Black Women Firsts: Hidden Gems of Black History

Article excerpt

From a wisp of a girl in the poet Phillis Wheatley to the brightest brigadier general to the fleet feet of top athletes, Black American women from 1773 to 1997 have transcended the shackles of slavery, sexism, the glass ceiling and OPE (other people's expectations) to widen boundaries not only for Blacks but for all human beings. In several cases these women led their race and their gender as they became not only the first Black woman but the first Black and/or the first woman to reach the top in the following fields:


The first Black woman to receive a major appointment from the federal government was Mary McLeod Bethune, who was named director of Negro affairs of the National Youth Administration by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on June 24, 1936.

The first Black woman to serve in a state legislature was Crystal Bird Fauset, who was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives on Nov. 8, 1938.

The first Black to hold two cabinet positions was Patricia Roberts Harris, who held the offices of secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and secretary of Health, Education and Welfare in the Carter administration.

The first Black woman to head a U.S. embassy was Patricia Roberts Harris, who was appointed ambassador to Luxembourg President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965.

The first Black woman to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives was Shirley Chisholm, who was elected by her Brooklyn, N.Y., constituency under the campaign slogan "Unbought and Unbossed" in 1968.

The first Black woman nominated for president of the U.S. was Shirley Chisholm, who received nearly 152 votes on the first ballot at the 1972 Democratic convention.

The first woman and the first Black to deliver the keynote address at a Democratic National Convention was former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan in 1976.

The first Black woman mayor of a large U.S. city was Carrie Saxon Perry, who in 1987 was elected mayor of Hartford, the capital of Connecticut.

The first woman mayor of Washington, D.C., and the first Black woman mayor of a major city was Sharon Pratt Kelly, who was elected in 1990.

The first Black woman elected to the Senate was Carol Mosley Braun of Chicago, who was elected on Nov. 3, 1992.

The first Black woman lawyer in the United States was Charlotte E. Ray (1850-1911), who was admitted to the bar of the District Columbia in April 1872. She graduated from Howard University Law School that same year.

The first Black woman sheriff in the United States was Jacquelyn Barrett, who was elected sheriff of Fulton County, Ga., in November 1992.

The first country's first Black woman judge was Jane Matilda Bolin, who was appointed justice of the Domestic Relations Court of New York on July 22, 1939.

The first Black woman to hold a federal judicial position was Constance Baker Motley, who was named a U.S. District Court judge on August 30, 1966.

The first woman named to the U.S. Court of Appeals was Amalya Lyle Kearse, who was named to the Second Circuit in 1979.

The first Black woman to serve on a state supreme court was Juanita Kidd Stout, who was named an associate justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in 1988.


The first Black woman to graduate from an American college was Mary Jane Patterson, who received a bachelor of arts degree from Ohio's Oberlin College in 1862.

The first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. was Sadie M. Alexander, who received a degree in economics from University of Pennsylvania in 1921.

The first Black woman to establish a four-year accredited college was Mary McLeod Bethune, who founded Bethune-Cookman College in 1904.

The first Black woman president of the National Education Association was Elizabeth Duncan Koontz, who was elected in 1968.

The first Black president of a "Seven-Sister School" was Ruth J. …