10 of the Most Iconic African American Women

by Vicki Santillano

10 of the Most Iconic African American Women

These 10 African American women knew how to get things done.


Black History Month dates back to 1976, when “Negro History Week” was extended to the month of February. That year doesn’t seem so long ago, but when we stop to consider where we are in 2009, it’s shocking to see how far we’ve come. Along with celebrating black history, we’re also celebrating the fact that the NAACP will celebrate its 100th anniversary on February 12. We’re rejoicing that a man of color now occupies the most powerful position in the country. It might seem like social change happens slowly, but witnessing such momentous events in our lifetime makes its occurrence undeniable.


Though Obama’s election ignited a nation with optimism, it is just as inspirational that a woman came so close to the presidency. We have much to be grateful for this month, and it seems essential to recognize the achievements of some of the many amazing African American women whose pioneering efforts made this groundbreaking election possible.


1. Sojourner Truth
Sojourner was born into slavery with the name Isabella Baumfree. She changed her name after escaping from her owner and became a Christian preacher while living with a family in New York. After the state’s Emancipation Act was passed, she became a vehement and vocal supporter of abolition and women’s rights. She traveled the country giving speeches, including a famous one entitled Ain’t I a Woman? that emphasized the strength and power of women and the need for equality between the sexes.


2. Harriet Tubman
Like Sojourner, Harriet was born into slavery and found a means of escape with the help of her abolitionist neighbors. In 1849, she fled her slave life in Maryland and found respite in Philadelphia. There she formulated a plan to liberate the rest of her family by way of the Underground Railroad, a system that involved moving slaves from one safe house to another under rigid secrecy. She was able to free her family and numerous other slaves throughout the years, taking them as far as Canada and helping them find safe jobs. Later, she worked as a nurse during the Civil War and was a proponent of both women’s suffrage and the abolitionist movement.


3. Maya Angelou
Before she was celebrated for her poems and autobiographical texts like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya was a nightclub singer and dancer who toured Europe. She settled in New York and became part of the burgeoning black writing scene in Harlem. After moving to Ghana to teach at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama, she met Malcolm X and collaborated with him on bringing equality and unity to America. She returned to the U.S. and was involved with the Civil Rights Movement, working closely with Martin Luther King Jr. She continues to inspire others and promote change through her writing and public speaking.


4. Oprah Winfrey
Early in her career, Oprah was the protégée of Maya Angelou; they are open about their close bond, likening it in one article to a “sister-mother-daughter-friendship.” Now Oprah is one of the richest and most powerful people in America. Her vast influence on the women in this country is remarkable and a testament to the strength and kindness of her character. She uses her resources and celebrity to enact positive change in communities worldwide, such as fostering literacy through her book club, building a school in Africa, encouraging others to perform good deeds, and campaigning tirelessly for Obama.


5. Mary McLeod Bethune
In 1906, a teacher named Mary Bethune built the Daytona Literacy and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls in Florida. Initially a one-woman operation, she enlisted the help of a few community members and sold baked goods to help raise funds for supplies and maintenance. After getting funding from one of the founders of Proctor and Gamble, the school joined forces with an all-boys school in Jacksonville and it became the Bethune-Cookman College. Later, she went on to found the National Council of Negro Women and worked with FDR on minority issues and youth policies.


6. Mae Jemison
A physician who volunteered with the Peace Corps and the first female African American astronaut, Mae was also the first black woman to go into space. After her 1992 expedition on the Endeavor shuttle, she left NASA and founded the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence (which sponsors science camps for kids), as well as companies involved in scientific and technological research. Currently, she is a professor at Cornell University and strongly involved in the science community.


7. Zora Neale Hurston
Zora was a boisterous writer who was part of the Harlem Renaissance, a social and cultural movement that explored the experiences of black people in America during the 1920s. She used her background in anthropology at Barnard College to write short stories and essays about African American folklore. Her most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was published in 1937. Because some people disagreed with the way she wrote African American dialogue, her works were not initially as popular as they later became. Now, there is no question of her influence on black female writers like Alice Walker, who wrote an essay about her in 1975.


8. Shirley Chisholm
In 1968, Shirley became the first black Congresswoman and in 1972, she became the first black woman to contend for the presidential office. She used her time in Congress and on the campaign trail to voice her opinions on women’s and civil rights, giving a public voice to many of the grassroots campaigns she was involved in prior to her election.


9. Angela Davis
Angela has worn many hats in her lifetime—university professor, writer, public speaker—but she is best known for her political activism with the Black Panthers, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Community, and the Civil Rights Movement. She ran into legal trouble when it was suspected she helped Black Panther George Jackson escape from prison, but was eventually released from jail when the evidence against her failed to prove her involvement. She continues to lecture and write about human rights and equality. Currently, she is a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz.


10. Rosa Parks
This list wouldn’t be complete without including Rosa Parks, the woman who refused to give up her bus seat in 1955 and sparked a movement that led to the end of segregation. Her courageous act fueled the Civil Rights Movement and inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. to get involved. Along with MLK, Jr., she continues to inspire those who still fight for equality.


Anybody who thinks her dreams are impossible or that society can’t be changed by one person’s efforts need only look to these women as role models. Their bravery and determination acted as catalysts for profound change in the world, and each had only one thing in common—the belief that she could make it happen. Yes they could, and yes we can too.