History’s Gutsy Black Heroines

Every year during March, Women's History Month, you can find a sprinkling of celebrated African Americans. Our greatest-hits collection features Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Madam C.J. Walker, Josephine Baker, Althea Gibson and Angela Davis. But black women's history has many lesser-known players who rarely shine in the spotlight. Here are a few of the rabble-rousing, boundary-crossing women in history you may not know about -- but should.

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  • Alice Coachman

    Alice Coachman

    In 1948 high-flying Coachman, a Tuskegee Institute all-American, became the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal and the first American woman to capture gold in track and field when she won the high-jump competition in the London Olympics. Her winning jump — 5 feet 6¼ inches — also set an Olympic record and made her the only American woman to bring home gold that year.

    Captions by Linda Villarosa

  • Mary Fields

    Mary Fields

    Fields, aka Stagecoach Mary, put the wild in the Wild West. During the late 1800s, she was reportedly one of the toughest characters in the Northern Rockies of Montana. A crack shot, the 6-foot-2-inch, 200-pound Fields wore a .38 Smith & Wesson strapped under her apron. She drove the U.S. mail route between St. Peter’s Mission and the town of Cascade, Mont., for eight years — by stagecoach — dressed in a man’s hat and coat.

  • Elizabeth Keckley

    Elizabeth Keckley

    Keckley sewed her way from slavery into the White House as the personal seamstress and BFF of Mary Todd Lincoln. Born a slave in 1818, Keckley used her sewing talents to buy freedom for herself and her son. After moving to Washington, D.C., she caught the eye of Mrs. Lincoln and made the first lady’s purple velvet gown for her husband’s inauguration. In 1868 Keckley wrote the gossipy memoir Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House.

  • Elizabeth Key

    Elizabeth Key

    A mixed-race slave living in 17th-century Virginia, Key sued for her freedom using a complex legal argument — and won. In 1655, after the death of her master, Key argued that she and her infant son should be classified not as slaves but as an indentured servant with a freeborn child. Though some have criticized Key for underplaying her blackness, hers is one of the earliest freedom suits in the English colonies filed by a person of African ancestry.

  • Biddy Mason

    Biddy Mason

    Mason began life as a slave but ended up not only one of Los Angeles’ first black women landowners and philanthropists but also one of the city’s wealthiest black citizens. In 1848, when her master and his family headed west from Georgia to Nevada, Mason cooked meals, herded cattle and cared for her children and his. When the family relocated to California, a free state, Mason sued for her freedom — which she won for herself, her children and another slave family.

  • Nina Mae McKinney

    Nina Mae McKinney

    Originally from South Carolina, 13-year-old Nannie Mayme McKinney renamed herself and moved with her mother to New York City in 1925 to become a star. Film director King Vidor discovered the “third chorus girl from the right” in the Broadway musical Blackbirds of 1928 and cast her as the lead of his film Hallelujah. That role landed “the black Garbo” a five-year contract, launching her reputation as Hollywood’s original black “love goddess,” setting the stage for Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne to follow.     

  • Valaida Snow

    Valaida Snow

    This singer, musician, conductor, dancer and bandleader broke out of the chitlin’ circuit of the early 1900s, elbowing her way into the spotlight with sheer talent. In the 1930s, Snow moved to Europe, where she became the toast of the continent. In 1942, as the Nazis stormed Europe, Snow was thrown into what she called a “Nazi horror camp” for two years. Historians dispute her story, but Snow, who died in 1956, remains a powerful symbol for the black victims of the Holocaust.  

  • A'Lelia Walker

    A'Lelia Walker

    The daughter of Madam C.J. Walker, Walker was the bad girl of the Harlem Renaissance. The arts patron, who lived in a villa on the Hudson River, loved expensive cars and jewelry. Her legendary salons included the sparkling literati of the thriving 1920s black arts movement, including many gays and lesbians, as well as wealthy whites who trekked uptown. (At one party, the heiress served pigs’ feet to white folks and caviar to black folks.) Langston Hughes called the glamorous, 6-foot beauty the “joy goddess.”

  • Ora Washington

    Ora Washington

    This tennis star of the late 1920s and early ’30s was Venus and Serena rolled into one. The Philadelphia native was the first Queen of Tennis: She was the undefeated women’s singles champion of the American Tennis Association from 1929 to 1935. Also a star center for the Philadelphia Tribunes and the Germantown Hornets basketball teams, Washington was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. With more than 200 sports trophies, she was one of the most accomplished female athletes of the 20th century.

  • The Amazons of Dahomey

    The Amazons of Dahomey

    They started off as hunters, but soon the all-female African army corps proved that they were fiercer than fierce. In the 1600s, King Houegbadja of Dahomey, now Benin in West Africa, recruited women as bodyguards and elephant hunters. These fearless, disciplined warrior-athletes began a tradition of female fighters that lasted more than 250 years. In 1892, when the French attacked Dahomey, thousands of female soldiers fought with courage but were ultimately beaten; the kingdom became a French colony.

  • Mary Bowser

    Mary Bowser

    Bowser was a servant of Jefferson Davis, the leader of the Confederacy during the Civil War. But actually she was a spy for the Union. Born into slavery in Virginia, Bowser was freed by her master’s daughter. The daughter, a Union sympathizer, used her father’s money to send Bowser to school and got her a job in the “Confederate White House.” While cleaning and pretending to be dim-witted, Bowser memorized military documents, eavesdropped on Davis — and passed secrets along to the other side.

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