Unsung Black Heroines

For Women’s History Month, The Root honors a few women whose efforts to fight inequality and injustice flew under the radar. 

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    Gloria Richardson; Jane Bolin; Melba Roy Mouton (Wikimedia Commons)

    For Women’s History Month, The Root has been running profiles of women on our Facebook page who left an indelible mark in their fields but whose names may not be familiar. Here are those profiles collected into a slideshow.

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    Wikimedia Commons

    Gloria Richardson

    Civil rights activist Richardson led the “Cambridge movement,” based in Maryland. Trained as a social worker, she was not able to work in her field because Cambridge, Md.’s city government would not hire black social workers. In 1962 she organized the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee, the first adult-led affiliate of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The Cambridge committee began staging sit-ins. By the end of 1963, Cambridge schools, hospitals, libraries and buses had become desegregated.

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    Wikimedia Commons

    Alice Ball

    Ball, a chemist, is best-known for developing the injectable extract that served as the most effective treatment for leprosy until the 1940s. In 1915 Ball became the first African American and the first woman to earn a master’s degree from the University of Hawaii. In 1916 Ball developed the chaulmoogra oil extract, used for leprosy treatment, but died that same year before her research could be published.

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    Wikimedia Commons

    Mary Church Terrell

    A celebrated activist and writer, Terrell was one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree. Born to former slaves in 1863, she was appointed to the District of Columbia Board of Education between 1895 and 1906—the first black woman in the U.S. to hold such a position. In 1896 she founded the National Association of College Women (now known as the National Association of University Women). Terrell also had a successful career as a journalist; her writings were published in the Washington Post and the Chicago Defender. In addition, the women’s-rights activist helped push for the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote in 1920. She died in 1954.

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    Wikimedia Commons

    Jackie ‘Moms’ Mabley

    Mabley, who would go on to be billed as “the Funniest Woman in the World,” got her start in African-American vaudeville. During the height of her career, she made $10,000 a week at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. Mabley also performed at Carnegie Hall in 1962. She appeared on numerous TV shows, including The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, TV’s No. 1 show in the late 1960s. Mabley influenced a generation of comics, including Bill Cosby, Whoopi Goldberg, Bernie Mac, Richard Pryor, Wanda Sykes and Eddie Murphy. She died in 1975 at age 81.

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    Elainebrown.org

    Elaine Brown

    A criminal-justice activist and writer, Brown was the chairwoman of the Black Panther Party from 1974 to 1977, the first woman to chair the group. In 2003 Brown co-founded the National Alliance for Radical Prison Reform, an organization that helps prisoners find housing after they are released, facilitates transportation for family visits to prisons, helps prisoners find employment, and raises money for prisoner phone calls and gifts. In 2008 she was briefly the Green Party presidential nominee. Since 2008 Brown has continued her activism, and her lecture series, “New Age Racism in America,” has run in more than 40 universities in the U.S.

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    Wikimedia Commons

    Jane Bolin

    Bolin was the first black woman to join the New York City Bar Association and the first to join the New York City Law Department. In 1939 she became the first African-American female judge in the U.S. An outspoken activist for civil, women’s and children’s rights, Bolin was also the first African-American woman to graduate from Yale Law School. She died in 2007.

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    Wikimedia Commons

    Anna Julia Cooper

    Cooper was a prominent author, educator and scholar. Born into slavery in 1858, she went on to become a prominent educator and speaker in Washington, D.C. In 1892, while working as a teacher at Washington, D.C.’s M Street School, Cooper published her first book, A Voice From the South. At the age of 65 she became the fourth African-American woman to earn a doctorate. Cooper died in 1964 at the age of 105.

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    Wikimedia Commons

    Melba Roy Mouton

    Mouton was a NASA mathematician at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland in 1964. A 1950 graduate of Howard University, she was the assistant chief of research programs at NASA’s Trajectory and Geodynamics Division in the 1960s and headed a group of NASA mathematicians known as computers. She died in 1990.

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