3 Hidden Female Figures of Black History

The world is still reeling from the loss of Katherine Johnson, an African-American mathematician whose calculations aided NASA in multiple U.S. crewed spaceflights. While her life was lauded by honors such as the Presidential Medal of Freedom and commemorated in the feature film Hidden Figures, her passing provokes a thoughtful pause. How many more esteemed black women have been overlooked over the course of history? In recognition of women’s history month, keep reading to discover more hidden figures of black history.


1. Claudette Colvin

Months before Rosa Parks’ demonstration, Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. This activist and pioneer of the Civil rights Movement was arrested and became one of four plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, which ruled that Montgomery’s segregated bus system was unconstitutional. Following the legal case, Colvin moved to New York City, where she worked as a nurse’s aide. While much of the legacy of this civil rights heroine has been overshadowed by the contributions of Rosa Parks, Phillip Hoose brought awareness to her story by penning her biography: “Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice.” Her courage is captued within this quote: “I knew then and I know now that, when it comes to justice, there is no easy way to get it. You can’t sugarcoat it. You have to take a stand and say, ‘This is not right’.”


2. Henrietta Lacks

Much of what we understand about modern medical research can be attributed to Henrietta Lacks. After passing away from cervical cancer in1951, cells taken from her body without her knowledge and wound up in the laboratory of Dr. George Otto Gey. He soon realized that, unlike most cells, Lacks’s were far more durable. After isolating and multiplying them, the sample was named HeLa, attributed to Henrietta Lacks. These cells were instrumental in developing the polio vaccine. Over ten thousand patents involving HeLa cells have been registered. For years, this unique story was hidden from the masses. In 2017, Oprah Winfrey and HBO brought her story to life through a film adaptation of Rebecca Skloot’s popular book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”. Following legal and ethical implications including a Supreme court case, the Lacks family has reached an agreement with the National Institutes of Health as they aim to gain control of the HeLa strain. 


3. Odetta

Born Odetta Homes Felious Gordon, this hidden gem grew up in the economically depressed south before moving to Los Angeles, California, where she studied classical opera before being introduced to folk music. Inspired by Marian Anderson, she became a renown coloratura soprano. She toured professionally in San Francisco and New York. Her early success was facilitated by Harry Belafonte and Pete Seeger, who were instrumental in introducing Odetta to larger audiences. Released in 1963, her album, “Folk Songs” became one of the year’s best-selling folk albums. Anointed as the queen of American folk music by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., her musical contributions and social activism have inspired generations. In addition to music, Odetta was an activist for social change, performing at the 1963 March on Washington and participating in the March on Selma. She was awarded the National Medal of Arts & Humanities by President Bill Clinton in 1999 and was honored by the World Folk Music Association with a self-titled lifetime tribute. 


Hopefully learning about these three hidden gems of women in black history has sparked your interest in taking an active interest in understanding your history. Let’s ensure that Women’s History Month and Black History Month last year-round by paying homage to our ancestors and celebrating and supporting the heroines in our communities and families on a daily basis.