5 Female Figures to Celebrate This Black History Month

By Vivian El-Salawy on February 6, 2018

There are countless African American women that have heavily influenced the society around them, as writers, lawyers, businesswomen, artists, performers, scientists, activists, and so on. With February being Black History Month, it is important to start conversations about these important women, and to learn about them and the impact that they have created and continue to make. However, more than anything, it is important to continue to remember and talk about these women outside of this month alone. Here are 5 female figures to celebrate this Black History Month:

1. Phillis Wheatley, Poet

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According to ThoughtCo, Phillis Wheatley was born in either 1753 or 1754 in Africa (likely Senegal). When she was eight years old, she was kidnapped and brought to Boston to be a “personal servant” to Susanne Wheatley, wife of John Wheatley.

Phillis demonstrated her writing abilities to the Wheatley family, who valued education and allowed for her to study and write – a privilege that most slaves were not granted at this time. Phillis, not having the same experience as other slaves within her time, nor being considered a part of the white Wheatley family, expressed her fascinating perspective through the form of poetry. One of her well-known poems is that of “On being brought from Africa to America”:

Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic dye.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

2. Wyomia Tyus, Olympic Gold Medalist

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Wyomia Tyus a sister to three brothers, born in August of 1945. Being surrounded by her brothers growing up, she became fairly active in sports at an early age. According to ThoughtCo, she was already competing in the Girls’ National Championship of the Amateur Athletics Union, placing first in 50-yard, 75-yard, and the 100-yard races. Tyus eventually won the 1964 Olympic gold medal in the 100-meter dash, and spent her time afterward as a goodwill ambassador in African countries.

In attempt to return to the Olympics, Tyus was faced with great controversy over whether black American athletes would be able to compete. Tyus prevailed, and ended up being the first athlete to win gold medals for a sprint in consecutive Olympics. In 1974, Wyomia joined Billie Jean King and others in founding the Women’s Sports Foundation.

“Starting all over, it’s kind of difficult saying where you want to go. You go step by step, waiting and waiting, and, I guess, being a sprinter, it’s hard to wait.” - Wyomia Tyus

3. Anna Arnold Hedgeman, Activist for Feminism and Civil Rights

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Anna Hedgeman was born in July of 1899, and paved the way as a pioneer for Civil Rights. According to ThoughtCo, Hedgeman was the first black woman to graduate from Hamline University (1922), the first black woman to serve on a New York City mayoral cabinet (1954-1958), and the first black person to hold a Federal Security Agency position. She was also the only woman on the executive committee that helped organize Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington.

Anna was also a founding member and early leader of NOW – the National Organization for Women. As he first chair of NOW’s Task Force on Women in Poverty, she called for a “meaningful expansion of economic opportunities for women” and claimed there ewre no jobs or opportunities for women “at the bottom of the heap”.

“The March on Washington created for the moment a sense of unity in the struggle of the Negro for freedom now. For me it was an experience which also highlighted the basic problems resulting from the wall of separation.” – Anna Arnold Hedgeman

4. Zora Neale Hurston, Anthropologist, Folklorist, and Writer

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Zora Neale Hurston is best known as the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God. She grew up in Eatonville, Florida to a Baptist minister as a father, who also served as mayor of Eatonville three times. When moving to New York City after finishing her undergraduate education at Howard University, she was drawn to a circle of creative black artists (Harlem Renaissance).

Most of the people that contributed to the Harlem Renaissance were men, however African American women were, too, part of the movement that began to “dream in color”.

According to ThoughtCo, Zora Neale Hurston critizied within the black community for taking funds from white to support her writing – a controversy that sparked from her 1937 work Their Eyes Were Watching God.

“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” ? Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

5. Augusta Savage, Sculptor and Educator

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Augusta Savage was born in February of 1892, and was best known as an African American sculptor that was considered to be part of the Harlem Renaissance arts and culture revival. According to ThoughtCo, she made figures out of clay as a child, although her father, a Methodist minister, held religious objections. She is known for her sculptures of W.E.B DuBois (another great figure that was a part of the Harlem Reniassance), Frederick Douglass, Marcus Gravey, and more.

However, Savage faced a number of struggles in her pursuit of art surrounding both her race and sex. After sculpting W.E.B. DuBois for the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library, DuBois helped her get a scholarship to study in Italy. Her works led her to become the first director of the Harlem Community Art Center in 1937, where she worked with the Works Progress Administration (or WPA).

“I have created nothing really beautiful, really lasting, but if I can inspire one of these youngsters to develop the talent I know they possess, then my monument will be in their work.” Augusta Savage

Vivian El-Salawy is a graduate of Florida State University with a B.A. in Editing, Writing, and Media with minors in Slavic (Russian) Studies and Communications. Alongside writing for Uloop News, WVFS Tallahassee 89.7 FM, and editing for the Good Life Community magazine, she is heavily involved with a Tau Beta Sigma, a national honorary sorority that promotes women in the band profession.

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