(Some of) The Most Influential Black Women of the Last 100 Years

Throughout the past 100 years, countless Black women have made an impact on our nation. Among them are politicians, activists, musicians, astronauts and everything in between. Below are just a few of them.

Rosa Parks (1913-2005)

Rosa Parks is one of the most famous leaders from the civil rights movement. Before her refusal to give up a seat on the bus for a white person, Parks joined the NAACP as a secretary. She worked for years fighting false accusations against people of color in the south. Parks had a high school diploma, which was rare for a Black woman at the time, and had training as an activist. In 1945, she registered to vote. Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on the bus and arrest sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, a turning point in the civil rights movement. She worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr. after her arrest, and continued activism work after his death. Later in life, she established Rosa L. Parks Scholarship foundation and multiple other organizations focused on providing  accessible education and commemorating the struggle for civil rights. After her death, Parks’ casket was taken by bus to lie in state at the U.S. capitol, an honor only given to 31 people in all of U.S. history.

Dovey Johnson Roundtree (1914-2018)

 Roundtree was one of the first African American women in the Women’s Army Corp during WWII. After her time in service she worked as a criminal defense lawyer in multiple civil rights cases, the most notable of which was Keys v. Carolina Coach Company. She won the case, which desegregated buses and ended up being a major landmark in  the fight for equal rights in the United States. She was also ordained as a minister, and was involved in activism work through her church.

Billie Holiday (1915-1959)

 An influential jazz singer, Holiday won numerous awards during her time as a musician. She appeared in over 30 TV and movie productions and released twelve albums. Despite her struggles with drug abuse, Holiday preformed at Carnegie Hall and won four Grammys. She was later induced into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Katherine Johnson (1918-2020)

Johnson was the first African American woman to work for NASA. She was a mathematician and worked on the calculations for flight trajectories during the space race and on later missions. She worked at NASA during the segregation of the company, and she was influential in integrating its science division. Johnson pioneered the use of computers in calculations for space travel. She was later awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama, along with multiple other awards from NASA and the government. The 2016 film “Hidden Figures” was based on her experience working on Project Mercury, the mission to get a man in space before the Soviets. Multiple buildings at NASA and a satellite have been named in her honor.

Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

Maya Angelou is an accomplished writer, poet and civil rights activist. She worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X during the civil rights movement, and she was involved in many other activist causes throughout her life. Angelou spoke at both Bill Clinton and John F.Kennedy’s inaugurations, and she has published over 20 books of poetry, essays and memoirs. Despite efforts to ban her literature, Angelou’s writing is read in schools across the U.S. and the world. Her writing and poetry focuses on race, identity and family, and it challenges the boundaries of genres and society alike.

Martha P. Johnson (1945-1992)

 Johnson was one of the most prominent gender-nonconforming people in the LGBTQ+ rights movement. She was a part of the Stonewall riots and later joined the Gay Liberation Front. While working for awareness of the genderqueer community and fighting for equality within the movement, she was arrested over one hundred times. After leaving the movement, she established a safe house for gender nonconforming children of color. In 1992, Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson river. The police filed the death as a suicide despite the suspicious circumstances, and the case was never reopened. However, many people believe Johnson was murdered.

Oprah Winfrey (1954-present)

 Winfrey was born into poverty in Mississippi, but now has a net worth of $2.5 billion as of 2020. Working as a television host, she has broken down racial and political barriers; she has won over 20 awards, the majority of which are Emmys. Winfrey works as a philanthropist and owns multiple businesses. She is considered by many to be the most influential woman in the world.

Mae C. Jemison (1956-present)

 Jemison was the first African American woman in space. She earned  degrees in chemical engineering, African and African American studies from Stanford. After graduating, she got a medical degree from Cornell University. She then joined the Peace Corps and worked as a general practitioner in multiple countries in Africa. After joining NASA, she orbited the earth as a mission specialist on the Endeavor in 1992. After leaving NASA, Jemison went on to establish a technology research company and a nonprofit organization for education. She also wrote multiple books and was an actor, most notably working on Star Trek.

Kamala Harris (1964-present)

Harris is the current vice president and the first person of color to hold the position. Previous to her time in the White House, she was a California senator and then the first district attorney of color in San Francisco. In 2011, she became the 32nd attorney general of California. She is, for many people in all walks of life, a symbol of diversity and new leadership in government. At a rally during the presidential campaign, Harris said, “You never have to ask anyone permission to lead.” During her carrier she has broken down barriers in politics and been an example for women, especially women of color, demonstrating that anything is possible.

Beyonce (1981-present)

 Beyonce is one of the most influential musicians, actors, song writers and business women of all time. As the richest Black musician in history, she has sold over 118 million records worldwide. She has released over 30 albums and won 21 Grammys. Her philanthropy work has been influential in the U.S. and around the world. She owns multiple businesses and works closely with Adidas. She sang at Obama’s first inauguration and has been active in many of the social justice movements in the past years. 

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This list just scrapes the surface. Our country is built on the shoulders of diversity, and our ability to succeed as a country is based in our recognition of the powerful historical figures and current leaders of our time. For Black History Month and every month of the year, it is the duty of the country to remember the strong Black women who have made the U.S. the way it is today. They are one of our greatest strengths, and they deserve recognition and celebration of their many accomplishments.