If women get short shrift in history textbooks, black women get doubly short-changed—and that’s a shame, because cool women like these deserve wider recognition. Now’s the perfect time to get to know them better.
“My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders,” said civil rights activist Baker, who worked mostly behind the scenes from the 1930s to the 1980s to develop the NAACP, eliminate Jim Crow laws, organize the Freedom Summer, and found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Six-foot-tall, cigar- smoking, shotgun-tot- ing Mary Fields (left) was born a slave and became the first black woman mail carrier in 1895 at age 60 by being the fastest applicant to hitch a team of six horses. She never missed a delivery—when snow was too deep for her horses, she strapped on snowshoes to deliver mail. “Stagecoach Mary” was so beloved that schools closed to celebrate her birthday and the mayor exempted her from Montana’s law against women entering saloons.
Keckley—who bought her freedom and started a successful dressmaking business—was Mary Todd Lincoln’s confidante and generated much controversy with her behind-the-scenes book about the Lincolns.
Imagine if Serena Williams wrapped up her tennis career by becoming a pro basketball player: She might considered a modern-day Ora Washington. Despite the racism of the early 20th century sports world—the top white woman player refused to meet Washington in a match—Washington won the American Tennis Association’s singles title eight times in nine years and went on to head up a women’s basketball team that dominated the sport for more than a decade.
Bridget Mason, called “Biddy,” moved to California with her Mississippi Mormon owners. Technically, in 1851 California, this made Biddy— and all Smiths’ slaves—free. Biddy took her owners to court to sue for her freedom, succeeding in freeing herself and all the other family slaves. Biddy went on to amass a fortune in Los Angeles real estate, which she used to fund charities, found schools, build churches, start parks, and more.
NINA MAE McKINNEY
It wasn’t easy being one of the first black actresses in a racist United States, but Nina Mae McKinney earned her reputation as “the black Garbo” with stellar performances in films like Hallelujah!
Violette Anderson worked as a court reporter for 15 years before becoming the first woman to graduate from law school in Illinois. Her private practice was so successful that she was appointed assistant prosecutor for the city of Chicago. In 1926, she became the first black woman to practice law before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Not many slaves got sent to boarding school, but smart, resourceful Mary Bowser was lucky enough to be born on a Richmond plantation owned by a staunch abolitionist who not only appreciated Mary’s talents but wanted to help her develop them. When the Civil War started, Mary’s former owner risked her life to start a spy system to pass information to the union Army. Mary was one of her recruits.The fact that she was both black and a woman made it easy for Mary to fly under the radar when she was hired as a servant for President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis. Assuming Mary was ignorant and illiterate, Davis had confidential conversations in front of her and left official papers where she could see them. Though Davis suspected a leak, it wasn’t until late in the war that suspicion fell on Mary.