Black History Month is a glorious celebration of the infinite ways that Black people have influenced global culture for centuries. Our innovative and diverse cuisines, music, fashion, hairstyles, art, entertainment, and colloquialisms are often appropriated and imitated by people who value our culture more than our actual lives. But, they can and will never be able to duplicate it.
We are the progenitors of trends and lasting precedents, the barrier breakers, the peacemakers, and when we need to be, the hell raisers to make things happen. The literal chains of Black American’s ancestors begat the enduring weight of systemic racism, prejudice, and oppression on their descendants, yet we continue to rise and thrive as a phenomenal collective. This goes double for Black women; we have to navigate a patriarchal and misogynistic world and are undoubtedly the foundation of Black life and culture. Our contributions, both seen and unseen, to our families, communities, and the entire world, deserve more recognition.
Black Girls Rock/GIPHY
Yes, everyone knows that Harriet freed the bodies and minds of enslaved people. School curriculums love to throw in a quick paragraph about Rosa’s intentional stand against injustice. And we recently witnessed Kamala Harris make modern history as the Vice President of the United States of America. But there are countless Black women whose names and stories aren’t as widely known but deserve honor, respect, and reverence.
Here are a few trailblazing Black women you need to know.
Alice Coachman (1923-2014)
Black excellence in sports is nothing new. Alice Coachman laid the foundation for Black women to dominate in track and field as the first Black woman to win an Olympic goal medal in 1948. Coachman bested her opponents in the high jump, an incredible feat considering she grew up in Albany, GA where Black people couldn’t access training facilities. Her rise to fame was during a time when society largely frowned upon women in sports.
Coachman’s win later led to her being the first Black woman to become a Coca-Cola spokesperson, which put her on billboards alongside Jesse Owens. She is in the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame (1996), USA Track and Field Hall of Fame (1975), and the United States Olympic Hall of Fame (2004). Alice Coachman’s accomplishment opened doors for future track legends like Flo Jo, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and Allyson Felix.
Jane Bolin (1908-2007)
Jane Bolin’s name is synonymous with firsts in the legal arena. She’s the first Black woman to graduate Yale Law School, join the New York City Bar Association and the NYC Law Department, and become a judge in the United States. Bolin took office in 1939 on the New York City Domestic Relations Court and remained there for 40 years until her retirement.
She worked tirelessly for the rights of children and women as a legal advisor to the National Council of Negro Women. She often spoke about her experiences as the minority throughout her higher education and professional experience. But, Bolin also got to see strides of change throughout her lifetime as she made the impossible a reality for Black women.
Laura Bowman (1881-1957)
Early horror films didn’t offer many opportunities for Black characters to exist outside of a racist and problematic white gaze. But, Son of Ingagi (1940) is a groundbreaking dissention as the first sci-fi horror film with an all-Black cast. Stage and film actress Laura Bowman portrays Dr. Jackson, a scientist who is studying a monster and coming up with a potion to benefit humanity. Bowman’s role as an intelligent and curious Black woman challenged stereotypes and depicted Blackness in an authentic way.
The 2019 documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror highlighted Dr. Jackson as an important character in Black horror history. Outside of this film, Bowman’s career includes a string of leading roles in the 1930s and 1940s films including Ten Minutes to Live and Murder in Harlem. Much of her work is directed by Oscar Micheaux, an extremely successful Black filmmaker. Achievement: The Life of Laura Bowman further details the entertainer’s life up until her death in 1957.
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895)
In 1864, Rebecca Lee Crumpler, M.D. defied odds by becoming the first Black woman doctor of medicine. To put this in perspective, this is only two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by then-President Abraham Lincoln. There were still enslaved people in America, many of whom were subjects of gruesome medical experiments and tests to which they could not consent because they were seen as property.
Shortly after the Civil War’s end, Crumpler, a free born woman, went to Richmond, VA to provide medical care for formerly enslaved people. She often faced discrimination from her colleagues and pharmacies but kept her focus on helping women and children. She later moved back to Boston and treated patients with little focus on their ability to pay. In 2019, Virginia governor Ralph Northam made March 30 Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler Day.
Dr. Gladys West (1930 -)
The next time you use GPS, make sure you thank Dr. West. The mathematician and Virginia native‘s calculations and programming helped to make a geoid, a mathematical model of the Earth’s shape, which is the foundation of the GPS. In 1956, she was hired by the Naval Proving Ground (now Naval Surface Warfare Center) to analyze satellite data, doing the calculations by hand until she got into computer programming.
She later joined the Sesat project as a project manager, using satellite data to create a detailed model of Earth. This years-long research later led to the development of the GPS. Like Dr. Katherine Johnson, this hidden figure’s story only came to light in recent years with a 2018 Associated Press profile leading to an induction into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame. Interestingly, Dr. West prefers to use a map and calculate her own way to her destination instead of using a GPS.
Dianne Durham (1968-2021)
Dianne Durham paved the way for Dominique Dawes, Gabby Douglas, and Simone Biles as the first Black girl to win a USA Gymnastics national championship in 1983. She began gymnastics training at age 3, eventually leaving her Indiana hometown to start training in Houston.
After her 1983 win, Durham began to prepare for the 1984 Summer Olympics but had to pull out due to an injury. Unfortunately, she later learned that she wouldn’t have qualified due to missing an important trial competition. Durham left the sport the following year, but her impact still resonates today. Her story made national news with her passing on February 4, 2021.
Evelyn Preer (1896-1932)
Many people know about glamourous stars like Eartha Kitt and Dorothy Dandridge. But, Evelyn Preer was a star in the Black community decades before their rise to fame. Preer’s vaudeville performances led to filmmaker Oscar Micheaux casting her in his first film The Homesteader in 1919. The duo would team up for 9 more films, all of which fought against Hollywood’s portrayals of Black people.
Preer became known as “The First Lady of Screen” in Black communities as she transitioned from silent films to “talking pictures” while continuing to act on stage. She appeared in a few Paramount films, including The Framing of the Shrew, and refused to play any role that felt demeaning. Her untimely death at 26 from pneumonia brought thousands of people together to mourn and celebrate her accomplishments.
Sylvia Robinson (1936-2011)
The first major singles in hip-hop history may be from male artists but Sylvia Robinson was behind the scenes. The established singer and musician founded Sugar Hill Records alongside her husband in the 1970s. She helped to write and produce the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” which laid a foundation for modern-day rap music.
Robinson also lent those same talents to “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Sugar Hill Records disbanded in 1985 but Robinson’s lasting touch left its mark. All hail The Mother of Hip-Hop.
Hip-hop’s ascent from the streets of Harlem to a dominant genre across the globe is incredible; however, its impact goes beyond music. Rap artist’s fashion game continues to define what’s new and next with a brilliant mashup of glam and casual wear. A major force in the cultivation of this fusion is Misa Hylton, a stylist, life coach, and fashion designer. Hylton came to rise during early ’90s after crafting R&B group Jodeci’s trademark style of combat boots, hoodies, and baggy clothes to capture their soul singing with a dash of street personas. She later made world-stopping looks for Lil Kim, stretching her designing skills to develop the rapper’s trademark style.
Her work coincides with hip-hop’s rise to dominance, something that certainly isn’t coincidental. An artist’s look matters and those who catch eyes often fly high. Hylton’s Chyna Doll Enterprises made iconic looks for Aaliyah, Q-Tip, Dru Hill, and Missy Elliott among others. The mainstream fashion world frequently dismissed her designs, calling them “ghetto” until they began to emulate her style.
Hylton helped to set the standard for how future rap stars would present themselves to the world. And, she’s far from being done with recent designs in Beyonce and Jay-Z’s “Apes**t” video and western wear for Megan Thee Stallion. She’s just as legendary as anyone who steps in front of the mic.
Maria P. Williams (1866-1932)
Blackness in cinema has a complex history in America. In film’s early years, Black people were either absent altogether or portrayed as harmful stereotypes by white actors in blackface. But, Maria P. Williams set a new precedent in 1923 with The Flames of Wrath.
The activist and filmmaker was the first Black woman to write, act in, distribute, and produce a film. The Kansas City, MO native was also the assistant manager, secretary, and treasurer of The Western Film Producing Company and Booking Exchange. Unfortunately, there’s not much more information about her life; however, she set a new standard for who could develop and make films.
Ida Grey Hampton
Racism and exclusionary practices have created barriers for all Black women, including those who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing. Gallaudet University, the only liberal arts college specifically for Deaf and Hard of Hearing students, was founded back in 1864 with only white Deaf men in mind. It would take nearly 100 years for Ida Grey Hampton to be the first Black Deaf woman graduate in 1957. (Gallaudet did not admit Black Deaf students until 1950.)
Hampton earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Education; she went on to teach at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind before later earning a Master’s Degree in Special Education. She later worked in the University of North Florida’s Multi-Handicapped Department, eventually retiring in 1989. Black History is often framed through a very specific Black experience but Black Deaf people’s contributions to the culture are just as vital and transformative.
FX’s groundbreaking series Pose is a love letter to the world of ‘80s and ‘90s NYC ball culture. During this time, LGBTQ people of color would participate in balls and walk in several categories for trophies, prizes, and a taste of praise and glory. They were celebrations of extreme talent and, as Pose’s Blanca puts it, “gatherings of people who are not welcome to gather anywhere else.” The idea of balls had been around for a while but forming house collectives came from the House of LaBeija. Its founder and first mother Crystal LaBeija often faced discrimination while competing in drag competitions during the 60s and 70s. A specific instance of bias is documented in The Queen (1968) with LaBeija speaking passionately about her opponent in a recent competition.
LaBeija grew tired of this system and worked with another queen, Lottie, to start a ball for Black queens. The event was promoted as the first annual House of LaBeija ball and set the standard for having houses, a collection of found family who live together and compete in balls as a unit. They were typically comprised of LGBTQ youth who were discarded by family for being their authentic selves and (slightly) older house mothers and fathers who took them in. Ball culture continues to influence society with dance styles like voguing and phrases like “shade” and “reading” in mainstream media. The House of LaBeija still exists and Crystal LaBeija is an often-quoted legend.
Nakia Smith is making history right before our eyes on social media. Smith, a Black Deaf woman, educates her followers about Black American Sign Language (BASL). She’s in the fourth generation of a five generation deaf family with grandparents who learned the language out of necessity. Black Deaf people created BASL in the 1800s who were not able to go to segregated deaf schools.
BASL differs from ASL with other signs for certain words and more use of both hands and vernacular within Black communities. Smith, who also uses ASL, shows people how to sign certain phrases and gives candid advice about respectful interaction with Deaf and Hard of Hearing people. Her videos span far beyond entertainment; its vital work to preserve a language and to expand everyone’s knowledge about Black culture through a modern medium.
Joyce Ardell Jackson (1947-2013)
Joyce Ardell Jackson’s activism and social work helped craft the blueprint for the Americans with Disabilities Act. Jackson developed rheumatoid arthritis as a child and went through dozens of surgeries in her lifetime. During her employment at the Center for Independent Living, she attended an April 1977 disability rights sit-in at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in San Francisco.
She was one of the activists who went to Washington D.C. to meet with the Carter administration to implement section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act. This section bans discrimination against people with disabilities and requires agencies and programs that get federal funding to have proper accommodations for all employees. This later led to the Americans with Disabilities Act. Jackson also served on the board of the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities and worked as a disability counselor for non-profit organizations.
Of course, this list barely cracks the surface of great Black women who have made (and continue to make) history. There are so many whose names and stories we may never know. They may not have made local or international news for lofty accomplishments. But, these trailblazers are just a sample of the brilliance, creativity, heart, and determination that defines Black womanhood.
Originally published February 11, 2021.