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7 Facts About Black Women Who Shaped History

In celebration of Black Women's History Month, discover another side of iconic black women.

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  • Photo Credit: Obama White House Archives

February was black history month, March was women's history month, and April combines the two. Black women have been paving the way forward for our nation for generations—from those who first spoke out against slavery to the women of today making leaps and bounds in science and culture. These pioneers excelled in their fields, pushed the boundaries of others, and most importantly, emblazoned trails for others to follow in their footsteps.

Astronaut Mae Jemison is acrophobic.

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Jemison, the first black woman to walk in space, was introduced to science by her uncle after she moved to Chicago at the age of three. She quickly developed interests in anthropology, archeology, evolution, and astronomy. As a high school student, Jemison became interested in biomedical engineering, and at the age of only 16, entered Stanford University. In 1977, she received degrees in chemical engineering and African American studies. By 1981, Jemison also received her doctorate in medicine, which she briefly practiced before joining the Peace Corps from 1985 to 1987. She was chosen for NASA’s astronaut program in 1987 from over 2,000 applicants. In 1992, Jemison became the first black woman to travel to space as the mission specialist aboard STS-47. Despite her fear of heights, Jemison ended up logging 190 hours, 30 minutes, 23 seconds in space! 

Related: 14 Facts About Black History That You Might Not Know

Maya Angelou stopped celebrating her birthday after MLK was assassinated.

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The distinguished Maya Angelou enjoyed a long and extensive career that spanned far past the bounds of poetry. Angelou was a poet, screenwriter, essayist, director, producer, and civil rights activist. Her screenplay Georgia, Georgia was the first original script by a black woman to be produced, and her writing earned her dozens of awards and honorary degrees. A woman of great resilience, Angelou’s determination and strength would prove great weapons in the fight for civil rights.

Related: 10 Essential Books About Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1960, Angelou met with Martin Luther King Jr. and co-organized the Cabaret for Freedom to benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This was the beginning of a long and fruitful friendship, as both worked to advance the civil rights of African Americans. Then in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. asked Angelou for her help in organizing a march. Angelou agreed but was then forced to postpone; unfortunately it would be the last time Angelou would see Martin Luther King Jr. alive. Less than a year later, on Angelou’s birthday, King was assassinated. Stricken with a deep sense of grief, she never again celebrated her birthday.      

Valerie Thomas developed the first 3D optical illusion device.

Thomas’s fascination for science began at a young age as she observed her father tinkering with electronics. Thomas would go on to graduate from Morgan State University with a degree in physics—one of only two women in her class. After graduation, Thomas accepted a position with NASA and served as a data analyst. Additionally, while directing a project for NASA’s image processing system, Thomas oversaw the creation of the Landsat program—the first satellite to send images from space.

Related: 18 Important Women in History You May Not Have Heard of

Her biggest breakthrough was the result of attending an exhibit on illusion, which included a lightbulb and concave mirrors. Viewers were fooled into believing that the lightbulb was still glowing even after it had been unscrewed. She began experimenting with flat and concave mirrors until she produced her invention: the illusion transmitter. In October 1980, Thomas obtained the patent for her device—the invention makes on-screen images appear to be three dimensional. NASA continues to use Thomas’s device to this day. 

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Marjorie Joyner invented the Permanent Waving Machine.

As a lover of women’s cosmetics, Joyner revolutionized the cosmetology world for black women in more ways than one. Joyner, the granddaughter of a slave, moved to Chicago and began to study cosmetology at the age of 16. By 1916, Joyner graduated A.B. Molar Beauty School, becoming the first African American to do so.

After graduating, Joyner opened her own salon at just 20 years old. Soon, she met Madame C.J. Walker. The two joined forces, and Joyner became the national adviser for Madame Walker’s chain of beauty schools meant specifically for African American women and textured hair.

Related: Black Tuesday: 1929's Stock Market Crash Signaled the Great Depression's Start

Joyner’s greatest achievement, however, was solely her own. Joyner was interested in developing her own products and methods. In 1939, she set out to make an efficient process to style tightly curled hair into the era’s popular large curls, or straighten it completely. She took inspiration from a pot roast and began to play around with designs. Instead of using one iron to straighten a single piece of hair, Joyner innovated an earlier model of a permanent machine created by Karl Nessler, by having a number of curling irons placed on the woman’s head simultaneously. The hair could be straightened and curled all at once, and the style would last several days. Joyner received a patent for her modified perm machine, and may have been the first black woman to own a patent (some historians argue that Sarah E. Goode’s patent for the cabinet bed came first).

Ella Baker is considered the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.

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Although the Civil Rights Movement is primarily associated with figures like Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X, there were many integral women who sparked the fight. One of those is Ella Baker, a resilient activist whose career spanned more than five decades. Baker played a key role in various important organizations—including the NAACP, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Baker coordinated the SCLC in an effort to reform the South and became its director while Martin Luther King Jr. became its first president.

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Baker framed the issues and set the group’s agenda, and used her skills and contacts to plan events, establish protests, and select people to lead them. Baker travelled far and wide across the Southern states to meet the people on whose behalf she advocated. In her role as the director of branches at NAACP, Baker would attempt to steer the organization towards a more egalitarian structure, based on the insights she gleaned from the people she spoke to on the ground, whose homes she stayed in, and whose churches she attended. Purposefully eschewing the spotlight because of her ideals, Baker’s work has been under-appreciated. Her ability to communicate with rural citizens allowed the NAACP and the SCLC to recruit far more followers and supporters than they may have otherwise.

Ida B. Wells, who led the campaign against lynching, was born enslaved in 1862.

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Ida B. Wells was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi on July 16, 1862 during the height of the Civil War. Once the war ended, Wells’s parents became active in Reconstruction Era politics and instilled in her the importance of education. Wells went on to enroll at Rust College and briefly excelled. Unfortunately, soon after entering college, Wells was grieved by the loss of both her parents and her youngest brother. In order to care for her remaining siblings—she refused to have them separated—Wells took on a job as a teacher in a black elementary school.

Despite the temporary career change, Wells was an activist at heart, and it was only a matter of time before her focus centered on combating prejudice and violence. In 1884, long before Rosa Parks’s more infamous bus ride, Wells refused to move from a first class section for white women to the Jim Crow section on a train. Wells went on to sue and win her case in a lower court, but the decision was reversed in an appeals court.

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By 1892, a personal experience had led Wells to her lifelong crusade. A close friend, Tom Moss, was lynched after a fight over a marble game led to a racist mob looking to take down a prosperous grocer. Wells formed and led an anti-lynching campaign. Her pamphlets Southern Horrors and The Red Record made it clear just how widespread lynching was, and how closely it was tied to preventing the economic growth of black communities.

Her outspokenness made her a target–her newspaper presses were destroyed by a mob, and she was forced to leave Memphis and never return–but Wells never backed down. She went on to organize the National Association of Colored Women and helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. 

Henrietta Lacks unknowingly led a medical revolution.

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A resilient woman, Henrietta Lacks was the great-great-granddaughter of a slave and worked as a tobacco farmer from an early age. Lacks was only 31 when she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer. Lacks was treated in the John Hopkins Hospital by a renowned gynecologist, Dr. Howard Jones. She began to undergo radium treatments and during a biopsy, a sample of her cancer cells were retrieved.

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Those cells—later named the HeLa cells—became hugely important to medical researchers as they were the first to reproduce outside the human body. Lacks’s cells went on to make major contributions to science. Over the course of some seven decades, Lacks’s cells were harvested in labs and would eventually lead to the polio vaccine, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, cancer treatment, AIDS research, cloning, and stem-cell studies. 

Despite Lacks’ impact, her family never benefited from the thousands of patents and billions of dollars her cells produced. Nevertheless, her contributions to humanity are immeasurable, and her legacy will live on forever. 

Feature photo via Obama White House Archives