Hidden in History: The Uncelebrated Women of Color

Tolu Talabi, Editor


The most disrespected person in America is the black woman.

The most unprotected person in America is the black woman.

The most neglected person in America is the black woman.

~Malcom x

As March is the month to celebrate the women who defined history, we should not forget to include and celebrate the Black women who fought for history as we may know it. Black women have always been sidelined, shoved into the very back of the line, the very back of history because they were and are currently still seen as the inferior race; stripping them of their accolades when due. It is quite unfair as many did not receive the credit they deserved, despite tirelessly working and fighting for the future we are currently living.  As a way to celebrate the remarkable women lost in history, we are showcasing a few, who’s impacts must not be unnoticed!

Cathay Williams(1844-1893)

Cathay Williams, born to a slave mother and a free father defied all odds. Cathay Williams became the first and only documented Black woman in history to serve in the army during the 19th century. She is also the only known female Buffalo soldier; what a legend! You may ask how and why Cathay Williams was the only documented black woman to serve in the army. Let me tell you a quick secret! She disguised herself as a man so she could be enlisted into the army because, at that time, women were prohibited from serving. A pioneer. Shortly after her enlistment, she became sick, which was the door that revealed her gender and ended her service in the army.

Claudette Colvin(1939-present)

Claudette Colvin is a heroine that all should rave about! Claudette Colvin, at 15, was the first black woman to refuse to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery. She refused to give up her seat nine months before Rosa Park, who is famous for doing the same. Why was Colvin not celebrated, despite being the first to stand up against what so many were afraid to do? She was not fair-skinned, she had nappy hair, she was a teenager, she got pregnant, that’s why. That’s why history decided to rule her out of its books. That’s why history decided to brush over her. That’s why history decided she was not worth knowing.

Hazel Scott(1920-1981)

The dazzling Hazel Dorothy Scott was certainly a force to be reckoned with! Dorothy Scott, a jazz pianist, and singer became the first African American to own her own Tv show. At the very tender age of three, Scott could play the piano with her eyes closed; she could even play it with just an ear! Her mother was a music guru so when her music students hit a wrong note, Scott would immediately squeal with displeasure. At age 8, Scott auditioned at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music and won a scholarship; when students were meant to be 16 to even be considered for an audition. A child prodigy. As a teenager, she started performing professionally throughout her city and soon came into the limelight, but in the world of music came racial prejudice. Scott rose against it all. She was one of the first performers to refuse to play before segregated audiences, including the stipulation in her contracts. She turned down movie roles offered to her in Hollywood because she was offered the role of a singing maid; she definitely knew her worth! Scott asked to appear as herself, which she eventually did and did with a bang, appearing as a woman of sophistication and immense talents. Despite her talents, Holywood failed her yet again by compensating her extremely little as compared to her white counterparts. She stood up against the Hollywood Studio machine and demanded equal pay but her demands, deemed inadequate, brought her film and Tv appearances to an end. She was also falsely accused by the House Un American Activities Committee for performing for communist organizations, which she had never heard of, resulting in her cancelation. She was soon swept behind in the world of Music as the world moved on from Jazz and blues to Motown and British Pop. Hazel Scott should not be left in the locked doors of history, rather remembered and celebrated for her excellence and fight against racial discrimination.

Diane Nash(1938-present)

Diane Nash is a civil rights activist, freedom fighter, leader, and strategist of the student wing of the Civil Rights Movement. She was a crucial figure in the fight for equality for African Americans during the 19th century. Nash was arrested and jailed multiple times for her non-violent protests; she was even jailed for 10 days while being six months pregnant but yet she persevered in her fight for justice. Nash never conformed to the rules, a rebel of her time! She believed that if she agreed to the rules, it would be agreeing with the unjust laws of the system. As a way to bring about change, she was at the frontline in the freedom lines, fighting for the desegregation of public transportation despite the disapproval of the Kennedy Administration. She was involved in the Selma right to vote movement that eventually led to the voting right act of 1965, and she was also the reason why Nashville became the first southern city to desegregate lunch counters because she organized sit-ins. The story of Diane Nash encourages us to dream up, speak up, and stand up. Dream up for the whole, speak up for the whole, and stand up for the whole.

Donyale Luna(1945-1979)

The beautiful, ethereal, and striking Donyale Luna(Peggy Ann Freeman) was the world’s first African American model and first African American to be on the cover of Vogue. She was called Nerferiti reborn, extraordinary-looking, a Maasai warrior, a walking illustration, a mirage, or some kind of fantasy because she embodied beauty. There are no two portraits in which she looks alike. Luna’s body moved like a panther, her arms, the wings of an exotic bird. She was discovered by an English fashion photographer, David Mccabe, who was visiting Detroit when he set eyes on the nearly 6 ft tall, willowy frame, Luna in a plaid catholic uniform on her way to rehearsal. McCabe told Luna to come to Manhattan if she was ever interested in modeling and so she did, headed to Manhattan with a telephone number hastily written down by a stranger. Luna gained attention and fame overnight! She became known as the girl du jour and many were awed by her beauty and exoticness. When walking down the runway, the audience responded with immense applauds for her rather than the designer’s clothes; she was truly a breathtaking sight. Throughout Luna’s career, she faced racial prejudice; the majority of her fame and popularity bloomed in London as the U.S cast her away because of her skin color. In fact, Southern US advertisers pulled funding and readers canceled subscriptions when she was included in the magazine pages of Harper’s Bazaar, ending photographs of her. Yet, she was a sensation in England! Donyale Luna is forgotten in history but should be widely celebrated by all!

Henrietta Lacks(1920-1951)

Henrietta Lacks was a woman whose cancer cell proved and still proves to be immortal. Her cancer cell has been widely used around the world; fascinating right? In 1951, Henrietta Lacks went to the Johns Hopkins Hospital, complaining of vaginal bleeding so a sample of her cancer cell was taken for examination. Unlike any other cell examined, Lack’s cell doubled every 20 to 40 hours, rather than dying like the rest of the other cells. I call that witchery! Henrietta Lack’s cells are known as HeLa cells, derived from the first two letters of her first and last name. Her cells have allowed for the expansion of the medical world as it has been used for various medical researches such as the study of the human genome, the effects of hormones, toxins, viruses, drugs on cancer cells. It also played a major and crucial role in the creation of the polio vaccine. Although Henrietta was unaware that a sample of her cell was taken, she is a hero and should be revered because she saved so many lives through the discovery of her cell.

Bessie Coleman(1892-1926)

Bessie Coleman became the first African American woman to become an aviator and earn a pilot’s license. Bessie was denied entry into the flying schools of the United States because of her color and her gender so she taught herself French and moved to France, where she earned her piloting license at Caudron’s Brother’s school in just seven months. She excelled at parachuting, stunt flying, aerial tricks, and barnstorming. What an icon!

Ella Baker(1903-1986)

Ella Baker, the woman behind Dr. Martin Luther King’s great accomplishments, is the mother of the Civil Rights movement. Ella Baker is a lesser-known Civil rights figure but without her, Martin Luther King’s successes may have never been possible. Baker was the executive director of Martin Luther King’s organization, The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the executive director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She was also a field secretary of NAACP and later a director of the branches. Ella baker was a force in the Civil Rights movement! When described, she is said to be leaderless and leaderful. She believed that it was insufficient to have one leader as when there was one man at the top, telling others what to do, there would be no revolution. With white supremacy, a movement could be easily be set ablaze by removing the man at the top and once the man at the top is gone, the whole movement and revolution is gone. Ella’s vision was great; rather than a one-man-led revolution, she visioned collective leadership, making the revolution powerful and unstoppable! She taught others how to become leaders so that when she and the likes of other civil rights influences were gone, the dream would not die but flourish even more. In the actions of Baker, we see that making an impact is not just about one person but as a whole. The impact is greater when all hands are joined together.

Lena Richard(1892-1950)

Lena Richard, celebrity master chef, successful entrepreneur, acclaimed cookbook author, community activist during the Jim crow era, was the first African woman to own her own Tv cooking show and publish a cooking book, Lena Richard’s New Orleans Book. She was known as Mama Lena, who excelled at cooking since the age of 14. Richard lived during the time of racial segregation, nevertheless, she succeeded and was revered by the whites. At age 14, she was hired by a wealthy white family who eventually sent her to the distinguished Fannie Farmer Cooking School. She was the first and only black woman at Fannie Farmer. Although it was an integrated school, it was extremely difficult for blacks to get in because the approval of all whites in the school was needed, so if one person did not approve, there was no guaranteed admission. Richard’s classmates were in awe of her work and would ask her to lead and teach the class her unique skills; pure black excellence! Lena Richard opened a culinary school to train African Americans, a restaurant and catering business, and a frozen food company. Lena Richard paved the way for celebrity chefs by using her culinary skills to earn streams of income and was the first to create the culinary business model, way before the famous Julia Childs and Martha Stewards. In a world of adversity, Lena Richard’s talent made way and room for her, that even the whites could not but notice her.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe(1915-1973) 

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a gospel singer, guitarist, and pianist was the Godmother and inventor of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Elvis Presley, Chuk Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis were all influenced and took inspiration from Rosetta Tharpe but were not the original inventors of Rock ‘n’ Roll, which history fails to recognize. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a distinctive and unique artist. She was one of the foremost talents on the guitar and adopted a plucking style that no one had ever seen; she made her guitar talk! Tharpe put a spin on gospel music; She fused delta blues, New Orleans Jazz, and Gospel music, which became her signature style, and brought gospel music to wider audiences outside of the church. Tharpe faced backlash from the gospel community because she adopted religious and secular themes in her productions, yet she forged forward. Fame came to Tharpe and she became the talk of the town and country, touring all over with her backup singers, Rosettes. When Tharpe and her singers arrived at their destinations, they were always met by loud sold-out crowds that about 6000 or more would be turned down. Her fans were awestruck; they had never seen anything like her or heard anything like her. A living legend! She even became a legend among many fighting soldiers in world war II. Despite Tharpe’s fame, she faced racism. All restaurants and hotels were segregated so she slept on buses and had to go around the back of restaurants to pick up her food because she would not be let in. What a shame it is on Racism! Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a trailblazer of her time, from another dimension; None like her exists.

Hattie McDaniel(1893-1952)

Hattie McDaniel was the first African American Academy Award winner. She was an actress who began performing show business at age 10, alongside her brothers. She appeared in the little colonel, alongside Shirley Temple, in Gone with the wind, scarlet Ohara’s slave woman, and in Beulah, the leading role. McDaniel faced backlash for a romantic depiction of slavery and civil war in Gone with the wind; the blacks boycotted the movie and in recent years has been criticized and taken off of many platforms. Aside from the backlash, she also faced heavy racism. In all the movies she appeared in, the only role given to her were the roles of maids and housekeepers, including her own movie, Beulah, a 1950 sitcom.  Her white neighbors tried to evict her from her LA residence. Why? She was black. McDaniel took them to court and won; now that’s what I’m talking about! McDaniel continued to face racism. When she won an Academy Award for best-supporting actress, she was kept from joining her fellow actors at the ceremony; she was left outside. She was not let into the auditorium until right before she got her award; someone came outside and called her in. Hattie McDaniel passed away in 1952, with a request to be buried alongside her peers but it was denied because of the color of her skin. Ignorance at its peak.

Faced with adversity, African American women overcame it all and are the greatest asset to history. They are the true definition of women of valor, strength, and dignity. Without them, there is no history because they are the backbone of history. They should be applauded and celebrated for their many achievements; not just during women’s history month, not just during black history month but always.