As we remember our history, it is important to consider those who have made meaningful political contributions, oftentimes fighting for the rights of all people—including those historically placed on the margins of society. To commemorate some of these individuals, FamilySearch has compiled a list of remarkable African American women in history, naming just a few of these remarkable women who have made the world a better place.
Ida B. Wells (1862–1931)
Ida B. Wells dedicated her life’s work to protesting lynching, calling for the establishment of antilynching legislation, and exposing racial injustice. Born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Wells eventually made her way to Memphis, Tennessee. There, she became the part-owner of the newspaper The Memphis Free Speech. Her provocative and truth-filled articles exposed the oppressive nature of lynching African American men and women and how the very act protected white power and white supremacy.
These articles eventually sparked enough outrage that a mob of white men burned her place of business to the ground, forcing Wells to flee to Chicago for safety. Wells put down roots in Chicago and began her family there. In Chicago, she continued to advocate for people of color and for all women as she established several women’s civic and suffrage clubs and helped to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
A record of Wells’s time in Chicago can be found in one of the 29 collections highlighted in the FamilySearch campaign Finding Black Roots: 29 ways in 29 days. The death certificates of two of her four children, Alfreda Duster and Charles Barnett, can be found in the collection “Illinois, Cook County Deaths, 1878–1994.”
Ella Jo Baker (1903–1986)
Ella Baker participated in the grassroots efforts of the civil rights movement as she organized the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She also became a key contributor to the NAACP and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Through the leadership and advisement of Baker, the SNCC organized waves of nonviolent student sit-ins to protest racial discrimination in restaurants and to advocate for voter registration among people of color.
The SNCC also played a key role in recruiting students to participate in Freedom Rides, a protest to desegregate interstate transportation. Baker believed in the power of youth to create social change and worked behind the scenes during the civil rights movement to ensure the success of these initiatives, which helped to change the course of the movement and achieve greater racial equality.
Baker can be found in the 1910 United States census in the household of her parents, Blake and Georgianna Baker, at age 6.
Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–1977)
Born in Montgomery County, Mississippi, Fannie Lou Hamer got her start with civil rights activism through her participation in the SNCC. She eventually became a community organizer as she led the efforts to fight against voter registration barriers for African Americans. Black men and women received the right to vote with the passage of the 15th and 19th Amendments. However, literacy tests, poll taxes, and the threat of violence from white supremacy groups such as the Ku Klux Klan often prevented African Americans from exercising their right.
As a community organizer, Hamer led groups of people to register to vote, often facing opposition; during the course of her activism, Hamer was threatened, brutally beaten, sent to jail on spurious charges, and shot at.
Despite opposition, Hamer continued in her activism as she established the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, ran for a seat in the Mississippi House of Representatives, and helped to organize Freedom Summer, a project that brought hundreds of college students to the state of Mississippi to help in voter registration efforts.
Hamer can be found in the 1940 United States census.
Shirley Chisholm (1924–2005)
Shirley Chisholm was the first African American woman to run for Congress and win, becoming the representative for New York’s 12th Congressional District from 1969 to 1983. The daughter of immigrants, Chisholm was born in Brooklyn, New York, and received a Master’s degree from Columbia University in elementary education. Though she primarily worked in the field of education, Chisholm actively participated in organizations such as the NAACP, League of Women Voters, and Brooklyn’s chapter of the Democratic Party.
In 1972, Chisholm launched her campaign for president of the United States, becoming the first black person to seek a presidential nomination from one of the two major political parties. In her book The Good Fight, Chisholm stated, “I ran for the Presidency, despite hopeless odds, to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo.” She did not win the nomination, but her life and legacy have inspired many black women to run for office.
The words “Unbought and Unbossed,” her slogan during the presidential campaign, can be found on her tombstone. Links to a picture of her tombstone and to obituaries can be found under the Sources tab of her individual profile on FamilySearch.org.