10 Lesser-Known Black Women Who Paved the Way For The Rest Of Us

josephine baker and bessie coleman

You (hopefully) learned about Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Ida B. Wells in your history classes, but what about the likes of Bessie Coleman, Ella Baker, and Mary Kenner?

So many unsung black heroines have affected our lives in ways deeper than we know; because of them, women have made serious strides in the realms of science, aviation, politics, music, and beyond. 

Read on to learn about 10 such black women who paved the way for everyone who's come after them.

1 / 10

Cathay Williams, U.S. Army Soldier (1844 - 1893)

Williams is the first woman on record to pose as a man in the U.S. Army and the first documented black woman to enlist.

Born a slave in Missouri, Williams was was forced to serve an infantry regiment during the beginning of the Civil War. After the war ended, she decided to disguise herself as a man and enlist in the military (since women were prohibited from doing so) under the name William Cathay. Her military career ended two years later when she was hospitalized after contracting smallpox and discovered to be a woman. 

2 / 10

Bessie Coleman, Pilot (1892 - 1926)

Born to a family of Texas sharecoppers, Coleman went to Paris in her 20s to obtain her pilot's license. In 1921, she officially became the first woman of African-American AND Native American descent to earn both an aviation pilot's license and an international aviation license. Coleman planned on starting a school for black pilots back in the U.S. but died tragically in a plane crash before she could do so.

Hattie McDaniel, Oscar-Winning Actress And Comedian (1895 - 1952)

Hattie McDaniel, Oscar-Winning Actress And Comedian (1895 - 1952)

The Kansas native began her career in radio, becoming the very first black woman to sing on air in the U.S. In the 1930s, McDaniel moved to Los Angeles and became an actress, taking on many stereotypical roles as a slave or maid. She wound up winning an Oscar for her role as Mammy in 1939's "Gone with the Wind," becoming the first black person to earn the prestigious award. Following that role, her career took off and she was able to land bigger parts in musicals and films including "The Little Colonel," in which she starred opposite Shirley Temple. 

Ella Baker, Civil Rights And Human Rights Activist (1903 - 1986)

Ella Baker, Civil Rights And Human Rights Activist (1903 - 1986)

After graduating valedictorian from Raleigh's Shaw University and moving to New York City in 1927, Baker got involved with the Young Negroes Cooperative League and eventually became its national director. In 1938, Baker joined the NAACP and became one of its field secretaries two years later. In 1960, she founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. 

Baker wound up having a five-decades-long career in activism and is widely considered to be one of the most (if not THE most) important and influential women of the civil rights movement.

Josephine Baker, Bisexual Entertainer, French Resistance Agent, And Activist (1906 - 1975)
5 / 10

Josephine Baker, Bisexual Entertainer, French Resistance Agent, And Activist (1906 - 1975)

Baker found success on Broadway as a dancer and a singer in her early 20s. She moved to France in the 1920s and was greeted with wild success, becoming one of the highest-paid American performers there. When World War II began, she was recruited by France's external military intelligence agency to collect information about German troops. Baker later fought racial discrimination in the U.S. (despite not living there for much of her life) by refusing to perform for segregated audiences, penning articles, and working with the NAACP.

After her death, Baker became the first American-born woman to be buried with military honors in France. 

6 / 10

Mary Kenner, Inventor (1912 - 2006)

Kenner's most notable invention was the sanitary belt — the foundation for the modern maxi pad — in the 1920s as an alternative to tampons and cloth rags. It took a full three decades for Kenner's belt to be used, though, as the company that initially showed interested in it rejected the invention after finding out that Kenner was black.

7 / 10

Mamie Phipps Clark, Psychologist (1917 - 1983)

Clark is best known for her doll study in which black children were given a white doll and a black doll and asked questions about racial and self-identification. Her research played a major role in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, a Supreme Court case that determined racial segregation within public schools to be unconstitutional.

Katherine Johnson, Mathematician (1918 - )
8 / 10

Katherine Johnson, Mathematician (1918 - )

Johnson was incredibly gifted in school and was admitted to West Virginia State University when she was just 14 years old. In 1953, Johnson was offered a job as a research mathematician by NASA (then known as the National Advisory Committee for Aerodynamics, or NACA). She overcame segregation within NASA's computing department to become integral to its space flight program, calculating historical missions such as Apollo 11's 1969 flight to the moon as well as the flights of both Alan Shepard and John Glenn. 

You can learn more about Johnson's story in the hit movie "Hidden Figures."

Shirley Chisholm, Politician And Activist (1924 - 2005)
9 / 10

Shirley Chisholm, Politician And Activist (1924 - 2005)

In 1968, Chisholm became the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress. She served seven terms in the House of Representatives, where she earned the nickname “Fighting Shirley" and fought for racial and gender equality and social justice. In 1972, she made history again when she became the first black person ever to seek the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. 

Nina Simone, "High Priestess of Soul​​" And Civil Rights Activist (1933 - 2003)

Nina Simone, "High Priestess of Soul​​" And Civil Rights Activist (1933 - 2003)

Born Eunice Waymon in North Carolina, Simone learned to play the piano at the age of three and honed her singing skills in her church’s choir. In her 20s, she began singing a mix of jazz and blues in nightclubs in Atlantic City and eventually landed on the Billboard charts with her song, "I Loves You, Porgy." She later became known as a prominent voice of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, having created musical commentary about the discrimination of the black population as well as the assassination of the movement’s leaders. 

Simone will be inducted in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in April 2018.



Cain is a freelance writer who loves politics and has a lot of opinions. She recently graduated from UNC Chapel Hill and is based in North Carolina. 


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