Black Women Who Made Enormous Contributions to Society (That You Won’t Hear About)

Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks was a “poor black tobacco farmer” in 1951. After checking herself into the John Hopkins Hospital, doctors discovered she had a tumor in her cervix that was identified to be cancerous. Thus, she began radiotherapy. During her treatment doctors took samples of her tissue and began to research them, noticing that her cells multiplied at very high rates, living longer than other cells sampled during the time. This discovery allowed for scientists to make advancements in science and medicine that have changed the world. From vaccines to HPV, measles, herpes, polio, AIDS, HIV, as well as helping map the human genome, Henrietta Lack’s cells have made immeasurable contributions to the world. And yet, her family remained poor and did not find out until the 1970s that Henrietta's cells (HeLa) were being used for science. While maybe not known by name, Henrietta has made a huge impact on the world and we should recognize and thank her for it. You can read more about her in the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks or watch her story told in the HBO series.

Marsha P. Johnson

Marsha P. Johnson was a black, self-identified drag queen who was most known for her contribution to the gay rights movement. After her involvement in the Stonewall uprising, she joined the Gay Liberation Front. Later, Johnson and her friend Sylvia Rivera founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) organization. They later started the STAR house, which was the first ever shelter for gay and transgender kids who were living on the streets. They used their own money to pay for the rent (most of it coming from sex work). Despite all of this, Johnson died a tragic death at age forty-six. Her body was reported missing and, six days later, was found in the Hudson River. The police ruled it a suicide, but the community fought against the ruling, insisting it was a homicide. Some people stated they saw Johnson being harassed by a group of people, getting called homophobic slurs, and getting into a fight with someone prior to her death. For all of her work in the gay rights movement and her protection of kids struggling to live in a world where their identity was not accepted, we recognize Marsha P. Johnson as a true historic icon. You can watch a documentary about her life here.

Madam C.J. Walker

Madam C.J. Walker has been deemed the “first black woman millionaire in America.” She made her fortune from the sale of her hair care products. Despite her success, she faced many hardships. At six years old she became an orphan, by fourteen was married, at eighteen had a child, and was widowed by age twenty. She soon began working as a laundress in St. Louis. Years later she started losing her hair and attempted to find a treatment. What she instead invented was a treatment of her own, using a “combination of scalp preparation, application of lotions, and use of iron combs” later coined as the “Walker system.” By straying from the usual marketing to white women and focusing on black women, Walker’s products were a hit in the black community. Her line began to expand, and she was producing around twenty different hair and skin care products. Walker spent much of her money on her own living arrangements but contributed greatly to organizations that were important to her. She was generous to her employees, helped fund scholarships “for women at Tuskegee Institute,” and gave lavishly to the NAACP and various other black charities, as well as always supporting women. Check out her products here!

Marie Van Brittan Brown

Marie Van Brittan Brown was the inventor of the first ever security camera/system in 1966. Brown was a seemingly average nurse who worked odd hours, thus leaving her apartment empty during times in which crime rates were heightened. The slow police response was not sufficient enough for Brown, so she and her husband (an electrician) worked together to create a system that allowed for the safety of their home. Her creation had four peepholes and a camera “connected to [a] monitor in the bedroom.” A remote allowed for the ability to talk to the person outside, unlock the door for them, or sound an alarm. The two eventually got a patent for their idea, one that has been used largely since. Brown also received an “award from the National Science Committee.” It is unsure if the couple ever profited substantially from their creation. Despite the lack of media coverage, without Marie Van Brittan Brown and her invention, the world would be a different place.