Important Black Women in History

By Hannah Rajalingam and Talia Willscher

Madam CJ Walker, known to history as Sarah Breedlove, was the first-ever female, self-made millionaire. She was born on December 23, 1867, one of six children. By age 14 she had married a man named Moses McWilliams; this marriage was partly motivated by Walker’s desire to get away from an abusive brother-in-law. So when he died 7 years later, she moved to Missouri to be with her brothers. For the next decade or so Walker worked as a washerwoman and sang in the choir of her church. She eventually worked under Annie Turnbo of the Poro Company. Then, in 1905, Walker moved to Denver and learned basic chemistry working as a cook for a pharmacist. These skills helped her to perfect an ointment that healed “dandruff and other hygiene-related ailments”. In 1906, Walker married Charles Joseph Walker; she started making some local successes with her products with what would later be known as the “Walker Method”  or “Walker System of Beauty Culture” from which she became known as “Madam CJ Walker”. After a couple of years training “beauty culturists” and “Walker agents” through the eastern and southern United States, Madam CJ Walker and her husband opened the Lelia College of Beauty Culture, in 1908, named after their daughter, which drew lots of African-American business to Pittsburgh where they were living at the time. She continued to travel through the US providing career opportunities and economic independence for thousands of African-American women who otherwise would have been consigned to jobs as maids, cooks, laundresses, and farmhands” (Bundles). Madam CJ Walker expanded to the Caribbean and Central America and acquired 25,000 Walker agents by 1919. She was also a philanthropist, giving $1,000 to the African American Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and $5,000 to the NAACP’s (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) anti-lynching fund, in 1911 and 1919 respectively. She was politically active speaking out against lynching and for the rights of African-American soldier, even speaking about it when she visited the White House in 1917. (Bundles)

Not many know the name Dr. Gladys West, an essential pioneer in the creation of the technology used in all GPSs today. As a kid, she picked corn, cotton, and tobacco but began to use mathematics as her path out of agriculture once her teachers discovered her aptitude for it. Many years later, West earned a full ride to Virginia State College (currently Virginia State University) since she was valedictorian of her high school class. After West graduated in 1952, she applied for many government jobs, but in a white-male dominated field and a segregated state, her attempts were fruitless. West however, decided to continue to pursue her education and received her master’s in math in 1955. West’s continuous pursuit of government jobs and finally landed her an offer in 1956 from the U.S. Naval Weapons Laboratory in Dahlgren, Virginia. She was the second African American woman and fourth African American person employed there; West worked with Naval Ordnance Research Calculator (NORC) and her work on Project 29V, which helped to establish the motion of Pluto in relation to Neptune “through 5 billion arithmetic calculations and 100 hours of computer calculation” in 1964. Dr. Gladys West managed the project for SEASAT in 1978, the first satellite that orbited the Earth and measured ocean depths, which eventually led to the creation of the GEOSAT. The SEASAT was used, in addition to other data, to make incredibly accurate, detailed “computer simulations of the earth’s surface” The guide that West published in 1986 outlining how to use the GEOSAT to measure geoid heights. In the article “Gladys Mae West (1930- )”, published by Black Past, it states, “Colleagues noted her mathematical brilliance particularly with algorithms, which created efficiencies that transformed calculation timetables.” The calculations and algorithm West created are the reason we have such accurate GPS data today. She went to complete her PhD at 70 years old, while retired, at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute. In 1973 West earned a public administration degree from the University of Oklahoma, her second, while she worked at Dahlgren. The Virginia Senate, joint resolution was passed to formally commend “Gladys West for her trailblazing career in mathematics and vital contributions to modern technology.” on February 26, 2018. That very same year, in December Dr. Galdys West was inducted into the Space and Missiles Pioneer Hall of Fame. Today, she still continues to speak with grade school students about the importance of STEM studies. (“Dr. Gladys West”)

In aviation history, the name Bessie Coleman is often overlooked. She was born on January 26th, 1892 in Atlanta, Texas. Coleman lived with her twelve brothers and sisters and her parents. Her mother was a maid and her father was a sharecropper, who was of African American and Native American descent. Coleman’s father moved to Oklahoma to escape the discrimination because of his mixed race in 1901, Coleman’s mother didn’t move with him, and the rest of the family also stayed with her. Coleman would help her mother wash laundry and pick cotton growing up. She went on to attend Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston Oklahoma (now named Langston University) at eighteen with her saved up money, which unfortunately only lasted her for one semester. Coleman later moved to Chicago to live with her brothers at 23. She was eventually able to attend Burnham School of Beauty Culture in 1915 and became a manicurist and worked in a local barbershop. Some of Coleman’s brothers ended up serving in WWⅡ as pilots. They would tell Bessie about how French women were allowed to fly. It was this that inspired her to become a pilot. Coleman applied to numerous flight schools in the US but was rejected to the schools she applied to because she was both a woman and African American. Robert Abbot, “a famous African American newspaper publisher”, told Coleman to move to France to learn how to fly. Following his advice, Coleman began to take night French classes since her applications had to be filled out in French. The Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation finally accepted her, where it was located in Le Crotoy, France. Coleman finally got her international pilot’s license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale on June 15, 1921. Coleman soon dreamed of opening her own flight school. “She gave speeches and showed films of her air tricks in churches, theaters, and schools to earn money. She refused to speak anywhere that was segregated or discriminated against African Americans.” (Alexander) 1922 marked Coleman’s first public flight as an African American woman. “Loop-de loops” and figure eights were her trademarks, these and more of the fascinating tricks she did became increasingly popular in Europe and the US. Coleman also encouraged women and African-Americans to learn how to fly. February 1923,  a couple of years into her flying career, Coleman got into a plane crash; her engine died mid-flight. She sustained some injuries but was able to fully recover and continue flying in 1925. Coleman was able to use the money she saved up to purchase a plane for herself, “a Jenny – JN-4 with an OX-5 engine”. She returned to Texas to perform but it was during segregation so there were separate entrances for black and white. Coleman refused to perform with the segregated entrances, so her managers eventually gave in and had a single entrance, but the stadium was still segregated in its seating. Despite her death in April 1926, Bessie Coleman’s steadfastness to her beliefs inspired change long after her death. In 1931, the Challenger Pilots’ Association of Chicago began the tradition of flying over Coleman’s grave every year in her honor. In 1977, the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club was formed by a group of African American female pilots. In 1995, “the Bessie Coleman Stamp” was created to commemorate her accomplishments. (Alexander)

Cathay Williams was an African American woman born in 1844 in Independence, Missouri. She was initially a slave, leading to her being forced into serving in the army, doing jobs such as cooking and washing clothes. She later joined the army of her own free will, going under the pseudonym William Cathy. However, after a long stunt in the army, illnesses such as smallpox plagued her, leading to hospitalization in 1868. This trip to the hospital outed her as a woman, and she was discharged. Yet, this setback didn’t stop her. She joined an all black group of soldiers known as the 38th Infantry Regiment, which later became the well-known group the Buffalo Riders. This group mapped out territory, protected white civilians, escorted wagon trains, and fought in skirmishes with Native Americans. Cathay Williams became the first black woman to join the army, a feat that was quite impressive especially because of all she succeeded in doing. 

Phillis Wheatley was born in Senegal/Gambia, West Africa, and at the age of seven, was kidnapped to be sold into slavery. She was sold to Susan Wheatley, who wanted a “frail female child.” The captain of the slave ship had believed Phillis to be ill and wanted to earn a small sum of money off of her before her death, but the Wheatley family was surprised to discover how smart Phillis truly was. She was taught to read and write, which was something most enslaved people were not permitted to do. Despite being educated, however, Phillis still had to do some domestic duties. She studied many subjects and soon published a poem called An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of that Celebrated Divine, and Eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the Reverend and Learned George Whitefield at the young age of thirteen. Phillis then went on to have written twenty eight poems by the age of eighteen, which she advertised through Boston newspapers with the help of Mrs. Wheatley. She later published a book of poetry, becoming the first African American woman to do so. Wheatley later married a man named John Peters, a free black man. She died later after complications from giving birth to three children (it is believed). In total, she is believed to have written over one hundred and forty five poems, and was an important figure to the role of women in literature. 

Katherine Johnson was born in West Virginia in 1918. When she was thirteen years old, she was already in high school, and she enrolled herself in college at eighteen. She graduated with the highest honors in the class and later went on to teach at a black public school. Later on, when integration in graduate schools was taking place, Katherine and two black men were chosen to be offered spots at Western Virginia University. She eventually got a job analyzing flight data, but when Sputnik, the Soviet satellite was launched into space, Katherine’s job changed. She ended up doing trajectory analysis for Alan Sheperd’s space mission. She also wrote a research report and it was the first time a woman had been credited as the author of one. Then in 1962, while working at NASA, Katherine was called to check the numbers for John Glenn’s space trip. They had already been done on the computer, but she checked them by hand and said they were good to go. Glenn’s space mission was successful and changed the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. She retired in 1986 after thirty three years of work, but became a  symbol of hope for young girls across the nation. The “Hidden Figures” movie of 2016 drew even more attention to Katherine Johnson’s name. She died February 24th, 2020, but her smarts and her dedication changed history and allowed for the United States to move forward in their space technological discoveries.