PSGE Celebrates Black Women's History

Day 28: Wilma Rudolph, 1940-1994


“I believe in me more than anything in this world.”

“My doctor told me I would never walk again. My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.”

Wilma Rudolph was the first American woman to win three gold medals in an Olympic event, in 1960 in track and field. Rudolph had severe disabilities as a child. She was born prematurely (the 20th of 22 children) and had pneumonia, scarlet fever, and polio as a child, which made her have to wear a brace on one leg. However, she worked tirelessly to overcome her physical limitations and believed strongly in her power to do so. When she was older, she started the Wilma Rudolph Foundation to support amateur athletics. Now, the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award is granted by the Women’s Sports Foundation to female athletes who demonstrate exceptional courage in their athletics. At only age 16, in 1956, she won her first Olympic medal – before she had even finished high school! It was in the next summer Olympics, in 1960, that she won three medals and established multiple world records. She soon left her competitive career and taught, coached, and ran a community center. Rudolph still inspires countless athletes today, and is famous for her words: “Winning is great, sure, but if you are really going to do something in life, the secret is learning how to lose. Nobody goes undefeated all the time. If you can pick up after a crushing defeat, and go on to win again, you are going to be a champion someday.”



Day 27: Bessie Coleman, 1892-1926


“I decided blacks should not have to experience the difficulties I had faced, so I decided to open a flying school and teach other black women to fly.”

“I refused to take no for an answer.”

Bessie Coleman was the first African American woman and first Native American woman to have a pilot license. She worked as an American civil aviator, and got her international pilot license in 1921. In 1922, she staged a public flight in the US, the first African American and Native American woman to do so. Flying schools in the US wouldn’t let her in, so she taught herself French and went to France in order to earn her pilot license. She earned a living by performing stunt flying and parachuting, but she also hoped to open up a school so she could “teach other black women to fly.” Sadly, Coleman died at only 34 years old during rehearsal for a show, and did not get to realize all of her ambitions.


Day 26: Zora Neale Hurston, 1891-1960


“Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”

“I love myself when I laugh.”

Zora Neale Hurston was an incredibly gifted novelist whose most famous work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is a tour de force of Black feminist thought that continues to captivate readers today. She was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, as well as a dedicated anthropologist and folklorist who recorded culture and folk tales from the Caribbean, Latin America, and the American South. Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God while in Haiti, and incorporated into it her anthropological knowledge of voodoo practices. Sadly, Hurston struggled personally, financially, and career-wise despite her earlier successes and died in poverty, buried in an unmarked grave. Black feminist Alice Walker resuscitated interest in, appreciation for, and publication of Hurston’s work when she published an article about Hurston in Ms. Magazine in 1975. Since then, Hurston’s work is slowly but surely getting its due in the canon of American literature and she is being recognized, posthumously, for the creative genius she was.


Day 25: Althea Gibson, 1927-2003


“Shaking hands with the Queen of England was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus going into downtown Wilmington, North Carolina.”

Althea Gibson was a trailblazing and exceptional athlete, breaking barriers in professional tennis and golf. In 1950, she became the first Black tennis player to play US National Championships, and in 1951 became the first Black player at Wimbledon. In 1957, she won the women’s singles and doubles, and in 1958 she won the US Open. Gibson triumphed, but the road was rocky and at one point in her earlier years she considered abandoning her sports dreams because of how white-dominated and segregated the tennis world was. Gibson also later became the first woman to compete on the pro tour. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Even though Gibson said in her autobiography that she “never regarded [herself] as a crusader,” she really was an important pioneer for African American women in sports, as well as for all African Americans and all women in sports.


Day 24: Harriet Jacobs, 1813-1897


“The war of my life had begun; and though one of God’s most powerless creatures, I resolved never to be conquered.”

“When they told me my new-born babe was a girl, my heart was heavier than it had ever been before. Slavery is terrible for men, but it is far more terrible for women.”

Harriet Jacobs was born into slavery in North Carolina, but from an early age determined she would never let herself “be conquered.” Starting in her early teenage years, she was relentlessly and ruthlessly pursued sexually by her master. At one point a free black carpenter fell in love with Jacobs, and she with him, and he wanted to buy her out of slavery so that they could be married and she would be free of her master’s advances, but her master forbade it. Out of necessity, Jacobs became involved with a local white lawyer and had two children with him, hoping he would be able to get her and her children out of slavery. Eventually this man bought their children and sent them North. Jacobs strategized and cultivated a network, and spent seven years living in a tiny, dark crawl-space in her free grandmother’s home before she could finally escape to the North. At last, an abolitionist friend formally bought Jacobs in order to then free her. But Jacobs had reached such a point of self-estimation and self-knowledge that she could not bear to think of herself as an article of property that could be bought, and thus did not like to look at or think of the bill of sale, even though it formalized and ensured her freedom. Jacobs wrote an astounding autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, in which she laid out a compelling narrative of resistance that included cultivating an ethics of deception, political judgment, and solidarity. Jacobs also made painfully and unavoidably clear the peculiar wrongs and injustices experienced by enslaved women and girls. Her powerful work was brushed under the rug until Black Feminists like Angela Davis resuscitated it. Now it is beginning to be given its proper place in the canon of Black political thought and feminist political thought, and hopefully in broader American history and political thought as well.

Source: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl;

Day 23: Ida B. Wells, 1862-1931


“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”

“One had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap.”

Ida B. Wells was an incredibly strong and determined activist and journalist who led a national campaign against lynching, which called for a federal anti-lynching bill among other protections and actions. She owned her own paper, The Free Speech, in which she dared to print the truth about lynchings – that they rested upon a myth, as most lynchings were not actually about rape, and the charges of rape of white women by black men were false and trumped up. She bravely spoke the truth: that consensual interracial relationships existed in many of the supposed rape cases. Printing these uncomfortable truths forced Wells to go into exile in the North, as her life and her press were endangered by mob violence. Wells called for economic exit by black workers, in the form of strikes, boycotts, and migration to different towns, in order to hurt the pocket of white men to force them to make change. She also called for a strong black press that would do the work of muckraking, turning the light of truth on the lies printed by Southern papers about lynchings. Wells was also a fiery fighter against segregation. When she purchased a first class train ticket but was told to move to the segregated African American car, Wells refused to leave and got into a physical altercation with the crew and even bit one man’s hand. Wells also fought for suffrage rights – and ran for state senate!



Day 22: Mary McLeod Bethune, 1875-1955


“I leave you a thirst for education. Knowledge is the prime need of the hour.”

“If I have a legacy to leave my people, it is my philosophy of living and serving.”

Mary McLeod Bethune was a firm believer that education was vital for racial advancement. An educator and activist, she founded the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls and the National Council of Negro Women and served as president of the National Association of Colored Women. Bethune grew up in a family of 17 children, her parents former slaves, in poverty in South Carolina, working in the cotton fields from a very early age. She was the only child in her family to go to school, and she walked for miles each day to get there. Bethune’s talent earned her a scholarship to higher education, and she then became a teacher. The Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute merged with a men’s school and became the Bethune-Cookman College, one of the few places where Black students could actually earn a college degree. Bethune also worked in public service, most notably as the special advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt on minority affairs and as the director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration. Bethune indeed leaves the vital legacy of her “philosophy of living and serving.”


Day 21: Marsha P. Johnson, 1945-1992


“Pay it no mind.”

Marsha P. Johnson was a trans woman who was central in the LGBT community in New York City. She and Sylvia Rivera formed the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), primarily to help trans people like Marsha herself who faced countless obstacles (often including the lack of a permanent home or job) in their quests to just be themselves. Johnson’s signature line was that when people would ask her what the “P” stood for in her name, she would respond “Pay it no mind,” thus answering the inevitable question she dreaded of whether she was male or female. Marsha sometimes went into the male persona “Malcolm” (which she had been born into), but felt much more comfortable in the female persona “Marsha” and always strove to help others who felt more comfortable in a gender identity that did not map onto their biological identity. She lived in Greenwich Village and was right there throwing bricks at Stonewall, when a police raid of a queer nightclub turned into a declaration of LGBT solidarity and refusal to accept hateful and discriminatory treatment.  This really sparked trans activism, and Johnson became the “Queen Mother” of STAR, a matriarchal rather than patriarchal system. Johnson also became involved in the Gay Liberation Front and the ACT-UP coalition and other groups during the AIDS crisis. Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River in 1992 and while police claimed it was a suicide, her close friends knew she had been harassed in that area earlier that day and believed it was homicide. (The case was recently re-opened as a homicide investigation, but there has been no resolution.) Throughout her life, which was prematurely cut short, Johnson was a fierce advocate and pioneer for trans rights.

Day 20: Euphemia Lofton Haynes, 1890-1980


Euphemia Lofton Haynes was the first Black woman to get a Ph.D. in mathematics, in 1943, and an important leader in the Washington, D.C. school system. She founded and headed the math department at Miner Teachers College, which trained black teachers. Haynes taught at many D.C. schools, always speaking out and working to help poor students and get better schools, protesting de facto segregationist policies. Haynes also did a great deal of work for the Catholic Church, particularly in social welfare, and was awarded a special papal medal. She also served as the president of the District of Columbia Board of Education, and used her position to fight segregation. She had a very long and influential career, a trailblazer and a tireless advocate for good, equal, desegregated schools.


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