Every February (recognized as Black History Month), we are reintroduced to influential people from our history who have left their mark on their respective industries. These people are powerful and inspiring, in that their courage surpassed their fear and they held steadfast in their fight for justice and equality. Yet while we’re constantly reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks, there are many other black leaders that often go unrecognized. Here are some of these courageous women from history:
Madam C. J. Walker was the first African-American female millionaire, known not only for her hair-straightening treatment and salon system, but also her work to end lynching and gain women’s rights.
Bessie Coleman broke barriers and became the world’s first African-American woman to earn a pilot’s license. In that time women’s dresses dropped to their waistline and were loose-fitting. These garments also reflected African-American culture through embellishment, color, and patterns.
As hairstyles lengthened in this decade, African-American women began mail-ordering hairpieces and wigs to lengthen their hair and create and maintain straightened styles. At this time, Crystal Bird Fauset was elected to the Pennsylvania House, becoming the first African American female state legislator.
Evelyn Boyd Granville and Marjorie Lee Browne became the first two African American women to earn doctorates in mathematics. Also during this decade, singer Billie Holiday became a beauty icon with her trademark white gardenia, often worn in the right side of her hair.
For African American women, their naturally ‘kinky‘ or ‘nappy‘ hair was looked down upon. Many black women had their hair chemically straightened, or relaxed. Yet the main hairstyle for African Americans in the ’50s was a variation of the pin curl. While women were chemically straightening their hair, Rosa Parks was breaking the rules by refusing to give up a seat and move to the rear of the bus, an action that triggered the Montgomery bus boycott. She was later arrested for her efforts.
Black women in the ’60s would usually wear their hair in an afro-puff. Yet with the invention of the relaxer system, they were suddenly able to wear their hair straight and flowing. African-American women also used a hot comb at this time to make their hair straight. The ’60s also marked the rise of African-American women in sports. Wilma Rudolph became the first African-American woman to win three Olympic gold medals, and was named Athlete of the Year by the United Press.
It was during the ’70s that the makeup needs of women of color started to become more recognized, and more Black and ethnic women were used in advertising. Cheryl Adrienne Brown, Miss Iowa 1970, became the first African-American contestant in the Miss America pageant during this time.
Model-actress Grace Jones was one of the first to sport her trademark flat-top fade, and the trend became big. Meanwhile, before her rise to fame, Oprah Winfrey was the first African-American to host a nationally syndicated talk show, and she later founded Harpo Productions, which produces both television shows and movies.
The weave, first made popular to the masses by stars like Jody Watley and Whitney Houston, became the rage in the ’90s for many Black women. While weaves were making a come-up, Mae Jemison, an astronaut, became the first African-American woman in space.
The 1900s were full of amazing discoveries, new trends, and tremendous work in various fields by countless African-American women. While many didn’t get the recognition they deserved, it is important to remember that their paths were just as difficult and their fights just as courageous as those that have been recognized for their efforts. Although Black History Month is only one month out of the year, we should try to always remember the amazing human beings who put their lives at risk to make the world a better place.