30 Iconic Black Women in Black History: Then & Now
There’s a reason why they call it Black Girl Magic …
Throughout history, we know one thing to be true – Black women have always held it down. When it comes to historic firsts, stepping up as activists and leaders, or making sure that Black voices are heard, Black women consistently do it for the culture. This Black History Month, we’re highlighting Black women in history, then & now; those that unlocked the doors that were sealed shut, and those holding those same doors open for generations to come.
Althea & Serena
In 1956, Althea Gibson crossed the international color line of tennis and became the first Black athlete to win a Grand Slam title. Fast forward to 2019, and Serena Williams holds the most Grand Slam titles in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles combined among active players.
Anne & Misty
It’s difficult to find much information online about Anne Benna Sims, but she was the first Black danseuse soloist in the history of the American Ballet Theatre (ABT). On June 30, 2015, Misty Copeland became the first Black woman to be promoted to principle dancerin the ABT's 75-year history.
Marian & Audrey
In 1939, with support from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and her husband Franklin D. Roosevelt, Marian Anderson performed a critically acclaimed open-air concert on Easter Sunday on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. More than 75,000 people watched on, along with a radio audience in the millions. In the present day, Audrey DuBois Harris has performed on several occasions as “The President’s Soloist” for President Obama.
Vanessa & Nia
Vanessa Williams made history in 1983 as the first Black woman crowned Miss America. This year’s winner is Nia Franklin.
Shirley & Kamala
Shirley Chisolm was the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress, the first Black candidate for a major party's nomination for President of the United States, and the first woman to run for presidential nomination for the Democratic Party. This year on Martin Luther King Day, Kamala Harris announced her presidential campaign run for the 2020 election.
Hattie & Halle
Hattie McDaniel has not one, but two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She was the first Black woman to win an Academy Award, as well as the first Black woman to sing on the radio in the U.S. More than 60 years later, Halle Berry became the first and only Black woman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress.
Dominique & Simone
Dominique Dawes was the first Black person of any nationality or gender to win an Olympic gold medal in gymnastics. Today, Simone Biles is the most decorated American gymnast in history.
Madam CJ & Oprah
At the time of her death, Madam CJ Walker was the wealthiest Black businesswoman in America, and the wealthiest female self-made millionaire to boot. Now, Oprah Winfrey is the worth BILLIONS and is one of the richest people on the planet.
Lorraine & Ava
Did you know that Lorraine Hansberry was the inspiration behind Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”? At 29, she won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award — making her the first Black dramatist and the youngest playwright to do so. Hansberry was also the first Black female author to have a play on Broadway. Since Hansberry broke down those racial barriers, Ava DuVernay has been racking up firsts as the first black woman to win the directing award in the U.S. dramatic competition at Sundance Film Festival; the first black female director to be nominated for a Golden Globe Award; and the first black female director to have a film nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Ruby & Mari
Speaking of young, gifted and black, brave young Ruby Bridges was the first Black child to desegregate an all-white elementary school in Louisiana in 1960. More than half a century later, Mari Copeny (AKA Little Miss Flint) is fighting for clean water in her hometown of Flint, MI that has been in crisis since April of 2014.
Marian & Angela
Spelman woman Marian Wright Edelman was the first Black woman admitted to the Mississippi bar. She practiced law with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund's Mississippi office and represented civil rights activists during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964. In 2019, Angela Ryle, attorney and CNN political commentator, is still doing the work and isn’t taking her foot off of MAGA country’s necks for a single second.
Hazel & Alicia
Hazel Scott was the first Black person to have a TV show in the United States. Recognized at an early age as a musical prodigy, Hazel was given scholarships to study at Julliard by the time she was 8 years old. She was one of the first Black women to be seen in respectable roles in major Hollywood production, and she refused to have it any other way. Hazel made it known that she would not play any stereotypical parts, she insisted on having final cut privileges for her appearances and refused to perform in segregated venues on tour. Alicia Keys paid homage to Hazel this past weekend at the 2019 Grammy Awards with one of Hazel’s signature moves – sitting between two pianos and playing both at the same time.
Ella & Beyoncé
Ella Fitzgerald – Lady Ella, the First Lady of Song, Queen of Jazz --- was the first Black person to win a Grammy in 1958. She went on to win 14 Grammy Awards throughout her 60-year career and was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Queen Bey, Beyoncé Gisele Knowles-Carter, has since picked up the torch and is running with it as the most nominated woman in Grammy Award’s history.
Aida & Toni
Aida Overton Walker, “The Queen of the Cakewalk,” was the first Black woman to perform on Broadway in In Dahomey: A Negro Musical Comedy – the first full-length musical written and played by Black people and performed at a major Broadway house. Aida believed that the performing arts could positively effect race relations, stating in a 1905 article in Colored American that “I venture to think and dare to state that our profession does more toward the alleviation of color prejudice than any other profession among colored people.” Almost a century later, Toni Braxton became the first Black woman to star in a Disney musical on Broadway as Belle in Beauty and the Beast. Toni has also starred in Broadway’s After Midnight and Aida.
Donyale & Anok
Donyale Luna isn’t a name you hear often, but she was actually the first Black supermodel. She was the first Black model to appear on the cover of British Vogue in May of 1966 and was renowned surrealist painter Salvador Dali’s favorite muse. We’ve since had Beverly Johnson, Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks and others shutting down photoshoots and runways, and now we have young Anok Yai. She was discovered at Howard University’s homecoming by a professional photographer who posted her picture on Instagram and got over 20,000 likes. Modeling agencies started beating down her door and Anok’s career has been full steam ahead ever since. In 2018, she opened up for Prada, becoming the first South Sudanese Model and second Black model to do so since Naomi Campbell in 1997.