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Celebrating Three Lesser-Known Black Women In History

Everyone needs someone to look up to.

There's nothing more important to developing minds than seeing people like themselves who have achieved great things.

Oftentimes, parents or other relatives can be the inspiration for their children, but there's also something about seeing people who made a difference in the history books that reminds someone that if those people could do it, so can they.

April is Black Women's History Month. 

Many prominent black women like Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou, Sojourner Truth, all the way to Venus and Serena Williams, Oprah Winfrey, and Michelle Obama have become household names.

But I'd like to shine the spotlight on three lesser-known African-American women who made a huge cultural impact and are truly inspiring.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Perhaps not as unknown as she used to be, Sister Rosetta Tharpe is still someone who deserves more recognition for her contribution to popular music. Rightfully nicknamed "The Godmother of Rock n Roll", but even that is an understatement for this true pioneer.

Originally considered merely a gospel performer, Tharpe boasted a number of firsts. She was the first to:

  • Play gospel with a stronger, more aggressive backbeat.
  • Bring gospel out of the churches and into secular establishments like bars and nightclubs, which essentially took it to the masses.
  • Play electric guitar with heavy distortion.
  • Play with such a unique style. She basically laid down the template upon which nearly all rock guitar would be (and still is) based.

An easy way to start an argument is to ask who invented Rock 'n Roll. You'll hear Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry or Jerry Lee Lewis. Some may chime in with Bill Haley and His Comets or Ike Turner. But all those arguments would never take place without Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Marsha P. Johnson

On June 28, 1969, Marsha P. Johnson was celebrating her 25th birthday at The Stonewall Inn in New York City. A popular gay nightclub, The Stonewall Inn was raided by police that night, a practice that was unfortunately all too common at the time. On this night, however, the crowd turned hostile, fed up with the discrimination they faced at the hands of the NYPD.

As members of the club were assaulted by police and led outside to be arrested and hauled off, tensions grew and crowds gathered until thousands filled the streets. Ultimately, violence erupted, culminating in what is now known as The Stonewall Riots.

At the front of the movement was Marsha P. Johnson, one of the leaders of the resulting standoff in the aftermath of the riots. Within months afterward, the gay community organized and took action for their rights, advocating for what was to be the very beginnings of the LGBT movement.

The following year, on the anniversary of The Stonewall Riots, the first gay pride parades ever held took place in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. The movement continued to grow, and gay pride parades are still held in late June in honor of Marsha and the other Stonewall patrons who put the wheels in motion for gay rights that night.

Dr. Mae C. Jemison

Dr. Mae C. Jemison

As a high school honor roll student, Mae C. Jemison entered Stanford University at age 16, earning a BS in Chemical Engineering and a BA in African-American Studies. From there, it was on to Cornell University Medical College, where she got her MD and spent some time in the Peace Corps before NASA came calling in 1987.

Jemison became the first black woman accepted into NASA's astronaut program, and in 1992 became the first African-American woman in space aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor. She is currently a Professor-At-Large at Cornell, and leads the Jemison Group, which researches the applications of technology to everyday life.

Following her historic flight in 1992, Jemison noted that society should recognize how much both women and members of other minority groups can contribute if given the opportunity. It's a point that constantly bears repeating.

So here's to these three remarkable black women, for who knows where we would be without them!


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