Dr. Jemison was the first Black woman in space, and the first real astronaut to appear on Star Trek. After attending medical school at Cornell University, she worked as a general practitioner, then joined the Peace Corps. She was also a vaccine researcher with the CDC. Inspired by Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek, she applied to NASA. She was in the first class of astronauts chosen after the explosion of the Challenger. She took a photo of Black aviation pioneer Bessie Coleman (see our Women’s History Day 20 profile) into space when she flew on the shuttle Endeavor in September 1992. She is an advocate for science education, and for getting students of color involved in science. In 1994, she founded the Jemison Group, a company that researches and markets technology for daily life. Dr. Jemison studied modern dance at the Alvin Ailey school, and has choreographed and produced several modern jazz and African dance shows. Dr. Jemison was inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. "Too often people paint him like Santa -- smiley and inoffensive," says Jemison. "But when I think of Martin Luther King, I think of attitude, audacity, and bravery."
Ms. Coleman was the first Black woman pilot, and the first Black aviator to hold an international pilot's license. The 10th of 13 children born to sharecropper parents, Ms. Coleman dreamed of becoming a pilot, but no American flight school would train her. Undaunted, she studied French and traveled to Paris, where she earned her pilot's license in 1921. She later traveled to the Netherlands and Germany, training to become a "barnstorming" stunt pilot. "Queen Bess" flew for five years, performing figure-eights, loops, and near-ground dips, delighting her audiences. She was once offered a film role, which could have helped finance the flying school she hoped to open, but when she learned she'd have to wear tattered clothes and a pack on her back, she refused. She didn't want to perpetuate or participate in the stereotypes many whites held about Black people. Ms. Coleman, billed as "the greatest woman flier," died at age 34 when her new plane, which friends feared was unsafe, unexpectedly dove. She was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2006.
Dr. Haynes studied math at Smith College, went on to do graduate work at the University of Chicago, and graduated from the Catholic University of America in 1943, becoming the first Black woman to earn a PhD in mathematics. She established the math department at Miner Teachers College, and later became the first woman to chair the District of Columbia school board. Dr. Haynes was an outspoken critic of segregation and the 'track' system, which she felt discriminated against Black and poor students. Both segregation and the track system were abolished under Dr. Haynes' leadership as president of the school board. Dr. Haynes lived to age 90. She left a bequest to Catholic University to endow a professorial chair and student loan fund in the Department of Education.
At 93, Ms. Reid Soskin is the oldest actively working national park ranger. During WWII, she was a clerk in a Jim Crow union hall. She has been a small-business owner, poet, songwriter, activist, and field representative for state assemblywomen; at 86, she became a park ranger. She helped develop the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park, where she now works five days a week as a tour guide and intepreter. She is committed to making sure that the Black wartime experience is represented in the park. She wears her uniform at all times, because, as she says, "when I’m on the streets or on an escalator or elevator, I am making every little girl of color aware of a career choice she may not have known she had."
Ms. Hunter-Gault is a journalist and author/co-author of numerous books. In 1961, she and Hamilton Holmes became the first Black students to enroll in the University of Georgia. She worked at the PBS on the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour, then worked as NPR's chief correspondent in Africa. She later worked as CNN's Johannesburg correspondent and bureau chief. Most recently, she authored a book on discrimination and violence against LGBTQ people in South Africa. I recommend her memoir, "In My Place," about her early life and her courageous career at the University of Georgia.
Ms. Nash was a strategist and leader in the Civil Rights movement, particularly among students. She organized the first successful campaign to integrate lunch counters (in Nashville, TN) and the Freedom Riders, who de-segregated interstate buses. She co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and helped found the Alabama Voting Rights Project. She helped organize the Selma Voting Rights Movement, which led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Later, she became active in the peace movement. Ms. Nash was arrested many times for her activism. In 1962, while four months pregnant, she was threatened with a two year jail sentence for contributing to the delinquency of minors – by encouraging them to become Freedom Riders. She wrote, "I believe that if I go to jail now, it may help hasten that day when my child and all children will be free — not only on the day of their birth but for all their lives."
Dr. Hooke was the first African-American woman to serve in the Coast Guard in active duty, and one of the first African-American women to receive a PhD at the University of Rochester. She is the oldest survivor of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, in which 300 African-American people were killed and 10,000 were left homeless when a group of white people attacked the Greenwood District (known as "Black Wall Street") and burned an area of 35 city blocks to the ground. In 1997, Dr. Hooker worked with other survivors to found the Tulsa Race Riot Commission, which recommended reparations to survivors and their descendants. Dr. Hooke served as director of the Kennedy Child Study Center for 22 years, and is professor emerita at Fordham University. She was a practicing psychologist until age 87. Dr. Hooke turned 100 in February 2015.
Rev. Barrow's lifelong commitment to civil rights activism began at age 12, when she organized a demonstration with her fellow Black students, demanding to be allowed to ride the all-white school bus. She went to seminary at 16, and worked at a welder at a shipyard in Washington during WWII. In the 50's, Rev. Barrow worked as an organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). In 1963, she attended the March On Washington, and marched in 1965 on Bloody Sunday. Alongside Rev. Jesse Jackson, she helped organize the Chicago chapter of Operation Breadbasket, which later became Operation PUSH. In the 80s,she served as president of Operation PUSH, and was Rev. Jackson's campaing manager when he ran for president in 1984. She was an advocate for women's rights and LGBT equality, and was an AIDS activist (her son, Keith, died of AIDS in 1983). Rev. Barrow was a mentor to countless young activists, and in later years, focused on gun violence in Chicago and threats to the Voting Rights Act. She died March 12, 2015, just days after hearing her godson, President Barack Obama, speak at the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. She was 90.
Ms. Nelson was jailed many times for her actions as a civil rights activist and war tax resister. She was first arrested in 1943, at some of the earliest lunch counter sit-ins. Ms. Nelson was a Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organizer, and worked on desegregation campaigns in Cincinnati and Washington, DC. In 1948, she co-founded the Christian pacifist group Peacemakers, and in 1959, she became the first woman to be apprehended for war tax refusal. She and her husband Wally moved to Woolman Hill, a Quaker conference center in Deerfield, MA. They built their own house of salvaged materials, grew most of their own food organically on 1/2 acre of land, and lived without plumbing or electricity. She remained in her off-the-grid home until 2011. Ms. Nelson died March 12, 2014, at age 91. "If there are winners in life, there have to be losers. Rather than be either, I refuse to play the game."
Ms. Baker grew up listening to her grandmother's stories of slave revolts (her grandmother was once a slave). She went on to make a life of civil rights activism, first with the NAACP, then the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was formed at a meeting Ms. Baker organized. She became a mentor to the fledgeling organization, and helped organize SNCC's 1961 freedom rides. In 1964, Ms. Baker helped form the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (the Mississippi Democratic Party was all-white). Ms. Baker worked to support and promote gender equality and local, grass-roots organizing. She inspired Sweet Honey in the Rock's "Ella's Song," which we'll hear on the March 16th edition of The Nightfly.
Sanguine Fromage, WERU radio personality since 2005, current host of UpFront Soul, former host of The Nightfly, Off the Wall, Enjoy Yourself, and Sound Travels.
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