This October is Black History Month, and we will be celebrating Inspirational Black Women from all walks of life throughout this month!
So, how did it start?
Black History Month is an evolution of ‘Negro History Week’ which originated in 1926 when historian Carter G. Woodson decided to spotlight the achievements of African Americans, which had been left out from the narrative of American history. Black History Month was born in 1969, against the backdrop of the Black Power Movement, when it was decided that a week was not long enough.
Why is Black History Month important?
Black History Month means different things to everyone and is celebrated in a variety of different ways. For many, it is a way of reflecting and taking pride in the achievements and contributions of those from African and Caribbean descent, to the social, political, economic and cultural development of the UK!
Here at #YesSheCan, we recognise that there are countless inspirational black women and we are taking this opportunity to celebrate them.
Inspirational Black Women
Baroness Doreen Lawrence
Baroness Lawrence is a remarkable woman. She came to prominence when her son, Stephen, was murdered in an unprovoked, racist attack in 1993, although it wasn’t until 2012 that anyone was convicted for his murder. Throughout this period Doreen and her family campaigned for an inquiry into Stephen’s death and the handling of it by the Metropolitan Police. Ultimately, it was concluded that the Metropolitan Police were institutionally racist and this was a key reason for Stephen’s murder remaining unsolved for so long. She continues to be an anti-racism campaigner.
Malorie Blackman OBE is a hugely successful and best selling British author, she was also the first-ever black person to be the Children’s Laureate, this is awarded every two years to the writer or illustrator to showcase outstanding achievement.
Serena Williams grew up in Compton and was taught to play tennis by her Dad so she could escape her environment. Practising on concrete courts with no nets, Serena and her sister Venus developed the talent to become two of the World’s best. Serena is the most successful tennis player of the Open Era, she holds more titles than anyone else, plus Olympic medals. If there is a record worth breaking, Serena has already done it. She has battled through racism and injuries, she is now one of the few Mothers on the professional tennis tour, and she has just launched a clothing brand!!
Katherine Goble Johnson
Katherine Johnson and her two colleagues Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn were instrumental in the success of the first, and subsequent manned space flights. Not only did they break down gender barriers, but also race barriers at a time when there was both civil unrest and segregation across the United States of America.
Dr Mae Jemison
Dr Mae Jemison is the first black woman to travel to space. She was a medical doctor and practised in the US as well as Sierra Leone and Liberia. Upon her return, she followed her dreams and applied for NASA’s Astronaut Training Program, and the rest is history.
Halle Berry is not only the first, but the only black woman to have won an Academy Award for Best Actress, that was in 2001. Since then there have only been a handful of black female nominees.
Phyliss Wheatley was a well-known poet in America. She was a slave. She was taught to read and write and by 18 had a collection of 28 poems. She travelled to London to showcase her work. Wheatley’s talents were celebrated by Abolitionists as she showed that slaves were also smart, artistic and capable of far more than the roles they were enslaved to do.
Tessa Sanderson was the first British black woman to win an Olympic Gold medal. She competed in six Olympic Games, winning gold in the javelin in Los Angeles 1984.
Ava DuVernay is the first black female director to be nominated for Best Director at both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards for the film, Selma. Ava is a huge advocate of diversity and much of her works focus on racism. She not only looks to ensure her casting is diverse but also the crew working with her on turning her ideas into film.
Betty Bigombe became known for negotiating with known War Lord, Joseph Kony. Born in Uganda, receiving a fellowship to go to Harvard University, Betty returned home and became a Government Minister. Unhappy at being the sole woman and tasked with menial jobs she asked to be given the opportunity to try to stop the war in the north of the country. Over time she negotiated with Joseph Kony and eventually got him to agree to leave the jungle to start discussions with the Government.
Mary Seacole was born in Jamaica and learnt nursing skills from her mother. During the Crimean War, she approached the War Office and asked to go to the front line to provide medical support to wounded soldiers, she was refused. So instead, she funded her own trip, opened a “hotel” for the injured and became known as “Mother Seacole” by those she treated.
Oprah Winfrey is a self-made billionaire and one of the most well known successful black females in the world. She has her own TV & Film production company and the highest-rated daytime talk show ever in the US. Born into poverty, experiencing sexual abuse, being put into care all left their mark, but none of it stopped her determination to succeed.
The Right Honourable Diane Abbott MP is the country’s first black MP and the longest-serving Black MP. Irrespective of your politics, Diane has helped open the door to Parliament to be more diverse.
Joan Armatrading OBE was born in St Kitts and moved to Birmingham when she was 7. She had a love for music and is credited with being the first black female singer and songwriter to gain prominence with the general British public. She is still an influence for artists today illustrating how important she remains in UK music history.
Condoleezza Rice is a US politician and the first Black woman to have held the roles of National Security Adviser and Secretary of State. She was also one of the first two women to be a member of Augusta National Golf Club.
Harriet Tubman escaped slavery in Southern USA, a year later, she returned to Maryland to free her family. Over time, she helped more than 300 enslaved people escape to the free states in the North.
Olive Morris passed away at 27, but she had such an impact that she sealed her place in history. She campaigned for the rights of black people both in London and Manchester working to ensure equal rights for all.
Dr Shirley Thompson
Dr Shirley Thompson describes herself as a “visionary artist and cultural activist”. She is the first woman in Europe in 40 years to have composed and conducted a symphony. Her work was commissioned for the Queens Jubilee and used as a framework for the London 2012 Opening Ceremony.
Zadie Smith is a best-selling author, short story writer and essayist. Born in London, Zadie had her critically, and commercially acclaimed debut novel, White Teeth published whilst she was still studying at Cambridge University.
Claudette Colvin was the original Rosa Parks, at 15 she refused to give up a new seat on a bus and was promptly arrested. Rosa Parks did carry out the same act later on that year and it was deemed that Ms Parks was a better icon for the Civil Rights Movement. Colvin said “Being dragged off that bus was worth it just to see Barack Obama become president,” “So many others gave their lives and didn’t get to see it, and I thank God for letting me see it.”
Wangari Maathai was the first black woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She is a social and political activist and an Environmentalist. Wangari founded The Green Belt Movement, focused on environmental conservation and Women’s rights.
Maya Angelou was a Civil Rights activist, poet, author and autobiographer. Her most well-known piece, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings made her the first African American woman to achieve a nonfiction bestseller. Many artists and performers cite her as an influence.
Sharon White was the first black person to become Permanent Secretary at the Treasury. She then became Chief Executive of Ofcom, the regulatory body for Broadcasting, Telecomms and Postal industries. She will soon become the Chairman of the John Lewis Partnership.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was Africa’s first female elected president. Her 12-year reign in Liberia wasn’t without controversy, and even now she is a polarising figure, however, she still remains one of the small number of elected female Presidents in Africa.
Michelle Obama was born on the South Side of Chicago, graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School. She is the first-ever black First Lady and one of the most popular ever to have been in the White House. She used her role to focus on for education, poverty and healthy living.
Misty Copeland was the first African American Principal Dancer of the American Ballet Theatre. Misty first discovered ballet whilst living in a motel room with her five siblings. A year after taking her first dance class she was performing professionally.
Claudia Jones is described as the Mother of the Notting Hill Carnival. Born in Trinidad, she moved to the USA to become a speaker about Civil and Human Rights. When deported, she sought asylum in the UK and helped launch the Notting Hill Carnival, “A people’s art is the genesis of their freedom”.
Margaret Busby was the UK’s youngest, and first black women publisher when she co-founded Allison & Busby in 1965, only two years after the first Race Relations Act was passed by Parliament.
Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon
Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE was the youngest ever girl to pass an A-level in Computing – aged 11. She was 15 when she was admitted to the University of Oxford and was the youngest ever Masters graduate at only 20. She co-founded the STEMettes which inspires the next generation of young girls to think about careers in STEM sectors.
Andrea Jenkins is the first African American trans woman to be elected to hold office in the USA. She is a politician as we as a political activist, poet, writer and performance artist.
Moira Stuart was the first black newsreader to appear on British television in 1981, for the following 26 years she presented every type of news bulletin on the BBC.