Achieving the Dream: Five African American Women Trailblazers

In our continuing celebration of Black History Month, here's a look at five African American women who overcame countless obstacles to become pioneers in their fields.
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From medicine to politics to the arts, African American women have worked hard to make advances in their chosen fields. They have had to overcome countless obstacles because of their race and their gender. By leaping over these hurdles, these pioneers set an example of what can be accomplished through determination, hard work and perseverance.

Some of these African American trailblazers scored their victories long ago while others achieved their milestones recently. Let’s a take at a look at a few of these amazing women both past and present.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler: Medical Pioneer

Born in 1831 (some sources say 1833), Rebecca Lee Crumpler went to medical school at a time when women of color were often denied access to even the most basic level of education. She may have been drawn to the medical profession from watching the aunt who raised her provide care for neighbors and others in need. By the 1850s, Crumpler had followed her aunt’s lead, becoming a nurse in Massachusetts. She went on to enroll at the New England Female Medical College in Boston.

After earning her medical degree in 1864, Crumpler started out practicing in Boston. She moved south to Richmond, Virginia, after the end of the Civil War to provide much needed care for freed slaves. She later returned to Boston where she wrote A Book of Medical Discourses, a two-volume work on health care based on her experiences as a doctor.

Shirley Chisholm: Political Powerhouse

Shirley Chisholm Photo

Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm announcing her candidacy for presidential nomination in January 1972. (Photo: Thomas J. O’Halloran/U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection/Library of Congress)

Shirley Chisholm spent her career being a pioneering force in the world of politics. Not only was she the first African American woman to be elected to Congress, she was the first to run for president. Chisholm, the daughter of immigrant parents, showed her potential for political greatness in her debates during her years as a student at Brooklyn College. She later worked her way up from being a teacher to an educational consultant with New York City’s Bureau of Child Welfare. In 1964,  Chisholm won her first election—a seat in the New York State Assembly.

Chisholm won her next victory in 1968, becoming the first African American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. She decided to run for the Democratic presidential nomination a few years later, competing against frontrunner George McGovern. According to Jet magazine, Chisholm said that “I ran because somebody had to do it first. I ran because most people thought the country was not ready for a black candidate, not ready for a woman candidate. Someday—it was time in 1972 to make that someday come.”

While she failed to win the nomination, Chisholm went on enjoy a long career in the legislature. She retired from politics in the early 1980s, and passed away in 2005. “I’d like them to say that Shirley Chisholm had guts,” she once said, according to the New York Times. “That’s how I’d like to be remembered.”

Loretta Lynch: Legal Leader

Loretta Lynch Photo Courtesy Department of Justice/Wikimedia Commons

Official portrait of United States Attorney General Loretta Lynch in 2015. (Photo: United States Department of Justice/Wikimedia Commons)

A seasoned and skilled prosecutor, Loretta Lynch became the first African American woman to be appointed U.S. Attorney General in 2015. She grew up in North Carolina as the daughter of a minister and a librarian. A gifted student, Lynch graduated from Harvard University in 1981 and went on to earn a law degree from Harvard Law School in 1984.

After a few years working in corporate law, Lynch joined the U.S. Attorney’s office in Brooklyn, New York. She was one of the prosecutors in the infamous Abner Louima police brutality case in 1999. Later that year, Lynch was chosen by President Bill Clinton to take over the reins of that U.S. Attorney’s office, a position she held until 2001. She returned to that same post in 2010 at request of President Barack Obama and continued to tackle a variety of criminal cases, including those related to terrorism and organization crime.

Four years later, President Barack Obama sought out Lynch for the nation’s leading legal job. He selected her for U.S. Attorney General in November 2014, but her confirmation had been delayed for months because of political maneuvering. Despite the delay, Lynch quickly launched an investigation into the world soccer organization FIFA and handed down more than 40 indictments on corruption-related charges. 

Mae C. Jemison: Space Ace

Mae C. Jemison

Dr. Mae C. Jemison, the first African-American woman in space. (Photo: NASA/Wikimedia Commons)

From an early age, Mae C. Jemison dreamed of becoming a scientist and traveling in space. Her teachers were less than encouraging to this young African American girl, but she didn’t let their doubts cloud her vision. Jemison went to Stanford University to study chemical engineering when she was only 16 years old. After graduating from Stanford, she went to earn a medical degree from Cornell University.

Jemison worked as a doctor and a Peace Corps volunteer before joining NASA’s astronaut program in the late 1980s. In 1992, she became the first African American woman to go into space with her first mission on the Endeavor space shuttle. Jemison spent eight days orbiting the Earth conducting experiments. After leaving NASA in 1993, she has tackled a variety of science-related projects, including the Earth We Share science camp for teens and the 100 Year Starship program for interstellar space travel.

Viola Davis: Award-Winning Actress

Viola Davis Photo Courtesy Red Carpet Report on MIngle Media TV/Wikimedia Commons

Viola Davis at the 2015 Screen Actors Guild Award where she won the award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama Series. She went on to become the first African American woman to win an Emmy Award for best actress in 2015. (Photo: Red Carpet Report on Mingle Media TV/Wikimedia Commons

Making television history, Viola Davis became the first African American woman to win an Emmy Award for best actress. She took home this important honor in 2015 for her portrayal of Annalise Keating in the legal drama How to Get Away with Murder. Davis had overcome great obstacles to reach the stage and accept that prestigious honor. She grew up in poverty in Rhode Island. Davis “didn’t know where the next meal was coming from,” according to US magazine. “I did everything to get food,” she explained.

Davis also had to contend with a lot of racial prejudice as a child. She and her family were the only African Americans in their community, and she found herself being teased by her classmates because of her race. Davis found inspiration in African American actresses such as Cicely Tyson. As she explained to the Telegraph newspaper, “I first saw her when I was six and I just knew I was watching something different. I started to see acting as an art form.”

Davis went on to study at the famed Juilliard school and earned two Tony Awards and an Academy Award nomination before her big Emmy Award win. In her Emmy acceptance speech, she reminded everyone that the entertainment world still had far to go in breaking down barriers for African American performers. Davis said that “the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”