During your February high school history lessons, you probably learned the names Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. They’re the go-to figures that our education system picks to discuss, but even then, students only know the surface-level facts about the two leaders. But Black history needs to be taught not just one month out of the year; African American history is American history, and there are countless Black women leaders worth knowing in addition to Ms. Parks.
Black women have made countless contributions to literary, scientific, political, and artistic fields, but they hardly get recognition or even a byline in history textbooks. Here are eight black women your education failed to cover in high school.
Black Women Leaders You Should Know
Plenty learn about Frederick Douglass and his several autobiographies, the most popular being “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.” But not many hear about Phillis Wheatley, who is not only the first slave to publish a work of poetry in America, but the first African American and the third woman as well.
Born in Senegal/Gambia around 1753, she was abducted at the age of eight and sent to Boston to be sold into slavery. Despite her failing health, John Wheatley purchased her with the intention of using her as a slave to his wife, Susanna.
The couple soon realized her intelligence and aptitude for learning. Susanna and her two children taught Wheatley how to read and write, encouraging her to purse literature. They also gave her lessons in Latin, Greek, theology, and mythology.
Wheatley published her first poem at the age of only 13. The poem detailing the story of two men nearly drowning at sea was published in the Newport Mercury.
She published an anthology of her poetry named “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” thanks to the patronage of Selina Hastings, an English Countess. To prove beyond a doubt that the work was her own, a total of 17 men wrote prefaces asserting that she was the sole author. John Hancock was among those men.
Not many know that Rosa Parks was not the first woman to refuse to give up her seat to a white man on the bus. We know Parks because the leaders of the Civil Rights movement saw her arrest as the perfect opportunity to make a statement; she was a pure, upstanding citizen, and she had no history of disorderly conduct that someone could use to discredit her action. They used her arrest as the symbol to precipitate the famous bus boycott.
But ten months before Parks refused to give up her seat, young Claudette Colvin took a stand by sitting down. She refused to get up, and the 15-year-old got arrested without the opportunity to call her family.
The Black men leading the Civil Rights movement cited examples of her teenage pregnancy and rebellious behavior as something that white women and men could use to discredit the movement. They chose to wait until they could use someone with a less divisive past. As a result, Colvin was largely erased from history.
Marsha P. Johnson
Without Marsha P. Johnson, we would not have LGBTQIA rights in America today. She helped lead the gay liberation movement in NYC to protest police oppression, unfair treatment, and discrimination. She helped make safe spaces for homeless LGBTQ youth and advocated for the humanization of prisoners, HIV/AIDS patients, and sex workers.
She was instrumental in the Stonewall Riots, and those who knew her talked about her unapologetic smile and kindness. She was a transgender drag performer and sex worker and was proud of who she was. Her goal in life was to help people like her have the freedom to be who they are.
Mae Jemison was the first black woman to travel to space, and also the first actor on Star Trek who had ever really been to space!
At only 16, she started attending Stanford University to get her degree in chemical engineering. She earned her doctorate in medicine in 1981 from Cornell University.
NASA selected her for the astronaut program in 1987, and she officially entered space in 1992 with the Space Shuttle Endeavour acting as a science mission specialist. Despite her admitted fear of heights, she logged 190 hours, 30 minutes, 23 seconds in space.
Jemison said that seeing the character Uhura, a black translator and communications officer on the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek, as a little girl inspired her to pursue space travel. LeVar Burton heard this message from a mutual friend and encouraged her to take a speaking role on the show.
Author and activist Angela Davis played a major role in the Civil Rights movement and still speaks out against injustices including gender inequality, prison corruption, and racial discrimination today.
She grew up experiencing discrimination and was close to the four little girls killed in the infamous Birmingham church bombing. She organized interracial study groups as a teenager, and they routinely got broken up by the police.
She taught at the University of California, but due to her connection to Communism, they tried to fire her. She fought for her right to teach in court and won.
She vocalized against racial injustices in the prison system and worked to free the Soledad brothers – the name given to three prison inmates accused of killing a prison guard after another guard killed several African American inmates. It was believed they were being used as scapegoats in prison politics.
During the trial in an escape attempt, several people in the court ended up dead. She was arrested and charged with murder, but represented herself and cleared her name after 18 months in jail.
She continued to teach at the collegiate level until her retirement in 2008, but she still continues to teach countless readers and protesters with her writing and speeches.
She’s featured in 13th, the Netflix documentary on the corruption of the US prison system and its role in modernizing slavery.
Many people think of Alyssa Milano as the founder of the #MeToo movement, as she made the Tweet that started the social media takeover of the Me Too hashtag.
However, Tarana Burke coined the phrase ten years earlier.
While she got credit on the cover of Time’s Magazine and is credited as the founder of the movement, her work as a leader gets largely erased from the story. While Milano started the conversation about Harvey Weinstein’s abuse in the entertainment industry, she took the words from Burke. The work Burke did to speak out against the sexual abuse and injustices colored girls experience gets largely erased from the story as the conversation pivoted from underprivileged girls in poverty to famous millionaires in entertainment.
She currently acts as the senior director of a Brooklyn non-profit called Girls for Gender Equity. She works tirelessly to help marginalized communities of colored women overcome the trauma of systematic abuse.
An acclaimed writer across genres, Gay masters the art of short stories, essays, articles, poetry, and novels. She possesses a voice with wit and power.
She writes routinely for the New York Times as an opinion writer and even wrote for Marvel in “World of Wakanda.” She’s taught at Eastern Illinois University, Purdue University, and Yale University.
A review from her early work discusses her inclusive and direct style. Her writing gives the reader insight and compassion for the social issues she discusses.
While the representation of women in STEM is lacking, the amount of black women in STEM is even more disheartening. Bryant gets young black girls excited about technology early on through her organization Black Girls Code.
After a career in engineering, she founded the organization in 2011 to give girls of color the chance to experience different technologies and learn practical skills like coding through various workshops and consistent after-school programs.
History Without African American Women Is Not American History
Each one of these Black women leaders stands as a reminder to black women and girls everywhere that they too have the power to leave their mark on history. They remind white women and men that the history of the United States is incomplete when we choose not to include the stories of African American women.
We need to reform education curriculum across the country so Black women leaders are not confined to a short unit for one month out the year. And we also need to take the time as individuals to educate ourselves on the accomplishments of these powerful women as well as Black culture as a whole.
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