10 Black Moms In History We Love
Words: Meilan Carter-Gilkey
Raising children is an accomplishment in itself, but these 10 mothers also did so while making history.
As we celebrate Black History Month, we reflect on those with brilliant minds, strong hearts, and brave souls who have affected our lives and the world. So often we remember the accomplishments of those who came before us, but we forget that many of them had families who had to bear the sacrifice and share their loved ones with the world.
We want to recognize a few of these amazing women for leading rebellions, breaking color lines, and making history while navigating the everyday challenges of raising children.
poet and activist
Before earning the Presidential Medal of Freedom and gracing the world with her breathtaking poetry, Maya Angelou dropped out of high school at 14 and became the first black woman cable car conductor in San Francisco. (She would later return and graduate, gaining the first of many degrees.) A single mother to her son Guy when she was 17, Angelou supported them by working as a waitress and a cook, while still finding time to stoke her creative passions. She eventually became an award-winning writer, musician, actress, dancer, director, journalist, political activist, and educator.
Dr. Mayme Clayton
librarian, collector, and historian
Dr. Mayme Clayton believed "children should know that black people have done great things” and she dedicated 40 years of her life to make it so. She accumulated a vast collection of black literature, documents, photographs, films, books, and memorabilia that was shared first as a bookstore and later as a library out of her home and her garage. This highly respected collection originated from garage sale and used bookstore finds and grew to become a treasured resource for scholars and communities in Los Angeles and abroad. Also a wife and mother of three sons (Avery, Lloyd, and Renai), Clayton served the community with original programming, such as black film festivals to share her complied works. As the collection outgrew her home, her eldest son Avery became the executive director of the Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum (MCLM) and he secured a new home for the collection in the former Culver City Courthouse, shortly before her death in 2006.
actor, screen/songwriter, and activist
The talented Ruby Dee was best known as an award-winning actress of stage and screen alongside her husband, the great Ossie Davis, but her roles went beyond acting—she was also an accomplished screen and songwriter. Friends with both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Ruby Dee and her husband were active participants in the Civil Rights Movement. Dee was also the mother to their son Guy, who grew up in the family business and eventually composed music with his mother for the family musical Take It from the Top!, which Davis directed and Dee wrote.
performer, war hero, and activist
Josephine Baker is known around the world for her sassy and comedic dancing, particularly her famous banana routine. But Baker was much more than a performer. After facing racism in the states, she found more acceptance and an extremely successful career in Paris. When she returned to the states many years later, she actively fought against discrimination, earning her a day of recognition by the NAACP. In addition to being an activist, she was a war hero for the French Army during World War II. Baker was also the adoptive mother of 12 children, which she called the “Rainbow Tribe” because of her children’s diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, to prove people could coexist no matter their origins.
singer and activist
There is no single genre of music or style of singing that can capture Nina Simone’s multidimensional career and dynamic contribution. With a background in classical and religious music at the early age of 3, Simone was accepted into Juilliard to study classical piano. She began a career as a singer and performed covers and originals from jazz, blues, spirituals, pop, soul and folk music. Some of her most notable songs were Civil Rights songs such as Young, Gifted, and Black and Mississippi Goddam, which was an original song in memory of the Birmingham, Alabama church bombing and the murder of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers. This song marked a turning point in her career and was an anthem in its time. In addition to her remarkable career, Simone had a daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, a talented singer in her own right.
Dr. Shirley Jackson
physicist, educator, and college president
Dr. Shirley Jackson may not be a household name, but her work has had a major affect on the world of physics and technology for more than 40 years. She has the honor of being the first African-American woman to receive her PhD from Massachussetts Institute of Technology in Theoretical Solid State Physics. Her research has contributed to companies such as Bell Telephone and AT&T Bell Laboratories. Dr. Jackson has won numerous awards, taught at prestigious universities, served on several boards, and her accomplishments don’t end there—she’s also the President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the mother to her son Alan with her physicist husband, Dr. Morris A. Washington.
freedom fighter, abolitionist, spy, and war hero
Harriet Tubman’s name is synonymous with the Underground Railroad, but Tubman’s other contributions are a testament to the awe-inspiring force that she was. Her resume includes working for the Union Army as a cook, nurse, scout, and spy. She led the Combahee River Raid in South Carolina, which resulted in the liberation of over 700 slaves and made her the first woman to lead a military expedition. Even more impressive is that her accomplishments included adopting an infant girl, Gertie, with her second husband Nelson Davis.
Madame CJ Walker
entrepreneur and Civil Rights activist
Before she was known as Madame CJ Walker, Sarah Breedlove was the first freeborn in her family. A widow, Sarah earned $1.50 a day as a washer woman to send her daughter A’Leila to school while she attended night school. After remarrying and building her hair care empire, Madame CJ Walker became the first American woman to become a self-made millionaire, as well as a philanthropist and an activist. Her daughter eventually joined her mother’s business and is recognized in her own right as an important contributor to the Harlem Renaissance.
Yvonne Brathwaite Burke
Being a black female congresswoman speaking against racism in the 1970s is definitely an achievement, but serving in office as a mother was even more impressive back then. Representative Yvonne Brathwaite Burke was mother to her stepdaughter Christine, and became most recognized as the first woman to serve in Congress while expecting a child. She became the first member of Congress to receive maternity leave after the birth of her second daughter Autumn in 1973.
Frances M. Beal
activist, feminist, and writer
Writer, feminist, peace advocate, internationalist, and political organizer... Frances M. Beal has had many titles in her life. Beal has dedicated the majority of her 75 years to fighting for liberation and equality. The daughter of a Jewish mother and an African-American father, Ms. Beal had an early understanding of racism and discrimination that greatly influenced her. With experiences and leadership roles in several Civil Rights organizations, as well as African Liberation, feminist and peace movements, Beal critiqued the multiple oppressions faced by black women in these movements in her noteworthy pamphlet, Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female. She continued an active political life and she and her husband welcomed two daughters while living in Paris. Although she’s officially retired, Beal volunteers with various organizations in the Bay Area.
Meilan Carter-Gilkey is a freelance writer and a writing coach, who blogs about being a parent of sons 16 years apart. She has an MFA from Mills College in creative writing and her work has appeared in Mutha Magazine, Heart&Soul, and elsewhere.