Black History Month was initially established in the United States in 1926, during the era of the Harlem Renaissance.
Then it was a week of celebration in the second week of February (to take in the birthdays of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass), under the moniker of Negro History Week.
The establishment of this country-wide celebration happened as a result of the relentless passion of Carter G. Woodson, the second black American to receive a Ph.D. in history from Harvard (the first was W.E.B. Du Bois.)
Woodson’s hope was that by celebrating heroic black figures in history, not only would the visibility of black American life be increased, but also that the whole of America would recognize the significance of the African-American past as well as the community’s contribution to the country’s present.
If this happened, equality would follow, was his thinking.
Black History Month
In 1976, that one week of celebration became four weeks and changed to Black History Month. Since then much of what Woodson wished for has occurred.
The community itself is no longer invisible, and many black heroes who rose in cultural, political or economic prominence despite the challenges they faced, are well known across American and the world.
Equality, in all that that loaded word aspires to, has not, however, been fully achieved. That work is ongoing, and Black History Month can work as a tool to remind us all of the paths we’ve traveled – shameful, dangerous, guided, inspired – and the roads we now must choose.
And so this month continues to be a powerful way to embrace the past, and the people who grew from it – individuals and communities.
It’s a month to kindle conversation as well as memory. To remind ourselves that history tells us who we are, and gives us an opportunity to find insight and inspiration to be the people we know we can be.
Boss Black Women of History
It’s also a time to remember the millions of black women in America and the world, whose stories remain forgotten or partly written out of history - even in a month that sets out to embrace their legacy.
The mothers, daughters, and sisters. The women who birthed some of history’s most recognized men, and who labored next to them to ensure some story of their lives and culture could be passed on and down through generations.
Or who gave love and support and life in other ways.
Who walked their own path. Who stepped not behind, but beside or beyond the men who would hold them back.
Who are now turning history on its head because the women that came after them, whose lives are possible because of them, have refused to let their stories fade.
So, with that in mind, here are 10 boss black women who have or are in the process of making history.
Harriet Tubman was an American abolitionist and political activist. Born into slavery, she escaped and then worked as a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad, leading over 300 slaves to freedom. In 2016 it was announced she would appear on the $20 bill - the first woman in 120 years to appear on American paper currency.
In the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, Septima Clark was known as 'the Mother of the Movement.' Her literacy and citizenship workshops played a vital role in so many African-Americans registering to vote in the US.
Oprah Winfrey is a household name across the globe. A TV and film producer, philanthropist, actress, publisher, and talk show host, Oprah owns her own television network and magazine and is one of the few female billionaires in the world.
Bessie Coleman was an American aviator, and the first woman of African-American and Native American descent to earn an international pilot's license (in 1921.) She dazzled crowds with her stunts at air shows and refused to be bowed down by racism.
Maya Angelou was a legendary poet, award-winning author, and civil rights activist. Her 1969 memoir 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,' made history as the first non-fiction bestseller by an African-American woman. She won numerous accolades for her books, poetry, acting and essays over the years. She died in 2014.
Gloria Richardson was the head of the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in the early 1960s. She was recognized as a powerful and influential figure in the Civil Rights Movement and met with US Attorney General Robert Kennedy, as well as being a confidante of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X at different times.
Winnie Mandela was a South African anti-apartheid activist and politician. In addition to being married to the late Nelson Mandela for 38 years, she received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in 1985.
An extraordinary artist, Misty Copeland became the first African-American woman to be promoted to principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre (2015), and to be part of the first black couple to play leads in full-length productions of Swan Lake (2018) and Harlequinade (2019.)
In 2005, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was elected President of Liberia and became the first female head of state ever to be democratically elected in Africa. Her work to promote peace, reconciliation, and social and economic development also earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.
Billie Holiday remains one of the most influential jazz vocalists - and singers of any genre - in the world. Her distinctive phrasing and extraordinary expressive voice are immediately recognizable. She remains an icon of music, with her most famous songs including 'God Bless the Child,' and 'Strange Fruit,' a heart-wrenching ballad about the lynching of black people in the US Southern States.