The Women Behind the Names ~ Black Women of History

The Women Behind the Names ~ Black Women of History

Not familiar with the Black Women of History Collection? Check out the introduction here. 


Not sure who's who on the Black Girl Magic earrings? The list below explains each engraved name (in order of appearance in the pic above). In a few cases one name represents multiple people.

These historical facts reveal the immense diversity of skill and variety of disciplines represented—from art to activism, from engineering to aviation.

I encourage others to investigate further and discover the power behind this incredible group of women.


Wangarĩ Maathai 

Environmentalist, political activist, author

First African woman to win the Nobel Prize. Founder of the Green Belt Movement. Researched land use, forestry, agriculture, resource-based conflicts, and peace studies. Fought for democracy, human rights, and environmental conservation. First woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree. 


Mary McLeod Bethune 

Educator, stateswoman, civil rights activist

Founded the National Council for Negro Women in 1935. Appointed national adviser to president Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom she worked with to create the Federal Council on Negro Affairs, aka the Black Cabinet.


Mary Church Terrell 

Civil rights activist, suffragist

One of the first African-American women to earn a college degree. Helped found the National Association of Colored Women (1896) and served as its first national president. Founding member of the National Association of College Women (1910).


Aretha Franklin

Singer, songwriter, actress, pianist, and civil rights activist

Known as the "Queen of Soul". Recorded 112 charted singles on Billboard, including 17 top-ten pop singles. One of the best-selling music artists of all time, having sold more than 75 million records worldwide. Awarded the National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.


Shirley Chisholm

Politician, educator, author

First Black woman elected to the United States Congress. First African-American candidate for a major party's nomination for President of the United States, and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. Posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


Alice Coachman Davis

Olympic athlete

First black woman to win an Olympic gold medal. Specialized in high jump. Also first African American to earn an endorsement deal. Inducted into nine different halls of fame.


Alice Walker

Writer, social activist

Wrote the novel The Color Purple, which won a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. Coined the term womanist, meaning "A black feminist or feminist of color" in 1983.


Rosa Parks

Civil rights activist

Best known for her pivotal role in the Montgomery bus boycott. The U.S. Congress has called her "the first lady of civil rights" and "the mother of the freedom movement”. Received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, and a posthumous statue in the United States Capitol. First woman to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda.


Harriet Tubman 

Abolitionist, suffragist

Escaped slavery and made several missions to rescue approximately 70 enslaved people, including family and friends, using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad.


Althea Neale Gibson

Tennis player, professional golfer

First African-American to win a Grand Slam title (French Championships, 1956). Won both Wimbledon and the US Nationals (1957, 1958). Inducted into the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame.


Ella Fitzgerald

Jazz singer

Referred to as the "First Lady of Song" and "Queen of Jazz." Noted for her purity of tone, impeccable diction, phrasing, timing, intonation, and improvisational skills.


Ella Baker

Civil rights activist

Founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a prominent organization in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, uniting young leaders. Worked with leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thurgood Marshall.


Josephine Baker 

Entertainer, French Resistance agent, civil rights activist

First Black woman to star in a major motion picture (Siren of the Tropics, 1927).  Renowned dancer and icon of the Jazz Age/Roaring Twenties. Was awarded the Croix de guerre by the French military, and was named a Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur by General Charles de Gaulle. Refused to perform for segregated audiences in the United States.


Bessie Coleman


First African-American woman (and Native-American) to hold a pilot license. Became a high-profile pilot in notoriously dangerous air shows in the United States. Known as "Queen Bess" and "Brave Bessie".


Bessie Smith

Blues singer

Most popular female blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s. Nicknamed the "Empress of the Blues”.  Major influence on blues and jazz vocalists.


Mae Carol Jemison 

Engineer, physician, NASA astronaut.

First black woman to travel into space. Served as a mission specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour and was selected to serve for Nasa’s STS-47 mission, during which she orbited the Earth for nearly eight days (1992).


Barbara Charline Jordan

Lawyer, educator, politician, activist

Leader in the Civil Rights Movement. First African American elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction. First Southern African-American woman elected to the United States House of Representatives. First African-American and woman to deliver a keynote address at the 1976 Democratic National Convention. Received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


Augusta Savage

Sculptor, teacher

Influential artist and teacher of the Harlem Renaissance. Was commissioned by the New York World’s Fair of 1939 to create a sculpture symbolizing the musical contributions of African Americans. Worked for equal rights for African-Americans in the arts. First African-American member of the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors. First director of the Harlem Community Art Center.


Ida B. Wells

Investigative journalist, educator, and civil rights leader

One of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Combated prejudice and violence, fought for African-American equality, with a focus on women's rights. Was arguably the most famous Black woman in America during her time.


Maya Angelou

Poet, memoirist, civil rights activist.

Best known for her series of seven autobiographies (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1969). Published books of essays and poetry. Is credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows. Received dozens of awards and more than 50 honorary degrees.


Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Singer, songwriter, guitarist

First guitar heroine, aka the "Godmother of Rock & Roll". Known for her heartfelt gospel folksiness and guitar mastery, which rivaled male contemporaries and influenced musicians, like Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. Among the first popular recording artists to use heavy distortion on her electric guitar, presaging the rise of electric blues. Influenced the development of British blues in the 1960s. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.


Sojourner Truth

Abolitionist, women's rights activist

Escaped slavery with her infant daughter (1826). Won a court battle to recover her enslaved son, the first black woman to win such a case against a white man (1828). Helped recruit black troops for the Union Army. First African American woman to have a statue in the Capitol building. Included in Smithsonian magazine's list of the "100 Most Significant Americans of All Time".


Billie Holiday

Jazz and swing singer

Influenced jazz and pop music with a vocal style inspired by jazz instrumentalists. Pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo. Known for her vocal delivery and improvisational skills. Nicknamed "Lady Day”. Sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall. Won four Grammy Awards for Best Historical Album. Was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame (1973). Inducted into the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame.


Grace Jones

Model, singer, songwriter, record producer, actress

Ranked 82nd on VH1's 100 Greatest Women of Rock and Roll. Influenced the cross-dressing movement of the 1980s. Inspired artists like Annie Lennox, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Solange, Lorde, Róisín Murphy, Brazilian Girls, Nile Rodgers, Santigold, and Basement Jaxx. Ranked 40th on Billboard's Greatest Dance Club Artist of All Time (2016).


Grace Johnson

Civil rights activist

Patron of the arts associated with the Harlem Renaissance. Known for her involvement with the NAACP, the Heterodoxy Club, and many other African-American and Feminist organizations. Also supported African-American children's literature.


 Katherine Johnson 


Master of complex manual mathematical calculations. During her 35-year career at NASA, she performed calculations critical to the spaceflights of Alan Shepard and John Glenn. Pioneered the use of computers. Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.


Madam C.J. Walker 

Entrepreneur, philanthropist, political, activist

The first female self-made millionaire in America, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Developed and marketed a line of cosmetics and hair care products for Black women. Also known for her philanthropy and activism. 


Toni Morrison

Novelist, essayist, editor, professor

Nobel laureate whose best-selling novels explored black identity in America. Won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Song of Solomon (1977). Won the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved (1987). Honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and received the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction. Inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

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