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Powerful Black Women in History

Amber Brandt  |  February 10, 2020

There are countless African American women who have left their mark on history, including famous names like Rosa Parks, Oprah Winfrey, Harriet Tubman, and Maya Angelou. But we wanted to pull together a list of incredible black women you may not have heard of. These six women each made a significant contribution within their respective industries and deserve to have their stories told.

  1. Sister Rosetta Tharpe: Often called “The Godmother of Rock and Roll,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe is hailed as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Shortly after the electric guitar was created, her passion for gospel music combined with her skill and showmanship on the instrument helped to develop the genre of rock and roll as we know it today. She is said to have inspired other up-and-coming stars including Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and Little Richard.
  2. Claudette Colvin: Did you know Rosa Parks wasn’t the only African American woman to famously resist bus segregation? Claudette Colvin was actually arrested several months before Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on the bus – at just 15 years old. She also served as one of the plaintiffs in the case that ruled Montgomery, Alabama’s segregated bus system, to be in violation of the constitution. She later said “Being dragged off that bus was worth it just to see Barack Obama become president… So many others gave their lives and didn’t get to see it, and I thank God for letting me see it.”
  3. Florynce “Flo” Kennedy: According to the Huffington Post online, “Kennedy was a founding member of the National Organization of Women and one of the first black female lawyers to graduate from Columbia Law School. She helped found the Feminist Party in 1971, which later nominated Representative Shirley Chisholm for president.” She’s been called the “Black Feminist Fighter,” and asserted that she could “understand feminism [and sexism] better because of the discrimination against Black people.”
  4. Gwendolyn Brooks: The author of more than 20 poetry books, Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize for her work “Annie Allen.” She was also the first black woman appointed as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, which is now known as Poet Laureate.
  5. Bessie Coleman: Recognized as a pioneer for women in aviation, Bessie Coleman was the first black woman to earn a pilot’s license and stage a public flight in the United States, but her training actually happened in France. Since all flying schools in the U.S. had denied her entry, she taught herself French and earned her license from France’s famous Caudron Brother’s School of Aviation in just seven months! She specialized in stunt flying, aerial tricks, and parachuting.
  6. Wilma Rudolph: Even though she was stricken with polio as a child and was never expected to walk without a brace, Wilma Rudolph became a track star and was dubbed “the fastest woman in the world.” In 1960, she became the first American woman to win three gold medals at a single Olympic Games. She was also a champion for civil rights and was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.
  7. Valerie Thomas: In the late 1970s, physicist, inventor, and NASA data analyst, Valerie Thomas discovered that concave mirrors could create the illusion of 3-dimensional objects. She began experimenting with the concept and went on to create the technology that led to more advanced TV screens and 3D movies.