Changemakers: five Black women who rewrote U.S. history

Throughout American history, there have been innumerable Black women whose lives, work and accomplishments have made notable impacts on society. These women are not mentioned enough in discussions of influential historical figures.

This article highlights five Black women who have redefined norms and made important contributions to history.

Lucy Diggs Slowe (1885-1937)

Described as a “woman of many firsts,” Slowe has an impressive list of feats both in athletics and academia. In 1908, she helped find Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, the first historically Black sorority. In 1922, she was appointed the first Dean of Women at Howard University, becoming the first Black woman to serve as a dean at an American university. Additionally, Slowe founded the National Association of College Women and the Association of Advisors to Women in Colored Schools. After winning the American Tennis Association’s first national title in 1917, Slowe also became the first Black woman to win a major U.S. sports title.

Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005)

After being elected in 1968, Chisholm became the first ever Black woman to serve in the U.S. Congress. In 1972, she also became the first Black woman to seek the presidential nomination for the Democratic Party. Prior to her service in Congress, Chisholm was the second Black woman to serve in the New York state legislature. After declining re-election to Congress in 1982, Chisholm founded the National Political Congress of Black Women and taught in universities. Chisholm also earned a master’s degree from Columbia University, was awarded four honorary doctoral degrees and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.

Marsha P. Johnson (1945-1992)

Johnson was one of the most central figures of the LGBTQ+ rights movement in New York City during the 1960s and 1970s. She referred to herself as a gay person, transvestite and drag queen. Many speculate that she would have identified as a transgender woman, but this term was not commonly used during Johnson’s time. She was an integral member of the Stonewall Inn riots of 1969, when LGTBQ+ community members took a stand against police brutality in New York City. Johnson was honored in a public arts monument in New York City in 2019, and a waterfront park in Brooklyn was named after Johnson in 2020. Johnson remains one of the most recognized leaders in America’s fight for LGBTQ+ equality.

Mae Jemison (1956-present)

11/24/1998- Mission Specialist Mae Jemison at aft flight deck ports (001-003) on Space Shuttle mission STS-47 in 1992. She was the first woman of color in space. (photo taken in 1992)
11/24/1992 - Mission Specialist Mae Jemison at aft flight deck ports (001-003) on Space Shuttle mission STS-47 in 1992. She was the first woman of color in space. Photo credit: Photo courtesy of NASA on The Commons

An engineer, doctor and astronaut, Jemison became the first Black woman to travel in space. Jemison attended Stanford University and Cornell Medical School, and did humanitarian work before opening her own private medical practice. After applying to the astronaut program at NASA several times, she was accepted in 1987 and traveled to space aboard the space shuttle Endeavor in 1992. Jemison left NASA in 1993 and founded the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence and the Jemison Group consulting company. She serves as a professor at Dartmouth College, and remains a foremost leader in STEM in the U.S.

Amanda Gorman (1998-present)

A Los Angeles native and graduate of Harvard University, Gorman was named the first U.S. National Youth Poet Laureate. In January 2021, the poet and activist became the youngest ever inaugural poet in the U.S. after performing an original poem, “the Hill We Climb,” at President Joe Biden’s inauguration. Gorman was also the first poet commissioned to write a poem to be performed at the Super Bowl, and is the founder of One Pen, One Page, an organization that provides creative writing resources to underserved youth.

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