We celebrated Black History Month in February, honoring the African American leaders and activists who came before us, like Martin Luther King Jr., Langston Hughes, Crispus Attucks, George Washing Carver, Booker T. Washington, and so many more. Now, in March, as we celebrate Women’s History Month, there is a special opportunity to highlight black women who have paved the way for our society.
We believe — and the stories of these women prove — that slavery does not continue to define the black American experience. The pages of tomorrow’s storybooks are still unwritten, and by working together as a community, we will fill those pages with stories of strong, smart, and dedicated African American leaders who not only change the course of history, but also the story of black Americans.
1776 Unites is dedicated to answering the question raised by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., at the height of his civil rights revolution: “Where do we go from here?” As we reflect on the successes and accomplishments of black women in business, we must also reflect on how to build on these successes to create communities that are growing, changing, and evolving to better this country.
Madam C.J. Walker
Walker began making waves early in American history — she was born just four years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The daughter of former slaves became the first self-made female African American millionaire! A scalp disorder led Walker to invent her own hair care products, which she turned into a million-dollar company.
But Walker didn’t stop there: she hired and trained nearly 40,000 employees, known as “Walker Agents,” to share her brand with other women throughout the country. She even founded hair-culture colleges through already established black institutions to teach fellow women the importance of business and budgeting. It’s clear that Walker paved the way for generations of African American women.
Ursula’s story proves that hard work and dedication can change lives. After being raised by a single mother in the public housing projects in Manhattan, Ursula worked her way into college (Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute) and eventually, an internship at Xerox. While she started as an intern, Ursula didn’t stop there.
After 29 years of hard work and a series of promotions, Ursula was named the CEO of Xerox — in turn, making history as the first black woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company. (When she stepped down, she also became the first woman to succeed another woman as head of a Fortune 500 company.) Former President Barack Obama appointed Burns to help lead the White House National STEM program in 2009, which she led for seven years.
You may know Dorothy’s name from Hidden Figures, the Oscar nominated movie made about her life in 2016. But if you don’t know about her accomplishments, you should. She began her career as a mathematician and programmer at Langley Research Center during the time of Jim Crow laws, where African American employees worked separately from white employees.
Her career kicked off during the height of World War II, and her contributions to American safety and security are immeasurable. When it came to the challenges of being an African American woman during that time, she remarked, “I changed what I could, and what I couldn’t, I endured.” Dorothy’s persistence and dignity highlights the ability of black Americans to overcome obstacles and change the world.
One might say that making history is in Cathy’s genes — her father, William Alfred Woods, was the first African American to earn an accounting degree from Creighton University. Cathy’s childhood was challenging, and she had her first child as a teenager, but she didn’t let that define her. She used her struggles as motivation to succeed — and succeed she did.
Her love of music led Cathy to purchase a radio station. After being denied thirty-two times by banks, she found the lender she needed to buy a DC based radio station. Her 24-hour talk radio format with the theme, “Information is Power” became a hit, and business soared. Now, Radio One includes 56 radios stations in the United States, and the premiere cable network TV One. Cathy continues her incredible work by acting as a champion for the hungry and homeless, a mentor to countless women and an advocate dedicated to empowering minority communities.
While this list only contains four inspirational women, there are millions more stories waiting to be heard. This Women’s History Month, you can reflect on the success of the women who have paved a way and decide how you will continue paving it. No matter the circumstances of your life, you have the power to start a business, to work for NASA, or to lead a Fortune 500 company.
One thing all of these women have in common is that they faced hardships — but those hardships didn’t define them. Rather, these women overcame adversity and created better futures for all black businesspeople, all women, and all Americans. We will share with you the inspirational stories of our 1776 scholars and activists in this blog, stories from Carol Swain, Toni Mcilwain, and Latasha Fields, triumphant stories of resilience!