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Black Women & American History 


Four African American women picking cott
  • Between 1525 thru 1855 approximately 12.5 million African men, women, and children were taken from their homeland and shipped to the New World via the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. An estimated 400,000 to 500,000 Africans that survived the brutal journey arrived in the Americas.  

  • According to Ned and Constance Sublette, The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry, "the total value of American slaves was $4 billion, far more than the gold and silver then circulating nationally. Slaves were, to slavers, worth more than everything else they could imagine combined."

  • Collectively, African-Americans have made invaluable monetary and cultural contributions to the country. As part of the collective, Black women continue to play a significant role in shaping America. 


  • (August 20) 20 men and women from Africa arrived on a slave ship and were sold in the first North American slave auction -- by British and international custom, Africans could be held in servitude for life, though white Christian indentured servants could only be held for a limited term.


  • Massachusetts legalized slavery, specifying that a child inherited its status from the mother, rather than the father, reversing English common law.​


  • “Negro women's children to serve according to the condition of the mother,” passed by the General Assembly in the session of December 1662, Virginia’s colonial government attempted to better define the conditions by which people were enslaved or free. This was a reversal of the usual common law presumption that the status of the child was determined by the father. The act enabled the reproduction of one’s own labor force. 


  • Virginia legislature declared that free black women were to be taxed, but not white women servants or other white women; that "negro women, though permitted to enjoy their freedom" could not have the rights of "the English."


  • Lucy Terry wrote "Bar's Fight," the first known poem by an African American. The poem was about an Indian raid on Terry's Massachusetts town.


  • Phillis Wheatley's book of poems, "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral," was published in Boston and then in England, making her the first published African American writer, and the second book by a woman to be published in the land which was about to become the United States.


  •  Elizabeth Freeman becomes the first enslaved person in American history to sue for her freedom and win!


  • Sally Hemings gives birth to a daughter, Harriet, who dies in 1797. She will give birth to four or five more children, likely fathered by Thomas Jefferson.  Another daughter, Harriet, born in 1801, will disappear into white society.

Around  1797

  • Sojourner Truth (Isabella Van Wagener) born an enslaved African (abolitionist, women's rights proponent, minister, lecturer)

Around 1807: Breeding Farms were established

  • Women of African descent's ability to bear children was central to slaveholder, because enslaved status was inherited through the maternal line.

  • The prohibition of the African slave-trade limited the supply of slaves in the United States. Slaveholders looked at the fertility of slave women as part of their productivity, and intermittently forced the women to have large numbers of children.

  • "The fertility of enslaved women was examined by slave owners to make sure they could birth as many children as possible to contribute to the labor force. To accomplish their goal, slave owners would rape enslaved women. When the child was born and could work on the fields, slave owners would make slaves out of their own flesh and blood,” according to the National Humanities Center Resource Toolbox on Slaveholders’ Sexual Abuse of Slaves.

  • "When enslaved males turned 15 years old–and younger in some cases–they had their first inspection. Boys who were underdeveloped, had their testicles castrated and sent to the market or used on the farm. Each enslaved male was expected to get 12 females pregnant a year. The men were used for breeding for five years. One enslaved man name Burt produced more than 200 offspring," according to the Slave Narratives.

  • To combat the high rate of death among the enslaved, plantation owners demanded females start having children at 13. By 20, the enslaved women would be expected to have four or five children, according to Slavery in the United States by John Simkin.

  • If the enslaved woman was considered “pretty,” she would be bought by plantation owners and given "special" treatment in the house, but often subjected to horrifying cruelty by the slave owners wife, including the beheading of a child.

  • Often, the plantation owner would entertain his friends by forcing the Black men and women to have orgies–multiple pairings having sex in front of them, and the white men often would participate in the debauchery.


  • (June 14) Harriet Beecher Stowe born (writer, author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin").


  • Lucy Stoneborn (editor, abolitionist, women's rights advocate).



  • Maria W. Stewart begins series of four public lectures on religion and justice, advocating for racial equality, racial unity and standing up for rights among African Americans.


Between 1845-1949: Women's Health

  • Dr. J Marion Sims, an Alabama surgeon performed the first successful operation of Vesicovaginal Fistula, a complication of childbirth among 19th century American women. Sims success for treating this condition was developed by carrying out a series of experimental operations on black women between 1845 and 1849.

  • Dubbed "The Father of Modern Gynecology," Sims believed black people had "thicker skin than white people" and could withstand more pain, without regard to their lives or humanity. These brave women, named Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey suffered tremendous pain, enduring numerous surgeries.  

  • In I855 Sims established the first Women's Hospital in America. Three statues were constructed in Sims honor,     while Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey remained faceless and uncelebrated. 

  • In 2018 Protests of Sims unethical, dehumanizing medical practices on enslaved women led New York's Mayor to order the removal of Sim's statue from Central Park.


  • Bridget "Biddy" Mason, born a slave, saved her money and purchased land in the heart of what is now downtown Los Angeles. Mason also organized First A.M.E. Church, the oldest African American church in the city. 


  • Sojourner Truth gave her "Ain't I A Woman" speech to a women's rights convention in Akron, Ohio, in reaction to male hecklers

  • Harriet Tubman made her first trip back to the South to help members of her family to freedom; she made a total of 19 trips back to help captives escape.


  • January 1, 1863 President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing approximately 3.5 million million enslaved individuals from captivity.  


  • June 19, 1865, two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, word reached the state of Texas, freeing the the remaining captives who had been held in the dark about their freedom. June 19, coined "Juneteenth" is recognized today by African-Americans as a day of jubilee and freedom. 


  • Lucy Smith, sixteen years old, led one of the earliest organized anti-rape efforts in America. Following the brutal 1866 Memphis Race Riots, Lucy courageously testified before Congress against the seven white men, including police officers, who broke into her home and raped her and her friend.    


  • (April) Charlotte Ray admitted to the Washington, DC, bar; she graduated that year from Howard University Law School


  • Mary Eliza Mahoney graduated from the nursing school at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, Boston, becoming the first African American professional nurse. She founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses.



  • Mariam Benjamin invented the first light-up chair used in hotels. Today, Mrs. Benjamin's technology is used in airplanes, and the U.S. House of Representatives.   


  • Emma Frances Grayson Merritt (1860-1933) established the first U.S. kindergarten for African American students.


  • Maggie Lena Walker, the first women, who happened to be Black, established and served as President of U.S. Bank, breaking gender and color barriers.  


  • Mary McCloud Bethune founded the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute to educate black girls, which merged with the Cookman Institute for Men in 1923. Bethune served as president until 1943.


  • Madam C. J. Walker invented the first line of hair care products for black women, becoming the first American woman to become a self-made millionaire.


  • Ida B. Wells becomes one of the founding, a journalist, abolitionist and feminist, led an anti-lynching crusade in the United States in the 1890s.

  • Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner invented the Sanitary Belt. Racial discrimination prevented its adaption for thirty years.  


  • NAACP, founded by a number of women, Mary White Ovington became the first chairperson

  • Alice H. Parker invented a heating system that enabled Americans to have Central Heat. 


  • Black women called for white Southern women to oppose lynching; in response, Jessie Daniel Ames and others founded the Association for the Prevention of Lynching (1930-1942), with Ames as director.


  • Augusta Savage began the largest art center in the US at the time, the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts, New York




  • Alice Dunnigan became the first Black woman to cover the White House as Journalist. 


  • Sylura Barron - Became the first black woman to be a delegate at a national political convention, representing California. 


  • The incredible Henrietta Lacks, a young mother of five, underwent treatment for cervical cancer. Today, Henrietta cells— nicknamed "HeLa" cells are used to study the effects of toxins, drugs, hormones, and viruses on the growth of cancer cells without experimenting on humans.  


  • Claudette Colvin ,(15 years old) although unrecognized in American history as a Civil Rights Leader, was arrested and jailed for refusing to give up her seat to a white person, ten months before Rosa Park's led a massive boycott.   

  • Rosa Park's refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white person sparked a massive boycott, which led to the desegregation of the public transit systems. 

  • Georgia Gilmore -  A Montgomery cook and activist, who worked behind the scene, supported and fed the civil rights movement through her secret kitchen.

  • Ruby Hurley - Civil Rights Pioneer and Campaigner, who advocated for equal rights for all.  


  • Athea Gibson wins the U.S. Open Women’s Singles Tennis Championship at the U.S. Althea is the first African-American woman to reach such an achievement before Serena Williams 


  • Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner revolutionized sanitary napkins, inventing an adjustable belt with an inbuilt, moisture-proof napkin pocket.


  • Dorthy Heights, the GodMother of the Women's movement, led the National Council of Negro Women and the March on Washington 1963 alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ​

  • Dorthy Vaughn, an expert computer programmer, helped to launch the first satellite into orbit.


  • Ruby Bridges integrated an all-white elementary school in New Orleans, Louisiana

  • Ella Baker among others organized SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) at Shaw University

  • Wilma Rudolph became the first American woman to win three Olympic gold medals and was named Athlete of the Year by the United Press


  •  Katherine Johnson, best known as a human calculator, helped to send America's first human spaceflight to the moon.   


  • Marie Van Britton Brown, patented the first closed-circuit television security system, the forerunner to the present day home security system.   

  • Fannie Lou Hamer helped organize the Freedom Summer African-American voter registration drive in Mississippi.


  • Charlene Mitchell became the first African American woman to run for president, and the first to receive valid votes in a general election



  • Shirley Chisholm was the first African American woman elected to the US House of Representatives, and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party's presidential ticket.

  • Barbara Jordan becomes the first African American woman to be elected to Congress.


  • Eleanor Holmes Norton and others found the National Black Feminist Organization.

  • Marion Wright Edelson creates the Children's Defense Fund.

  • Cardiss Collins elected to Congress from a Chicago district, succeeding her husband


  • While working for AT&T Bell Laboratories, Shirley Ann Jackson contributed to the inventions of touchtone phones, call-waiting, portable fax, and fiber-optic cable. 


  • Faye Wattleton became president of the Planned Parenthood Federation -- the first woman and the first African American to hold that position.

  • United States Postal Service issued a stamp honoring Harriet Tubman.

  • Toni Morrison received the National Book Critics Award


  • Dr. Alexa Canady - Becomes the first African-American Neurosurgeon in American history.


  • Dr. Patrica Bath invented the Laserphaco Probe for cataract treatment, helping the blind see.


  • Ruane Sharon Jeter created a toaster with a digital timer.


  • Sharon Pratt Kelly becomes the first African-American woman to lead a major city in the United States when she is elected mayor of Washington D.C.


  • Mae Carol Jemison is the first African-American woman in space, traveling on the space shuttle Endeavor.

  • Carol Moseley Braun is the first African-American woman elected to serve in the U.S. Senate. Braun represents the state of Illinois.


  • Jocelyn M. Elders is the first woman and first African-American to be appointed as the U.S. Surgeon General.

  • Toni Morrison wins the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature for her novel, "Beloved." Morrison is the first African-American to hold such a distinction.

  • Barbara Ross-Lee - Became the first African-American woman to be appointed dean of an American medical school, at the College of Osteopathic Medicine of Ohio University.


  • Serena Williams wins the U.S. Open Women’s Singles Tennis Championship at the U.S. Open. 


  • Oprah Winfrey becomes the first woman and the only black person on Forbes list of 400 richest Americans in the same year.


  • Maria Van Brittan Brown and her husband invented the first home security system to utilize television surveillance.   


  • DNA evidence was used to test the theory that Thomas Jefferson fathered the children of a woman he enslaved, Sally Hemings -- most concluded that the DNA and other evidence confirmed the theory.


  • Condoleezza Rice becomes the first female African-American Secretary of State, serving under President George W. Bush.  


  • Halle Berry becomes the first African-African American woman to win the Oscar for Best Female Lead Actor. 



  • Janet Emerson Bashen becomes the First Black Woman to hold a software patent 

  • Tarana Burke founded the #MeToo Movement, empowering women of all races to speak-out against sexual abuse and sexual assault.  


  • Michelle Obama makes history, becoming the first African-American woman to occupy the White House as First Lady of the United States.    


  • Kamala Harris is elected California's Attorney General, the first African-American to hold the seat. 


  • In response to tragic and unjust murder of Trayvon Martin, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi founded Black Lives Matters, sparking a global movement toward racial equality. 


  • Viola Davis becomes the first African American woman to win an Emmy for Best Female Lead Actor. 


  • Simone Biles -  breaks a world record. Simone holds the most gold medals won in the Olympics by a female gymnast in World Championship history.

  • Simone Manuel becomes the first African-American to win a gold medal in the Olympics for swimming.    


  • Dr. Patrice Harris becomes the first African-American woman elected to be president of the American Medical Association (AMA). 

  • Dr. Gladys West is inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame. Dr. West was instrumental in developing the Global Positioning System System (GPS), advancing American technology used  by billions of people globally

  • Melissa Harville-LaBron - The first Black woman in American history to own an independent NASCAR Team.


  • Cardi B -  The first African-American solo female artist to win a Grammy in the rap category. 

  • Rihanna-  An iconic Pop Singer, is the first woman in American history to create an original cosmetic line for LVMH.


  • Valerie Amos -The first African-American person and woman to head an Oxford College.

  • CoCo Gauff - At age 15, Gauff becomes the youngest player in professional tennis history to win in the Australian open.

  • Dr. Hadiyah Nicole-Gree - First Doctor to cure cancer using laser-activated Nanoparticles 


  • Rihanna -Becomes the richest female musician in the world

  • Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson - First Black woman in the history of America to be appointed to the Supreme Court.

  • Melody Hobson - First Black women to have ownership in an NFL team


  • Coco Gauff - Becomes the youngest player, since Serena Williams, to win the U.S. Open title, at age 19.

  • Beyonce Knowles - Renaissance World Tour ranks among the highest grossing tours of all times. 


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