Black History and Women's Timeline: 1920-1929

African American History and Women Timeline

Bessie Coleman on airplane
Bessie Coleman. Michael Ochs Archives

The Harlem Renaissance, also called the New Negro Movement, was a blossoming of arts, culture, and social action in the African American community all through the 1920s.


Zeta Phi Beta sorority members standing and founders sitting on a couch
Zeta Phi Beta's five founders, seated, are surrounded by several members of the sorority in 1951.

Afro Newspaper / Gado / Getty Images

January 16: Zeta Phi Beta Sorority is founded at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Established by five coeds during an era of intense racism, according to the sorority's website, the students envision that the group will:

"...affect positive change, chart a course of action for the 1920s and beyond, raise consciousness of their people, encourage the highest standards of scholastic achievement, and foster a greater sense of unity among its members."

May: The Universal African Black Cross Nurses is founded by the United Negro Improvement Association led by Marcus Garvey. The mission of the nursing group is similar to the Red Cross—indeed, it will become better known as the Black Cross Nurses—to provide medical services and education to Black people.

May 21: The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution becomes law, but practically this does not give the vote to Southern Black women, who, like Black men, are largely prevented by other legal and extra-legal measures from exercising their right to vote.

June 14: Georgiana Simpson, receives a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, becoming the first Black woman in the United States to do so. Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander receives her Ph.D. a day later, becoming the second. 

August 10: Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds record the first blues record, which sells more than 75,000 copies in its first month. According to the website Teachrock:

"Smith (fills) in for an ailing Sophie Tucker, a white singer, at a recording session for Okeh Records. One of the songs she (cuts) that day, 'Crazy Blues,' is widely viewed as the first Blues recording by an African-American artist. It (becomes) a million-selling sensation, thanks in part to the large numbers of copies sold in the African American community."

October 12: Alice Childress is born in Charleston, South Carolina. She will go on to become a well-known actress, novelist, and playwright. Concord Theatricals notes that in 1944 she makes her debut in "Anna Luasta," which becomes "the longest-running all-Black play on Broadway." Childress soon directs her first play, founds her own theater, and writes a number of plays and books, including "A Short Walk," a 1979 novel that is nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

October 16: The National League on Urban Conditions Among Negroes shortens its name to National Urban League. The group, founded in 1910, is a civil rights organization whose mission is “to enable African-Americans to secure economic self-reliance, parity, power and civil rights.”

The Katy Ferguson Home is founded. It is named after Ferguson, a 19th-century wedding cake maker. Ferguson—who was enslaved from birth but purchased her freedom—took 48 children off the streets, "cared for them, fed them, and found them all good homes," according to Columbia University. When Ferguson's minister heard about her efforts, he moved the group of children to the basement of his church and founded what was thought to be the first Sunday School in the city, according to Columbia's website, Mapping the African American Past.


Alice Paul
Alice Paul. MPI / Getty Images

Bessie Coleman becomes the first African American woman to earn a pilot's license. She is also the first Black American woman to fly a plane and the first Native American woman pilot. "Known for performing flying tricks, Coleman’s nicknames (are) 'Brave Bessie,' 'Queen Bess,' and 'The Only Race Aviatrix in the World,'" according to the National Women's History Museum.

Alice Paul reverses an invitation to Mary Burnett Talbert of the NAACP to speak to the National Woman's Party, asserting that the NAACP supports racial equality and does not address gender equality.

September 14: Constance Baker Motley is born. She will become a noted lawyer and activist. The website that is operated by the United States Courts for the Federal Judiciary explains:

"(F)rom the late 1940s through the early 1960s, Motley (plays) a pivotal role in the fight to end racial segregation, putting her own safety at risk in one racial powder keg after another. She (is) the first African American woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court, and the first to serve as a federal judge."


Library at Howard University
The library at Howard University. David Monack / Wikimedia Commons

January 26: An anti-lynching bill passes in the House but fails in the U.S. Senate. First introduced in 1918 by Rep. Leonidas C. Dyer, a Missouri Republican, the measure is one of about 200 such bills introduced into Congress. A century later, as of December 2020, Congress has still not approved an anti-lynching bill for the president's signature.

August 14: Rebecca Cole dies. She is the second Black American woman to graduate from medical school. Cole has worked with Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in the United States to graduate from medical school and the country's first female physician, in New York.

Lucy Diggs Stowe becomes Howard University's Dean of Women. According to the Library of Congress, Stowe also helps establish the National Association of College Women and serves as its first president. The group seeks to raise the standards in colleges for Black American women, develop female faculty members, and secure scholarships, notes

The United Negro Improvement Association appoints Henrietta Vinton Davis as fourth assistant president, responding to criticism by women members of gender discrimination. By 1924, Davis will chair the annual convention of the group, whose mission is to achieve "racial uplift and the establishment of educational and industrial opportunities for Blacks," according to "American Experience," a documentary show aired by PBS.


Dorothy Dandridge
Dorothy Dandridge is the first Black actress to receive an Oscar nomination.

Silver Screen Collection / Contributor / Getty Images

February: Bessie Smith records "Down Hearted Blues, after signing a contract with Columbia to make "race records," and helping rescue Columbia from imminent failure. The song will eventually be added to the National Recording Registry, a list of sound recordings deemed "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant," according to the Library of Congress, which overseas the program. The LOC says of Smith's tune:

" 'Down Hearted Blues' wears its blues on its sleeve. Though the song’s accompanying piano--the recording’s sole instrument—is light, even lilting, the song’s lyrics are not ambiguous."

Gertrude "Ma" Rainey records her first record. According to the website BlackPast, Rainy is "the Mother of the Blues" who goes on to be "the most popular blues singer/ songwriter of the 1920s. She is considered to be the first woman to introduce blues into her performances." Rainey will record nearly 100 records by 1928.

September: The Cotton Club opens in Harlem where women entertainers are subjected to a "paper bag" test: only those whose skin color is lighter than a brown paper bag are hired. Located on 142nd Street and Lenox Ave. in the heart of Harlem, New York, the club is operated by White New York gangster Owney Madden, who uses it to sell his #1 Beer during the era of Prohibition, says BlackPast.

October 15: Mary Burnett Talbert dies. The anti-lynching, civil rights activist, nurse, and NAACP director served as president of the National Association of Colored Women from 1916 to 1921.

November 9: Alice Coachman is born. She will become the first Black American woman to win an Olympic gold medal (in the high jump) at the London Summer Olympic Games in 1948. Coachman, who is inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1975 and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 2004, lives to age 90, dying in 2014.

November 9: Dorothy Dandridge is born. The singer, dancer, and actress will become the first Black American actress to be nominated for an Academy Award, in 1955 for her performance as the title character in the film, "Carmen Jones." Though she does not win—Grace Kelly earns the award that year—Dandridge's nomination is considered breaking a glass ceiling in the acting profession. Sadly, reflecting on the racism prevalent during Dandridge's career, one of her most notable quotes is, "If I were white, I could capture the world."


Shirley Chisholm standing at a podium and holding hand up in a "peace sign"
Shirley Chisholm.

Don Hogan Charles / Getty Images

Mary Montgomery Booze becomes the first Black woman elected to the Republican National Committee. Booze, an educator whose father had been a cotton producer and political ally of Booker T. Washington, serves in the post for more than three decades, until her death in 1955.

Elizabeth Ross Hayes becomes the first African American woman board member of the YWCA.

March 13: Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin dies. The National Women's Hall of Fame describes the journalist, activist, and lecturer, as follows:

"An African-American leader from New England who was a suffragist, fought slavery, recruited African-American soldiers to fight for the North in the Civil War, and founded and edited a magazine, Josephine Ruffin is best known for her central role in starting and sustaining the role of clubs for African-American women."

March 27: Sarah Vaughan is born. Vaughan will become a famous jazz singer known by the nicknames "Sassy" and "The Divine One"—decades before Bette Midler would adopt a variation of the moniker—winning four Grammy Awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award.

May 31: Patricia Roberts Harris is born. The lawyer, politician, and diplomat goes on to serve under President Jimmy Carter as United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and United States Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare.

August 29: Dinah Washington is born (as Ruth Lee Jones). She will come to be called the most popular Black female recording artist of the 1950s, billed as the "Queen of the Blues" and the "Empress of the Blues."

October 27: Ruby Dee born is born. The actress, playwright, and activist goes on to originate the role of Ruth Younger in the stage and film versions of "A Raisin in the Sun" and perform in such films as "American Gangster," "The Jackie Robinson Story," and "Do the Right Thing."

November 30: Shirley Chisholm is born. The social worker and politician is the first Black American woman to serve in Congress. Chisholm is also the first Black person and the first Black woman to run for president on a major party ticket when she seeks the Democratic nomination in 1972.

December 7: Willie B. Barrow is born. The minister and civil rights activist will cofound Operation PUSH along with the Rev. Jesse Jackson. The Chicago organization seeks to further social justice, civil rights, and political activism.

Mary McLeod Bethune is elected as president of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, a position she holds until 1928. Bethune will also go on to become the founding president of the National Council of Negro Women in 1935 and serve as an adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.


Josephine Baker on top of a tiger rug while wearing a silk gown.
Josephine Baker in 1925.

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The Hesperus Club of Harlem is founded. It is the first women's auxiliary of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong record "St. Louis Blues." Interestingly, Armstrong, as a member of a band led by Fletcher Henderson, played backup for Ma Rainey and Smith, before going on to solo success.

Josephine Baker performs in Paris at "La Revue Negro" becoming one of the most popular entertainers in France. She later returns to the United States in 1936 to perform in the "Ziegfield Follies," but she encounters hostility and racism and soon returns to France. Yet later, she returns to the U.S. and becomes active in the civil rights movement, even speaking at the March on Washington at the side of Martin Luther King Jr.

June 4: Mary Murray Washington dies. She has been an educator, founder of the Tuskegee Woman's Club, and wife of Booker T. Washington.


Hallie Quinn Brown
Hallie Quinn Brown.

Library of Congress

January 29: Violette N. Anderson becomes the first African American woman attorney admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court. Andreson later lobbies Congress for the passage of the Bankhead-Jones Act, which provides sharecroppers and tenant farmers with low-interest loans to buy small farms, notes BlackPast.

February 7: Carter G. Woodson launches Negro History Week, which will later lead to the establishment of Black History Month when President Gerald Ford officially recognizes it in 1976. Woodson, known as the father of Black history and Black studies, works tirelessly to establish the field of Black American history in the early 1900s, founding the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and its journal and contributing numerous books and publications to the field of Black research, notes the NAACP.

April 30: Bessie Coleman, the pioneering Black female pilot, dies in a plane crash In Jacksonville, Florida, en route to an airshow. About 10,000 people attend Coleman's funeral service in Chicago, which is led by activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett.

The YWCA adopts an interracial charter, which states, in part: "Wherever there is injustice on the basis of race, whether in the community, the nation, or the world, our protest must be clear and our labor for its removal, vigorous, and steady." The YWCA notes that the charter eventually leads to the creation of "YWCA’s One Imperative in 1970: To thrust our collective power towards the elimination of racism, wherever it exists, by any means necessary."

African American women are beaten in Birmingham, Alabama, for attempting to register to vote. Though they are prevented from exercising their rights, the women's' actions serve as a spark that eventually leads to an effort by Martin Luther King Jr. and others to launch a nonviolent campaign to end segregation and force Birmingham businesses to hire Black people.

Hallie Brown publishes "Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction," which profiles notable African American women. The educator, lecturer, and civil and women's rights activist plays a major role in the Harlem Renaissance as well as the preservation of the home of Frederick Douglass.


Soprano Leontyne Price in Antony and Cleopatra at the Met, 1966
Soprano Leontyne Price in "Antony and Cleopatra" at the Met in 1966.

Jack Mitchell / Getty Images

Minnie Buckingham is appointed to fill her husband's remaining term in the West Virginia state legislature becoming the state's Black female legislator.

Selena Sloan Butler founds the National Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers, focusing on segregated "colored" schools in the South. Decades later, in 1970, the group will merge with PTA.

Mary White Ovington publishes "Portraits in Color," which features biographies of African American leaders. Ovington is best known for the 1909 call that led to the founding of the NAACP, and for being a trusted colleague and friend of W.E.B. Du Bois. She also serves as a board member and officer of the NAACP for over 40 years.

Tuskegee establishes a women's track team. Years later, in 1948, track team member Theresa Manuel would become the first female African American from the state of Florida to compete in the Olympics when she runs the 80-meter hurdles, is the third leg in the 440-yard team relay, and throws a javelin at the 1948 Summer Olympic Games in London. These are the same games where Manual's Olympic teammate, Alice Coachman, becomes the first Black American woman to win an Olympic gold medal.

February 10: Leontyne Price is born. Known as the first Black American-born prima donna, Price goes on to star in the New York Metropolitan Opera as a soprano from 1960 to 1985 and become one of the most popular opera sopranos in history. She is also the first Black opera singer on television.

April 25: Althea Gibson is born. The future tennis star will become the first African American to play in the American Lawn Tennis Association championship and the first Black American to win at Wimbledon, winning the singles and doubles titles in 1957. She also wins the French Open in 1956.

April 27: Coretta Scott King is born. Though she comes to be known as the wife of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta, herself, has a long and storied career in the movement. Long after her husband is assassinated in 1968, she continues to speak publicly and write. She publishes "My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr.," speaks at rallies opposing the Vietnam War, and campaigns—successfully—to make her late husband's birthday a national holiday. King also shows a capacity for eloquence that seems to match her husband's, with such quotes as:

"Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won; you earn it and win it in every generation."

November 1: Florence Mills dies. The cabaret singer, dancer, and comedian is exhausted after giving 300 performances in the hit show "Blackbirds" in London in 1926, becomes ill with tuberculosis, returns to the U.S., and dies of appendicitis. Mills' funeral in Harlem, New York, draws more than 150,000 mourners.


Maya Angelou, 1978
Maya Angelou, 1978.

Jack Sotomayor / Archive Photos / Getty Images

Georgia Douglas Johnson publishes "An Autumn Love Cycle." She is a poet, playwright, editor, music teacher, school principal, and pioneer in the Black theater movement and writes more than 200 poems, 40 plays, and 30 songs, and edits 100 books. She challenges both racial and gender barriers to succeed in these areas.

Nella Larsen's novel, "Quicksand," is published. According to a review on Amazon, the writer's first novel is the:

"...story of Helga Crane, the lovely and refined mixed-race daughter of a Danish mother and a West Indian Black father. The character is loosely based on Larsen's own experiences and deals with the character's struggle for racial and sexual identity, a theme common to Larsen's work."

April 4: Maya Angelou is born. She becomes a celebrated poet, memoirist, singer, dancer, actor, and civil rights activist. Her autobiography, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," a bestseller, is published in 1969 and is nominated for the National Book Award. It reveals her experiences growing up as a Black American during the Jim Crow Era and is one of the first written by an African American woman to appeal to a mainstream readership.


Augusta Savage poses with her sculpture Realization
Augusta Savage poses with her sculpture Realization.

Andrew Herman / Wikimedia Commons

Regina Anderson helps found Harlem's Negro Experimental Theater. The theater, which rises from an earlier group called the Krigwa Players—founded in 1925 by Du Bois and Anderson—continues following Du Bois' guiding statement about Black theater:

"The Negro Art Theatre should be (1) a theatre about us, (2) a theatre by us, (3) a theatre for us and (4) a theatre near us."

Augusta Savage wins the Rosenwald grant for "Gamin' " and uses the funds to study in Europe. Savage is known for her sculptures of Du Bois, Douglass, Garvey, and others such as "Realization" (pictured). She is considered part of the Harlem Renaissance arts and cultural revival.

May 16: Betty Carter is born. Carter goes on to become what the website AllMusic calls "the most adventurous female jazz singer of all idiosyncratic stylist and a restless improviser who (pushes) the limits of melody and harmony as much as any bebop horn player."

October 29: The Stock market crash occurs. It is a sign of the oncoming Great Depression, where Black people, including women, are often the last people to be hired and the first ones to be fired.

Maggie Lena Walker becomes chair of Consolidated Bank and Trust, which she created by merging several Richmond, Virginia, banks. Walker is the first woman bank president in the United States, and is also a lecturer, writer, activist, and philanthropist.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Black History and Women's Timeline: 1920-1929." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2023, April 5). Black History and Women's Timeline: 1920-1929. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Black History and Women's Timeline: 1920-1929." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).