10 Important African American Women

African American women have made important contributions to the United States since the earliest days of the republic. Get to know 10 of these famous black women and learn about their achievements in civil rights, politics, science, and the arts.

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Marian Anderson (Feb. 27, 1897–April 8, 1993)

Marian Anderson
Underwood Archives / Getty Images

Contralto Marian Anderson is considered one of the most important singers of the 20th century. Known for her impressive three-octave vocal range, she performed widely in the U.S. and Europe, beginning in the 1920s. In 1936, she was invited to perform at the White House for President Franklin Roosevelt and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the first African American so honored. Three years later, after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow Anderson to sing at a Washington D.C. gathering, the Roosevelts invited her to perform on the steps of the Lincon Memorial instead. Anderson continued to sing professionally until the 1960s, when she became involved in politics and civil rights issues. Among her many honors, Anderson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991.

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Mary McLeod Bethune (July 10, 1875–May 18, 1955)

Mary Bethune
PhotoQuest / Getty Images

Mary McLeod Bethune was an African American educator and civil rights leader best known for her work co-founding the Bethune-Cookman University in Florida. Born into a sharecropping family in South Carolina, the young Mary displayed a zest for learning from her earliest days. After stints teaching in Georgia, she and her husband moved to Florida and eventually settled in Jacksonville. There, she founded the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute in 1904 to provide education for black girls. It merged with the Cookman Institute for Men in 1923, and Bethune served as president until 1943.

A relentless philanthropist, Bethune also led civil rights organizations and advised Presidents Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Franklin Roosevelt on African American issues. She also attended the founding convention of the United Nations at the invitation of President Harry Truman, the only African American delegate to attend.

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Shirley Chisholm (Nov. 30, 1924–Jan. 1, 2005)

Shirley Chisholm
Don Hogan Charles / Getty Images

Shirley Chisholm is best known for her 1972 bid to win the Democratic presidential nomination, the first black woman to do so in a major political party. However, she had been active in state and national politics for more than a decade at that point. She represented parts of Brooklyn in the New York State Assembly from 1965 to 1968 and then was elected to Congress in 1968, the first African American woman to serve. During her time in office, she was one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Chisholm left Washington in 1983 and devoted the rest of her life to civil rights and women's issues.

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Althea Gibson (Aug. 25, 1927–Sept. 28, 2003)

Wightman Cup
Reg Speller / Getty Images

Althea Gibson started playing tennis as a child in New York City, showing considerable athletic aptitude from a young age. She won her first tennis tournament at age 15 and dominated the American Tennis Association circuit, reserved for black players, for more than a decade. In 1950, Gibson broke the tennis color barrier at Forest Hills Country Club (site of the U.S. Open); the following year, she became the first African American to play at Wimbledon in Great Britain. Gibson continued to excel at the sport, winning both amateur and professional titles through the early 1960s.

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Dorothy Height (March 24, 1912–April 20, 2010)

Farrakhan Discusses 10th Anniversary Of The Million Man March
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Dorothy Height is sometimes known as the godmother of the women's movement for her work for women's rights. For four decades, she led the National Council of Negro Women and was a leading figure in the 1963 March on Washington. Height began her career as an educator in New York City, where her work caught the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt. Beginning in 1957, she led the NCNW, an umbrella organization for various civil rights groups, and also advised the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA). She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994.

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Rosa Parks (Feb. 4, 1913–Oct. 24, 2005)

Rosa Parks On Bus
Underwood Archives / Getty Images

Rosa Parks became active in the Alabama civil rights movement after marrying Raymond Parks, himself an activist, in 1932. She joined the Montgomery, Ala., chapter for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1943 and was involved in much of the planning that went into the famous bus boycott that began the following decade. Parks is best known for being arrested after refusing to yield her bus seat to a white rider on Dec. 1, 1955. That incident sparked the 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott, which eventually desegregated that city's public transit. Parks and her family moved to Detroit in 1957, and she remained active in civil rights until her death.

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Augusta Savage (Feb. 29, 1892–March 26, 1962)

Augusta Savage sculpture "The Harp" at the 1939 New York World's Fair
Archive Photos/Sherman Oaks Antique Mall/Getty Images

Augusta Savage displayed an artistic aptitude from her youngest days. Encouraged to develop her talent, she enrolled in New York City's Cooper Union to study art. She earned her first commission, a sculpture of civil rights leader W.E.B. DuBois, from the New York library system in 1921, and several other commissions followed. Despite meager resources, she continued working through the Depression, sculpting several notable African Americans, including Frederick Douglass and W. C. Handy. Her best-known work, "The Harp," was featured at the 1939 World's Fair in New York, but it was destroyed after the fair ended.

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Harriet Tubman (1822–March 20, 1913)

Photographic portrait of Harriet Tubman
Library of Congress

Born into slavery in Maryland, Harriet Tubman escaped to freedom in 1849. The year after arriving in Philadelphia, Tubman returned to Maryland to free her sister and her sister's family. Over the next 12 years, she returned 18 or 19 more times, bringing a total of more than 300 slaves out of slavery along the Underground Railroad, a clandestine route that African Americans used to flee the South into Canada. During the Civil War, Tubman worked as a nurse, a scout, and spy for Union forces. After the war, she worked to establish schools for freedmen in South Carolina. In her later years, Tubman became involved in the women's rights movement as well as staying active in civil rights issues.

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Phillis Wheatley (May 8, 1753–Dec. 5, 1784)

Phillis Wheatley, from an illustration by Scipio Moorhead
Phillis Wheatley, from an illustration by Scipio Moorhead on the front page of her book of poems (colorized later). Culture Club/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Born in Africa, Phillis Wheatley came to the U.S. at age 8, where she was sold into slavery. John Wheatley, the Boston man who owned her, was impressed by Phillis' intellect and interest in learning, and the Wheatleys taught her how to read and write. Though a slave, the Wheatleys allowed her time to pursue her studies and develop an interest in writing poetry. She first earned acclaim after a poem of hers was published in 1767. In 1773, her first volume of poems was published in London, and she became known in both the U.S. and U.K. The Revolutionary War disrupted Wheatley's writing, and she never was widely published thereafter. 

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Charlotte Ray (Jan. 13, 1850–Jan. 4, 1911)

Charlotte Ray has the distinction of being the first African American woman lawyer in the United States and the first woman admitted to the bar in the District of Columbia. Her father, active in New York City's African American community, made sure his young daughter was well educated; she received her law degree from Howard University in 1872 and was admitted to the Washington D.C. bar shortly thereafter. However, both her race and gender proved to be obstacles in her professional career, and she eventually became a teacher in New York City instead.