Madam C. J. Walker—entrepreneur, philanthropist, activist, patron of the arts—was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 on the same Delta, Louisiana plantation where her parents had been enslaved. Orphaned at seven, married at 14 and widowed at 20 with a two-year-old daughter, she moved to St. Louis where three older brothers owned a barbershop. Throughout the 1890s—in the neighborhood where ragtime music was born—she worked as a laundress, sang in her church choir and began to aspire to a better life as she observed the educated, civic-minded women at St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church.
African American History Month honors the rich legacy of African Americans throughout our nation’s history. This year’s theme recognizes the unique contributions of African American women. February 9, 2012.
March is Women’s History Month and the National Museum of African American History and Culture is shining a spotlight on remarkable African American women who overcame racism and gender discrimination to shape our nation’s history.
Here are just three of the pioneering African American women who the Museum is honoring this month – amazing individuals whose stories every American should know!
Mary McLeod Bethune was an educator, civil rights activist, stateswoman, and philanthropist. Born in 1875 to parents who had been enslaved, Bethune developed an early belief in the power of education and attended college – a rare achievement for African American women at the time. In 1904, she started a private school for African American girls in Florida that later grew to become Bethune-Cookman College. Bethune went on to become a leading advocate for black Americans, particularly women, and founded the National Council of Negro Women in 1935. A close friend of President Franklin Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor, she served in the “Black Cabinet”, an advisory board to the Roosevelt Administration on issues facing African Americans. Bethune died on May 18, 1955.
U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm, was the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress and the first major-party African American candidate for president. Born to immigrant parents from Guyana and Barbados on November 30, 1924, she distinguished herself early as a dedicated student and skilled debater. She graduated from Brooklyn College in 1946 and later earned a master’s degree in elementary education from Columbia University. After working as an educator, Chisholm launched her political career, winning a seat in the New York State Assembly in 1965. In 1968, she was elected to Congress, where she served seven terms. In 1972, she waged her historic campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, a quest chronicled in the award-winning 2005 documentary Shirley Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed, directed and produced by African-American filmmaker Shola Lynch. Chisholm died on January 1, 2005.
Henrietta Lacks was the unwitting source of the first human immortal cell line – now known as the “HeLa” cell line – which has been used in vaccine and treatment research, gene mapping, chemical safety testing and countless other scientific pursuits. She was born on August 1, 1920, and went on to have five children. After the birth of her last child, a cancerous tumor was discovered on her cervix. Cells taken from the tumor without her consent were cultured to become the HeLa line. Unfortunately, the cancer metastasized throughout Lack’s body, and she died on October 4, 1951. Her life and legacy are celebrated in Rebecca Skloot’s best-selling 2010 book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, which was featured in Oprah’s book club.
When we open our Museum’s doors on September 24, 2016, these women and other notable African Americans – both well-known and the nearly forgotten – will finally receive the recognition they are due. And as a supporter, you can take personal pride in helping to bring the stories of these African American heroes to life.
Thank you for everything you’ve done to make the National Museum of African American History and Culture a reality!