50 Black SheRoes: Part 5, Historical Firsts

Part 5: Historical Firsts   This list is a celebration of the black women who have blazed trails and paved the way for us to continue on to further success. My hat goes off to these ladies who boldly went where other black women had not gone before.


Madame C.J. Walker Althea Gibson

Bessie Coleman Florence Griffith-Joyner


  • Madame C.J. Walker – businesswoman, hair care entrepreneur, tycoon and philanthropist. She was the first woman to become a self-made millionare. Her empire began with her first business, the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, that produced and sold a line of beauty and hair care products for black women.
  • Cathay Williams – the first black woman to enlist in the US Army. She served as a Buffalo soldier after the Civil War under the pseudonym William Cathay.
  • Dr. Mae Jemison – physician and astronaut. Jemison became the first black woman in space when she went into orbit aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour on September 12, 1992.
  • Bessie Coleman – pilot. Coleman became the first black woman to earn a pilot’s license and first American of any race or gender to earn an international pilot license. She could not gain admission to American flight schools because she was black and a woman. No black U.S. aviator would train her either. So Coleman studied for and received her licenses in France in 1921. In order to support herself as a professional pilot, she became an exhibition flyer, where she was dubbed “Queen Bess”. In 1989, First Flight Society inducted Coleman into their shrine that honors those individuals and groups that have achieved significant “firsts” in aviation’s development.
  • Dr. Sadie T.M. Alexander – became one of the first black women to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1921. During that same year, Georgiana Simpson at the University of Chicago and Eva Dykes at Radcliffe also earned Ph.Ds. Alexander was also the first black woman to earn a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and the first black woman to be admitted to the Pennsylvania bar in 1927.
  • Althea Gibson – tennis champion. Gibson achieved many black woman firsts: Grand Slam champion in 1959; played in American Lawn Tennis Association championship; to play and win at Wimbledon; to play in the Ladies Professional Golf Association. Gibson was ranked in the world top ten from 1956 through 1958, reaching a career high of World No. 1 in those rankings in 1957 and 1958. In 1971 Gibson was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
  • Florence Griffith-Joyner – track athlete. In 1988 she became the first American woman to win four medals in one Olympics. She holds the world records in the 100 and 200 meter races.
  • Rebecca Lee Crumpler – physician. She was the first black woman to become a physician, when she graduated from the New England Female Medical College (now part of Boston University) in 1864.
  • Sheila Johnson – team president, managing partner, and governor of the WNBA’s Washington Mystics. She is the first black woman to be an owner or partner in three professional sports franchises: the Washington Capitals (NHL), the Washington Wizards (NBA), and the Washington Mystics (WNBA). She was married to Robert Johnson for 33 years. Together they founded BET which they later sold to Viacom. After her divorce, her net worth was $670 million. Johnson sits on the boards of VH1’s Save the Music Foundation, Americans for the Arts, the Curry School of Education Foundation at the University of Virginia, and the University of Illinois Foundation.
  • Sarah Jane Woodson Early – educator. Early was the 1st black woman to become a college instructor. She graduated from Oberlin College in 1856, as one of the first African-American women college graduates. In 1858 she joined the faculty of Wilberforce University.


Who are your she-roes? I couldn’t fit everyone onto this list. Who are the notable black woman who should be mentioned?

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