Civil War.

Two black women played pivotal roles in the fight against slavery during these years. One, Sojourner Truth, was an abolitionist who was freed when New York outlawed slavery in 1827. Emancipated, she became active in evangelical communities, where she developed ties with abolitionists, including Harriet Beecher Stowe. By the mid-1840s, Truth was speaking regularly on abolition and women's rights in cities like New York and Boston, and she would continue her activism until her death in 1883.

Harriet Tubman, escaped slavery herself, then risked her life, again and again, to guide others to freedom. Born a slave in 1820 in Maryland, Tubman fled North in 1849 to avoid being sold to a master in the Deep South. She would make nearly 20 trips back South, guiding about 300 other runaway slaves to freedom. Tubman also made frequent public appearances, speaking against slavery. During the Civil War, she would spy for Union forces and nurse wounded soldiers, and the continued to advocate for African-Americans after the war. Tubman died in 1913.

Reconstruction and Jim Crow

Maggie Lena Walker
Maggie Lena Walker. Courtesy National Park Service

The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments passed during and immediately after the Civil War granted African-Americans many of the civil rights they had long been denied. But this progress was hobbled by overt racism and discrimination, particularly in the South. Despite this, a number of black women rose to prominence during this era.

Ida B. Wells was born just months before Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. As a young teacher in Tennessee, Wells began writing for local black news organizations in Nashville and Memphis in the 1880s. During the next decade, she would lead an aggressive campaign in print and speech against lynching, in 1909 she was a founding member of the NAACP. Wells could continue to lead the charge for civil rights, fair housing laws, and women's rights until her death in 1931.

In an era when few women, white or black, were active in business, Maggie Lena Walker was a pioneer. Born in 1867 to former slaves, she would become the first African-American woman to found and lead a bank. Even as a teen, Walker displayed an independent streak, protesting for the right to graduate in the same building as her white classmates. She also helped form a youth division of a prominent black fraternal organization in her hometown of Richmond, Va.

In the coming years, she would grow membership in the Independent Order of St. Luke to 100,000 members. In 1903, she founded the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, one of the first banks operated by African-Americans. Walker would guide the bank, serving as president until shortly before her death in 1934.

A New Century

From the NAACP to the Harlem Renaissance, African-Americans made new inroads in politics, arts, and culture in first decades of the 20th century. The Great Depression brought hard times, and World War II and the post-war period brought new challenges and involvements.

Josephine Baker became an icon of the Jazz Age, although she had to leave the U.S. to earn this reputation. A native of St. Louis, Baker ran away from home in her early teens and made her way to New York City, where she began dancing in clubs. In 1925, she moved to Paris, where her exotic, erotic nightclub performances made her an overnight sensation. During World War II, Baker nursed wounded Allied soldiers and also contributed occasional intelligence. In her later years, Josephine Baker became involved in civil rights causes in the U.S. She died in 1975 at age 68, days after a triumphant comeback performance in Paris.

Zora Neale Hurston is considered one of the most influential African-American writers of the 20th century. She began writing while in college, often drawing upon the issues of race and culture. Her best-known work, "Their Eyes Were Watching God," was published in 1937.  But Hurston quit writing in the late 1940s, and by the time she died in 1960, she was largely forgotten. It would take the work of a new wave of feminist scholars and writers, namely Alice Walker, to revive Hurston's legacy.

Civil Rights and Breaking Barriers

Rosa Parks on Bus in Montgomery, Alabama - 1956
Rosa Parks on Bus in Montgomery, Alabama - 1956. Courtesy Library of Congress

In the 1950s and 1960s, and into the 1970s, the civil rights movement took the historical center stage. African-American women had key roles in that movement, in the "second wave" of the women's rights movement, and, as barriers fell, in making cultural contributions to American society.

Rosa Parks is, for many, one of the iconic faces of the modern civil rights struggle. A native of Alabama, Parks became active in the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP in the early 1940s. She was a key planner of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56 and became the face of the movement after she was arrested for refusing to yield her seat to a white rider. Parks and her family moved to Detroit in 1957, where she remained active in civil and political life until her death in 2005 at age 92. 

Barbara Jordan is perhaps best known for her role in the Congressional Watergate hearings and for her keynote speeches at two Democratic National Conventions. But this Houston native holds many other distinctions. She was the first black female to serve in the Texas legislature, elected in 1966. Six years later, she and Andrew Young of Atlanta would become the first African-Americans to be elected to Congress since Reconstruction. Jordan served until 1978 ​when she stepped down to teach at the University of Texas at Austin. Jordan died in 1996, just a few weeks before her 60th birthday.

The 21st Century

Mae Jemison
Mae Jemison. Courtesy NASA

As the struggles of earlier generations of African-Americans have borne fruit, younger men and women have stepped forward to make new contributions to the culture. 

Oprah Winfrey is a familiar face to millions of TV viewers, but she's also a prominent philanthropist, actor, and activist. She is the first African-American woman to have a syndicated talk show, and she is the first black billionaire. In the decades since "The Oprah Winfrey" show began in 1984, she has appeared in films, started her own cable TV network, and advocated for victims of child abuse.

Mae Jemison is the first African-American woman astronaut and a leading scientist and advocate for girls' education in the U.S. Jemison, a physician by training ​joined NASA in 1987 and served aboard the space shuttle Endeavor in 1992. Jemison left NASA in 1993 to pursue an academic career. For the past several years, she has led ​100 Year Starship, a research philanthropy dedicated to empowering people through technology.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Get to Know These Important Women in Black History." ThoughtCo, Oct. 21, 2017, thoughtco.com/african-american-womens-history-3528267. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2017, October 21). Get to Know These Important Women in Black History. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/african-american-womens-history-3528267 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Get to Know These Important Women in Black History." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/african-american-womens-history-3528267 (accessed November 20, 2017).