During Women’s History Month, the Black Information Network is elevating the life and work of Black women who’ve pioneered and persevered across industries and generations.
Though the list of women we need to celebrate is vast and long, there are a few hidden figures we want to uplift here.
These Black women worked diligently, some behind the scenes, others at the forefront, making striking impacts on culture, social movements, laws, and more. Some formed groups, relying on the collective power to make change, others stood up where they were to make a change. However, the work was done; Black women did it and continue to do it for themselves and for those to come.
These are seven Black women hidden figures you may not know.
Beulah Mae Donald
After the brutal lynching of her son Michael in March of 1987, Beulah Mae Donald took the Alabama chapter of the Ku Klux Klan to court. She sued the white supremacist group for carrying out the murder under the organization’s policies and won. The settlement effectively bankrupted the unit of the Klan. A CNN original series about Beulah Mae Donald and her extraordinary feat is set to air in April.
Constance Baker Motley
Constance Baker Motley made history as the first Black woman to argue a case before the US Supreme Court. Her legal prowess laid the groundwork for several key cases of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Her legacy includes writing the legal brief for the pivotal Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954. Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, Baker Motley represented Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Freedom Riders, and other protesters of the movement. She went on to be the first Black woman to serve in the New York State Senate and as the first Black woman federal judge.
Amelia Boynton Robinson
An organizer of the 1965 Selma March in Alabama, Amelia Boynton Robinson was a key activist of the Civil Rights Movement. She was also the first Black woman to run for Congress in Alabama, and although she lost, her efforts helped spotlight the need for voters’ rights and addressing discrimination at the ballot box. She was posthumously recognized for her efforts by then-President Barack Obama in 2015.
As a student at Fisk University, Diane Nash began leading organizing efforts with in the Nashville Central Committee. She help organize lunch counter sit-ins and traveled to Raleigh, North Carolina in 1960 to meet with other student leaders, which led to the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Her efforts also included organizing the Nashville Movement Ride, which was a part of the Freedom Rides that protested illegal segregation on American highways in 1961. She was arrested several times, but continued organizing protests at lunch counters and other public spaces.
The United Order of The Tents
The United Order of the Tents was a semi-covert organization founded for and by Black women. Annetta M. Lane and Harriet Taylor founded the organization in 1867, just two years after slavery was abolished. The organization, which was headquartered in Norfolk, Virginia, was widely known for their work, but kept internal information close to home. The Tents, as they were sometime referred, sponsored housing initiatives, community events, and more through their service. They boasted an impressive membership of several hundreds, and created a network of Black women using collective power to give back and push newly freed African Americans forward. Educator and Founder of Langston League Erica Buddington provided an in-depth look at the organization on Twitter, including a property once owned by the Tents located in Brooklyn, New York.
The Leesburg Stockade Girls
In July of 1963, a group of 15 teenage girls attempted to enter a theater in Americus, Georgia through the front entrance, rather than the back, as was expected under segregation laws. The girls were attacked and arrested by police officers, and jailed in Leesburg Stockade, a Civil War-era structure located in the woods, for 45 days. To give a picture, the girls were still imprisoned during Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech during the August March on Washington.
The girls ranged in age from 12 to 15 and became known as the Leesburg Stockade Girls. At the time of the imprisonment, their parents didn’t know where the girls were being held or the inhumane treatment they were receiving. Danny Lyon, a 21-year-old photographer with SNCC found out where the girls were and snuck and was able to take photos from outside the barred windows which were later published in several papers that their story gained national attention.
Author Khristi Lauren Adams posted their story on Twitter, uncovering their harrowing story and the story of Black girls’ role in the Civil Rights Movement. The book Locked Up for Freedom by Heather Schwartz documents their bravery and tenacity.
Fannie Lou Hamer
Born in 1917, Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer is considered one of the most important voices in civil and human rights. Hamer grew up in Mississippi and became an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1962. She traveled across the South, pushing efforts to get Black people registered to vote, and pushing against discriminatory laws. In 1964, she co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to directly challenge the local Democratic Party’s anti-Black rules. That same year, she helped organize Freedom Summer which brought hundreds of college students to the South to help get people registered to vote.
She continued her work and founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative to help financially strengthen Black farmers. In 1968, she purchased 640 acres of land with the help of donors, including singer-actor-activist legend Harry Belafonte, in which Black people could collectively own and farm. She passed away at the age of 59.