We love Sojourner. We love Madame C.J. We love Harriet. We love Michelle O. We do. There are, however, thousands of other women who’ve made indelible contributions to community, society and (wo)mankind, but aren’t Black History Month headliners. Here are a few lesser-known ladies whose stories deserve our attention, this month and next month and the one after that.
Her first big break in a career that would make her a pioneering tap dancer came as a chorus-line girl for a Count Basie Orchestra performance. At 13, she was just a little wisp of a thing, too tiny for any of the costumes on hand, so she wore pants, which would become her signature fashion statement. LeGon danced alongside Bill Bojangles Robinson, hoofed on Broadway, shined her star in movies including the classic Stormy Weather and appeared on TV shows, most notably Amos ‘n’ Andy. In addition to being easy on the eyes, she was athletic and charismatic, which makes footage of her legacy still enjoyable to watch.
A 6 foot tall whiskey-drinking woman with a cigar and a 12-gauge shotgun is probably not the one to tolerate any amount of nonsense. Mary Fields proved that. Born into enslavement in Tennessee, she spent her life performing heavy labor and eventually moved out west to Montana when she was 52. There she breezed through a series of odd jobs but in 1895, she found a home for her special set of skills and signature toughness with the postal service. She delivered in any weather, across any terrain, earning the nickname “Stagecoach Mary” and inadvertently helping along the advancement of the rural area she serviced.
In a time when women were denied the right to preach across most of Christianity, Lee was fiercely certain about her calling and asked Bishop Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, for permission to spread the Good Word. She was denied. Eight years later, in 1819, he changed his mind after hearing her speak. Even with his blessing, the challenges of being a Black female minister were many but she was ultra serious about her mission: Lee travelled to most of her engagements on foot and, in one year alone, preached 178 sermons across 2,325 miles.
She was the mother of Nigerian music legend Fela Kuti, who was fairly recently memorialized in a Broadway play. But she dug her heels into and turned her life over to activism long before her baby boy’s star rose. Ransome-Kuti fought for genderless voting and civil rights in her country—even as suffragettes in the United States were getting their second wind—and worked to eliminate arbitrary taxes imposed on Nigerian women. She campaigned for a seat in the post-colonial government, and though she grew disenchanted with politics, continued to give herself to causes in her community until she was murdered by military personnel at the age of 78.
Her brother, Cab, made the last name famous but Blanche was a celebrity in her own right. The first woman—period—to lead an all-male orchestra, appropriately enough called “Blanche Calloway and Her Orchestra,” she toured the country and eventually recorded for RCA Victor. The outfit disbanded in 1938 because money was tight, but she continued to perform as a solo act and subsequently created an all-female orchestra. Then, for two more decades, she flexed her musical talents on a completely different platform as a DJ at a Miami radio station.
If you’ve never heard of the Black Doll Experiment, you’re missing out on a groundbreaking study on race and child development in addition to the summation of Clark’s life work in psychology and activism. Alongside her husband, Kenneth, she used dolls to gauge Black children’s perception of racial identity, beauty and intelligence. The Howard University alumna continued her studies at Columbia University and, in 1943, became the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in psychology from the institution. Together, the Clarks’ research was the core of several desegregation trials and contributed to the moral foundation in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Ed.
The word “reparations” as it applies to Black folks in America, is a relatively new cultural catchphrase, but the concept is not. A former slave herself, Callie House witnessed the joy of freedom swiftly overpowered by the poverty that engulfed so many newly emancipated men, women and children in the South. She co-chartered the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association in 1898, becoming first its secretary, then its zealous leader. Under her direction, membership swelled to an estimated 300,000 within two years. Reparations is still a hotly debated subject, in and out of the Black community, but House’s work brought to the fore the social issues that underlie it.
It’s a big deal to be a Black woman and a millionaire. It was an even bigger deal to earn the distinction in 1912 when Rector, who was born into the Creek Indian Nation, received a land allotment from the U.S. government. Turns out that piece of property was rich with crude oil, making Rector an instant millionaire when she was still just a child and a local celebrity in her Kansas City, Miss., community. Aside from being the object of many a suitor’s attention and a flashy media personality once she retained legal access to her wealth at age 21, she became the second Black female millionairess in the nation.
Journalism can be dangerous. Belva Davis braved not only the risks of on-the-scene coverage, but the social hazards that came with being the first Black female broadcast journalist on the West Coast. Her career started in print as a freelance writer for Jet and other publications and stretched to include gigs in radio as a disc jockey. But when she tried to break into on-air reporting—in a time when news directors claimed that Black folks couldn’t pronounce long words because our lips were “too thick to enunciate properly”—she was dismissed. Determined and always poised, the eight-time Emmy Award winner ultimately covered everything from civil rights to the Jonestown massacre in her 50-year career, which she chronicled in her memoir, Never in My Wildest Dreams.
In a sport that isn’t painted with many splashes of color, she already stood out. Add to that a body that exemplified the best in Black girl curviness. Bonaly made even more of an impression as the only figure skater, male or female, to be able to land a backflip on one foot. Her record—nine French Championship titles, five European Championship titles, three World Championship silver medals and two Winter Olympics—was often overshadowed by the press’ obsession with her outspoken willingness to stand up for herself. She continues to skate in exhibition shows and is now a U.S. citizen.