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Remembering Remarkable Firsts During Black History Month

Wangari Maathai, Phillis Wheatley, Sarah Jane Woodson Early, Mary Jane Patterson, Rebecca Lee Crumpler, Cathay Williams

Black history month (observed in February in the United States and Canada) is a great opportunity to shine a light on some of the amazing contributions of black women throughout history. In this article, we celebrate a few black women firsts.

Wangari Maathai

In 2004, Wangari Maathai became the first black woman as well as the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize. In a statement announcing her Nobel Peace Prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee said, “Maathai stands at the front of the fight to promote ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development in Kenya and in Africa. She has taken a holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women’s rights in particular. She thinks globally and acts locally.”

Phillis Wheatley

In 1773, Phillis Wheatley became the first African American woman (and the second woman, after Anne Bradstreet) to publish a book of poems – despite spending much of her life as a slave. Her biography on Wikipedia states that, “with the 1773 publication of Wheatley's book Poems on Various Subjects, she ‘became the most famous African on the face of the earth.’ (…) She was honored by many of America's founding fathers, including George Washington, who wrote to her (after she wrote a poem in his honor) that ‘the style and manner [of your poetry] exhibit a striking proof of your great poetical Talents.’ “

Sarah Jane Woodson Early

Sarah W. Early became the first African American woman to teach at university when she was hired in 1858 at Wilberforce University in Ohio. She was active in the temperance movement and in 1888 was elected national superintendent of the Colored Division of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. A few years later, in 1893, she was named "Representative Woman of the Year" at the Chicago World's Fair.

Mary Jane Patterson

In 1862, Mary Jane Patterson became the first African American woman to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree. After graduating from Oberlin college in Ohio, she was an educator at a number of learning institutions. In 1869, she was hired at the high school that is known today as Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., where she served as the school’s first black principal.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler

At a time when very few women were allowed to attend medical school or publish books, Rebecca Lee Crumpler became the first black woman in the United States to become a physician and also published a medical reference book. She became a Doctor of Medicine in 1864, and in 1883 published A Book of Medical Discourses.

Cathay Williams

In 1866, Cathay Williams became the first woman to serve in the United States Army, despite the prohibition against women serving in the military at that time. To pull this off, she enlisted under the false name of William Cathay and passed herself off as a man.

Incredibly, despite the medical examination required for enlistment, it wasn’t until 1868 that her gender was discovered and she was discharged from the Army.

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