The month of February pays tribute to and celebrates the triumphs of African Americans in United States history. Dating back to 1926, historian Carter G. Woodson introduced “Negro History Week,” which later officially became Black History Month in 1976, and has since been celebrated every year. In honor of Black History Month, WEP is commemorating the contributions of six pioneering African American women, who not only shaped history, but also paved the way for women and girls everywhere for generations to come.
Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)
Isabella Baumfree, better known as Sojourner Truth, was a powerhouse activist, author, and abolitionist. Born into slavery, she managed to escape to freedom in 1826 and spent the rest of her life fighting for the equal rights of women and the freedom of Black Americans. Her speech “Ain't I A Woman?” – where Sojourner addressed the intersection between women’s suffrage and Black rights – is recognized and remembered as one of the most powerful moments of the early women’s liberation movement.
Harriet B. Tubman (circa 1820-1913)
In 1849, Harriet Tubman escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad – a network of people offering shelter and aid to escaped enslaved people from the South. Despite becoming free, Harriet was not satisfied or happy with her new life as her family and friends remained enslaved. Making her way back South, Tubman became, to date, the most famous Underground Railroad conductor in history. Not only did she lead her loved ones to freedom, but she established her own Underground Railroad network and is believed to have personally emancipated at least seventy enslaved people. During the Civil War she worked as a nurse, cook and laundress and assisted fugitive enslaved people, and later became head of an espionage and scout network for the Union Army. After the war, she focused her efforts on women’s suffrage, working alongside Susan B. Anthony, as well as opening the Harriet Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent Colored People.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931)
A talented writer, Ida Wells-Barnett was a vocal opponent of the injustices faced by African Americans in the South and an outspoken advocate for women’s rights. Obtaining her freedom after the Civil War, Ida became a teacher, journalist and publisher, and went on to own two newspapers, The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight and Free Speech, which were later destroyed by a mob. Throughout her life, Wells-Barnett founded a number of organizations, including the National Association of Colored Women and the Alpha Suffrage Club, which played an important role in the passage of the Illinois Equal Suffrage Act of 1913. A Pulitzer Prize was awarded to Wells-Barnett posthumously in 2020 "for her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching."
Madam CJ Walker (1867-1919)
Born on a plantation to previously enslaved parents, Madam CJ Walker became the first self-made American woman millionaire – a result of her homemade line of hair care products for Black women. An entrepreneur, an activist, and a philanthropist, Walker used her fortune to fund scholarships for women, Black charities, and activist campaigns such as the NAACP’s anti-lynching movement. A champion of equality, she promoted female talent and encouraged the gathering of businesswomen through the Madam C. J. Walker Hair Culturists Union of America convention – the first national meetings of its kind in the country. By the time of her death, the Madame C.J. Walker Company had employed about 40,000 people, of whom were mostly Black women.
Bessie Coleman (1892-1926)
Bessie Coleman became the first woman of Native American and African American descent to earn her pilot's license. Born in a time where women, especially women of color, were discriminated against in the aviation industry, she had to cross the Atlantic to fulfill her dream of becoming a pilot. Accepted into the Caudron Brothers' School of Aviation in France, Coleman received her international pilot’s license in 1921 from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Soon after, she began performing and giving speeches, but refused to do so anywhere which discriminated or segregated against African Americans. Her goal was to open an aviation school for Black pilots, but unfortunately, before she could do so, a tragic plane accident took the pioneer’s life at 34. Since then, numerous aviation clubs have been named in her honor, commemorating her accomplishments.
Rosa Parks (1913 - 2005)
Rosa Parks made history after declining to give up her bus seat to a white male in 1955 – an era where Black people were only allowed, among other restrictions, to sit in the back of a bus; drink from separate water fountains; and attend specific schools. This act of bravery was one which inspired and helped ignite the Civil Rights Movement. Four days following Parks arrest, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The latter protested segregated seating and came to an end one year later when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation was unconstitutional. Because of her courage and tenacity, Rosa became known as “the mother of the civil rights movement.” After her passing in 2005, she became the first woman in the nation’s history to lie in honor at the U.S. Capitol.
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