Class Acts: Black Women Educators

From professors to reformers to politicians, these women are rethinking and reshaping our schools.

Image 1
  • images2Fslides2Fwomenineducationsplit_31513_570se_1
    Annette Gordon-Reed (Neilson Barnard/Getty Images); Melissa Harris-Perry (; Amy Wilkins (

    For Women’s History Month, we chose to take a look at the contributions of black women to the educational cause. You might not have heard of many of the people on this list, but the work these African Americans are doing to change and improve the quality of education — whether it’s through legislation, in the classroom or from a college dean’s office — is invaluable. Click through to learn more about them.

  • images2Fslides2Flindadarlinghammond_31513_570se_1

    Linda Darling-Hammond

    Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University, was an adviser to President Barack Obama during his first presidential campaign. She helped craft his education program and was considered an early candidate for education secretary (the position went to Arne Duncan). One of the pre-eminent authorities on education, she has advocated for school restructuring, education equity and improvement in teacher development.


  • images2Fslides2Fevelynhigginbotham_31513_440se_1

    Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham

    Higginbotham is a professor of history and African and African-American studies at Harvard as well as the chair of the university’s AAAS department. With the blessing of historian John Hope Franklin, she completely revised and rewrote his revered book, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (ninth edition), published in 2010. She also co-edited two works with Henry Louis Gates Jr., editor-in-chief of The Root. 


  • images2Fslides2Fmelissaharrisperry_31513_570se_1

    Melissa Harris-Perry

    Harris-Perry, a political science professor at Tulane University, first gained national attention for her appearances on MSNBC, where she now hosts an eponymous show on Saturday and Sunday mornings. The show, which is dubbed “Nerdland” and has its own Twitter hashtag, offers an in-depth examination of how politics, race and gender affect the culture at large.  


  • images2Fslides2Fruthsimmons_31513_570se_1
    Kris Connor/Getty Images

    Ruth J. Simmons

    From 2001 to 2012, Simmons, the first African American to lead an Ivy League institution, served as president of Brown University. During her tenure, she helped expand the faculty and instituted admissions policies that accepted qualified students regardless of financial need. She also appointed a Committee on Slavery and Justice, which began an unprecedented examination of Brown’s connection to slavery and whether the university should make reparations. 


  • images2Fslides2FCarolinehoxby_31513_570se_1

    Caroline M. Hoxby

    Hoxby, a Rhodes scholar and professor of economics at Stanford University, has been at the forefront in research on the effectiveness of charter schools. She has also done in-depth studies on the effects of education on economic growth, the market for college education and financial aid in higher education.  


  • images2Fslides2Fshirlyannjackson_31513_570se_1

    Shirley Ann Jackson

    Before becoming president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the first African-American woman to lead a national research university in 1999, Jackson already had an impressive list of accomplishments. She was the first black woman to earn a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in nuclear physics and was the first woman and African American to chair the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In 2002 she was named one of the 50 most important women in science by Discover magazine. She is also leading efforts to increase the number of minorities and women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers. 

  • images2Fslides2Felizabethalexander_31513_570se_1

    Elizabeth Alexander

    In addition to delivering the poem “Praise Song for the Day” at President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, Alexander is a professor of American studies and English as well as the chair of the department of African-American studies at Yale. She is an author, essayist and playwright who has received numerous awards for her work.


  • images2Fslides2Fvaleriesmith_31513_570se_1

    Valerie Smith

    As dean of the college at Princeton, Smith is responsible for the academic program for undergraduates at the university. She is a professor of literature, English and African-American studies and the founding director of Princeton’s Center for African American Studies.


  • images2Fslides2Fevelynnhammond_31513_570se_1

    Evelynn Hammonds

    Hammonds is the first woman and African American to hold the title of dean of Harvard College, one of the undergraduate schools at Harvard University. As a professor of African and African-American studies and history of science, she has done extensive research on black female sexuality and how race and gender have affected the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

  • images2Fslides2Fannettegordonreed_31513_570se_1
    Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

    Annette Gordon-Reed

    The Harvard law and history professor is best known for her 1997 book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, which completely changed our view of the relationship between one of the country’s founding fathers and his slave. Historians had long held that Jefferson didn’t have a relationship with Hemings, who was also his wife’s half sister. What Gordon-Reed theorized, and DNA tests later proved, is that Jefferson fathered seven children with Hemings. She also wrote The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in history.

  • images2Fslides2Flisadelpit_31513_570se_1

    Lisa Delpit

    The MacArthur “genius” fellow and executive director of the Center for Urban Education and Innovation at Florida international University has been at the forefront of reforming education for students of color. Her seminal work, 1995’s Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, was one of the first to examine the cultural gaps between white teachers and minority students. Her latest book, “Multiplication Is for White People”: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children (2012), attempts to address the achievement gap between white and black students by offering teachers a blueprint to expect more from their students.

  • images2Fslides2Flesliefenwick_31513_570se_1

    Leslie Fenwick

    As dean of Howard University’s School of Education, Fenwick has been one of the leading voices in addressing minority-student achievement and increasing the number of minority educators. As well as being a dean and professor of educational policy and leadership at Howard, she is co-principal investigator for Ready to Teach, a program dedicated to increasing the number of teachers of color.


  • images2Fslides2Fglorialadsonbillings_31513_570se_1

    Gloria Ladson-Billings

    Ladson-Billings, a professor of urban education at University of Wisconsin-Madison, is best known for her groundbreaking work in culturally relevant teaching. She is also challenging the notion of the “racial achievement gap,” which she says unfairly defines minority children, by instead calling it an “educational debt,” which society is responsible for paying down.  


  • images2Fslides2Fpatriciabrantley_31513_570se_1

    Patricia Brantley

    Brantley is chief operating officer of Friendship Public Charter School, one of the largest black-led networks in the country, with 11 schools and nearly 8,000 students in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. Friendship has helped minority students improve academically and go on to four-year universities.

  • images2Fslides2FNinaGilbert_31513_570se_1

    Nina Gilbert

    Gilbert, a daughter of educators, grew frustrated at the lack of opportunities for minority students in her community and founded the Ivy Preparatory Academy Charter Schools, Georgia’s first homegrown charter network. As executive director, Gilbert has help Ivy Prep become one of the state’s highest-performing schools despite resistance from school districts that don’t think charter schools should be funded with local money.

  • images2Fslides2FAmyWilkins_31513_570se_1

    Amy Wilkins

    Wilkins recently joined the College Board as senior fellow for social justice, where she will address issues facing low-income and minority students attempting to enter college. Before being named to her new role, she was the vice president of Education Trust, an organization dedicated to closing the student achievement gap. She also is the daughter of professor and journalist Roger Wilkins and the grandniece of the late Roy Wilkins, past executive director of the NAACP.

  • images2Fslides2Faliciathomasmorgan_31513_570se_1

    Alicia Thomas Morgan

    The Georgia state representative is leading reform efforts in her state by advocating for school choice and charter schools. She is also gaining national attention, having joined a select group of bipartisan national legislators to work with Education Secretary Arne Duncan on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, formerly known as “No Child Left Behind.” 


  • images2Fslides2Fkimberlyoliverburnim_31513_570se_1

    Kimberly Oliver Burnim

    A national “teacher of the year” in 2006, Burnim specialized in early-childhood education. She began her career at Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she taught at-risk children. She is a teacher trainer as well as a senior curriculum adviser for, an educational website for preschool to kindergarten students.


  • images2Fslides2Fbarbarabowman_31513_570se_1

    Barbara Bowman

    Bowman is one of the leading authorities on early-childhood education and educational equity for low-income and minority students. She’s one of the founders of the Erikson Institute, a graduate school for child development, and the former chief early-childhood education officer for Chicago Public Schools. She is also the mother of Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Obama.


  • images2Fslides2Fkayahenderson_31513_570se_1
    Kris Connor/Getty Images

    Kaya Henderson

    Henderson replaced the controversial and noted education reformer Michelle Rhee as D.C. chancellor of public schools in 2011 during a tumultuous period for the school district. Last year she unveiled an ambitious five-year plan to improve D.C. schools, including increasing enrollment, raising test scores and improving high school graduation rates. 


  • images2Fslides2Fbarbarabyrdbennett_31513_570se_1

    Barbara Byrd-Bennett

    Byrd-Bennett was appointed chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools by Mayor Rahm Emanuel last October. Byrd-Bennett will have to use her extensive experience as an educator in New York City and Cleveland to bring together parents, the teachers union and city officials as the district moves past the recent teachers’ strike and addresses school closures and other issues affecting Chicago students.


  • images2Fslides2Fkarenalford_31513_570se_1

    Karen Alford

    Alford is vice president of elementary schools for the United Federation of Teachers, the union that represents most of New York City’s teachers in public schools. Alford, who began her career as a teacher in Brooklyn, N.Y., oversees the Early Childhood Conference and helps to create development opportunities for elementary school teachers.

    Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.