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Happy Leap Year! Today is the last day of African American History/Herstory month. I previously did another post on firsts for African American women and want to write a little why I decided to list the first African American women to achieve certain things.

I know most people in the U.S. at one time or another have read about the history/herstory of the enslavement of black people in this country, but I want to refresh my memory on a few things to get to where I’m going in this post, and I think the history of America is important to remember so I have inserted a short version of the history here. I also think is important for you to know that I am a white woman and that the history here has been taken mostly from Wikipedia, under ‘Slavery in the United States.’. It is is by no means a complete history. Even if you know the it, please continue reading to also have a refresher and a background for why I am listing the ‘firsts.’

From the 16th to the 19th centuries, an estimated 12 million Africans were shipped as slaves to North and South America. Most slave owners were white. In the English colonies, the Africans’ status as foreigners and generally non-Christians, as well as the color of their skin and the fact that they spoke other languages, were excuses to make them them the ‘other,’ and as the other, inhuman. Because they were seen as non-human, it was easy to rationalize ownership of them. The idea that they were not people was pushed. They were seen as alive, but they were like livestock, wives, or other property, though usually treated worse.

Before the widespread establishment of chattel slavery, which was the outright ownership of a human being, and of his/her descendants, much work was organized under a system of bonded labor known as indentured servitude and because of poor economies in their countries, some people paid with their labor for the costs of being transported to the colonies. Between 1680 and 1700, as fewer Europeans migrated to the colonies, planters began to import more Africans as slaves. Recognizing the importance of slavery to the economy, a new slave code was enacted in Virginia in 1705 that brought together a variety of legislation that embedded the principles of white supremacy in the law. By the early 18th century, colonial courts and legislatures had racialized slavery, essentially creating a caste system in which slavery applied nearly exclusively to Black Africans and people of African descent, and occasionally to Native Americans.

The explosive growth of cotton cultivation in the deep south greatly increased the demand for slave labor to support it. By 1815, the internal slave trade had become a major economic activity in the United States; it lasted until the 1860s. Between 1830 and 1840 nearly 250,000 slaves were taken across state lines. In the 1850s over 193,000 were transported, and historians estimate nearly one million in total took part in the forced migration of this new Middle Passage. By 1860 the slave population in the United States had reached 4 millionAs the internal slave trade became a dominant feature of American slavery, individuals lost their connection to families and clans and knowledge of tribal origins in Africa were impossible to keep up with and was mostly lost.

Historians have estimated that one million slaves were moved westward and southward between 1790 and 1860. Most of the slaves originated in Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas where changes in agriculture decreased demand for slaves. Before 1810, primary destinations were Kentucky and Tennessee, but after 1810 Georgia, Alabama, Missippi, Louisiana, and Texas received the most slaves. Kentucky and Tennessee became exporting states. This large forced migration of slaves broke up many families and in many ways replicated their initial forced migration from Africa.

Eleven southern states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederacy. The Twenty-five other states supported the federal government and were the Union. In 1861, the Civil War began between the Confederacy and the Union. On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, but the Civil War continued until 1865 when the Confederacy surrendered and slavery was outlawed everywhere in the nation. That was 147 years ago. One hundred forty seven years- That is not a lot of years to be free.

*In 2012 African Americans have been free, as a group, for 147 years. Consider that ties to their original cultures were lost and cut. Consider the treatment of them was horrific, degrading, and terrifying and it was regularly reinforced to African Americans and to everyone else as well, that they were less than, dumb, and not human. Consider what they, as a people, have survived. Consider that cultures are always evolving and the time it takes to build a culture anew after being completely devastated. Is there a time frame for how long it takes? No. It just happens. It is happening, right now. Consider that African American culture is being constructed, molded, formed on top of a history of slavery that said they were not human and could be owned. The firsts for African American women are not only wonderful accomplishments, they are also amazing feats in the context of the history/herstory and in the face of ongoing racism and prejudice that continues today. For this reason alone they should be recognized and celebrated.

It is also of great importance that we remember the history of this country, especially since Tea Party representatives in states like Tennessee and Arizona want to erase it.  I also think it is important for us to remember history so that it isn’t repeated. In this history, you can see the economic rewards slavery brought for some people. The exploitation of some, was to the benefit and wealth of others. A similar economic arrangement of oppression, though it looks different, is happening now with the exploitation of the Mexican immigrant population and certain laws being put in place to enforce that exploitation for economic ends.

No one is free when some people are oppressed. That has become cliche, but it is absolutely true. So, what is the cost for our nation?

Consider these things and this context for this amazing list of firsts by African American women. Please note how early some things were accomplished and how long it took for other things to be accomplished because of barriers set up to deter African American success. Racism against African American women, as well as oppression based on gender has been widespread and institutionalized and has tried to keep African American women down, but they have excelled despite the roadblocks. So, with that context, enjoy some more firsts! (please note some Firsts are highlighted, this is for esthetics, not to indicate greater importance)

1885 First African-American woman to hold a patent: Sarah E. Goode, for the cabinet bed, Chicago, Illinois

1892 First African American to sing at Carnegie Hall: Matilda Sissieretta Jovner Jones.

1895 First African-American woman to work for the United States Postal Service: Mary Fields.

1903 First African-American woman to found and become president of a bank: Maggie L. Walker, St. Luke Penny Savings Bank (since 1930 the Consolidated Bank & Trust Company), Richmond, Virginia

1916 First African-American woman to be a police officer in Los Angeles: Georgia Robinson. This was seven years after the LAPD hired the first woman officer in the country.

First African-American woman to become a pilot, first American to hold an international pilot license: Bessie Coleman

First African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in the U.S.: Sadie Tanner Mossell, Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Pennsylvania.

1926 First African-American woman to receive a degree (Ph.D.) from Yale University: Otelia Cromwell, who had previously been the first African-American graduate of Smith College.

1934 First trade union set up for African-American domestic workers by Dora Lee Jones.

1938 First African-American female federal agency head: Mary McLeod Bethune (National Youth Administration)

1940 First African American to win an Academy Award: Hattie McDaniel (Best Supporting Actress, ‘Gone With The Wind,’ 1939).

1948 First African-American woman to win an Olympic gold medal: Alice Coachman. She won it for the high jump. Coachman was the only American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in athletics in 1948.

1950 First African American to win Pulitzer Prize: Gwendolyn Brooks (Book of poetry, Annie Allen, 1949)

1950 First African-American woman to compete on the world tennis tour: Althea Gibson.

1952 First African-American woman elected to a United States State Senate: Cora Brown. Democrat, Michigan.

1952 First African-American woman to be nominated for a national political office: Charlotta Bass, Vice President (Progressive Party)

1954 First African-American woman to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress: Dorothy Dandridge for Carmen Jones, 1954).

1954 First individual African-American woman as subject on the cover of Life magazine: Dorothy Dandridge, November 1, 1954

1956 First African American Wimbledon tennis champion: Althea Gibson (doubles, with Englishwoman Angela Buxton; also first African American to win a Grand Slam event at the French Open

1959 First African-American Grammy Award winners, in the award’s inaugural year: Ella Fitgerald and Count Basie (two awards each)

1963 First African American to appear as a series regular on a prime time dramatic television series: Cicely Tyson,”East Side/West Side,” on CBS.

1965 First African-American cast member of a daytime soap opera: Micki Grant who played Peggy Nolan Harris on Another World until 1972.

1965 First African-American female Ambassador of the United States: Patricia Roberts Harris, ambassador to Luxembourg

1968 First African-American woman elected to U.S. House of Representatives: Shirley Chisholm, Democrat, NY

1968 First African-American appointed as a U.S. Assistant Secretary of State: Barbara M. Watson

1968 First African-American woman as Presidential candidate: Charlene Mitchell (See also: Shirley Chisholm, 1972)

1968 First African-American woman reporter for The New York Times: Nancy Hicks Maynard.

1969 First African-American graduate of Harvard Business School: Lillian Lincoln.

1969 First African-American woman to appear on the Grand Ole Opry: Linda Martell.

1972 First African American to campaign for the U.S. presidency in a major political party and to win a U.S. presidential primary/caucus: Shirley Chisolm, Democratic Party, New Jersey primary)

1972 First African-American woman Broadway director: Vinnette Justine Carroll (Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope).

1974 First African-American model on the cover of American Vogue magazine: Beverly Johnson.

1975 First African-American women named as Time magazine’s, Person of the Year: Barbara Jordan and Addie L. Wyatt

1977 First African American, and first woman, appointed director of the Peace Corps: Carolyn R. Payton

1977 First African-American woman in the U.S. Cabinet: Patricia Roberts Harris, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development

1977 First African-American woman whose signature appeared on U.S. currency: Azie Taylor Morton, the 36th Treasurer of the United States

1977 First African-American woman to join the Daughters of the American Revolution: Karen Batchelor

1983 First African-American Miss America: Vanessa L. Williams

Aretha Franklin

1987 First African-American woman, and first woman, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Aretha Franklin

1988 First African-American woman elected to a U.S. judgeship, and first appointed to a state supreme court: Juanita Kidd Stout

1989 First African American, and first woman, ordained bishop in the Episcopal Church: Barbara Clementine Harris

1991 First African-American woman mayor of Washington, D.C.: Sharon Pratt Kelly

Dr. Mae Jemison

1992 First African-American woman astronaut: Dr. Mae Jemison (Space Shuttle Endeavour)

1992 First African-American woman elected to U.S. Senate: Carol Moseley Braun (Democrat; Illinois

1992 First African-American woman to moderate a Presidential debate : Carole Simpson (second debate of 1992 campaign

1993 First African-American woman appointed U.S. Secretary of Energy: Hazel R. O’Leary

1993 First African American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature: Toni Morrison

Rita Dove

1993 First African-American woman named Poet Laureate of the United States: Rita Dove, also the youngest person named to that position

1993 First African American appointed Surgeon General of the United States: Joycelyn Elders

1994 First African-American woman director of a major-studio movie: Darnell Martin (Columbia Pictures’ I Like It Like That)

1998 First African American appointed U.S. Secretary of Labor: Alexis Herman

1998 First African-American woman to hold the rank of rear admiral in the U.S. Navy: Lillian Fishburne

1998 First African American to win the WWE Women’s Championship: Jacqueline Moore

2000 First African American nominated for Vice President of the United States by a Federal Election Commission-recognized and federally funded political party:Ezola B. Foster

2001 First African-American president of an Ivy League university: Ruth J. Simmons at Brown University, also the first permanent female president of Brown.

2001 First African-American woman to win the ASCAP Pop Music Songwriter of the Year award: Beyoncé Knowles

2001 First African-American woman to be appointed National Security Advisor: Condoleezza Rice

2001 First African-American female billionaire: Sheila Johnson

2002 First African-American woman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress: Halle Berry (Monster’s Ball, 2001)

2002 First African-American Winter Olympic gold medal winner: Vonetta Flowers (two-woman bobsleigh). (See also: Shani Davis, 2006)

2002 First African-American female combat pilot in the U.S. Armed Services: Captain Vernice Armour, USMC

Venus and Serena Williams

2002 First African American to hold the #1 rank in tennis: Venus Williams, February 25, 2002.

2002 First African American to hold the year-end #1 rank in tennis: Serena Williams

2002 First African American to be named year-end world champion by the International Tennis Federation: Serena Williams

2003 First African American to win a Career Grand Slam in tennis: Serena Williams (See also: Althea Gibson, 1956; Arthur Ashe, 1968)

2004 First African American to win Broadway theater’s Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play: Phylicia Rashād

2005 First African-American woman appointed Secretary of State: Condoleezza Rice (See also: 2001)

2005 First African-American woman U.S. Coast Guard aviator: Jeanine Menze

2006 First African American to reach the peak of Mount Everest: Sophia Danenberg

2007 First known African-American woman to reach the North Pole: Barbara Hillary

2007 First African-American female professional wrestler to win the NWA World Women’s Championship: Amazing Kong

2008 First African-American woman elected Speaker of a state House of Representatives: California Rep. Karen Bass

2008 First African-American female combat pilot in the United States Air Force: Major Shawna Rochelle Kimbrell

2009 First African-American First Lady of the United States: Michelle Obama

2009 First African-American chair of the Republican National Committee: Michael Steele (See also: 2002)

2009 First African-American United States Attorney General: Eric HolderFirst African-American woman United States Ambassador to the United Nations: Susan Rice

2009 First African-American woman Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency: Lisa P. Jackson

2009 First African-American White House Social Secretary: Desirée Rogers

2009 First African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for History: Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

2009 First African-American woman rabbi: Alysa Stanton

2009 First African-American doubles team to be named year-end world champion by the International Tennis Federation: Serena and Venus Williams

2009 First African-American to win an Academy Awards for an Adapted screenplay (Push by Sapphire) Geoffrey S. Fletcher. This is an African American man, but Push was written by Sapphire who is an African American woman.

Props to all African American women who have continued to excel beyond the bounds of history that tried to hold them back! Thank you for your amazing contributions to this world! May we celebrate them and you year round!
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