Some of the inventions and movements we admire so much have been created by black women who weren’t credited for them, and because of that so many black women’s names are lost to the annals of history. This very short list is a small step in remedying that problem. It features political leaders, activists and innovators whose work continues to make waves in society to this very day.
Each black woman on the list is described and summarized very briefly, so don’t be afraid to do more research into the lives and contributions of these revolutionary women who made an indelible mark on this country’s history.
Ella Baker was a driving force behind some of the major civil rights organizations of her time: NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Baker started her activism in the 1930s with an organization called the Young Negroes Cooperative League, which worked to give black people more economic power and independence. She helped Martin Luther King Jr. form SCLC and remained there until the Greensboro sit-ins began. Baker saw the potential for change in the young activists protesting at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina. SNCC was born out of that.
Baker was affectionately known as “Fundi,” a Swahili word translated to mean someone who passes down a craft or knowledge from generation to generation.
Madam C.J. Walker
Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, Madam C.J. Walker became the first black female millionaire in the United States—and a self-made one at that.
Walker was born the child of newly freed enslaved parents, became an orphan by the age of 7, was married by 14 and widowed by 20.
In her 30s, she started losing her hair and wasn’t sure what to do. She started using homemade products as well as products made by another black woman entrepreneur, Annie Malone. Soon after, she invented her own scalp healing and conditioning product, changed her name to Madam C.J. Walker and began selling the formula door to door throughout the South.
Walker later started a hair school, built a factory for her product, a second hair training school and a nail and hair salon. Walker died as a pioneer in what would become a multibillion dollar industry for black women in this country.
Fannie Lou Hamer
Fannie Lou Hamer was a civil rights activist and Christian who understood what Jesus’ stances on civil rights would be if He were on Earth.
In addition to famously saying, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Hamer also said, “A city that’s set on a hill cannot be hid. And I don’t mind my light shining; I don’t hide that I’m fighting for freedom, because Christ died to set us free.”
Her voters rights activism with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee put her life on the line and she was jailed, beaten, tortured and sexually assaulted. She was left with permanent damage to her eye, kidney and leg. It did not stop her.
Before her death in 1977, Hamer founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative of Sunflower County for 1,500 poor families, giving them independence, a reliable food source and some level of financial stability.
Known as one of the best jazz singers of all time, Billie Holiday was also a civil rights activist in her own right. Born in Philadelphia, Holiday had a childhood filled with instability and coped with that through song. As she got older, she was popular in New York City’s jazz bars—especially for her trademark gardenias in her hair and way of singing with her head back.
In 1939, she debuted the song she’s most known for, “Strange Fruit,” a striking poem turned song about the rampancy of lynchings of black people in the South:
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
The song was both critically acclaimed and controversial. It was banned from several radio stations, but that did not stifle its message or its impact.
Patricia Bath is a revolutionary in the field of ophthalmology and her work is relatively recent. In 1973, Bath became the first Black person to finish an ophthalmology residency. Two years after that, she was the first female faculty member in the ophthalmology department at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute. She also co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, which was the first to assert that sight “is a basic human right.”
Just 13 years after her residency, Bath invented the Laserphaco Probe, which helped patients with cataracts. She patented that device in 1988, making her the first black female doctor to be granted a medical patent.
Before Lyda Newman, hairbrushes were made out of animal hair, porcupine quills or shells. Then in 1898, Newman applied for a patent for a more efficient and hygienic hairbrush with evenly spaced synthetic bristles in rows and a compartment for the hair and any other debris to go into—and an opening to the compartment that was easily accessible.