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 DavisPhoto 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 areAin't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, All About Love, and my all-time favoriteSalvation: 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

When I was ten, my Sunday school teacher put on a brief performance in class that included some of the boys standing in front of the classroom while she stood in front of them holding a heart shaped box of chocolate. One by one, she tells each boy to come and bite a piece of candy and then place the remainder back into the box. After the last boy, she gave the box of now mangled chocolate over to the other Sunday school teacher — who happened to be her real husband — who made a comically puzzled face. She told us that the lesson to be gleaned from this was that if you give your heart away to too many people, once you find “the one,” that your heart would be too damaged. The lesson wasn’t explicitly about sex but the implication was clearly present.

That memory came back to me after a flier went viral last week, advertising an abstinence event titled The Close Your Legs Tour with the specific target demo of teen girls came across my Twitter timeline. The event was met with derision online. Writer, artist, and professor Ashon Crawley said: “We have to refuse shame. it is not yours to hold. legs open or not.” Writer and theologian Candice Marie Benbow said on her Twitter: “Any event where 12-17-year-old girls are being told to ‘keep their legs closed’ is a space where purity culture is being reinforced.”

“Purity culture,” as Benbow referenced, is a culture that teaches primarily girls and women that their value is to be found in their ability to stay chaste and “pure”–as in, non-sexual–for both God and their future husbands.

I grew up in an explicitly evangelical house and church, where I was taught virginity was the best gift a girl can hold on to until she got married. I fortunately never wore a purity ring or had a ceremony where I promised my father I wouldn’t have pre-marital sex. I certainly never even thought of having my hymen examined and the certificate handed over to my father on my wedding day as “proof” that I kept my promise. But the culture was always present. A few years after that chocolate-flavored indoctrination, I was introduced to the fabled car anecdote. “Boys don’t like girls who have been test-driven,” as it goes.

And I believed it for a long time. That to be loved and to be desired by men, it was only right for me to deny myself my own basic human desires, in the hopes of one day meeting a man that would fill all of my fantasies — romantically and sexually. Even if it meant denying my queerness, or even if it meant ignoring how being the only Black and fat girl in a predominantly white Christian space often had me watch all the white girls have their first boyfriends while I didn’t. Something they don’t tell you about purity culture – and that it took me years to learn and unlearn myself – is that there are bodies that are deemed inherently sinful and vulgar. That purity is about the desire to see girls and women shrink themselves, make themselves meek for men.

Purity culture isn’t unlike rape culture which tells young girls in so many ways that their worth can only be found through their bodies. Whether it be through promiscuity or chastity, young girls are instructed on what to do with their bodies before they’ve had time to figure themselves out, separate from a patriarchal lens. That their needs are secondary to that of the men and boys in their lives.

It took me a while —after leaving the church and unlearning the toxic ideals around purity culture rooted in anti-Blackness, fatphobia, heteropatriarchy, and queerphobia — to embrace my body, my sexuality, and my queerness as something that was not only not sinful or dirty, but actually in line with the vision God has over my life. Our bodies don't stop being our temples depending on who we do or who we don’t let in, and our worth isn’t dependent on the width of our legs at any given point.

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