Famous Black Women Figures You Oughta Know

Famous Black women that have changed our history and paved a way for our current and future opportunities.

Human Interest

Black women have been trailblazers since the beginning of time. However, many people lack knowledge of historically famous Black women because there is very little Black history taught in American school systems. Malcolm X never lied when he said, "It is the process of mis-education that inhibits the full potential of a nation."

According to the National Council for Social Studies, "Only one to two lessons or 8–9 percent of total class time is devoted to Black history in U.S. history classrooms." So no need to sweat about how you could have done better when you were given limited tools to do so. This is why self-educating yourself about Black history written by us should be a continuous journey you choose to explore. Here is a mixed list of some of the most groundbreaking Black women figures that lead the way for all of us.

Famous Black Healthcare Workers You Oughta Know

It's only right to start off honoring the heroes that help save our lives daily.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler

In 1864, Rebecca Lee Crumpler became the first Black woman in America to receive an MD degree. She was the only Black graduate at the time when she earned her degree at New England Female Medical College in Boston, Massachusetts. After the Civil War, Rebecca moved to Richmond, VA, and worked with other Black doctors who were taking care of formerly enslaved people in the Freedmen's Bureau.

In 1883, Crumpler wrote a book called A Book of Medical Discourses: In Two Parts. Her book amplified the experiences of women's and children's health and is written for "mothers, nurses, and all who may desire to mitigate the affiliations of the human race."

Alexa Irene Canady

At times, we all lack self-confidence like Alexa Irene Canady did while attending college—but even in our weary seasons, we can gain momentum to overcome our fears. And she did just that, becoming the first Black neurosurgeon in America in 1981. In just a few years, Canady even rose to become the Chief of Neurosurgeon at Children's Hospital of Michigan. Alexa continued working for several decades as a pediatric neurosurgeon until June 2001, when she retired.

Mary Mahoney

According to the National Women's History Museum, Mary Mahoney became the first licensed Black nurse in America in 1879. She wasn't able to work in a hospital due to discrimination towards Black people in the 19th century, so she became a private nurse instead. In 1908, Mahoney co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN). Several years later, after the 19th Amendment was approved, she became one of the first women registered to vote in Boston, MA.

Famous Black Political Women Leaders You Oughta Know

Angela Davis

Angela Davis is a profound Civil Rights activist known for her involvement in the 1960s with the Communist party. She was also a part of the Black Panther Party for a few months until she got weary of the political group's sexism issues. Davis was later targeted by the FBI, making its 10 Most Wanted List, due to her launching a campaign to free "The Soledad Brothers"—who were also all Black Panther Party members arrested in the 60s after being charged for allegedly murdering a white prison guard.

Davis is a scholar at heart; she attempted running for Vice President twice in the 80s and is the author of several books about civil rights. She is still alive today, teaching at colleges and leading trailblazing conversations about civil rights, mass incarceration, and intersectional experiences Black women face in feminism.

Claudette Colvin

The first Black woman to refuse to give up her bus seat for a white person was not Rosa Parks; it was actually Claudette Colvin. At the time, she was only 15 years old, and the event occurred ten months prior to Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat. Colvin wasn't as spoken about because of colorism issues, and her mother told her to keep quiet. In an interview with the New York Times in 2009, she stated that her mother told her, "Let Rosa be the one. White people aren't going to bother Rosa—her skin is lighter than yours, and they like her."

Assata Shakur

Assata Shakur, a.k.a. Joanne Deborah Chesimard, was a former Black Panther and Black Liberation Army activist. In 1973, Shakur was pulled over by New Jersey state troopers, shot twice, and charged with allegedly killing a police officer and several other alleged crimes. Law enforcement was trying to put her behind bars for months prior because of her association with those civil rights political groups.

She ended up serving six and a half years in prison and was brutally beaten during her time in jail. In 1979, she escaped jail with the help of Black Liberation Army members that posed as visitors and fled to Cuba. Assata was the first woman to be placed on the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists list because of her alleged charges and escaping jail. Over 30 years later and Cuba's government has still protected Shakur offering her political asylum.

A portrait of Angela Davis Photo by Unseen Histories on Unsplash

Famous Black Women Writers You Oughta Know

Maya Angelou

I'm sure that most of us all heard of the late Maya Angelou at this point in life, but did many of us know her ethics, morals, and all that she stood for? Maya Angelou was a Civil Rights activist, author of several books, and a nominated Pulitzer Prize poet. Angelou's first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, received critical applause for its depiction of sexual assault and racism. She was also a lead factor in Black feminism, and she worked with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde was a Black lesbian feminist writer, librarian, and poet-activist. Her book Sister Outsider has become one of the most recognized and studied text in Black studies, women's studies, and queer theory. Her writing voice was confrontational, direct, and she stressed that it is up to the oppressor to educate themselves. Lorde is also known for her essays about sexual identity, homophobia, feminism, sexism, and class.

Bell Hooks

Bell Hooks is an activist, feminist, educator, and the author of over three dozen exquisitely written books. Hooks is known for writing critical essays regarding social injustice and several topics about the Black community. Some of her most popular books are Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, All About Love, and my all-time favorite Salvation: Black People and Love.

Famous Black Women Figures In Sports You Oughta Know

Althea Gibson

The first Black woman to compete in the U.S. National Championship in 1951 was Althea Gibson. Gibson opened the doors for Black athletics globally trailblazing as the legendary tennis player she was. She won single titles at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958, and the Associated Press recognized her as the Female Athlete of the Year two years in a row. Gibson wasn't only excellent at tennis; in 1963, she also became a professional golfer right after winning some of her legendary tennis titles.

Wilma Rudolph

In 1960, Wilma Rudolph was named the fastest woman in the world and became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field in the same Olympic games. Rudolph used her platform championing civil rights, refusing to attend a segregated homecoming parade celebrating her victories. After she retired from track and field, Rudolph earned a degree from Tennessee State University and was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1994.

Sheryl Denise Swoopes

In 1997, Sheryl Denise Swoopes was the first player to be signed by the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA). Swoopes was nicknamed "the female Michael Jordan" because of her defensive and offensive skills on the basketball court. Over her fourteen-year WNBA career, she was a three-time Olympic gold medalist and a four-time WNBA champion. Sheryl was the first woman to have a Nike shoe named after her.

Black women have been lighting the way since the beginning of time—regardless of their setbacks, they are always known for their resilience and persistence through every storm.

Featured image by Giphy

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.


We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
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Featured image by Shutterstock

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