The Root Disruptors: 11 Black Women Who Changed History

These amazing women refused to be second-class citizens.

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    For Black History Month, The Root featured a series on Facebook called #RootDisruptor, which highlighted the men and women of the African Diaspora who helped change the course of history. For Women’s History Month, we wanted to spotlight the women featured in the series.

    The list includes an aviator who soared above the challenges of racism and sexism; a Montgomery, Ala., teenager who was jailed for refusing to stay in her place on a bus before Rosa Parks was arrested; and a South African singer who was exiled after speaking out against her country’s racist policies. These women, along with the others featured here, taught us that neither racism nor sexism can keep us from achieving our dreams.

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    Septima Poinsette Clark

    Known as the grandmother of the American civil rights movement, Clark developed the literacy and citizenship workshops that played an important role in the drive for voting rights and other civil rights for African Americans during the civil rights movement. In 1920, while serving as an educator in Charleston, S.C., Clark worked with the NAACP to gather petitions allowing blacks to serve as principals in Charleston schools. Their signed petitions resulted in the first black principal in Charleston. Clark also worked tirelessly to teach literacy to black adults. In 1979 President Jimmy Carter presented her with a Living Legacy Award. Her second autobiography, Ready From Within: Septima Clark & the Civil Rights Movement, won the American Book Award.

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    Madam Efunroye Tinubu

    Tinubu was born in the early 19th century in Yorubaland, an area in what is now known as Nigeria. She was a major political and business player who campaigned against the influence of the British Empire over her people and for the elimination of slavery. She became the first iyalode (queen of ladies) of the Egba clan and is considered an important figure in Nigerian history because of her political significance as a powerful female aristocrat in West Africa. “Iyalode” is a title commonly bestowed on the most prominent and distinguished woman in a town. After Tinubu, a former slave trader herself, realized that the treatment of Africans enslaved in Europe and the Americas was more inhumane than the way slavery was practiced in Africa, she became a scathing opponent of all forms of slavery and used her influence to try to eliminate the practice in her region.

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    Fannie Lou Hamer

    Coining the phrase “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Hamer was a voting-rights activist and civil rights leader. She was instrumental in organizing Mississippi Freedom Summer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and later became the vice chairwoman of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Hamer stood firm in her religious beliefs, often quoting them in her fight for civil rights. She ran for Congress in 1964 and 1965 and was then seated as a member of Mississippi’s legitimate delegation to the Democratic National Committee of 1968, where she was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War.

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    Daisy Bates

    Bates was an American civil rights activist, publisher and writer who played a leading role in the Little Rock, Ark., integration crisis in 1957. Before that, Bates and her husband started their own newspaper in 1941 called the Arkansas State Press. The paper became a voice for civil rights even before the nationally recognized movement. After moving to Washington, D.C., in the 1960s, she served on the Democratic National Committee and also in the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, working her magic on anti-poverty programs. In her home state of Arkansas, it has been established that the third Monday in February is George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day, an official state holiday.

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    Claudette Colvin

    On March 2, 1955, a full nine months before Rosa Parks’ famous arrest, Colvin was dragged from a Montgomery bus by two police officers, arrested and taken to an adult jail to be booked. She was only 15 years old and was the first person to be arrested for defying bus segregation in Montgomery. Her experience and the rest of her story have long since been forgotten, but they provided the spark for the black community in Montgomery that ultimately led to Parks’ actions, the bus boycott and the Supreme Court ruling to end segregation on buses.

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    Anna Arnold Hedgeman

    A civil rights leader, politician and writer, Hedgeman was also the first African-American student at Hamline University, a Methodist college in Minnesota. After college she became a teacher. During her tenure as a teacher, Hedgeman witnessed segregation and decided to fight for its end. After holding a position as assistant dean of women at Howard University in 1946, Hedgeman later moved to New York and became the first African-American woman in the history of the state to hold a mayoral Cabinet position.

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    Dorothy Height

    Although the name “Dorothy Height” is recognizable, many of her accomplishments as a civil rights activist, administrator and educator are not. After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at New York University, Height became active in fighting for social justice. She was president of the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004. During the height of the civil rights movement, Height organized “Wednesdays in Mississippi,” which brought together black and white women from the North and South to engage in dialogue about relevant social issues. Height is quoted as saying, “I want to be remembered as someone who used herself and anything she could touch to work for justice and freedom. … I want to be remembered as one who tried”—a motto she lived by until her death in 2010 at the age of 98.

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    Miriam Makeba

    Makeba, or “Mama Africa,” was a South African singer and civil rights activist known for denouncing apartheid on the world stage and campaigning abroad for the end of the oppressive policy. As a result of her activism, her South African passport was revoked in 1960 by the apartheid regime, and it banned her from returning to her country in 1963. However, the world came to Makeba’s aid, and Guinea, Belgium and Ghana issued her international passports. She received passports from six other countries during her lifetime and was granted honorary citizenship in 10 countries. Despite the success that made her a star, she refused to wear makeup or curl her hair for performances, proudly wearing what came to be known internationally as the “Afro-look.” Her marriage to civil rights activist, Black Panther and SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael in 1968 caused controversy in the United States, and her record deals and tours were canceled. The couple then moved to Guinea, and as South Africa’s apartheid system crumbled, she returned to her home country for the first time in 1990.

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    Diane Nash

    A leader and strategist of the student wing of the civil rights movement, Nash was a member of the famed Freedom Riders. She also helped found SNCC and the Selma voting-rights campaign, which helped blacks in the South get the vote and build political power. Raised in Chicago in the Catholic faith, Nash initially wanted to become a nun. Known for her beauty, she was also a runner-up for Miss Illinois. But Nash’s path changed direction when she transferred from Howard University to attend Fisk, where she witnessed segregation firsthand. Her experiences in the South inspired her determination to fight segregation.

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    Bessie Coleman

    Coleman was the world’s first licensed black civil aviator. The outbreak of World War I led to her interest in aviation, and noting the more liberal attitudes of Europeans toward women of color, she traveled to France in 1921 to earn her international pilot’s license. After returning to the U.S., she became famous as an instructor and a stunt flier. Her dream was to open a flying school for African Americans, but Coleman died before this could happen. Her death in 1926 during an air show practice in Jacksonville, Fla., stunned and saddened the public, and the grave of “Brave Bessie” is honored to this day with an annual flyover.

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    Cathay Williams

    Williams, the daughter of an enslaved woman and a free black man in the 19th century, was the first documented African-American woman to enlist and serve in the U.S. Army. After being liberated during the Civil War, she worked as a laundress and cook in the Union Army. Because life in the postwar 1860s for a black woman was still fairly grim, she chose to enhance her prospects by posing as a man: William Cathay. Under her masculine pseudonym she enlisted in the 38th U.S. Infantry (following what must have been a very hasty physical examination) and went on to become America’s first female African-American buffalo soldier.

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