Women Who Helped Improve Racial Equality I Oxford Open Learning
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Women Who Helped Improve Racial Equality

To celebrate International Women’s Day today, here we shine a light on some of history’s most influential Black women who helped to improve racial equality in the United States.

Harriet Tubman (c.1820 – 1913)

Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland and was the victim of much physical abuse at the hands of slave owners and overseers, much of which left her with permanent physical damaged. In 1849 Tubman escaped enslavement, fleeing to Philadelphia, and soon after began helping other enslaved people escape to the North along the Underground Railroad. An 1868 biography of Tubman claims that she made 19 journeys up and down America, guiding over 300 people to their freedom, earning her the nickname “Moses”.

Ella Baker (1903 – 1986)

In the early 1930s, Baker helped to form the Young Negroes Cooperative League and later joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In the mid-1950s Baker co-founded In Friendship, an organisation which helped to raise money for the civil rights efforts in the South, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, of which Martin Luther King Jnr served as President. In the 1960s, Baker left the NAACP to help student activists organise the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Baker’s inspiring human rights work earned her the nickname Fundi – a Swahili word meaning a person who teaches a craft to the next generation.

Rosa Parks (1913 – 2005)

Rosa Parks became a household name after she refused to give up her bus seat for a white man in Alabama in 1955. Parks was arrested, and this led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott in which 17,000 Black citizens, led by a young Martin Luther King Jnr, took part. Prior to this, Parks was a prominent member of the Montgomery NAACP, founding the youth branch in the 1940s. After receiving death threats and losing her job after the Boycott, Parks’ family moved to Detroit, where she established the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute of Self-Development in 1987. In 1999, she received the highest honour bestowed upon a civilian in the United States, the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor.

Fannie Lou Hamer (1917 – 1977)

After suffering an horrific forced hysterectomy at the hands of a white doctor, and angry at the lack of voting rights for Black citizens, Hamer joined the SNCC in 1961, and later led a group of 17 volunteers to register to vote at the Indianola courthouse. The group were denied their right to vote, but Hamer did eventually register as a voter in 1963. A year later, she co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, working tirelessly to ensure equal representation in a state that was still pro-segregation. Throughout her life, through the numerous organisations that she founded and worked with, Hamer fought for equal rights and opportunities for both women and Black citizens in Mississippi.

Maya Angelou (1928 – 2014)

Maya Angelou was an American writer, performer, and civil rights activist best known for her 1969 memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The book became the first non-fiction bestseller by an African American woman. In the mid-1950s Angelou embarked upon a career as a performer before moving to Ghana in the 1960s to work as a freelance writer and editor. Here she met Malcolm X and, on her return to the U.S. in 1964, helped him to establish the Organisation of Afro-American Unity. Angelou published several collections of poems throughout her career – her most famous is one she wrote for, and recited at, Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, titled On the Pulse of Morning.

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