Celebrating Black History: 7 Women You Should Know About
The following post was written by Kalina Haynes, Mu–Brenau University. Kalina has served the Fraternity in numerous volunteer roles and currently serves on the Panhellenic Support Committee. Kalina works as a News Producer at KDFW in the Dallas-Fort Worth Area.
My moment of truth—I love history. Last year, for Black History Month, I thought I’d expand my Black history knowledge, and I’ve been using my Instagram account (@kihaynes) to share what I’ve learned. I hope these women will inspire you, my sisters, to learn more about Black history and the following extraordinary women who are or have broken barriers.
Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett
Dr. Corbett is an immunologist, research fellow and one of the lead scientists at the National Institutes of Health who helped create the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. NIH Director, Dr. Anthony Fauci, praised Corbett’s work in December 2020. One day she will be remembered as one of the key players in developing a vaccine that could end this pandemic.
Ida B. Wells
Wells was a journalist and activist who focused on battling sexism and racism. She risked her life by writing articles about race and politics in the south in the late 1800s. In 1884, she turned to activism after being physically removed from a first-class train car despite having a ticket. Wells sued and won a $500 settlement (equivalent to nearly $15K in today!); however, the decision was later overturned by the Tennessee State Supreme Court. She is best known for documenting lynching cases throughout the South. As part owner of two newspapers in Memphis, Tennessee, she was frequently threatened and harassed to stop printing her work. This eventually forced her to leave the south but did not stop her crusade for justice.
Zelda Wynn Valdes
An iconic fashion designer, Valdes was known for creating custom gowns to fit any woman’s body type. In 1948, Valdez opened the first Black-owned business on New York City’s famous Broadway strip. Her attention to fit and detail made her one of the most sought-after designers for the rich and famous, including Mae West, Ella Fitzgerald, Eartha Kitt and Josephine Baker. Her curve-hugging gowns drew the attention of a young Hugh Hefner who recruited her to design what later became the iconic Playboy bunny costume.
After a federal court ordered Louisiana to desegregate in 1960, Bridges became the first Black girl to integrate an all-white school in New Orleans. In an effort to circumvent laws preventing segregation, the school district created entrance exams for to see if Black students could compete academically. At age 6, she passed the exam and was escorted by federal marshals through an angry crowd of white parents to William Frantz Elementary School. Norman Rockwell later captured this moment in a painting called “The Problem We All Live With” which was displayed just outside the in the White House from June through October 2011.
Her book, This Is Your Time, was released in 2020.
At age 15, Collins declined a role with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo after being told she would have to disguise the fact that she was Black. Twenty years later in 1952, she became the first Black prima ballerina to perform at the famed Metropolitan Opera. Despite her talent, she was frequently replaced by understudies when the dance company traveled south where Jim Crow Laws prevented her from publicly performing. Later in life, she taught modern dance at the School of American Ballet in New York City. Her final choreography premiere in Manhattan was for the Alvin Ailey Dance Company in 1974.
Dr. Mae Jemison
Upon the 1992 Shuttle Endeavour launch, Dr. Jemison became the first Black woman to fly to space. Born in Alabama and raised in Chicago, Jemison graduated from Stanford University with degrees in chemical engineering as well as African and African-American studies. After earning her medical degree from Cornell University, she served as a medical officer for the Peace Corps in Liberia and Sierra Leone and later performed vaccine research for the Centers of Disease Control. She was inspired by Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, to pursue her lifelong love of space and apply to the space program. In 1987, she was chosen out of roughly 2,000 applicants to join the NASA Astronaut Group 12. After leaving NASA in 1993, she continued her love of science as a published author, college professor and innovator.
The 6888th Central Postal Battalion
Known as Six Triple Eight, this all-Black battalion of the Women’s Army Corps was the only all-female unit sent overseas during World War II. Although segregated from the rest of the Corp, these 850 women played a significant role in maintaining troop morale during the conflict. They spent a year working seven days a week to keep mail flowing to more than 7 million soldiers in Europe during World War II.
Countless Black women have contributed to all aspects of women’s history and culture—and will continue to. I hope we will continue to gain understanding of the importance of celebrating these and other first milestones.
We’ve come so far but have so far to go.