Eight black women who helped change America

Collage Credit: Branden Padilla / The Foothill Dragon Press

Collage Credit: Branden Padilla / The Foothill Dragon Press

Branden Padilla

February is Black History Month. During this time, we celebrate figures of the civil rights movement, literature, entertainment and so forth that have influenced the current status of life for African Americans and the world as a whole. Here are eight remarkable, and sometimes forgotten, women who have helped shape America today.


1) Claudette Colvin

With a story similar to Rosa Park’s, she is often forgotten in the world of the civil rights movement. At age 15, Colvin was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger. Due to the fact that she was a teen mother and only 15, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) thought better to leave her story in the dark until now.

2) Marsha P. Johnson

Marsha P. Johnson was an African American trans woman, drag queen, sex worker and gay liberation activist. She was a prominent figure in New York’s drag scene in the early 60’s. Marsha founded STAR: Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries in 1970 which was a transgender rights group and also had a shelter for homeless transgender teens and drag queens. The organization also fought for the inclusion of transgender people under the umbrella of gay rights. She was also a leader and the person to start the Stonewall riots.

3) Katherine G. Johnson

Katherine G. Johnson is known for calculating launch codes for multiple NASA operations. While co-authoring 26 papers, she served as a pioneer for space science, computing and the STEM program for black women everywhere. Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 for her services and is the inspiration for the movie “Hidden Figures.”

4) Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley lived a short but important life from 1753 – 1784. After being kidnapped and sold into slavery, Wheatley emerged less than twenty years later as the first published African American poet. She was fluent in English, Greek and Latin. Despite her success as a poet, her fate was still at the hands of her owners. Wheatley, unknown to her owners, wrote almost daily up until the day of her death leaving a legacy of excellence and intelligence.

5)  Madam C.J. Walker

Madame C.J. Walker became the first black woman in American history to amass a fortune of more than a million dollars. Walker saw an immense need for ways to improve the personal self-esteem of African American women. While making money on the side of her job as a laundress, Walker was a hairdresser for other black women. She invented a metal comb that could flatten curly hair. In 1905, by experimenting with existing products, she created a chemical compound to condition blacks’ hair. Over time her empire grew along with the list of her products such as facial products, hair adornments and etiquette tips, while also founding one of the largest and best-known beauty schools in the nation.

6) Dorothy Height

After being denied her admittance into her dream college because of the color of her skin, Dorothy Height went on to fight racial discrimination for years. She received her master’s degree at another college and she went on to teach at the Brownsville Community Center in Brooklyn. She worked with the council for United Civil Rights Leadership and on a welfare committee for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She played a vital role lobbying for new laws and regulations to help pave the path for racial equality.

7) Fannie Lou Hamer

During the 1920s, Hamer’s family was the poorest of the poor, as her parents were victims of sharecropping. On an August day in 1962, Hamer was fed up of sharecropping and took a stand against her boss; she decided to exercise her right to vote. After trying three times to vote, she was shot and gave up. After being arrested with her local protestors, she described her time in jail as pure torture. When her injuries healed enough for her to return to her activist work, she went back without hesitation. The biggest civil rights activists of the time, ( Martin Luther King Jr, Andrew Young) looked to her as an inspiration for their work, inspiring great change in the world. She later on died from the injuries she sustained from the short stay in jail.

8) Florence Griffith Joyner

Florence Griffith Joyner became a women’s record holder, winning three gold medals and one silver in one Olympic game. After racing for UCLA, she quickly became a track star and went on to win two NCAA track competitions in 1982 and ‘83. She was the image of success and determination in the black community and an inspiration for many. Joyner also designed her own clothing line, which she wore during her competitions.

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