February is Black History Month—which means it’s time to reflect upon the myriad of achievements made by African American individuals.
Black History Month has a storied tradition. Having originally been founded as Negro History Week in 1926 by historian Wendell G. Carter, Black History Month was first observed as we know it today in 1970 at Kent State University.
In honor of the occasion, we’re taking a look at seven African American women who made outstanding achievements throughout history.
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Shirley Chisholm, congresswoman (1924-2005)
Shirley Chisholm has the distinction of being the first black woman ever elected to the U.S. Congress. Running under the slogan “Unbought and Unbossed,” Chisholm was elected from New York’s 12th Congressional district in 1968 and served in the Congress until 1983. She ran for president in 1972, becoming the first woman to seek the Democratic Party’s nomination.
Ida B. Wells, journalist (1862-1931)
Known for her investigative reporting—which included documentation of illegal lynchings of black Americans—Ida B. Wells was a trailblazer both as a journalist and as an activist. Born into slavery, Wells knew the hardships faced by African Americans during her time. She advocated for women’s right to vote and for civil rights, and also helped found the NAACP.
Charlotta Bass, publisher (1874-1969)
Charlotta Bass is widely considered to be the first African American woman to own and operate a newspaper, having run the California Eagle, a black-owned newspaper, after the death of editor John J. Neimore. As a publisher, Bass covered political issues impacting the African American community, such as police brutality, the KKK, and housing covenants. Bass also was the first African American woman to run for national office: She was the vice presidential candidate for the Progressive Party in 1952.
Maggie Walker, banker (1864-1934)
After beginning her career as a schoolteacher, Maggie Walker in 1902 published a newspaper called the St. Luke’s Herald. Soon after, she chartered the St. Luke’s Penny Savings Bank—becoming the first African American woman to charter a bank in the U.S. In her lifetime, Walker was a strong voice in favor of women’s rights and black rights, specifically advocating for the importance of education.
Cathay Williams, soldier (1842-1893)
Enlisting under the pseudonym “William Cathay,” Cathay Williams became the first African American woman to serve in the Armed Forces when she signed up for a three-year military stint in 1866. Soon after enlisting, Williams contracted smallpox, necessitating her honorary discharge from the military. She did not give up, though: She became the only woman Buffalo Soldier, serving in a legendary African American unit during the Indian War.
Althea Gibson, professional athlete (1927-2003)
Althea Gibson was a gifted athlete who broke barriers in the world of tennis. As a tennis player, she became the first black woman to compete at the U.S. National Championship in 1950, following that up by becoming the first black woman to play in Wimbledon the following year. By 1959, Gibson has amassed 56 singles and doubles championships, including wins at the French Open, Wimbledon, and U.S. Open. Gibson also achieved success as a golfer.
Marian Anderson, singer (1897-1993)
Considered one of the most talented singers of the 20th century, Marian Anderson made history when she sang for President Franklin Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor at the White House in 1936. She was the first African American invited to perform at the location. Among numerous accolades, Anderson was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963 and received the Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1991.
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