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Bessie Coleman

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History has provided us with some extremely successful stories of courage, strength and leadership. Yet sometimes we forget  just how extensive and diverse these stories are. So we’re profiling some of the many women who should be recognized for their achievements and strength. From sport to literature, politics to art, black women have been there and continue to ‘do that.’ Take a look at our list of 30 black female leaders.

1. Bessie Coleman (pictured above)

Elizabeth Coleman, known also as ‘Bessie’, was the world’s first black female pilot. Born in 1892, Coleman rose to fame in national airshows in Europe and America. After a tragic series of mechanical errors, she crashed her plane while performing in Jacksonville, dying immediately at  the age of 34. Her legacy has continued however – in 1995 she appeared  on US postal stamps and has received a series of posthumous honors across the country for her pioneering work, energy and passion for aviation.

2. Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou Obit.

Source: The Washington Post / Getty

Maya Angelou is a celebrated poet, author, activist and educator. Her work in literature has won her critical acclaim both here and abroad. Meanwhile, Angelou has remained at the forefront of politics and racial empowerment by appearing at inaugurations, rallies and sharing tales of discrimination and struggle with the world.

3. Anna Tibaijuka (United Nations)

Anna Tibaijuka speaks Chief Executive UN

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Anna Tibaijuka is the highest ranked African female in the United Nations, heading the UN-HABITAT program. She is a Swedish-educated, Tanzanian-born leader who has fought for the rights of women living in slums or without homes. Since becoming the Executive of UN-HABITAT, she has greatly increased its budget and function in the United Nations.

4. Madam C.J. Walker

Madam C.J. Walker Portrait

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Orphaned at the age of 7, Madam C.J. Walker overcame all adversity to become America’s first black self-made millionaire. She achieved her wealth by developing a range of haircare products that led her across the country and abroad.

5. Shirley Chisholm

Shirley Chisholm Gives the Victory Sign

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Shirley Chisholm was the first black woman to be elected to Congress, winning in New York in 1968 and retiring from office in 1983. She campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972, but is best known for her work on several Congressional committees throughout her career. A feisty politician, Chisholm has also been recognized in popular culture and in the political and academic worlds for her symbolic importance and career achievements.

6. Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman Abolition Slavery Woman

Source: Universal History Archive / Getty

As one of American history’s most prominent figures, Harriet Tubman was responsible for rescuing around 300 former slaves from the South and escorting them to freedom via the underground railroads that led to Maryland. At one point, a $40,000 reward was being offered for her arrest. Tubman was also a spy during her life. She died in New York in 1913.

7. Karen Bass

Human Trafficking

Source: Tom Williams / Getty

Karen Bass is currently the U.S. Representative for California’s 33rd congressional district. She is also the first black woman to hold the role of Speaker in any state Assembly. In California, Bass has focused on improving education facilities, health care and the foster care system. Bass served as chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, which seeks to better understand California’s black population and their needs.

8. Ida B. Wells

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett, Leader in civil rights

Source: Universal History Archive / Getty

Ida B. Wells was a pioneer in the media and communication industries during the early 20th century. She is most remembered for her role in documenting the practice of lynching.

9. Michaëlle Jean (Canada)


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Michaëlle Jean is an extraordinary example of overcoming adversity to rise to the top. She currently serves as the Governor General of Canada, the state role that links the British Monarch with the Canadian government. Jean was born in Haiti but fled the country during the dictatorship of François Duvalier, the man responsible for separating her father from his family for close to 30 years. She worked as a journalist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation before being recommended to the role of Governor General and confirmed by Queen Elizabeth II.

10. Dr. Dorothy Height

Dorothy Height

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In 2010 the world lost one of its best, with the death of civil rights activist, Dorothy Height.  Among many of Ms. Height’s colleagues were  Dr Martin Luther-King Jr and Rosa Parks. While her passing evoked  sadness, many celebrated her life in recognition of her ardent selflessness.

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11. Robin Kelly


Source: Tom Williams / Getty

Robin Kelly is an accomplished force to be reckoned with in Illinois state politics and ran for the role of State Treasurer. Robin was the first African American woman to serve as the head of staff of a constitutional officer.

12. Mary McLeod Bethune

Mary Mcleod Bethune

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In 1904, Mary McLeod Bethune did something that was almost unheard of in American society at that time. She began a school for young African American girls in Daytona, Florida. That school would eventually flourish and merge with a boys’ school to become Bethune-Cookman University.  Mary McLeod Bethune is also remembered for her innovative work in Civil Rights, including acting as a presidential adviser to a number of our country’s leaders.

13. Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks On Bus

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As the ‘Mother of Freedom’ and a figurehead of the Civil Rights Movement, Rosa Parks is almost unmatched in recognition and respect. One seemingly simple act of bravery in 1955 on a Montgomery bus eventually led Parks to the forefront of national attention, giving way to a number of improvements in the lives of ordinary African Americans. She died in 2005 at the extraordinary age of 92.

14. Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth, African American abolitionist and champion of women's rights. Born into slavery as Isabella Baumfree (1797-1883) she escaped to freedom in 1826. Changed her name in 1843.

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A preacher, gender and racial equality activist born into slavery, Sojourner Truth spread the word of God and equality throughout her lifetime. She is best known for her 1851 speech titled, ‘Ain’t I A Woman?

15. Donna Edwards

Maryland Senate Debate

Source: Tom Williams / Getty

Currently serving as Congresswoman for Maryland’s 4th district, Donna Edwards is the first black woman to represent Maryland in the House of Representatives. She defeated her Republican rival in 2008 with an amazing 85 per cent of the vote. She currently sits on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Science and Technology Committee.

16. Dame Eugenia Charles (Dominica)

Eugenia Charles was the Prime Minister of Dominica for 15 years until 1995. She was the first female head of state in the Americas and is currently the longest serving female prime minister recorded in world history.

17. Wilma Rudolph

Rudolph, Wilma - Leichtathletin, USA

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Rudolph is a true survivor and American sporting hero. Despite having suffered from polio and a range of other life-threatening sicknesses, she became a triple Olympic gold medal winner in track and field.

18. Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston

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An acclaimed author and folklorist, Zora Neale Hurston contributed greatly to what was known in the world of literature as the Harlem Renaissance. She was also a pioneer for black involvement in the Republican party, a staunch conservative and Republican party favorite.

19. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (Liberia)

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Source: The Washington Post / Getty

Her country, Liberia, was named in recognition of its intriguing connection to African slavery and, as its President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has made leaps and bounds in improving the role of women in aspects of Liberian society. She was elected in 2006 but had no family connection in politics to allow for an easy rise to power. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the first black woman to win a presidential election in Africa.

20. Coretta Scott King

''CORETTA SCOTT KING (1927-2006). American Civil Rights leader; wife of Martin Luther King, Jr. Photographed in 1971.''

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Five years have passed since the death of the Civil Rights pioneer, Coretta Scott King, but her legacy lives on. After the death of her husband, the great Martin Luther King Jr., King became a prominent figure in the Civil Rights and Womens’ Rights Movement, advising the nation’s leadership and pursuing the causes of her late husband. In later years she actively opposed Apartheid in South Africa and became involved in the LGBT movement by urging Civil Rights activists to reject homophobia and the dehumanization of all minorities.

21. Asha-Rose Migiro (United Nations)

Deputy Secretary General of the United N

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Migiro is currently the 3rd Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations. Along with Anna Tibaijuka, she is one of the highest ranked black women in the UN. Migiro was born and educated in Tanzania.

22. Cathy Hughes

Icon Talks 'An Evening of Empowerment' Honoring Cathy Hughes and Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.

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Cathy Hughes, Founder and Chairperson of Radio One, Inc (parent company of Interactive One and HelloBeautiful.com), is a pioneer in business, media and entrepeneurship in America and the black community. In 1979, Hughes launched RadioOne, which since then has become the largest radio broadcast network in the United States with 69 stations in 22 cities. In 2004, she was also behind the launch of TVOne, a dynamic addition to the extensive media company she had started over 20 years earlier. She was once named Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year and has continued to be involved in presenting and producing broadcast programs for her company throughout her three decades in the industry.

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23. Kamala Harris

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 30, 2015: California Attorney General Kamala Harris speaks at Aker

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Harris is currently the Attorney General of California.  Previous to her victory in the 2010 State Elections, Harris served in a number of State offices.

24. Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Harmer Portrait

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Born in 1917 as the youngest child of a family of 19 children, Fannie Lou Hamer is remembered for coining the phrase, “sick and tired of being sick and tired” in her work as a Civil Rights activist in Mississippi. Her most notable achievement was the inclusion of her colleagues in the Democratic National Convention in 1964.

25. Ayanna Pressley

EMILY's List 30th Anniversary Gala

Source: Kris Connor / Getty

A former staff member of Congressman Kennedy and Political Director to Senator Kerry in Massachusetts, Pressley is currently a Boston City Councilor. She is expected to reach higher positions in the next few years.

26. Terri Sewell

Voting Rights Advancement Act

Source: Tom Williams / Getty

A Democrat, Terri Sewell is the representative in Congress for Alabama’s 7th district. She is an accomplished attorney and was educated at Princeton, Harvard and Oxford University. Sewell was the first African-American woman elected to represent Alabama in Congress.

27. Ursula Burns

The New York Times New Work Summit - Day 2

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Ursula Burns is one of America’s most powerful businesswomen. She currently heads Xerox as the company’s CEO and chairwoman. She grew up in a housing project in New York, later entering Xerox as an intern and filling a number of roles before reaching the top job. She is the first black woman to head a company of this size.

28. Ruth Simmons

Clinton Global Initiative 2006 - 'Effective Action, Lasting Results' Panel Discussion

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In 2001 Ruth Simmons became the first African-American to take the office of president of an Ivy League university. She is currently the president of Brown University, the first woman and first Texan in that position. Simmons has improved Brown’s budget and its reputation abroad, and has also been recognized on a number of occasions for her work in education.

29. Condoleezza Rice

Condoleezza Rice

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Condoleezza Rice is no woman to mess with. As the first black woman to hold the position of Secretary of State. During her term, Rice was a well known figure of the Bush administration both nationally and abroad. But in addition to her political experience, she is also a published scholar, concert pianist and academic. She is currently working at Stanford University.

30. Gwendolyn Brooks

Portrait Of Gwendolyn Brooks

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Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African-American to win the Pulitzer prize for poetry following the release of her second book. She went on to publish over twenty texts and became well known in her home state of Illinois, and across the country for her outstanding contribution to American literature.

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