1. Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)
“I hope that Sojourner Truth would be proud to see me, a descendant of slaves, serving as the First Lady of the United States of America.”– First Lady Michelle Obama
Sojourner Truth is considered one of the great abolitionists, activists, speakers, and thinkers of all time. Born into slavery in 1797, she possessed a gift for public speaking and spoke fervently about abolishing slavery and about the need for women’s rights.
After the Civil War, Sojourner Truth dedicated her time to helping former slaves transition to a life of freedom. Sojourner Truth fought tirelessly for the rights of African-Americans and women until the day she died in 1883.
In April of 2009, Sojourner Truth became the first black woman to be honored with a bust in the United States Capital. First Lady Michelle Obama, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senator Hillary Clinton were among those who spoke about Sojourner Truth at the bust’s unveiling.
Born into slavery in 1820 on a Maryland plantation, Harriet Tubman is known as one of the great conductors of the Underground Railroad. Over the course of ten years (from 1850 to 1860), Tubman guided approximately 300 slaves to freedom.
Tubman (pictured far left) with slaves she helped rescue in 1885
At one point, authorities offered a reward of $40,000 to anyone who captured Tubman. People referred to her as “Moses.” Frederick Douglass said of her, “Excepting John Brown — of sacred memory — I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than [Harriet Tubman].”
3. Rosa Parks (1913-2005)
Born in 1913, Rosa Parks is the brave seamstress who on December 1, 1955 would not give up her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama. Her courage helped end legal segregation for good and set the modern Civil Rights Movement in motion.
Of her experience growing up, she said, “we didn’t have any civil rights. It was just a matter of survival, of existing from one day to the next. I remember going to sleep as a girl hearing the Klan ride at night and hearing a lynching and being afraid the house would burn down.”
Rosa Parks is the first woman and the second African-American to have been given astate funeral – her casket was kept in the capital for two days following her death (something that only really happens to former presidents). During her lifetime, she received the Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor.
4. Daisy Bates (1914-1999)
Daisy Bates was a pivotal civil rights activist and the guide, mentor, and advisor for the Little Rock Nine. She was also the president of the state of Arkansas’s NAACP chapter and helped her husband run a weekly newspaper, the Arkansas State Press, which chronicled the ongoing battle for civil rights in Arkansas during the 1950s.
When the Supreme Court ruled that segregation among schools was no longer constitutional (in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case), the state of Arkansas resisted the ruling. Daisy Bates advocated for integration and helped identify the nine students who would be the first African-American students to attend Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.
She mentored and nurtured the students during this difficult time, striving to protect them from mobs and vicious threats. Throughout her life, she continued to fight for civil rights, working for the Democratic National Committee in Washington and incubating many community projects in Little Rock. Her memoir, The Long Shadow of Little Rock: A Memoir chronicles her experiences growing up and her involvement in the struggle for civil rights.
5. Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000)
Gwendolyn Brooks was one of the most influential American writers and poets of the 20th century. Based primarily in Chicago, IL, a center of Blues and Jazz cultures, her poems often carry a musical quality, and many catalog the black experience.
Brooks was the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize (which she won for her book of poetry Annie Allen). Her most famous poem is “We Real Cool”. She wrote over twenty books of poetry during her lifetime, and was honored with many awards, including serving as the Poet Laureate for the state of Illinois in 1968 and as a Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1985 to 1986.
6. Toni Morrison (1931- )
Toni Morrison is one of the greatest writers of the 20th and 21st centuries, known for chronicling the history and experiences of Black America. She became the first African-American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, and the Swedish Academy described her as a writer “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”
In an interview with Elizabeth Farnsworth (of KQED’s Online Newshour), Morrison famously said, “All paradises, all utopias are designed by who is not there, by people who are not allowed in.” Her novel Beloved also won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
7. Oprah Winfrey (1954- )
One of the most influential American TV personalities, philanthropists, and producers, Oprah Winfrey became the first African-American woman to host a national television talk show in 1986. Within one year, the Oprah Winfrey Show was the number one talk show in America.
She received the National Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and in 2003 Forbes Magazine revealed her to be the first African-American woman to become a billionaire.
8. Dr. Mae Jemison (1955- )
Dr. Mae Jemison was a mission specialist for NASA and the first African-American woman to enter space. She was born in Decatur Alabama in 1955, and studied chemical engineering and Afro-American studies at Stanford University.
She then attended Cornell University’s medical school and used her degree working in a Cambodian refugee camp. She then served as a medical specialist in the Peace Corps in West Africa. After NASA selected her to undergo mission specialist training, she ventured into space aboard the Shuttle Endeavor in 1992. During her career as an astronaut, she logged 190 hours, 30 minutes, and 23 seconds in space.