27 Black Women Activists Everyone Should Know

The contributions of Black women to shaping and changing the world for the better are often minimized. At every moment in history, Black women have worked alongside their more famous male conterparts. We've assembled a list of just a few of the women for whom we are grateful.

Ella Baker

Ella Baker began her involvement with the NAACP in 1940. She worked as a field secretary and then served as director of branches from 1943 until 1946.

In 1957, Baker moved to Atlanta to help organize Martin Luther King's new organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). She also ran a voter registration campaign called the Crusade for Citizenship.

On February 1, 1960, a group of black college students from North Carolina A&T University refused to leave a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina where they had been denied service.

Baker left the SCLC after the Greensboro sit-ins. She wanted to assist the new student activists because she viewed young, emerging activists as a resource and an asset to the movement. Miss Baker organized a meeting at Shaw University for the student leaders of the sit-ins in April 1960. From that meeting, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee -- SNCC -- was born.

Josephine Baker

Not only was Josephine Baker a beloved entertainer who rose to fame on the stages of Paris because racism held her back in the U.S., but she visited the states in the '50s and '60s to help fight segregation. She even adopted children of different ethnicities and religions to create a multicultural family she called "The Rainbow Tribe."

Daisy Bates

Daisy Bates was born on November 11, 1914, in Huttig, Arkansas. She married journalist Christopher Bates and they operated a weekly African-American newspaper, the Arkansas State Press. Bates became president of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP and played a crucial role in the fight against segregation. In 1952, she headed the Arkansas branch of the NAACP and helped in the desegregation of schools in Little Rock. She documented in her book The Long Shadow of Little Rock: A Memoir. She died in 1999.

Mary McLeod Bethune

Mary McLeod Bethune was a racial justice activist who sought to improve educational opportunities for African-Americans. She is best known for starting a school for African-American students in Daytona Beach, Florida, that eventually became Bethune-Cookman University. She also served as both president of the National Association of Colored Women and founder of the National Council of Negro Women.

Beverly Bond

It was only five years ago that the model-turned-DJ created the nonprofit organization Black Girls Rock! Her goal was to build the self-esteem of young women of color by offering mentorship and enrichment through arts programs. Last fall the organization teamed up with Black Entertainment Television to create a Black Girls Rock! show that drew 2.5 million viewers and honored trailblazers such as Ruby Dee, Missy Elliot and Iyanla Vanzant.

Elaine Brown

In April 1968, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Junior, Elaine Brown attended her first meeting of the Los Angeles chapter of the Black Panther Party. Brown assumed power from Huey Newton, founder and minister of defense, in 1974, when Newton fled the country, appointing Brown as his successor. Brown maintained control until 1977, when Newton returned from his self-imposed exile in Cuba to face the murder charges of which he was later acquitted.

Brown's leadership was met with hostility by the predominantly male rank-and-file membership, butBrown continued to develop and expand services to the community, such as the free-breakfast program, free legal and medical clinics, and the Oakland Community Learning Center, which was recognized by the city of Oakland for academic excellence. (Source)

Majora Carter

Carter received a MacArthur "genius grant" for creating green-collar job training and placement in urban areas. She also had the vision to see the Bronx River, near her blighted Hunts Point neighborhood in New York City, as a resource to revitalize her community and create green jobs. Her work was instrumental in the opening of Hunts Point Riverside Park in 2007, the area's first waterfront park in 60 years. Today she heads an eponymous consulting firm focused on urban revitalization and green-collar jobs.

Shirley Chisholm

Shirley Chisholm was the first black woman to be elected to Congress, winning in New York in 1968 and retiring from office in 1983. She campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972, but is best known for her work on several Congressional committees throughout her career. A feisty politician, Chisholm has also been recognized in popular culture and in the political and academic worlds for her symbolic importance and career achievements.

Septima Clark

A pioneer in grassroots citizenship education, Septima Clark was called the ‘‘Mother of the Movement’’ and the epitome of a ‘‘community teacher, intuitive fighter for human rights and leader of her unlettered and disillusioned people." For more than 30 years, she taught throughout South Carolina. She participated in a class action lawsuit filed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that led to pay equity for black and white teachers in South Carolina. In 1956 South Carolina passed a statute that prohibited city and state employees from belonging to civil rights organizations. After 40 years of teaching, Clark’s employment contract was not renewed when she refused to resign from the NAACP.

By the time of her firing in1956, Clark had already begun to conduct workshops during her summer vacations at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, a grassroots education center dedicated to social justice.

When the state of Tennessee forced Highlander to close in 1961, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) established the Citizenship Education Program (CEP), modeled on Clark’s citizenship workshops. (source)

Anna Julia Cooper

Born in 1858 in North Carolina to her enslaved mother, Hannah Stanley Haywood, and her white slaveholder, Anna Julia Cooper spent her lifetime of over a century redefining the limitations and opportunities for women of color in a society set up for their disempowerment and subjugation. A distinguished scholar and educator, Cooper saw the status and agency of black women as central to the equality and progress of the nation. She famously wrote in her 1892 book A Voice from the South , “only the BLACK WOMAN can say when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.” She fought tirelessly throughout her life to re-center and uplift the voice of black women in pursuit of a more just society for everyone. (source)

Angela Davis

Angela Davis, born on January 26, 1944, in Birmingham, Alabama, became a master scholar who studied at the Sorbonne. She joined the U.S. Communist Party and was jailed for charges related to a prison outbreak, though ultimately cleared. Known for books like Women, Race, & Class, she has worked as a professor and activist who advocates gender equity, prison reform and alliances across color lines. (source)

Marian Wright Edelman

Marian Wright Edelman became the first African American woman to pass the bar exam in Mississippi. She is a graduate of Spelman College and Yale Law School. She directed the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund office in Jackson, Mississippi. Edelman has written numerous works on racial inequality, and founded the Children's Defense Fund in which she has been an advocate for disadvantaged Americans.

Amy Ashwood Garvey

Amy Ashwood, feminist, playwright, lecturer, and pan-Africanist, was one of the founding members of the Universal Negro Improvement Association in Jamaica, and the first wife of Marcus Garvey. Ashwood was born in Port Antonio, Jamaica, and spent several years of her childhood in Panama. She returned to Jamaica to attend high school and met Marcus Garvey at a debating society program in July 1914, when she was seventeen years old. Ashwood became the first secretary and a member of the board of management of the newly formed U.N.I.A. in 1914 - 1915. She worked with Garvey in organizing the inaugural meeting in Collegiate Hall in Kingston, the weekly Tuesday night elocution meetings, and the office that was soon established in a house on Charles Street rented by the Ashwood family. She also helped to establish the Ladies' auxiliary wing of the movement and was involved in early plans to build an industrial school. (source)

Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer helped register Blacks to vote in Mississippi and worked for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which focused on racial segregation and injustice in the South. She was instrumental in organizing Mississippi Freedom Summer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and later became the Vice-Chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, attending the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in that capacity. Her plain-spoken manner and fervent belief in the Biblical righteousness of her cause gained her a reputation as an electrifying speaker and constant activist of civil rights.

Dorothy Height

A young leader in the National Youth Movement of the New Deal era and a YWCA caseworker in Harlem in 1937 Dorothy Height caught the attention of Mary McLeod Bethune who encouraged her to join the National Council of Negro Women's effort to seek equal rights, pay and education for women. She joined the national staff of the YWCA in 1944 and remained active there until 1977; her official affiliation with NCNW continued through the late 1990s, including serving as its president in 1957.

Height's leadership work in civil rights progressed from her early work in Harlem and a first of many meetings with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1930s, to encouraging President Eisenhower to desegregate schools in the 1950s, speaking alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., and, in the 1960s, organizing integrated women partnerships with a public presence in the schools, known as 'Wednesdays in Mississippi.' Her humanitarian work continued in later decades at the international level as well, advising and traveling with programs sponsored by the Council to the White House Conference, UNESCO, the Institute on Human Relations of the American Jewish Committee, USAID, and the United States Information Agency, among others. (source)

Claudia Jones

Claudia Jones, feminist, black nationalist, political activist, community leader, communist and journalist, has been described as the mother of the Notting Hill carnival. The diversity of her political affiliations clearly illustrated her multifaceted approach to the struggle for equal rights in the 20th century.

For over 30 years she lived in New York and during this time became an active member of the American Communist party, an organisation in which her journalistic and community leadership skills were maximised. By 1948 she had become the editor of Negro Affairs for the party's paper the Daily Worker and had evolved into an accomplished speaker on human and civil rights.

In 1955 she was deported from the US and given asylum in England, where she spent her remaining years working with London's African-Caribbean community. She founded and edited The West Indian Gazette which despite financial problems remained crucial in her fight for equal opportunities for black people.

She chaired the CPUSA's National Women's Commission, was a leader in the National Peace Council and was the editor of Negro Affairs, the publication of the party's National Negro Commission.

Flo Kennedy

Flo Kennedy was one of only a handful of black, women students admitted to Columbia Law School in the first half of the 20th century. She did not matriculate until she was in her 30s, and after graduation she jumped feet first into burgeoning women's movement. Flo became fierce defender of the rights of women known for her brash sense of humor and no holds barred conversation style. She was a founding member of the National Organization of Women, but soon left because of organization disagreements. Shortly after Flo founded the Feminist Party which went on to nominate Shirley Chisholm for President in 1972. She traveled the country speaking on feminist issues until her death in 2000.

Pauli Murray

In 1938 she began a campaign to enter the all-white University of North Carolina. With the support of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). However, it was not until 1951 that Floyd McKissick became the first African American to be accepted by the University of North Carolina. aIn 1941 Murray enrolled at the Howard University law school with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer. The following year she joined with George Houser, James Farmer and Bayard Rustin, to form the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

After Murray graduated from Howard University in 1944 she wanted to enroll at Harvard University to continue her law studies. In her application for a Rosenwald Fellowship, she listed Harvard as her first choice. She was awarded the prestigious fellowship but after the award had been announced, Harvard Law School rejected her because of her gender. Murray went to the University of California Boalt School of Law where she received a degree in law.

In 1956 Murray published Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family, biography of her grandparents, and their struggle with racial prejudice and a poignant portrayal of her hometown of Durham. In 1960 Murray travelled to Ghana to explore her African cultural roots. When she returned President John F. Kennedy appointed her to his Committee on Civil and Political Rights. In the early 1960s Murray worked closely with Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King but was critical of the way that men dominated the leadership of these civil rights organizations.

In 1977 Murray became the first African American woman to become a Episcopal priest. Pauli Murray died of cancer in Pittsburgh on 1st July, 1985. (source)

Diane Nash

Born in 1938, in Chicago, Illinois, Nash left Chicago to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C., but transferred a year later to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where she majored in English.

In 1960 Nash attended the founding meeting of SNCC in Raleigh, North Carolina. In 1961 SNCC began supporting 10 students in Rock Hill, South Carolina, who were involved in protest activities and refused to post bail after being arrested. Shortly after arriving in Rock Hill, Nash and three other activists were also jailed for requesting service at a segregated lunch counter.

During the spring of 1961 Nash played a crucial role in sustaining Freedom Rides initiated by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). From her base in Nashville, she coordinated student efforts to continue the rides into Mississippi and served as a liaison between the press and the United States Department of Justice. Tensions developed between King and SNCC members, including Nash, when King refused to participate in the Freedom Rides himself.

After her leadership role in the Freedom Rides, Nash became head of SNCC’s direct action campaigns during the summer of 1961. (source)

Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks's refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus led to an organized boycott and the city's removal of bus segregation. By the time she lit the match for the Montgomery Movement, Rosa had spent years working with the NAACP. She was an investigator for the brutal rape of Recy Taylor. Rosa was far more radical than she has been historically portrayed. She was a life long activist for the struggle for Civil Rights in the United States.

Jo Ann Robinson

In Montgomery Alabama, Robinson was active in the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and the Women’s Political Council (WPC). In 1949 Robinson suffered a humiliating experience on a nearly empty public bus, when the driver ordered her off for having sat in the fifth row. When she became WPC president in 1950, Robinson made the city’s segregated bus seating one of the top priorities of the organization. The WPC made repeated complaints about seating practices and driver conduct to the Montgomery City Commission. After the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Robinson informed the city’s mayor that a bus boycott might ensue if bus service did not improve, but negotiations had yielded little success by late 1955. After Rosa Parks’ arrest in December 1955, Robinson seized the opportunity to put the long-considered protest into motion. Late that night, she, two students, and John Cannon, chairman of the Business Department at Alabama State, mimeographed and distributed approximately 52,500 leaflets calling for a boycott of the buses.

Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin

Ruffin was born August 31, 1842 into one of Boston's leading black families. In 1858, at the age of 15, she became the wife of George Lewis Ruffin, the first African American to graduate from Harvard Law School. During the Civil War Ruffin was involved in various civil rights causes, charity work, and the women's suffrage movement. In 1879 she established the Boston Kansas Relief Association, a charity organization that provided food and clothing to black Bostonians who were migrating to Kansas. Her philanthropic work brought her in contact with many eminent white and black leaders and her close friends included William Lloyd Garrison, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Booker T. Washington.

From 1890 to 1897 Ruffin served as the editor and publisher of Woman's Era, the first newspaper published by and for African American women. It was used to highlight the achievements of African American women and to champion black women's rights.

In 1894 she organized the Women's Era Club, an advocacy group for black women, with the help of her daughter Florida Ridely and Maria Baldwin, a Boston school principal.

Ruffin died on March 13, 1924. (source)

Maria Stewart

Born free in Boston, Maria Stewart was orphaned at five years old and hired out as a domestic. As a young woman, Maria met David Walker, author of AN APPEAL TO THE COLORED PEOPLE OF THE WORLD, a controversial and well-read treatise against slavery. After Walker's death in 1830, Maria carried on his legacy. She wrote articles for THE LIBERATOR, an abolitionist newspaper, published anti-slavery tracts, and became the first American woman to speak in public.

Maria, who was largely self-taught, stressed the importance of morality and self-improvement to her audiences. In addition to religion, she insisted that blacks pursue education. When "knowledge would begin to flow," she wrote, "the chains of slavery and ignorance would melt like wax before flames." Maria went on to become a public school teacher in New York and the founder of schools in Baltimore and D.C. Her dedication to fighting black oppression through teaching, writing, and speaking was relentless. (source)

Mary Church Terrell

In 1884, Mary received her bachelor’s degree at Oberlin College in Ohio. She was one of the first African American women to be awarded a college degree. She went on to teach at a black high school in Washington and then at Wilberforce College in Ohio. Terrell decided to leave the United States and went to study in Europe for two years. She became fluent in French, German, and Italian.

Terrell was appointed to the District of Columbia Board of Education in 1895. She was the first black woman in the United States to hold such an honored position. She was a charter member of the National Association of Colored Women and became the first president of the organization in 1897. Terrell helped in finding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She founded the association with Josephine Ruffin in 1896. Mary Church Terrell became well known for her resistance of racial segregation and her support of women’s suffrage.

In 1918, Terrell resigned as a French instructor from Howard University. She actively accepted a position for a special department under the Playground and Recreation Association of America. It was for the war and navy department commission on training camp activities. (source)

Sojourner Truth

Former slave, abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Sojourner Truth, born Isabella, spent the last twenty-six years of her life in Michigan. Truth was bought and sold four times and spent the first twenty-nine years of her life as a slave in New York, performing demanding physical labor.

Truth joined the religious revivals occurring in New York State in the early 19th century and became a powerful and charismatic speaker. In 1843, she had a spiritual breakthrough and declared that the Spirit called on her to preach the truth and gave her a new name, Sojourner Truth. Although she never learned to read or write, with the help of a friend she published her life and beliefs in 1850 in the Narrative of Sojourner Truth, which brought her national recognition.

In 1851, Truth went on a nation-wide lecture tour. She gave her most famous speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?” at a woman’s rights conference in Akron, Ohio, in 1851, where all of the other speakers were men.

When the Civil War started, Truth traveled through many states in support of the Union and encouraged many young men to join the Union cause. After the war ended, Truth met with Abraham Lincoln to thank him for helping to end slavery. While in Washington, D.C., Truth lobbied against segregation laws, playing an instrumental role in desegregating streetcars. While in D.C., she helped recently freed slaves become settled in a new life. She also worked in Virginia for a while, helping freed slaves find jobs. She advised them to use their freedom in responsible ways and prove their value to society through industrious work. (source)

Harriet Tubman

As one of American history’s most prominent figures, Harriet Tubman was responsible for rescuing around 300 former slaves from the South and escorting them to freedom via the underground railroads that led to Maryland. At one point, a $40,000 reward was being offered for her arrest. Tubman was also a spy during her life. She died in New York in 1913.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett’s life was dedicated to ending horrible injustices against African-Americans. She traveled the country, speaking and writing about civil rights issues, unfair laws, and crimes against blacks. As more and more civil rights laws were ignored by society in the late 1800s, she became increasingly involved in politics to stop the trend of social injustice. She was instrumental in the fight against lynching, proving that these acts were essentially murders of innocent black men, women, and children, and boldly demanded that their white murderers be held responsible for their crimes. Later in life, she also founded or was involved in the creation of several organizations encouraging the advancement of women and other minorities. (source)

Maya Wiley

After years working for civil rights and social-justice organizations that include the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Open Society Institute, Wiley started the Center for Social Inclusion to address the public policies that have led to socioeconomic disparities. The organization, which works to dismantle structural racism and inequity, is currently collaborating with black farmers in South Carolina to help build farmers markets, as well as with education advocates in Mississippi to help shape funding decisions.

Kimberly Foster is the founder and editor of For Harriet. Email or Follow @KimberlyNFoster

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