Black History Month has come a long way since 1927 when it was first pitched as “Negro History Week” by historian Carter G. Woodson to commemorate the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. As of 1976, it has come to be the full month of February in the United States and, though it is the shortest month, it’s a great opportunity to celebrate and learn about a race with a fascinating and undervalued past. Every time this month rolls around, I often hear the grumbles of angry (usually not black) people, wondering why we need a whole month to appreciate one group of people. That alone is telling of why it is so important that we devote February to informing the public of the incredible people of color who have significantly helped shape our world. As much as I hate writing Buzzfeed-esque lists, I can’t help but feel obligated to share some of the incredible women I’ve recently learned about. Black history is often portrayed solely as slavery and civil rights but there is so much more to be discovered. Within rich black culture and history is an abundance of incredible black women. The legacy of a race cannot be fully revealed over the course of one month – or a five bullet blog post – but I certainly hope it’s a gateway to the pursuance of further knowledge. Although there are so many to choose from, here are five of the most fascinating, influential, little-known women to celebrate this month (and all of the rest):
1. Septima Poinsette Clark is known as the “Queen mother”, “Grandmother”, and “The Mother of the Movement” of the American Civil Rights era. She developed citizenship workshops of the 1950s and 60s that were essential in obtaining voting rights for African Americans. Thousands attended these classes so they could learn to read and write to pass southern literacy tests. In 1982, she received South Carolina’s highest civilian honor, the Order of the Palmetto.
2. Anna Arnold Hedgeman and her family moved to Anoka, Minnesota in the early 1900s becoming the lone black family of the town. Anna graduated high school and proceeded to attend Hamline University, becoming the college’s first black graduate in 1922. Hedgeman then went on to be the only woman on the executive committee that organized Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington. In 1954 she became the first African American and first woman appointed to a New York City mayoral cabinet as well as the first black person to hold a Federal Security Agent position.
3. Cathay Williams enlisted in the Army with the name William Cathay in 1866. She was examined by an army surgeon who determined that “William” was fit for duty, making her the first documented black woman to enlist in the Army. She served until she was found out after many illnesses and hospitalizations. Her dedication to the country was historic due to women being prohibited from enlisting at the time.
4. Bessie Coleman made the first public flight by an African-American woman in America.
She was the first black woman to earn a pilot’s license and, because flying schools in the United States forbade her from attending, she earned her license from a famous French Aviation school in only seven months. Coleman specialized in stunt flying and parachuting, unfortunately dying in a tragic plane accident.
5. Shirley Chisholm was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1924 and is best known for becoming the first black congresswoman. She represented New York State in the House of Representatives for seven terms. She later became the first major-party African American to run for the presidential nomination in 1972 as a democratic candidate. Chisholm was a big proponent for social justice and education and left Congress in 1983 to teach.