8 African-American Women Who Changed the World

Feb. 4, 2010, by Shmoop

1. Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)

Sojourner Truth“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.

2. Harriet Tubman (1822-1913)

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 a state 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.

Watch a clip of the Academy of Achievement’s interview with Rosa Parks:

4. Daisy Bates (1914-1999)

Daisy BatesDaisy 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.

Listen to an interview with Daisy Bates and follow along with a transcript of the interview online at Documenting the American South.

5. Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000)

Gwendolyn Brooks

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.

NY Times interview with Toni Morrison:

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 has given noteworthy performances in film adaptations of The Color Purple and Native Son, and founded her own production company, Harpo Productions, Inc., in 1986.

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- )

Mae JemisonDr. 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.

Watch Dr. Jemison’s TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Talk on Teaching Arts and Sciences Together.


Want more? Discover 47 topics in Literature, US History, and Poetry to study for Black History Month on Shmoop.

36 thoughts on “8 African-American Women Who Changed the World

  1. Jim says:

    oprah? for serious? yes she is an african american woman, but come on! how about Angela Davis? How about Bell Hooks?

  2. Glyniss says:

    I’m with Jim…just what has Oprah done? And please do NOT bring up the African school! For her to actually state that OUR kids are not interested in learning? That is just judging the many based on her limited information from the few! And that school in Africa? Was it REALLY necessary to give them golden faucets and fountains and whatever the heck else she did? Doesn’t she know that it makes them a target for the rebels in the mountains? Doesn’t she know that she is sending them back to poor villages with high expectations of living? Does she have a FUTURE laid out for these girls? ‘cus they sure won’t be able to fit in with their villages when they graduate!

  3. ashley says:

    how about ruby bridges,mum beth i mean these are the people i am looking for and i hear about in my text book also ellen craft know her she was an african american who helper her husband escape from slavery i mean some of the people on here are important but just 8 isnt enough neither is oprah there are people who did more and risked their lives trying i hope these others get reconized because africans americans have more a part in our lives then we know and also i think more info was needed for harriet tubman did u know she was a scout juring the civil war or that she helped lead a surprise attack that freed 800 slaves? i think this page needs to be updated

  4. Sam Harper says:

    What about Fannie Lou Hamer? She changed politics in the state of Mississippi, Research the
    Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, at the Democratic Convention, 1964

  5. Sandy Faulknen says:

    Winfrey’s show raises money through promotion of her public charity and she personally donates more of her own money to charity than any other show-business celebrity in America. In 2005 she became the first black person listed by Business Week as one of America’s 50 most generous philanthropists, having given an estimated $303 million

  6. anna marie powell says:

    u guys need 2 give more info on the 8 women who changed the world not trying 2 be mean i am doing research on gwendolyn brooks &cant find the infomation that i need. so i have to look some where else.thanks 2 whoevers reading this im sorry 4 using youre time i now you have better things 2 than read my paragraph. i thank you alot for whoevers reading this again i hope you dont mind taking youre time to read this.

  7. orah was the first black to have her own show and if you not black you say nothing cause dont even know half of what blak peole be thorgh

  8. they are all good and have made history and pave the way for younger American but what about the one here and now who’s parent couldn’t read are write, and need a lillte help to get going but no one will help where is opera women born in the 1950″s pave the way for oprea because they work hard so she could go to school, and make money and now it’s our turn where is the help our American Dream never begin.

  9. What about Hattie McDaniel? She paved the way for Oprah. Or Alice Walker? She reinfused interest in Zora Neale Hurston and wrote one of the greatest pieces of Black literature in the 20th century (The Color Purple).

  10. dominique gilmer says:

    what about paul robeson or harriet tubman,really oprah i mean i get it but she is not a hero,she just talks good,really, oprah?

  11. sam says:

    wht do all of u hav against oprah??? i mean im not a big fan but does tht not mean u always hav to get on her. she has done somthings and in the future im sure thre will b a big brek through for her so i suggest dont say anthing bad jst yet.

  12. NONi B. says:

    list wasn’t what ii expected, but all of these women have paved the way for women who come after them… including Oprah… my suggestion, is tht WE ALL choose to further educate ourselves on not only OURSTORY, but on courses tht will carry us throughout life…

  13. ReneeSpear401 says:

    Do people even try to use correct spelling and grammar anymore? And, no, it’s not a “black” or a “white” thing. Who has time to try to figure out some of these comments?

  14. sarahmarie says:

    what happened to Madam CJ Walker????She should be on this list…before oprah became who she is now…there was Madam CJ Walker!!!!!!!!!!

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