5 Black Women Who Made History — and Who You May Not Have Heard Of

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Women of color have been fighting for centuries for their right to live in dignity, freedom, and equality. Despite the considerable challenges, many black women have contributed their unique talents and abilities to shape society into what it is today. And no thanks to a dominant culture that is indifferent at best to their stories, those women don’t get nearly as much recognition as they should.

Today, in honor of Black History Month, we’d like to celebrate a small sample of the remarkable black women who achieved extraordinary accomplishments in the past century. We were able to find records of each of these women through MyHeritage SuperSearch™, and we included them below.

Katherine Johnson

They say that behind every successful man there is a woman. Well, behind every successful astronaut, there is Katherine Johnson.

Katherine Johnson
Katherine Johnson

Katherine was born in 1918 in West Virginia and proved a gifted mathematician at a young age. Because there were no public schools for African-American children beyond the eighth grade in the county where she lived, Katherine’s parents sent her to high school in a different county — when she was only 10 years old. She graduated high school at age 14 and went straight to college, where she took every math course available and graduated at age 18.

Katherine listed in the 1920 U.S. Census from MyHeritage’s collection
Katherine listed in the 1920 U.S. Census from MyHeritage’s collection

She decided to pursue a career in research mathematics, and got a job as a “computer” at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. Before the age of digital computers, complex calculations were carried out manually by a pool of people — often women — who read, analyzed, and calculated mathematical data. After five years, Katherine and a colleague of hers were assigned to help the all-male flight research team temporarily, but Katherine was so skilled in analytic geometry that she was never moved back to the pool.

From that point forward, Katherine worked as an aerospace technologist and was one of the mathematicians behind NASA’s first space missions: she calculated the trajectory for the space flight that took the first-ever American (Alan Shepard) into space, and for Apollo 11, the first craft to land on the moon. The first American to enter orbit, John Glenn, refused to go on his mission before having Katherine verify the calculations performed by NASA’s new digital computers. Katherine was also involved in the Apollo 13 project, and the backup procedures and navigation charts she’d created in case of failure helped get the crew safely back to Earth.

Katherine is just one of the talented black women who are directly responsible for the success of NASA’s space missions.

Raye Montague

Space isn’t the only frontier where black women engineers made groundbreaking contributions.

The first female program manager of ships in the United States Navy, and the first person to design a ship using a computer, was a black woman named Raye Montague.

Raye Montague at work
Raye Montague at work
Raye’s details listed in a directory published by the Office of the Secretary of Defense in 1984, from MyHeritage’s Historical Books collection.
Raye’s details listed in a directory published by the Office of the Secretary of Defense in 1984, from MyHeritage’s Historical Books collection.

Raye was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1935. When she was seven years old, her grandfather took her to see a German submarine that had been captured off the coast of South Carolina and had been sent on tour around the country. Fascinated, she asked the man in charge of the exhibit what she would have to learn to work with marine vessels. He said that she would have to be an engineer — “But don’t you worry about that,” he added.

Raye didn’t worry. She went ahead and did it.

Despite being teased and bullied by her classmates for her ambition to become an engineer, Raye refused to give up on her dream. She worked hard through school and college, but was barred from entering the University of Arkansas graduate engineering program because she was black. So she got a job with the U.S. Navy in Washington D.C. as a clerk typist. All-day, she watched the graduate engineers run the UNIVAC computer, longing to give it a try. One day, when they were all sick, she saw her chance: she jumped up and operated the computer all by herself.

She attended night school to learn computer programming, and eventually moved up to become a computer systems analyst and program director.

In 1970, her department was given a month to build a computer-generated ship design — something that had never been done before.

She completed her first draft in 18 hours and 56 minutes.

Raye went on to receive many prestigious awards and to make crucial contributions to the design of maritime vessels until she retired in 1990.

Bessie Coleman

So we’ve met black women who helped revolutionize travel in space and in the sea… now let’s turn to the atmosphere with Bessie Coleman, the first black woman to become a pilot.

Bessie Coleman
Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman was born in 1892 in Texas, to a father of Cherokee heritage and an African-American mother. They were sharecroppers, and Bessie helped her family harvest the cotton as a child. At age 12, she earned a scholarship to attend high school, and managed to save enough money to attend one term of university.

When she was 24, she moved to Chicago to live with her brothers. In the barber shop where she worked as a manicurist, she heard the stories of WWI pilots returning from the war, and began to dream of becoming a pilot herself. Since no flight schools in the U.S. would admit either black people or women, she was encouraged to study abroad. With the financial support of a banker and newspaper, she studied French and then traveled to Paris to attend flight school.

On June 15, 1921, Bessie became the first black woman — and the first Native American — to receive a pilot’s license. She later studied advanced aviation in France, the Netherlands, and Germany, and returned to the U.S. to become a sensation in stunt flying. She became known as a skilled and fearless pilot who would stop at nothing to achieve a difficult stunt.

The Southeast Missourian, April 30, 1926, from MyHeritage’s Missouri Newspapers collection
The Southeast Missourian, April 30, 1926, from MyHeritage’s Missouri Newspapers collection

Bessie dreamed of one day opening a flying school for young black aviators. Unfortunately, she didn’t live long enough to realize that dream. Her promising career was cut tragically short in 1926, when a plane she was flying crashed. She was 34 years old.

Wilma Rudolph

Wilma Rudolph wins the women’s 100-meter dash at the 1960 Rome Summer Olympics
Wilma Rudolph wins the women’s 100-meter dash at the 1960 Rome Summer Olympics

To say that Wilma Rudolph overcame incredible odds to claim the title of the world’s fastest woman in the 1960s is an understatement.

The first hurdle Wilma overcame was at the very beginning of her life: she was born prematurely, weighing only 4.5 pounds (2 kilograms). During her childhood she suffered from a number of common childhood diseases. At age 5, she contracted polio and was struck by infantile paralysis, which left her disabled for the rest of her childhood. Wilma’s family poured a lot of time and energy into helping her heal, and by age 12, she had learned to walk without a brace or orthopedic shoe.

Because of her poor health, Wilma was homeschooled until the age of 7. When she attended high school, she was found to have a talent for basketball and track. She was discovered by Tennessee State University’s track-and-field coach, and participated in her first Olympic games when she was only 16 years old. In her senior year, she became pregnant, but that didn’t stop her from attending university, where she continued to train and compete.

Article about Wilma’s Olympic achievements in the Free Lance-star, September 9, 1960, from MyHeritage’s Virginia Newspapers collection
Article about Wilma’s Olympic achievements in the Free Lance-star, September 9, 1960, from MyHeritage’s Virginia Newspapers collection

In 1960, Wilma competed in the Olympic games in Rome. She broke world records and won three gold medals — becoming the first American woman to do so.

Althea Gibson

Althea Gibson
Althea Gibson

Before the Williams sisters became some of the most successful tennis players in history… there was Althea Gibson.

Article about Althea Gibson in the Beaver Valley Times, June 25, 1957
Article about Althea Gibson in the Beaver Valley Times, June 25, 1957

Althea’s is another story of overcoming many hardships to become a legend in her field. Born to a family of sharecroppers on a cotton farm in South Carolina, Althea had to move to Harlem with her family after the Great Depression devastated her parents’ livelihood. An area near her apartment was barricaded off during daylight hours so children could play sports, and Althea quickly rose as a star, becoming the women’s paddle tennis champion of New York City at the tender age of 12.

Althea didn’t even like tennis at first. She thought it was for weaklings. “I kept wanting to fight the other player every time I started to lose a match,” she later recalled in her memoir. Nonetheless, in 1941 she entered the American Tennis Association New York State Championship — and won. She continued playing for the next several years, and kept winning.

She soon caught the attention of activists in the tennis community, who sponsored and supported her, giving her access to better training and enrolling her in high school to complete her education. Though she was a rising star in the tennis world, she was barred from the United States National Championships because most of the matches were held in white-only clubs. After a significant fight, Althea was finally allowed to compete at the Nationals, becoming the first black person to do so.

In 1956, Althea became the first African-American person to win a Grand Slam tournament. And in 1957, she became the first black person to win at Wimbledon. She went on to defend that title in 1958 and to accumulate no fewer than 56 national and international singles and doubles titles.

Althea’s accomplishments inspired women all over the country — not least of whom, of course, were Venus and Serena Williams, who have broken record after record as some of the greatest tennis players the world has ever seen. Venus Williams is quoted as saying that she is honored to have followed in Althea’s footsteps, and that Althea’s accomplishments set the stage for her own success. “Through players like myself and Serena and many others to come, her legacy will live on,” she says.

These five are just a few of the incredible black women who made our world into what it is today. Who are some other remarkable women of color you think the world should know more about? Tell us in the comments!

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