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Black history is our history

By Becky Davis & Divya Amladi
Ella Baker Illustration: Oxfam America

A look at Black women who have transformed the world through their pursuit of political power and activism

Black women have a long history of fighting for justice and equity as organizers and activists. This Black History Month, we’re educating ourselves about the contributions Black women leaders have made to society. Join us in recognizing these fearless women who have been at the forefront of creating necessary change in our history.

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Wangari Maathai

Kenyan social, environmental, and political activist; Nobel Prize Laureate

Born in Nyeri, Kenya, in 1940, Wangari Maathai long fought traditional gender roles within Kenyan culture, propagating the idea that village women could both improve the environment and slow down the process of deforestation by planting trees. Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, an organization that has planted over 50 million trees to date. In 2004, she became the first Black African woman to win the Nobel Prize. Her movement grew over the years, starting similar environmental initiatives across Africa, including Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe.

Wangari was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree and an influential advocate for human rights, AIDS prevention, and women’s issues, regularly representing at the UN General Assembly. In 2002 she was elected to Kenya’s National Assembly with 98 percent of the vote. She remained an activist until her death in 2011.

Along with her political activism, she was an accomplished writer. Her books include: The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience, Unbowed, and The Challenge for Africa.

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Ida B. Wells

Journalist, activist, researcher

Ida B. Well was one of the most powerful voices in the first anti-lynching campaign in the US and an influential champion of intersectional feminism long before the concept had been coined. The civil rights pioneer, who had been into slavery and orphaned as a teenager, went on to cofound the NAACP and co-own the Memphis Free Speech.

In her early years, Wells was outspoken about lynching in the newspaper, which led to threats from white-owned businesses. After a mob invaded the Memphis Free Speech office and destroyed the building, she moved to New York and made a name for herself as a “journalist in exile.”

Later, Wells moved to Chicago and continued her work to uncover the truths of lynching in America. She participated in a delegation to President McKinley seeking justice for the lynching of a Black postman in South Carolina. While in Chicago, she met her husband and had four children. Wells was also a powerful voice in women’s suffrage, starting the Alpha Suffrage League and calling out the exclusion of Black women within the suffragist movement. In 1930, Wells ran for an Illinois State Senate seat, becoming one of the first Black women to run for public office. Though she lost, Wells opened the door for future generations of Black women to serve in public leadership positions.

You can read her words in the Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States 1892–1893–1894.

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Ella Baker

Civil and human rights activist

A behind-the-scenes organizer, Ella Baker was a major force in shaping the Black Freedom Movement in America. Graduating valedictorian from Raleigh’s Shaw University in 1927, Baker fought for civil rights and human rights and worked alongside some of the most noted civil rights leaders of the 20thcentury, including Martin Luther King, Jr., and W.E.B. DuBois. She played pivotal roles in the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Nonviolent Organizing Committee. Baker is remembered for dedicating her life to seeking justice for all people.

Baker is remembered for dedicating her life to seeking justice for all people. In her book, Ella Baker & the Black Freedom Movement-A Radical Democratic Vision, historian Barbara Ransby explained that what distinguished her from her peers was her advocacy for overhauling the socio-economic system—Baker understood that laws, structures, and institutions had to fundamentally change to correct injustice and oppression—and the only way to affect change was t oensure that the people who were most affected were involved in the process.

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Photo: Unknown photographer/Public domain

Mary Eliza Mahoney

Nurse, advocate for equality in nursing

Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first Black professional nurse in America, and an active organizer of Black nurses. At the age of 18, she decided to pursue a career in nursing, even though there was no nursing training available to Black women. In 1878, at age 33, after years of working on the support staff at the New England Hospital for Women and children, she was accepted into that hospital's nursing school.

Mahoney was welcomed as one of the first Black members of what is now known as American Nurses Association, but when that group was slow to admit Black members, she helped establish the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses. For over a decade after that, Mahoney helped recruit nurses to join the organization. Between 1910 and 1930, the number of Black nurses doubled, in large part due to her efforts.

Even after she retired, Mahoney fought against racial prejudice in nursing, pushing for professional rights for people of color. She was a strong supporter of the movement to gain women the right to vote. After the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, she was one of the first women to register to vote in Boston.

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