Black History and Women's Timeline: 1900–1919

Portrait of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune
Portrait of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune. Chicago History Museum / Archive Photos / Getty Images

Women emerge as a major force in seeking equality and racial justice for Black Americans during the early part of the 20th century. They make their mark in the entertainment industry as groundbreaking singers and performers, and the early civil rights as well as the Black intellectual and cultural movements, emerging as major forces in the founding of the NAACP and the Harlem Renaissance. Black women establish schools for Black children and break barriers, such as through entering the service of the Red Cross. Following are some of the key figures of the era as well as their accomplishments.

1900

Nannie Helen Burroughs and children at farm stand conneced with her training school for women and girls
Nannie Helen Burroughs and children at farm stand conneced with her training school for women and girls. Afro American Newspapers / Gado / Getty Images

September: Nannie Helen Burroughs and others found the Women's Convention of the National Baptist Convention. It becomes, at one point, the largest Black women’s organization in the United States. Burroughs, a teacher, activist, and strong advocate for racial pride, also founds a school for girls and women with the organization’s sponsorship.

1901

Regina Anderson
Regina Anderson. Public Domain

May 21: Regina Anderson is born. A playwright and librarian, of African, Native American, Jewish, and European descent, she will help organize a 1924 dinner that creates the Harlem Renaissance, and she becomes a key figure in the movement.

1902

Marian Anderson at home in 1928
Marian Anderson in 1928.

London Express / Getty Images

February 27: Marian Anderson is born. She will become a singer known for her solo performances of opera and American spirituals and will be the first Black artist to perform at the Metropolitan Opera. Her vocal range is almost three octaves, from low D to high C, which allows her to express a broad range of feelings and moods appropriate to the various songs in her repertoire.

October 26: Elizabeth Cady Stanton dies. She had been a leader, writer, and activist in the women's suffrage movement. Stanton often worked with Susan B. Anthony as the theorist and writer, while Anthony was the public spokesperson.

1903

Ella Baker with microphone
Ella Baker. Wikimedia Commons

January 3: President Theodore Roosevelt suspends postal services to Indianola, Mississippi. White residents had previously protested the appointment of Minnie Cox as postmaster and voted on January 1 for her to resign, leading the president's actions.

January 7: Zora Neale Hurston is born. She will become an anthropologist, folklorist, and writer, known for such books as "Their Eyes Were Watching God." Today Hurston's novels and poetry are studied in literature classes and in women's studies and Black studies courses throughout the country.

Harriet Tubman signs over her home for the elderly to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. The church later converts it to the Home for Aged and Indigent Negroes and operates the facility from 1908 until the early 1920s. Tubman herself becomes a resident, staying in a structure on the property called John Brown Hall, which was used as the infirmary and main dormitory until her death in 1913.

Harriet Marshall founds the Washington Conservatory of Music in Washington, D.C., admitting Black students. It will later be renamed the Washington Conservatory of Music and School of Expression when the school expands to include drama and speech.

November 2: Maggie Lena Walker founds St. Luke's Penny Savings Bank at 900 St. James Street in Richmond, Virginia, becoming the first woman bank president. The National Park Service describes the day:

"While music played and speeches were given, nearly 300 eager customers...waited patiently to open bank accounts. While some people deposited more than one hundred dollars, others started accounts with just a few dollars, including one person who deposited just 31 cents. At the end of the day, the bank had 280 deposits, totaling over $8,000, and sold $1,247.00 worth of stock, bringing the total to $9,340.44."

Sarah Breedlove Walker (later Madam C.J. Walker) begins her hair care business. By leveraging her beauty and hair care products company, Walker is one of the first American women to become a self-made millionaire, while offering Black American women a source of income and pride. Also known for her philanthropy and social activism, Madam Walker plays a significant role in the Harlem Renaissance.

December 19: Ella Baker is born. She will become a fighter for the social equality of Black Americans by supporting local branches of the NAACP, working behind the scenes to establish the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King Jr., and mentoring college students through the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

1904

Mary McLeod Bethune with students of the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls
Mary McLeod Bethune with students of the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls.

Public Domain

Virginia Broughton publishes "Women's Work, as Gleaned From the Women of the Bible." It is "an analysis of biblical precedents for gender equality. She leads women of Tennessee in forming groups to study and analyze the Scripture in terms of gender consciousness, encouraging black Baptist women of other states to do the same," according to the Oxford American Studies Center.

October 3: Mary McLeod Bethune founds what is today Bethune-Cookman College "as the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls with $1.50, faith in God and five little girls: Lena, Lucille, and Ruth Warren, Anna Geiger and Celest Jackson," according to the school's website.

1905

Leaders of the Niagara Movement
Leaders of the Niagara Movement, W. E. B. Du Bois (seated), and (left to right) J. R. Clifford (who organized the 2nd meeting), L. M. Hershaw, and F. H. M. Murray at Harpers Ferry.

Public Domain

The Niagara Movement is founded by scholar W.E.B. Du Bois and journalist William Monroe Trotter, who want to develop a militant approach to fighting inequality. It will eventually become the NAACP. Du Bois and Trotter purpose to assemble at least 50 Black American men who do not agree with the philosophy of accommodation supported by Booker T. Washington. The group will hold a second meeting at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, with about 100 men and women in attendance.

The National League for the Protection of Colored Women is founded in New York by Frances Kellor, a White reformer, and S. W. Layten, a Black Baptist activist. The two had joined Black and White women in New York to organize an effort to increase job opportunities for Black women in the U.S., as nearly 90% are employed in households as domestic servants at the time.

March 3: Ariel Williams Holloway is born. She will become a noted musician, teacher, poet, and figure in the Harlem Renaissance.

The Constitution of the Industrial Workers of the World—IWW, "Wobblies"—includes a provision that "no working man or woman shall be excluded from membership in unions because of creed or color."

The first outdoor tuberculosis camp in the United States opens in Indianapolis, Indiana, sponsored by the Women's Improvement Club. According to Class 900: Indianapolis, a website about the history of the city, the camp provides tuberculosis patients with the "benefits of fresh air and the outdoors" where they can undergo treatment. Such "fresh air" camps are seen as an effective treatment for many ailments "especially those rooted in the overcrowded and less than healthful conditions in early 20th century urban environments," the website notes.

1906

Mary Church Terrell
Mary Church Terrell.

Stock Montage / Getty Images

March 13: Susan B. Anthony dies. She was a noted reformer, anti-enslavement activist, women's rights advocate, and lecturer. She once remarked during her life:

"It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union."

June 3: Josephine Baker is born. After spending her youth in poverty, Baker will learn to dance and become a singer, dancer, and civil rights activist who overwhelms Parisian audiences in the 1920s to become one of the most popular entertainers in France.

August 12–13: After a riot in Brownsville, Texas, President Theodore Roosevelt delivers dishonorable discharges to three companies of Black soldiers; Mary Church Terrell, a founder of the National Association of Colored Women and a charter member of the NAACP, is among those formally protesting this action.

1907

Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller sits on a wicker chair, poised for a photo
Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller.

Library of Congress

November 20: The Negro Rural School Fund is established by Anna Jeanes. It aims to improve education for rural southern Black Americans. The fund is established with the help of Booker T. Washington and will later be renamed the Jeanes Foundation.

Gladys Bentley, a Harlem Renaissance figure, becomes known for her risque and flamboyant piano playing and singing.

Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, a Black artist notable for celebrating Afrocentric themes, receives the first federal art commission awarded to a Black woman—four figurines of Black Americans to be used at the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition. This year she will also marry Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller, one of the first Black psychiatrists in the United States.

1908

kamala harris smiles and stands at a microphone
Kamala Harris, elected U.S. vice president in 2020, is among the famous members of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority at Howard University.

Sara D. Davis / Getty Images

In Los Angeles, the Woman's Day Nursery Association is formed to provide care for Black children whose mothers work outside the home.

The Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority is founded at Howard University becoming the first Black sorority in the country. The group will grow to a total membership of 300,000, including famed writers Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, civil rights leader Coretta Scott King, singer Alicia Keys, and perhaps its most famous alumna, Kamala Harris, who would be elected vice president of the United States more than a century later. Harris is the first woman, the first Black woman, and the first South Asian to hold the office.

1909

Ida B. Wells, 1920
Ida B. Wells in 1920.

Chicago History Museum / Getty Images

May 31 and June 1: The National Negro Committee meets at the Henry Street Settlement House in New York City. This group will sign a document that leads to the founding of the NAACP; women signers include Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Jane Addams, Anna Garlin Spencer, and Harriot Stanton Blatch (daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton). The group's goals are the abolition of segregation, discrimination, disenfranchisement and racial violence, particularly lynching. The group holds a national conference on Abraham Lincoln's birthday, February 12, marking the official date of the founding of the NAACP.

Nannie Helen Burroughs founds the National Training School for Women in Washington D.C. The Women's Convention of the National Baptist Convention, which Burroughs had cofounded in 1900, sponsors the school. Despite its Baptist sponsorship, the school is open to women and girls of any religious faith and does not include the word Baptist in its title. But it does have a strong religious foundation, with Burroughs' self-help “creed” stressing the three Bs of Bible, bath, and broom: “clean life, clean body, clean house.” The school at 601 50th Street NE will later be renamed the Nannie Helen Burroughs School and be added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1991.

Gertrude Stein's novel "Three Lives" characterizes a Black female character, Rose, as having "the simple, promiscuous immorality of Black people."

1910

Photograph of Mary White Ovington, reading
Mary White Ovington, about 1910. Courtesy Library of Congress

In May: The National Negro Committee meets for its second conference and organizes the NAACP as its permanent body. Mary White Ovington is appointed the group's executive secretary. Ovington is a key NAACP organizer holding a variety of offices from 1910 to 1947, including as a member of the executive board and board chair from 1917 to 1919. Other women leaders of the group would later include Ella Baker and Myrlie Evers-Williams.

September 29: The Committee on Urban Conditions Among Negroes is founded by Ruth Standish Baldwin and George Edmund Haynes.

1911

National Urban League headquarters, New York, 1956 sketch
The National Urban League headquarters in New York.

Afro American Newspapers / Gado / Getty Images

The Committee on Urban Conditions Among Negroes, the Committee for the Improvement of Industrial Conditions Among Negroes in New York, and the National League for the Protection of Colored Women merge, forming the National League on Urban Conditions Among Negroes, which will later be renamed the National Urban League. The civil rights organization seeks to help Black Americans participate in the Great Migration and to find employment, housing, and other resources once they reach urban environments.

January 4: Charlotte Ray dies. She was the first Black woman lawyer in the United States and the first woman admitted to the bar in the District of Columbia. Due to racism and anti-female discrimination, Ray eventually quit the legal profession and became a teacher in New York City. 

February 11: Francis Ellen Watkins Harper dies. She was a writer, lecturer, and anti-enslavement activist who worked after the Civil War for racial justice. She was also an advocate of women's rights and a member of the American Woman Suffrage Association. Her writings largely focus on themes of racial justice, equality, and freedom.

Edmonia Lewis, last reportedly seen in Rome, dies this year or in 1912. (Her exact death date and location are unknown.) Lewis has been a sculptor of Black American and Native American heritage. Her work, which features themes of freedom and anti-enslavement activism, became popular after the Civil War and earned her numerous accolades. Lewis' work depicts African, Black American, and Indigenous people, and she is particularly recognized for her naturalism within the neoclassical genre.

October 26: Mahalia Jackson is born in New Orleans, Louisiana. She will become a civil rights activist and one of the most influential gospel singers in the world, earning her the title of "The Queen of Gospel."

1912

Margaret Murray Washington
Margaret Murray Washington, 1901.

Bain News Service / Interim Archives / Getty Images

June 25: Virginia Lacy Jones is born. She will become a noted librarian who pushes for the integration of public and academic libraries throughout her 50-year career. She will also be one of the first Black Americans to earn a doctorate in library science and eventually become dean of Atlanta University's School of Library Sciences.

Margaret Murray Washington, the newly elected president of the National Association of Colored Women, founds the periodical National Notes. Washington is an educator, administrator, and reformer, who marries Booker T. Washington and works closely with him at the Tuskegee Institute and on educational projects. She is very well known in her lifetime but is somewhat forgotten in later treatments of Black history, possibly due to her association with a more conservative approach to winning racial equality.

1913

Rosa Parks on bus
Rosa Parks rides a public bus.

Underwood Archives / Getty Images

January 21: Fannie Jackson Coppin dies. She is the first Black American woman to serve as a school principal, the first Black American school superintendent, and the second Black American woman to receive a bachelor’s degree in the United States. She says of her efforts in education:

"We do not ask that any one of our people shall be put into a position because he is a colored person, but we do most emphatically ask that he shall not be kept out of a position because he is a colored person."

February 4: Rosa Parks is born. Her refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, public bus to a White person in late 1955 leads to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and is a significant milestone in the civil rights movement, helping pave the way for the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

March 10: Harriet Tubman dies. She was an enslaved woman, freedom seeker, Underground Railroad conductor, North American 19th-century Black activist, spy, soldier, and nurse known for her service during the Civil War and her advocacy of civil rights and women's suffrage.

April 11: The federal government officially segregates by race all federal workplaces, including restrooms and eating facilities.

1914

Daisy Bates and seven of the Little Rock Nine students standing together in front of the White House
Daisy Bates poses for a picture with seven students from the Little Rock Nine after helping to integrate the school in 1957.

Bettmann / Getty Images

July 15: Marcus Garvey founds the Universal Negro Improvement Association in Jamaica, which moves later to New York, promoting a homeland in Africa and independence in America for Black Americans. Through the UNIA and in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance, Garvey seizes the attention of both White and Black Americans with his powerful oratory and ideas about separatism.

November 11: Daisy Bates is born. She will become a journalist, newspaper publisher, and civil rights activist known for her role in supporting the 1957 integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Bates and her husband are activists who devote their lives to the civil rights movement, creating and running a newspaper called the Arkansas State Press that functions as a mouthpiece for Black Americans across the country and calls attention to and condemns racism, segregation, and other systems of inequality.

1915

Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday.

Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer / Getty Images

The National Negro Health movement begins to offer services to Black communities, serving and including health workers and many Black women.

April 7: Billie Holiday is born as Eleanora Fagan. She will become a popular and tragic figure in jazz, a gifted singer with an amazing voice and talent but with a chaotic and troubled life who will die at age 44 of cirrhosis of the liver. In a career spanning a quarter-century, she will earn the nickname "Lady Day," given to her by her friend and music partner Lester Young, who was part of Count Basie's orchestra.

1917

Lena Horne in Stormy Weather
Lena Horne in "Stormy Weather".

Corbis / Getty Images

April 25: Ella Fitzgerald is born. With a career spanning more than half a century, she will become the most popular female jazz singer in the country, winning 13 Grammy awards and selling over 40 million albums and working with other jazz greats Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Nat King Cole. She also worked with music legends Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie, and Benny Goodman.

June 7: Gwendolyn Brooks is born. She will become a poet best remembered for poems such as "We Real Cool" and "The Ballad of Rudolph Reed." Her work is greatly influenced by the Jim Crow Era and the civil rights movement, and she publishes more than a dozen collections of poetry and prose as well as one novel during her lifetime.

June 30: Lena Horne is born. Horne is raised by her mother, an actress, and then by her paternal grandmother, Cora Calhoun Horne, who takes her to the NAACP, the Urban League, and the Ethical Culture Society, all centers of activism. She grows up to become a singer, dancer, actress, and civil rights activist, whose stardom is rooted in two 1943 musical films, "Stormy Weather" and "Cabin in the Sky."

July 1–3: Race riots erupt in East St. Louis. Between 40 and 200 are killed and 6,000 are forced to leave their homes.

October 6: Fannie Lou Hamer is born. As a sharecropper, she works from the age of 6 as a timekeeper on a cotton plantation. Hamer later becomes involved in the Black Freedom Struggle and eventually becomes a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, earning the nickname "the spirit of the civil rights movement."

1918

Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Pearl Bailey, Andy Williams
Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Pearl Bailey, Andy Williams: from a 1960 episode of the "Pearl Bailey Show".

Afro American Newspapers / Gado / Getty Images

July 20: Frances Elliott Davis enrolls with the American Red Cross, becoming the first Black nurse to do so. According to the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, the Red Cross had wanted to deny Davis admission, but due to her stellar credentials—she had studied at the Freedmen’s School of Nursing in Washington, D.C., graduated, passed the District of Columbia Board of Examination, and had done stints in private nursing and as a supervisor in Baltimore—the organization "couldn’t find a legitimate reason to turn her down," the NCDNCR notes. The Red Cross eventually assigns Davis to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where she provides medical care for the families of servicemen stationed at the nearby camps at Chickamauga Park and Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. Davis would be honored by the Red Cross during Black History Month in 2019, which says on its website that "we are honoring black men and women whose contributions were essential to our history."

March 29: Pearl Bailey is born. She will become an actress and singer who appears in vaudeville, makes her Broadway debut in "St. Louis Woman" in 1946, wins a Tony Award for the title role in the all-Black production of "Hello, Dolly!" in 1968, and hosts her own television variety show in 1971 called "The Pearl Bailey Show."

1919

A'Lelia Walker Getting a Manicure
A'Lelia Walker, daughter of Madame C. J. Walker, gets a manicure at one of her mother's beauty shops. George Rinhart / Getty Images

May 35: Madam C.J. Walker dies suddenly of kidney failure and complications of hypertension at her Villa Lewaro mansion in Irvington, New York. She is considered the wealthiest African American woman in the country at the time. Walker's daughter, A'Lelia Walker, becomes president of the Walker company. A'Leilia Walker will build the large Walker Building in Indianapolis in 1928 and host many parties that bring together Black artists, writers, and intellectuals at her New York townhouse apartment, called the Dark Tower, and at Lewaro. Langston Hughes dubs her the "joy goddess" of the Harlem Renaissance for her parties and patronage.

November 29: Pearl Primus is born. She will become a dancer, choreographer, and anthropologist who helps bring African dance to American audiences.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Black History and Women's Timeline: 1900–1919." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/african-american-womens-history-timeline-1900-1909-3528305. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2021, February 16). Black History and Women's Timeline: 1900–1919. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/african-american-womens-history-timeline-1900-1909-3528305 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Black History and Women's Timeline: 1900–1919." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/african-american-womens-history-timeline-1900-1909-3528305 (accessed March 6, 2021).