As a History graduate and former History teacher, I’ve always prided myself on knowing about the more ‘uncommon’ figures of the past. While people like Josef Stalin, Martin Luther King and Emmeline Pankhurst are fascinating people, I love knowing about those who the History textbooks have forgotten.
This is why I think it’s even more important for me to own up to the fact that I don’t know enough about historical black female figures.
The current Black Lives Matter movement has swept across the world. As most of us are, I’ve been taking the time to read, listen and learn more about civil rights movements, racism today and black history. The more I educated myself, the more I found I was woefully short on knowledge on many impressive historical black people, especially women.
Inspired by an Instagram post from Anna Bodney (@annabodneydesign) titled ‘Black women I wish I learned about in History Class’, I decided to do my own research into important and incredible Black Women from History that I should have known about before now.
As it is Pride Month, I felt it would be wrong to not discuss Johnson. A revolutionary LGBTQ activist and trans woman, Johnson is remembered for being one of the prominent figures who led the Stonewall riots in 1969. While I was aware of Stonewall and Johnson, I was not at all educated on the vast amount of activism she is known for. In addition to working as a drag performer, Johnson worked with homeless LGBTQ young people, campaigned to protect people with HIV and AIDS through organisation Act Up, was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front, co-founder of the gay and transvestite advocacy organisation S.T.A.R.
The 2017 documentary ‘The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson’ not only drew attention to her legacy, but also to the violence against transgender women of colour that continues today.
While many of us are aware of the Little Rock Nine – a group of nine Back students who were the first to integrate the previously White only Central High School. Not many of us know of Bates, who is accredited with organising the Little Rock Nine, effectively ending school segregation in Arkansas.
Prior to this, Bates moved to Little Rock and started one of the first Black newspapers (The Arkansas Weekly) that was entirely dedicated to the Civil Rights Movement. During this time the activist also served as president of her local NAACP chapter. Her influence has undoubtedly been felt across America, with the third Monday in February named Daisy Gatson Bates day in Arkansas, as of 2001.
Maathai was the founder of the Green Belt Movement (an environmental, non-governmental organization focused on the planting of trees, environmental conservation, and women’s rights). Her focus on poverty reduction and environmental conservation through tree planting saw her become the first African Woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize.
Additionally, she authored four books, and was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a Doctorate Degree (in Veterinary Anatomy, following her Masters in Biological Sciences).
4 – Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey. Unknown.
While Dr. James Marion Sims is often credited as the ‘father of modern gynecology’, his accomplishments without Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey – the enslaved women on whom he experimented on. The women are unnamed apart from their given first names, and are at times collectively referred to as the ‘mothers of gynecology’. The podcast Hidden Brain has an episode dedicated to these three women that history tried to forget, and the gynecological advancements their bodies helped make possible.
Their story highlights the troubling history of medical experimentation on African Americans, and how that history is a direct cause of the unequal medical care African Americans still receive today.