Black women have made important contributions to the United States throughout its history. However, they are not always recognized for their efforts, with some remaining anonymous and others becoming famous for their achievements. In the face of gender and racial bias, Black women have broken barriers, challenged the status quo, and fought for equal rights for all. The accomplishments of Black female historical figures in politics, science, the arts, and more continue to impact society.
Marian Anderson (Feb. 27, 1897–April 8, 1993)
Contralto Marian Anderson is considered one of the most important singers of the 20th century. Known for her impressive three-octave vocal range, she performed widely in the U.S. and Europe, beginning in the 1920s. She was invited to perform at the White House for President Franklin Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1936, the first African American so honored. Three years later, after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow Anderson to sing at a Washington, D.C. gathering, the Roosevelts invited her to perform on the steps of the Lincon Memorial.
Anderson continued to sing professionally until the 1960s when she became involved in politics and civil rights issues. Among her many honors, Anderson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991.
Mary McLeod Bethune (July 10, 1875–May 18, 1955)
Mary McLeod Bethune was an African American educator and civil rights leader best known for her work co-founding the Bethune-Cookman University in Florida. Born into a sharecropping family in South Carolina, the young Bethune had a zest for learning from her earliest days. After stints teaching in Georgia, she and her husband moved to Florida and eventually settled in Jacksonville. There, she founded the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute in 1904 to provide education for Black girls. It merged with the Cookman Institute for Men in 1923, and Bethune served as president for the next two decades.
A passionate philanthropist, Bethune also led civil rights organizations and advised Presidents Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Franklin Roosevelt on African American issues. In addition, President Harry Truman invited her to attend the founding convention of the United Nations; she was the only African American delegate to attend.