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Issue 17 Out Now

4 Rarely Celebrated Influential Black Women in History


Photo by Robert Alexander


28 days to highlight black history is never enough to honor the important figures that fought and continue to fight for liberation. This month recognized as Women’s History Month isn’t enough either. The ground-breaking contributions to society go back centuries and spread wider than we are aware of. So why not combine the two and take a moment to spotlight the rarely celebrated influential black women in history.


Ruby Bridges



At the young age of six, Bridges proved that you could change the world at any age. Advancing the cause of the civil rights movement in November 1960, Bridges became the first African American student to integrate into an all-white elementary school in the South. Before integration, Bridges attended a segregated New Orleans Kindergarten, and a year later, a federal court ordered Louisiana to desegregate.


School districts gave entrance exams to African American students to gather if they could academically compete with the white students. Only Ruby and five other students passed the exam. Ruby and those five students were split up; two decided not to leave their schools, the other three were sent to all-white McDonough Elementary School, leaving Ruby on her own to attend the all-white William Frantz Elementary School, a few blocks from her home.


On her first day of school, she had to be escorted by four federal marshals through a vicious crowd of white parents and students screaming racial slurs at her. Upon Bridges' arrival, chaos ensued, and many white parents pulled their children from school, and all but one teacher refused to accept Bridges as their student. In a class of one, Bridges was personally taught by Barabra Henry, a Boston native. Bridges endured extreme obstacles but, she never missed a day of school that year.


Mae Jemison



Jemison truly “transcended” and made a mark for Black women when she became the first black woman to travel into space on the Space Shuttle Endeavor, a retired orbiter from NASA’s Space Shuttle program and the fifth and final operational shuttle built. She was selected for the STS-47 mission, where she orbited the Earth for eight days in 1992. As an engineer, physician, and former NASA astronaut, Jemison was also the first black woman to be admitted into the astronaut training program in 1987.


Marsha P. Johnson


Johnson, a Black transgender woman and gay liberation activist, was one of the prominent figures in the Stonewall uprising of the late 60s’ — a stand against police brutality by New York City’s LGBTQ community. At the time, it was illegal to serve alcohol to LGBTQ people openly and to have them dance with one another, so raids would often take place regularly. In response to the police raids that began in the early morning at the Stonewall Inn — a gay bar and recreational tavern — its patrons and other members of the community fought back when the police became violent, leading to days of protest that was influential to the gay liberation movement and the fight for LGBTQ rights today. In David Carters’s book Stonewall: The Riots Thats Sparked the Gay Revolution, Johnson was one of three named part of the “vanguard” in the uprising against police and is credited as the one who threw the first brick — an incident that is still strongly disputed.


Johnson still used her voice in the fight for equality and was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front and co-founded the radical activist group (S.T.A.R), aka Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.


Mary McLeod Bethune



Bethune, a child of formerly enslaved persons, was an educator and activist with a strong belief that education was the key to racial progress and founded the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute in 1904, which later became Bethune-Cookman College. Growing up in poverty as one of 17 children born, Bethune worked alongside her family in the fields. When a missionary opened nearby for African American children, Bethune was the only child in her family to go. Later on scholarship, Bethune graduated from the Scotia Seminary for Girls (now Barber-Scotia College) in 1893 and, after graduating, went to the Dwight Moody’s Institute for Home and Foreign Missions (also known as Moody Bible Institute) in Chicago. Once her studies were completed, her career as a teacher began. She grew her school from only five students to more than 250 students and served as the schools’ president.


Bethune did much to contribute to her community and served as president of the National Association of Colored Women for many years, as well as founding the National Council of Negro Women.


Resources:


“Ruby Bridges.” National Women’s History Museum, 2021, https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/ruby-bridges. Accessed 10 Mar 2021.


“Mae Jemison | Biography, Education, Accomplishments, & Facts.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 2021, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Mae-Jemison. Accessed 10 Mar 2021.


“Marsha P. Johnson.” En.Wikipedia.Org, 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marsha_P._Johnson. Accessed 10 Mar 2021.


“Mary Mcleod Bethune.” Biography, 2021, https://www.biography.com/activist/mary-mcleod-bethune. Accessed 10 Mar 2021.

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