In 1822, Harriet Tubman was born into slavery. In the decades since, the United States has undergone a marked and hard-worn shift in civil rights and the opportunities available to Black women. In 1992, Mae Jemison became the first Black woman to go into space, and in 2021, about 200 years after Tubman’s birth, Kamala Harris became the first woman and first Black American to serve as Vice President of the United States.
The journey for Black women has been long and difficult, but progress continues to be made thanks to the countless inspirational women who have fought for equality as activists and politicians, and empowered generations through their writing, music, and art. Here are some of those voices, spanning two centuries of resilience, courage, and achievement.
I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say — I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.
— Harriet Tubman
Following Harriet Tubman’s escape from slavery, she made more than a dozen missions with the Underground Railroad, rescuing some 70 enslaved people, including her immediate family. Later, she became an activist in the women's suffrage movement.
People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically… No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.
— Rosa Parks
When Rosa Parks refused an order to vacate her bus seat for a white passenger, she became a pivotal figure in the Montgomery bus boycott of the civil rights movement, and in turn, an international icon of resistance to racial segregation.
The air is the only place free from prejudice.
— Bessie Coleman
Aviator Bessie Coleman grew up working in cotton fields but always dreamed of flying. So, she saved some money and went to flight school in France, becoming the first African American woman and Native American to obtain a pilot license. She went on to become a high-profile pilot in dangerous air shows — she would perform only if the crowd was desegregated and permitted to enter through the same gates.
I guess what everyone wants more than anything else is to be loved. And to know that you loved me for my singing is too much for me. Forgive me if I don't have all the words. Maybe I can sing it and you'll understand.
— Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald was painfully shy in social situations, but on stage she let her songs speak for her in dazzling fashion. During her career, the Queen of Jazz won 14 Grammy Awards and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.
— Shirley Chisholm
In 1968, Shirley Chisholm became the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress, and in 1972 she became the first Black candidate to run for a major party's nomination for President of the United States. She was a woman who, in her own words, “dared to be a catalyst of change.”
We were pioneers of the space era… Everything was so new — the whole idea of going into space was new and daring. There were no textbooks, so we had to write them.
— Katherine Johnson
Katherine Johnson was a mathematician whose calculations of orbital mechanics were critical to NASA’s first and subsequent crewed spaceflights. Her sheer talent and ceaseless enthusiasm made her indispensable, despite the racial and gender barriers she faced.
It is not our differences that divide us, it is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.
— Audre Lorde
Writer, feminist, and civil rights activist Audre Lorde was known for her passionate writings on lesbian feminism and racial issues. She often introduced herself as “a Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.”
When I began writing science fiction, when I began reading, heck, I wasn't in any of this stuff I read. The only Black people you found were occasional characters or characters who were so feeble-witted that they couldn't manage anything, anyway. I wrote myself in, since I'm me and I'm here and I'm writing.
— Octavia Butler
Octavia Butler paved the way for African American women in science fiction, a genre traditionally dominated by white males. Her unsentimental and frank examinations of race, sex and power earned her multiple Hugo and Nebula awards, and her work helped to develop the genre of Afrofuturism.
The thing to do, it seems to me, is to prepare yourself so you can be a rainbow in somebody else's cloud. Somebody who may not look like you. May not call God the same name you call God — if they call God at all. I may not dance your dances or speak your language. But be a blessing to somebody. That's what I think.
— Maya Angelou
Poet, memoirist, actress, director, lecturer, civil rights activist — Maya Angelou was a multifaceted woman of many talents. She is best known for her series of autobiographies, starting with 1969’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
The most healthy thing is to be true to your own self… but also, that you have a right to express what you see and what you feel and what you think. To be bold. To be as bold with your vision as you can possibly be.
— Alice Walker
In 1982, Alice Walker became the first Black American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, for her novel The Color Purple.
Once I got into space, I was feeling very comfortable in the universe. I felt like I had a right to be anywhere in this universe, that I belonged here as much as any speck of stardust, any comet, any planet.
— Mae Jemison
In 1992, NASA astronaut Mae Jemison became the first Black woman to travel into space. She served as a mission specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour, orbiting Earth 127 times during her eight-day mission.
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