Black History Month is an annual celebration to honor the achievements and recognize the important role of African Americans in U.S. history. In celebration of this month we wanted to share with you the incredible impact of five black women in U.S. history.
Marsha P. Johnson: Revolutionary Drag Queen
Marsha P. Johnson was born Malcolm Michaels on August 24th, 1945. At a young age she began exploring gender and sexuality by wearing dresses and reflecting on her emotional and physical desires; however, ridicule and disapproval from family and friends prompted her to hide her identity. In 1966, she moved from her family home in Elizabeth, New Jersey to Greenwich Village in New York City and legally changed her name to Marsha P. Johnson. As an African American self-identified drag queen, she began getting involved in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights.
In the morning hours of June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay club and refuge located in Greenwich Village. The raid incited six days of protest against law enforcement and served as the catalyst for the LGBTQ+ rights movement in the United States. Following the riots, Johnson, an instigator during the riots, joined the Gay Liberation Front and co-founded the Street Transvestite (now Transgender) Action Revolutionaries (STAR) a group committed to helping homeless transgender youth in New York City. She also continued her street activism as a respected organizer and marshal with ACT UP, an international direct-action advocacy group working to impact the lives of people with AIDS.
Claudette Colvin: The original “Rosa Parks”
On March 2nd 1955, sixteen-year-old Claudette Colvin was riding the bus home from school when the bus driver ordered her to give up her seat for a white woman. Claudette, a member of the NAACP youth council, refused to move and was convicted of disturbing the peace and violating segregation laws. Though the NAACP supported Colvin’s action, they believed her age and skin tone would discredit her actions. In order to start a bus boycott, they asked Rosa Parks, the NAACP secretary, who was older and fairer skinned than Colvin, to commit the same crime. Nine months later Rosa Parks was arrested for the same offense and became the face of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
In 1956, Colvin served as a plaintiff in the pivotal case Browder v. Gayle, which challenged the Alabama state statutes and Montgomery city ordinances requiring segregation on Montgomery buses. On June 5th, the three-judge panel, citing Brown v. Board of Education as precedent for the verdict, ruled two-to-one that segregation on Alabama buses was unconstitutional a critical action in the fight for civil rights.
Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan: The women of Hidden Figures
In 1943, two years after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 into law, prohibiting racial, religious and ethnic discrimination in the country’s defense industry, the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory began hiring black women to process aeronautical research data. One of these women was Dorothy Vaughan. Vaughan was assigned to the segregated “West Area Computing” unit, an all-black group of female mathematicians. In 1949, Dorothy Vaughan was promoted to lead the group, making her the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s) first black supervisor.
Mary Jackson graduated from Hampton Insitute in 1942 with a degree in Math and Physical Science. It took 5 different career changes until Jackson began working under the supervision of Dorothy Vaughan at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory’s segregated West Area Computing section in 1951. Overcoming the challenges that the segregation laws of the time inflicted on her, she became NASA’s first black engineer.
In 1937, at the age of 18, Katherine Johnson graduated from West Virginia State college with a degree In Math. In 1953, she began working at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory under the supervision of Dorothy Vaughan. In 1962, as NASA (formerly known as NACA) prepared for the orbital mission of John Glenn, Johnson was called upon by Glenn himself to confirm the orbital equations that would control the trajectory of the capsule in his mission. The mission was a success and Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth.
“These are American heroes. Without their brains, without their hard work and dedication to NASA and the long hours that they worked together, we would have not made it into space. We would have not made it into orbit.” – Janelle Monáe, who plays Mary Jackson in the film Hidden Figures.
As we think about the history of the impacts of African American, we must not only celebrated within February but throughout the year. It is also important to bring life to the many women that has also changed history as well within the African American community.