Bold, Beautiful, Black women are the Mother's of Civilization. They inspire, guide, nurture, and support us in ways seen and unseen. This curated Chicago collection of Black Women in History is a mix of contemporary and historical figures who have shaped our lives that we can reference for clear examples of those who dared to make a difference through their works. Since I was born and raised in Chicago, this list is near and dear to my heart. It was a delight to reflect on landmarks that I pass on a regular basis.
8 Black Women in History:
1. Dr. Margaret Taylor Burroughs
The birthplace of the DuSable Museum of African American History was located in the home of Dr. Margaret Taylor-Burroughs who was an artist, historian, poet, and educator. She attended the Art Institute of Chicago where she received her Bachelor's and Master's degrees. The cover of the book (pictured above), "Southside Venus: The Legacy of Margaret Burroughs " features one of her prized works called, "Black Venus" which is currently on display at the Princeton University Art Museum. She taught at Community colleges and high schools in arts and culture She had the foresight to pull together historical items in a central location for public viewing by starting the nation's first independent museum dedicated to the collection, preservation and study of the history and culture of Africans, and, Americans of African descent.
One of her famous poems was, "What should I Tell My Children Who Are Black" written in 1963. You can hear the author read the entire poem on Youtube. In 1975, Dr. Burroughs received a humanitarian award from President Gerald Ford. In 2015, 31st Street Beach was renamed "Dr. Margaret Burroughs Beach and Park," and is 30 acres large. The location is infamously notable because in 1919 it was home to a Chicago race riot. Dr. Burroughs' Day is February 1, 1986 as declared by the late Harold Washington, Chicago's first Black Mayor. She was named one of Chicago's most influential women by the Chicago Defender.
Here is an excerpt from her powerful poem, "What Will Your Legacy Be."
"Do You know what the word legacy means? Well if you don't know, let me tell you what the dictionary says it means.
Legacy - property or money left to somebody by a will. Something handed down from those who've gone before. A legacy of honor, a legacy of freedom.
In this poem, I'm not referring to material things like property or money. I'm referring to what you have done with this life that God has given to you. Yes, I wanna know what will your legacy be. This is a question that I would like to put to each and every one of you. What will your legacy be when you have finally cast off these mortal coils, when you have crossed the great divide, when you can no longer run life's race, when you no longer have a place, when you have at last completed the circle round, and when an escape is no longer to be found, what will your legacy be?"
Impactful words from a visionary who planted the first seeds in preserving the legacy of our race. Born in St. Rose, Louisiana in 1917-2010, she spent most of her adult life in Chicago.
2. Annie Turnbo Malone
Annie Turnbo Malone was recorded to be the first African American female millionaire, from her beauty enterprises headquartered in Chicago and St. Louis. Malone was born August 9, 1869. in Massac County, IL. She started the first hair care company that focused on Black women's Hair. Using the knowledge her aunt shared with her about herbs that came out of the woods by her home, Turnbo mixed and invented concoctions she'd try on her and her sister's hair. Though she started her business in Brooklyn, IL, she later grew the business into St. Louis. After some legal trouble, she moved her base operation to Chicago on what is now called King Drive (formerly South Parkway). She purchased several homes in the forty-four hundred block, which became known as the Poro College Block. Using the same technique shared by George Washington Carver of taking a wagon out to each household, she took her knowledge of hair care house to house. She focused on her Hair Growth formula and had her own hair to show as evidence of her outstanding results. Now the block is the home to the Irvin Mollison Elementary school.
"Wonderful Hair Grower" was her signature product which jumpstarted her enterprise. In 1917, she created the Poro College building in St. Louis successfully securing her first headquarters. At the height of her business growth, "The Poro System" had seventy-five thousand agents around the U.S., Cuba, Nova Scotia, the Philippines, and the Panama Canal Zone, for example.
"Poro" is a West African word which stands for an organization dedicated to disciplining and enhancing the body physically. She believed that women would "feel better about themselves if they improved their self-image and beauty."
She contributed financial resources to the St. Louis Colored Orphans Home, which was later renamed in her honor as "The Annie Malone Children’s Home."
Annie Turnbo Malone's gravesite is in Alsip, Illinois at the Burr Oak Cemetery. She died on May 10, 1957 in Chicago's Provident Hospital.
My great grandmother Essie Cole Mitchell Palmer (July 1, 1881 - May 13, 1974) was a "prominent business woman having added direction and organization to the Poro Beauty System of Memphis," according to our family obituary. For years, we didn't know what "Poro" was, but how delightful to find out that in some way she was connected to this booming national Black owned business.
According to The Chicago Defender, Malone, "also owned several one-man airplanes that she would fly with America’s first Black aviator Bessie Coleman, who lived up the street on King Drive." Poro College on 4410 South King Drive (was Parkway, changed 31 July 1968 to Martin Luther King Drive ) in Chicago, served as the location of a flight school called the John C. Robinson National Air College and school of Automotive Engineering. For the curious, read, "A Friend To All Mankind - Mrs. Annie Turbo Malone and Poro College" by John H. Whitfield to find out how the flight school was connected to African Americans' aiding Africans when Italians waged war on Ethiopia. The other reference about her life is, "Black Fortunes The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Survived Slavery and Became Millionaires" by Shomari Willis.
Lastly, I was elated to find out that her archives are stored in Chicago's Vivan Harsh Collection at Carter G. Woodson Library under the "Robert O. French Papers." I will likely update this post after viewing so please stay tuned.
3. Mahalia Jackson
Though Mahalia Jackson was born in New Orleans, in her teens she moved to Chicago where she lived for the rest of her adult life. It was here that she sang in her church, Greater Salem Baptist Church starting with a group called the Johnson Singers. Eventually she was heard by a radio host named Studs Terkel who brought her on his program many times. Later she recorded a song called, "Move On Up a Little Higher" which sold 50,000 copies in Chicago and 2 million nationwide. It was on Billboards top selling charts for 2 weeks which was a first for gospel music. Her voice would cause spontaneous spiritual electricity to spark through a listening audience. Later in life Jackson also became a Madam C. J. Walker sales rep and bought her own salon. She traveled the world to Japan, India and Europe. Jackson sang "Precious Lord" at the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr and was considered a personal friend of the Kings.
Her home was located at 8358 South Indiana Avenue in the Chatham neighborhood. She bought the house in 1956 for $40,000 from a white surgeon who heard her sing. The segregated Chatham Village neighborhood did not welcome her with open arms. On the first day she moved in, her front door was shot. Jackson then asked Mayor Richard J. Daley for police surveillance. In 1970, she moved to Hyde Park and U.S. Comptroller, Roland Burris, a banker at the time, bought her home in Chatham.
Mahalia Jackson used her talent to assist with fund raisers during the Civil Rights Movements by offering to sing without pay for the United Negro College Fund and the Prayer Pilgrimage Breakfast, for example . A dear friend of mine who still lives around the corner from Jackson's Chatham home said her family would bring her by her home every Halloween and Jackson would bake cookies for the tricker treaters. She remembers her having a very pleasant disposition and humming as she served the cookies.
Danielle Brooks is playing the role of Mahalia Jackson in an upcoming Lifetime Original Movie partnered with Robin Roberts' production company. The biopic is scheduled to come out April 3rd, 2021. There is also a Mahalia Jackson film to feature Jill Scott, produced by Queen Latifah and Jamie Foxx.
4. Gwendolyn Brooks
Poet laureate of Illinois, teacher and activist Gwendolyn Brooks entered the planet on June 7, 1917. She started writing when she was 7 years old. She grew up in Chicago and her work is reflective of her life there. She referred to herself as the "People Poet," in that she wrote about people particularly in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood. In 1950, her book, "Annie Allen" won the Pulitzer prize for poetry. She taught around Chicago at: Columbia College Chicago, Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago State University, Elmhurst College, Columbia University, and the City College of New York. Brooks has an interesting opinion about use of the term, "African American" saying that the term "Black" was broad enough to include our family members in Brazil and South Africa for example. She stressed the importance of using a term that allowed everyone of African ancestry to be included in it and the "American" part of the term would exclude too many.
Brooks says she, "takes notes to paper" every day. She's famous for her poem, "We Real Cool," by many young people. She said she was inspired when walking past a pool hall and noticed some young people were not in school. She wondered how they felt about themselves. The Poetry Foundation created a rendition of that poem which uniquely depicts the thoughts behind an imagined world that Brooks created on Youtube. The books she's written are:
Annie Allen, Pulitzer 1950
Bronzeville Boys and Girls
The Bean Eater
Maud Martha - Novel
She taught poetry to the everyday community members in a way that they would embrace it and express themselves naturally. She wanted them to "free their interior," and not necessarily follow any other established rules and meter. Gwendolyn Brooks departed this life December 3, 2000.
5. Frances Cress Welsing
Psychiatrist, teacher, activist, and thought leader Dr. Frances Cress Welsing did a deep dive into the origin of racism with her treatise, "The Isis Papers." Dr Welsing appeared at Afriware on several occasions over the years. Dr. Welsing is the third generation doctor who was born in Chicago on March 18, 1935.
Her definition of "racism- white supremacy" has gotten to the root of its structure. She defines it as:
A power system dynamic structured and maintained by persons who classify themselves as white whether consciously or subconsciously determined. Which [this] consists of patterns of perception, logic, symbol formation, thoughts, speech, actions, and emotional response, as conducted simultaneously in all areas of people activity: economics, education, entertainment, labor, law, politics, religion sex, war for the ultimate purpose of white genetic survival and preventing white genetic annihilation on planet earth.
In 1974, Dr. Welsing debated a very controversial scientist named William Shockley in an interview on Tony Brown's Journal. I spoke about the importance this scientist played in my studies as an undergraduate Electrical Engineering student in another blog post called, "Who Created Black History Month and Why?" In short, this scientist is highly venerated repeatedly in the career path I chose. Shockley also promoted the "The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life" by Hernstein and Murray to prove that Black people were genetically inferior to White people. With poise, confidence and finesse, the calm, cool and triple collected Dr. Welsing picked apart every detail and left the scientist scrambling for his paperwork for answers.
Afriware Books, Co prepared a "Proclamation" to be read at her memorial (transitioned Jan. 2, 2016), but unfortunately, there wasn't enough time on the program. Instead, we sent it directly to her sister Lorne Love. Here it is in its entirety:
This document was well received by her sister who would always attend her lectures when she spoke at Afriware Books, Co along with her other sister, now deceased.
This is her often repeated poem recited at many of her lectures:
A Liberating Black People’s Prayer for Justice and Peace
By Dr. Frances Cress Welsing
Thou who are Blacker than a trillion midnights
Whose eyes shine brighter than a billion suns,
Thou whose hair doth coil
tighter than a million springs,
radiating all energy throughout The Universe.
We beseech thee,
One And Only One,
To give us total strength to carry out
THY will for this universe
To establish justice
On planet earth
and live in peace.
We've had such fond memories of her as I've spoken about on our podcast. Her book, "The Isis Papers," is a must read. "The Osiris Papers: Reflections on the Life and Writings of Dr. Frances Cress Welsing ," was written as a tribute to her and her work by scholars, social activists, and entertainers such as Anthony T. Browder, Jeremiah Wright, Jr., Dr. Marimba Ani, Conrad Worrill, and many others.
6. Marva Collins
Trust Yourself, Think for Yourself,
Act for Yourself, Speak for Yourself.
Be Yourself, Imitation is Suicide.
Serving as the teacher's teacher, Marva Collins (August 31, 1936 – June 24, 2015) led the charge against miseducation and substandard learning taking place in Chicago's public school system. Collins said in the documentary, "Success: The Marva Collins Approach" that there were far too many children "being recruited for failure." She decided to open her own school called, "Westside Preparatory School" right out of her home located at 3819 West Adams on the top floors of her brownstone. Collins was awarded the National Humanity Medal, in 2004. She taught about the importance of critical thinking and raising questions to reach understanding rather than memorization or rote learning.
It is exciting to learn that Collins' philosophy is being revived in 2022 as a Charter School in Nevada. This information was shared on a Youtube channel and website spearheaded by her son, Eric Collins.
Marva Collins' system was popularized by the film "The Marva Collins Story" and received nationwide acclaim and attention. The beloved award winning actress and now deceased Cicely Tyson played Marva Collins. In 1984, Prince visited the school according to Le'Passion Darby, one of Collins' students. Darby is an accomplished woman who proudly states that she "owes much of her success and travels around the world" to the inspiration of Collins. Darby is also a longtime customer of ours at Afriware Books, Co. It was a pleasure to connect with her recently during the pandemic. The Westside Preparatory School Community is preparing a special tribute to Collins in the upcoming months. I will share on this blogpost when available.
Darby shared Westside Preparatory School's Creed with me in its entirety (below):
Prince was one of many celebrities who praised Collins' work. In 1984 he donated $500,000 to her "Teacher Training Institute" and also featured her in his video, "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" (starting at marker 4:22 through the end). Collins wrote the books, "The Marva Collins Way," and "Ordinary Children, Extraordinary Teachers" both of which are available for purchase at Afriware Books, Co.
7. Bessie Coleman
The air is the only place free from prejudice."
- Bessie Coleman
Elizabeth Bessie Coleman was the nation’s first female African American pilot. She was born in 1892 in Waxahachie, Texas. At age 23, she moved to Chicago to live with her brother. According to a short on Youtube called, "The Daredevil Pilot that History Forgot," Coleman was inspired after hearing her brother and others share their stories of female pilots they saw in France upon their return from World War I.
Robert Abbott, the owner of The Chicago Defender decided to sponsor Coleman's study to become a pilot after Coleman sent him a request. In 1920 she was off to France for flight school. There she learned to fly on a plane called the Nieuport 82 that had 2 cockpits. Back then, planes were open-air with direct contact with the elements. There was no steering wheel nor brakes. She received her pilot's license on June 15, 1921 from the French International Federation of Aeronautics.
Since few were flying in that day, she ended up learning how to be a "barnstormer" which meant she could do figure eights, climb on the wings and other stunts during flight. If Blacks were not allowed to use the front entrance of an arena for one of her air shows, she refused to fly. In Feb. 1923 she bought her first plane. Coleman lived at 41st and South Park Ave which was close to the city block that included the site of Poro College owned by the first Black female Millionaire Annie Turnbo Malone.
Chicago landmarks named after Bessie Coleman:
A solo play was performed by actress Madeline McCray called, "Dream to Fly: Inspired by the Life & Times of Bessie Coleman" from March 28 - 31, 2013 McCray's website reports that she is developing it to become a TV pilot and pitch it in the future.
Additional books on Black aviation are pictures below:
8. Ida B. Wells-Barnett
The power in the pen of the "Princess of the Press," Ida B. Wells-Barnett cut through the joists holding up the strong supports of racism by exposing meticulous details of lynching across the country with her pamphlets. This fearless trailblazer who was born just before the end of the enslavement period on July 16th, 1862 was driven to tell the truth about the South in particular from the Black perspective. While she was born in Holly Springs, MS, she moved to Chicago in 1895, got married and started a family.
An excerpt from her 1899 "Lynch Law in Georgia" is hauntingly apropos today as if discussing the the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd:
"The real purpose of these savage demonstrations is to teach the Negro that in the South he has no rights that the law will enforce. Samuel Hose was burned to teach the Negroes that no matter what a white man does to them, they must not resist."
Frederick Douglas said of her writing in a letter she published from him in 1892, "Brave Woman! You have done your people and mine a service which can neither be weighed nor measured. If American conscience were only half alive, if the American church and clergy were only half Christianized, if American moral sensibility were not hardened by persistent infliction of outrage and crime against colored people, a scream of horror, shame and indignation would rise to Heaven where ever your pamphlet shall be read." This letter was published in the comprehensive book published in 2021 by her granddaughter Michelle Duster called, "Ida B. The Queen. the Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells." I enjoyed the first skim of this book because it resembles a scrapbook with letters, photographs, old newspaper articles, quotations, and creative illustrations. It would make an excellent text book as it co-mingles historical facts with current events.
Interest has grown in Chicago for this historical icon/activist/mother/educator/journalist/author when Congress Parkway was named after her on July 26, 2018 by the Chicago City Council. Her home had already received landmark status on Oct. 2, 1995 at 3624 S Martin Luther King Dr. It is ominous to note that the lynchings she fought against with ardent fervor has yet to be acknowledged as a federal crime. Known as H. R. 35, the "Emmett Till Antilynching Act," was sent back to the senate for vote and was blocked by Senator Rand Paul in June 2020.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett wrote her autobiography before her death on Mar. 25, 1931. The title "Crusade for Justice" was first published in 1970 by her daughter Afreda Duster. The new edition was updated and released May 13, 2020. It contains a new foreward and afterword by her granddaughter Michelle Duster. These books can be found at Afriware Books, Co website or by clicking the photos below.