In honor of Black History Month, we here at BUST wanted to commemorate 5 amazing ladies that may go under the radar in the memory of civil rights in America.
1. Madam C. J. Walker (1867-1919)
“I got my start by giving myself a start.”
Born as Sarah Breedlove on a Louisiana plantation to two former slaves, Madam Walker had a difficult early life. She was a wife at age 14, a mother at 17, and a widow at age 20. How she turned her life around? Her hair care products. The late 1800s were plagued with scalp disease so bad that people were actively losing hair at a young age. Walker was no different, and so she decided to do something about it. In 1906 she started an industry, joining the small handful of businesswomen trying to make a name for themselves at the time. Through traveling and investments, she taught many women to empower themselves and become independent. She gained enough revenue to become one of the top African-American entrepreneurs in the country, and she is highly regarded as the first female millionaire. When she moved to Harlem in 1916, her work in civil rights activism led her to become an executive member of the New York NAACP. She also traveled to DC to fight for legislation that would criminalize the act of lynching.
2. Ella Baker (1903-1986)
“Give light and people will find the way.”
Baker was born in Virginia in 1903, but spent most of her early days in North Carolina. After hearing how her grandmother was whipped as a slave for refusing to marry, she was inspired to become active in the social and political sphere and fight for civil rights and equal opportunity. She graduated as valedictorian from Shaw University and moved to New York City to begin a career in social activism. She was involved in a handful of women’s organizations and in the Young Negroes Cooperative League before she became a branch director of the NAACP in 1943. She was also a key organizer in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but left the organization in 1960 to help young student activists fight inequality in North Carolina. Baker was a major player in defeating Jim Crow, and she inspired countless black youth by taking a head role in the numerous organizations she joined.
3. Clara Luper (1923-2011)
“My biggest job now is making white people understand that black history is white history. We cannot separate the two.”
Luper was born in Oklahoma, where she graduated from all-black Langston University. She earned a master’s degree in 1951 after becoming the first African-American to enroll in the history department at University of Oklahoma. Working with the NAACP Youth Council in Oklahoma City, she led the earliest sit-ins of her state. She inspired her high school students to become social activists through some of her later sit-ins, which include the famous Katz Drugstore sit-in of 1958 where she and her students sat down at the counter as white customers spit on and cursed at them. She and her students marched, demonstrated and protested in many different places in Oklahoma. Luper was arrested 26 times because of her activism. On top of all her social activism, she was a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1972, and published a memoir called Behold the Walls. She also founded and developed Black Voices Magazine, which is still in publication today as America’s Voices,as well as hosting a radio talk show for 20 years and continued to lecture until her physical health incapacitated her in 2008. Her refusal to back down in the face of segregation continues to inspire to this day.
4. Prathia Hall (1940-2002)
“I stood in the authenticity of my being: Black, preacher, baptist, woman. For the same God who made me a preacher made me a woman, and I am convinced that God was not confused on either account.”
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Prathia Hall grew up under the belief that she loved and important as one of God’s children. Upon seeing and being affected by the racial inequality of the world, Hall knew it was her mission to join the civil rights movement. She graduated from predominately white schools until attending Temple University, after which she joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC – which Ella Baker founded) and led the Freedom Faith movement, a movement that she based on the beliefs she was raised by. In the footsteps of her father, she became ordained as a Baptist minister and served as pastor of the Mount Sharon Baptist church in Philadelphia. She got her doctorate in womanist theology and ethics from Princeton and continued on to teach at the Boston University School of Theology. Martin Luther King famously said of her, “Prathia Hall is the one platform speaker I would prefer not to follow.”
5. Margaret Sloan-Hunter (1947-2004)
“We women are the best thing going. We are warm, passionate, we cry and we live! Let’s celebrate.”
Margaret Sloan-Hunter was born in Tennessee and raised in Chicago, IL. In 1961, at the age of 14, she joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to battle poverty and fight for urban rights for the African-American community in Chicago. Before she was able to vote, she was leading campaigns and organizing unions. In high school, she founded the Junior Catholic Inter-Racial Council and led fellow students to discuss and work on racial problems in their community. She majored in speech at Malcolm X College. Hunter worked with both Martin Luther King and Gloria Steinem, traveling and lecturing with her all over the United States. She was awarded with the key to her home city, Chattanooga. She was founder of the National Black Feminist Organization, and along with her daughter (also pictured above) co-founded and established the Women’s Foundation. Hunter was one of the earliest editors at Ms. Magazine. Along with her activist work, she was a poet, a lesbian, and an advocate for disability rights. She considered her daughter to be her best friend.