Black women, young, old, and in between, search for other Black women who model the tenets of leadership they admire. As they search the pages of history books, positive role models are nowhere to be found – or they are limited to a one-line footnote. Often discouraged, they ask, “Where are the women who look like me who have paved the way; where are the trailblazers?”
Some find answers, others do not. During the month of February, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom celebrate Black History Month. Other countries in the world host this celebration at different times. During these celebrations, those who choose to be enlightened can readily find many accomplishments of Black inventors, athletes, healthcare professionals, civil rights icons, musicians, and more. On March 1, as suddenly as these remarkable individuals come to light, their stories cease to be told.
As a Black woman leader, I want to inspire and be able to share stories that will live past the 28 days in February ( OR, if we are lucky, 29 days). I want to pass on a leadership legacy of knowledge about Black women who may only briefly grace the pages of history books, but who give me strength as a leader. When Mattel created their Inspiring Women Series, my great-niece, Rhianna, and I jumped aboard. Mattel wanted to create dolls that would “challenge gender expectations about women’s intelligence, roles, capabilities, sexuality and power.” Barbie general manager Lisa McKnight said the brand wanted to show “the limitless potential in girls.” While not all the women in the Inspiring Women Series are included below, these Black women are trailblazers who touch my heart with their words and move me to action for the greater good.
Ida B. Wells – Journalist, Activist, Suffragist (1862 – 1931). Oh, how Ms. Wells moves me by this statement, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” Wells co-founded the National Association of Colored Women’s Club in 1896 and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.
Rosa Parks – Civil Rights Activist (1913 – 2005). She lived up to her famous quotation when she refused to sit at the back of the bus during the Montgomery Alabama bus boycott: “Each person must live their life as a model for others.” Known as the “Mother of the Modern Civil Rights Movement,” Ms. Parks was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom (The highest civilian honor in the United States) and the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor Award, among many other awards.
Ella Fitzgerald – Jazz Singer (1917 – 1996) provided these words of wisdom: “Just don’t give up trying to do what you really want to do.” The Queen of Jazz had a very successful singing career for almost 60 years. She received fourteen Grammy Awards, The Presidential Medal of Freedom, and The National Medal of Arts. Her foundation provides aid to children and communities to share her love of music and reading.
Katherine Johnson – NASA Mathematician and Physicist (1918 – 2020), was made famous thanks to the movie “Hidden Figures.” But she was always exceptional. By the age of 13, Ms. Johnson was attending high school on the campus of historically Black West Virginia State College. She was a high-level mathematician who did the calculations for several space flights. before his famous flight, John Glenn would not trust the equations entered into computers for the first time until Johnson ran them by hand on her calculator. The words from Johnson that inspire me to lead are, “Take all the courses in your curriculum. Do the research. Ask questions. Find someone doing what you are interested in! Be curious!” My curiosity has challenged my state of being and helped me to find the missing pieces. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama.
Maya Angelou – Author, Activist, Teacher (1928 – 2014), is a very well-known contemporary Black woman. Her words, writings, and poetry can melt the coldest heart. I never want my great-niece to think she is just normal; I want Rhianna to hear Dr. Angelou’s words: “If you’re always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be,” and soar to the greatest heights. Dr. Angelou received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010.
As a Black woman, leading in a diverse world, there is another part of history that has been an intricate part of my leadership journey – Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. (AKA). Founded in 1908 and incorporated in 1913 at Howard University, AKA was the first Black letter Greek sorority. I have been an AKA for 25 years as a member of Omicron Phi Omega chapter. When Vice President Kamala Harris was selected as the running mate alongside President Biden, AKA was noticed and recognized, along with the Divine Nine, the National Pan-Hellenic Council, which consists of nine historically Black sororities and fraternities.
Alpha Kappa Alpha instills strong leadership values in its members and a commitment of service to all mankind. History, specifically in higher education, will discuss fraternities and sororities, yet those Greek organizations aligned with Black students are missing from the pages. Vice President Harris is not the only accomplished, notable member of AKA; the partial list below provides an overview of the many women who have made a difference and created a space for other Black women to lead:
|Marian Anderson||First Black woman to sing at the Metropolitan Opera|
|Dr. Maya Angelou||Renowned novelist, poet, educator, dancer. National Ambassador for the U.S. Committee for UNICEF, Grammy winner for Best Spoken Word|
|Suzette Charles||Miss America 1984, contemporary singer, and actress|
|Ella Fitzgerald||Internationally famous jazz singer, known as the “First Lady of Song” |
|Dr. Mae Jemison||An accomplished physician, she became the first African American woman astronaut as a member of the Shuttle Endeavour crew in 1992|
|Coretta Scott King||Civil Rights Activist, Director of Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Change and Civil Rights Activism|
|Gladys Knight||Accomplished singer and actress|
|Toni Morrison||Nobel-prize-winning novelist and poet whose works include Song of Solomon and Beloved|
|Ntozake Shaunge||Author of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf|
The month of February will soon come to an end. The question that remains is what we will do to continue to educate our Black community and others about the culture, history, and accomplishments of Black Americans. As a leader, I must openly share what I have learned and be a role model for others while teaching others to believe this quote that guides me… “I believe in my worthiness. My soul, my body, my mind are my top priority” (Author Unknown)