With the announcement of the passing of Dr. Dorothy I. Height (Civil Rights leader, long-time President of National Council of Negro Women), I found myself both dismayed by the lack of familiarity my peers showed for her and the seemingly brief discussion of her life. She was a visionary and continued to influence change for our larger community, but most importantly for African-American Women.
With her passing, I saw something that happens once we lose a leader: my generation begins to acknowledge the contributions of women of color (most notably African-American) to our cause for civil rights. I’ve decided to do a quick post of influential African-American women and their most notable accomplishment. I hope that you all learn something from this.
-Miss C. Jayne.
Dr. Dorothy I. Height – (March 24, 1912 – April 20, 2010) was an African American administrator, educator, and social activist. She was the president of the National Council of Negro Women for forty years, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994, and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004.
ROSA PARKS, who is often called “The Mother of the Freedom Movement,” triggered the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-56) when she refused to give up her seat a Jim Crow bus.
DAISY BATES(November 11, 1914 in Huttig, Arkansas – November 4, 1999 in Little Rock, Arkansas) was an American civil rights activist, publisher and writer who played a leading role in the Little Rock integration crisis of 1957. She received the Spingarn medal because of her contributions to the cause.
PATRICIA R. HARRIS (1924-1985) was the first Black woman cabinet member (secretary of housing and urban development, 1976) and the first Black woman ambassador. She was also the first Black to hold two cabinet positions.
LENA HORNE, America’s first real Black movie star, was featured in numerous films and was a popular nightclub singer in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. She paved the way for Black men and women in Hollywood and was an active foe of discrimination.
SHIRLEY CHISHOLM was the first Black woman in Congress. Elected in 1968 from Brooklyn, she became in 1972 the first Black to organize a serious campaign for president.
JOSEPHINE BAKER (1906-1975), St. Louis-born singer and entertainer, became an international star and captivated audiences in Europe and America. She also focused attention on U.S. racism.
MARGARET WALKER ALEXANDER, poet, novelist and educator, is best known for her influential poem, For Aly People, and for her critically acclaimed novel Jubilee.
MARIAN ANDERSON (1902-1993) was a major concert artist and the first Black singer signed by the Metropolitan Opera. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in A Masked Ball in 1955.
MAYA ANGELOU, poet, author (I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings) and social commentator, electrified the nation with her reading of the poem she wrote for the inauguration of President Bill Clinton.
MARY McLEOD BETHUNE (1875-1955), the first Black woman to receive a major U.S. government appointment, was the mentor and mother-figure for generations of Black male and female leaders.
GWENDOLYN BROOKS was the first Black American to in a Pulitzer Prize. She was cited in 1950 for her collection of poems, Annie Allen. The Chicago-based writer has been a mentor to generations of writers.
DOROTHY DANDRIDGE (1922-1965), Hollywood’s first Black sex symbol, was the first African-American to earn an Academy Award nomination for best actress. She was cited for her performance in Carmen Jones.
ELIZABETH CATLETT has been called the dean of Black women artists. The painter and sculptor has won many awards for her interpretations of the struggles and triumphs of African-Americans.
RITA DOVE became the first Black poet laureate of the United States in 1993. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for her book of poetry, Thomas and Beulah.
KATHERINE DUNHAM, internationally renowned choreographer and dancer, made the world recognize the unique rhythms of African-American dance. Her work laid the foundation for contemporary Black dancers.
MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN, the founder and chair of the Children’s Defense Fund, is the major advocate for American children of all races and genders.
ELLA FITZGERALD helped redefine American popular singing and was in the front ranks of the entertainment industry in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.
ARETHA FRANKLIN, who made R-E-S-P-E-C-T a national anthem, is a perennial favorite who won the 1994 Kennedy Center Honors Award for her contribution to the world of music.
MYRLIE EVERS, an integral part of a historic team, played a major role in the Medgar Evers story and led the successful struggle, to bring his assassin to justice.
LORRAINE HANSBERRY (1930-1965), an uncompromising foe of racism, was the first African-American woman to write a Broadway play (A Raisin In The Sun).
BARBARA HARRIS, the first woman bishop in the Episcopal Church, was consecrated in the Massachusetts diocese in 1989 and became an international symbol of the struggle for gender equality in the church.
ANITA HILL, a law professor and activist, became the defining symbol of the Sexual Harassment Movement and was centrally important in redefining the role of women in politics and business.
ALTHEA GIBSON, who broke the color barrier in professional tennis, was the first Black to win the U.S. Tennis Association Championship (1957) and the Wimbledon singles’ title (1957).
ZORA NEALE HURSTON (1901?-1960), anthropologist, novelist and pioneer scholar of Negro folklore, was one of the most widely read authors of the ’40s. She later became a major symbol of women’s liberation.
HAZEL JOHNSON, the first Black woman general, was appointed brigadier general in the U.S. Army on Sept. 1, 1979. General Johnson retired from the Army in 1983.
FANNIE LOU HAMER (I.) (1917-1977) was a major figure of the Freedom Movement and the pivotal Freedom Democratic Party. ELLA BAKER (1903-1986) helped organize the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
MAHALILA JACKSON (1911-1972) transcended her field and became a national treasure. The internationally known singer helped make gospel music an integral part of the American vocabulary.
BARBARA JORDAN, one of America’s most admired women, was the first Black Southern congresswoman and the first Black to give a keynote address at a major party convention (1976).
JACKIE JOYNER-KERSEE was the first woman to win back-to-back gold medals in Olympic heptathlon competition in the 1988 and 1992 Games. She has been called the world’s greatest woman athlete.
LEONTINE T. C. KELLEY, the first Black woman bishop of a major U.S. denomination, was named bishop of the United Methodist Church in 1984. She retired in 1988.
SHARON PRATT KELLY, the first Black woman mayor of a major American city, was elected mayor of Washington, D.C., in 1990. She is a lawyer and former utility company executive.
TONI MORRISON, novelist and essayist, was the first Black American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. She was cited in 1986 for her novel Beloved.
CAROL MOSELEY-BRAUN, the first Black Democratic senator and the first Black woman in the U.S. Senate, helped redefine the role of the American woman in politics and national leadership.
MAE C. JEMISON became the first African-American woman to travel into outer space on Sept. 12, 1992. The physician/astronaut was one of the seven-member crew aboard the NASA space shuttle Endeavor.
CORETTA SCOTT KING, a partner in the Martin Luther King Jr., story, and the longtime head of the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, led the movement for a national holiday in honor of her slain husband.
HAZEL O’LEARY is the first Black woman to hold a cabinet position outside traditional fields. She was named secretary of energy by President Clinton.
RACHEL ROBINSON, the other half of the team that gave us the first Black player in major league baseball in modern times, keeps the dream alive as head of the Jackie Robinson Foundation.
WILMA RUDOLPH (1940-1994), the first woman to in three gold medals in track and field in a single Olympiad, triumphed in the 100- and 200-meter dashes and the 400-meter relay in 1960.
EDITH SAMPSON (1901-1979) was the first Black delegate to the United Nations. The Chicago attorney was also the first Black to hold an appointment with NATO.
BETTY SHABAZZ was an integral part of the Malcolm X story. After her husband’s assassination, she became an education administrator and the keeper of his flame.
MABEL K. STAUPERS (1890-1980) almost single handedly changed the status of Negro nurses in World War II and afterwards helped integrate Black nurses into major organizations.
CONSTANCE BAKER MOTLEY, the first Black woman federal judge, was a member of the historic team of attorneys who won the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that ended legal segregation in public schools.
CICELY TYSON, actress and activist, helped redefine the Black woman – and the White woman – and gave a new impetus to the movement for cultural change.
SARAH VAUGHAN (1924-1990) helped redefine popular singing in America and was a major cultural icon in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.
LEONTYNE PRICE, the first Black international diva, paved the way for classical artists Kathleen Battle, Jessye Norman and other African-American opera stars. Some critics said she was the greatest soprino of her era.
ALICE WALKER. novelist, essayist, poet and leader of the women’s movement, won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1983 for her book The Color Purple.
FAYE WATTLETON, the former president of the Planned Parenthood federation of American, almost singlehandedly redefined critical women’s issues in the ’70s and ’80s.
OPRAH WINFREY, actress and producer, redefined the talk-show format and day-time television. she is one of the most powerful women in entertainment.