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20 Black Women to Know

By YWCA Minneapolis
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Black women’s history is U.S. history, but many Black women’s contributions to our society go unrecognized and undervalued. We’ve gathered a list of 20 Black women to know and celebrate in 2020 – all have led/are leading amazing lives and have made an impact through their activism, advocacy, public service and work in the arts.

We use the term “women” here and also acknowledge and validate the spectrum of gender identification and the breadth of language used by and among women/womyn/womxn/femmes.

Judge Pamela Alexander

After serving as the first African American woman prosecutor in the State of Minnesota in the criminal division of the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, Judge Pamela Alexander became the first African American woman judge in Minnesota and served as a Hennepin County district court judge from 1983-2018.

Laylah Amatullah Barrayn

Laylah Amatullah Barrayn is a documentary photographer working in New York City. She’s currently working on a project in Senegal, documenting Sufi-influenced culture. She’s also the co-founder of the photography journal, “MFON: Women Photographers of the African Diaspora.”

Sharon Sayles Belton

Sharon Sayles Belton served as the mayor of Minneapolis from 1994 to 2001. She was the city’s first woman and first Black mayor. Sayles Belton’s tenure included strong partnerships and communication to end violence in Minneapolis, efforts to have residents move back into the city from the suburbs, development of downtown, revitalization of the Mississippi riverfront and the Sears Building and more. She is now the vice president for Government Affairs and Community Relations for Thomson Reuters.

Elaine Brown

Elaine Brown is a writer, singer and activist who was the first woman to lead the Black Panther Party. Her leadership focused on electoral politics and community service, and she successfully managed the campaign of Lionel Wilson, Oakland’s first Black mayor. Brown was also responsible for establishing the Panther’s Liberation School as a model of education that focuses on accurately educating Black and poor people about their history in the U.S.

Shirley Chisholm

Shirley Chisholm was the first African American woman in Congress and the first woman and African American to seek the nomination for president of the United States from one of the two major political parties.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham

Brittany Packnett Cunningham is a lifelong activist, co-founder of Campaign Zero (a policy platform to end police violence) and co-host of the “Pod Save the People” podcast. She served on President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and is a member of the Ferguson Uprising. She is a writer, educator, speaker, creator of Love & Power and a phenomenal cultural voice.

Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer is a Civil Rights activist who co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. She focused on organizing around voting rights and also helped found the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971.

Dorothy Height

Dorothy Height was a key organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, and in 1971, she helped to found the National Women’s Political Caucus. Acknowledging Height’s contributions to the Civil Rights Movement and to women’s rights, President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994.

Clementine Hunter

Born in 1886, Clementine Hunter was a self-taught artist who lived and worked in the Cane River region of Louisiana. Working mainly from memory, Hunter created scenes of everyday life with a vibrant and expressive palette while using everyday materials like bottles and jugs as her canvases.

Dr. Bernadeia Johnson

Dr. Bernadeia Johnson served as superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools from February 2010 to January 2015 and oversaw academic achievement for 36,000 Minneapolis district public school students. She initiated bold solutions to close the achievement gap, including ending the suspension of young children with nonviolent offenses.

Lucy Laney

Lucy Laney was born in 1853 during the time of slavery, but born free. She was one of the first graduates of Atlanta University in 1873. She went on to work for equitable education in Black communities and for tying education to vocational learning. One of her many achievements includes founding the first Nurses’ Training Institute for Black girls. There is a Minneapolis elementary school named in her honor.

Audley Moore

Audley Moore lost her parents during primary school, which led her to drop out of school to support her siblings. She continued to learn by reading and was so immensely moved by Marcus Garvey’s speeches, she moved from Louisiana to New York and joined his Universal Negro Improvement Association. She went on to become an icon in the Civil Rights movement.

Vanessa Nakate

Vanessa Nakate is a young, African climate justice activist. She is the founder of climate action groups, Youth for Future Africa and Rise Up Movement. Recently, she has worked to expose the erasure of African and young people of color’s voices in climate action conversations, after The Associated Press cropped her out of a photo where she appeared alongside four young, white activists at a youth climate summit.

Gertrude Perkins

In 1949, Gertrude Perkins, a 25-year-old Black woman was abducted and raped by two white police officers. Sexual assaults against Black women were frequent and remained mostly unreported. However, Ms. Perkins reported the assault immediately to a Black pastor, Solomon Seay. Together they documented the assault, notarized the document, sent it to a popular white radio host and filed an official complaint with the police. Rosa Parks, an activist with the NAACP, established a Citizen’s Committee for her. Perkins’ case received widespread support from the Black community and is believed to have been the spark that led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Rapsody

Rapsody is a rapper from North Carolina. Her music career began in college at North Carolina State University, where she joined two collectives and then began collaborating with producer 9th Wonder. Her solo career began in 2008, and in 2016 she signed to the Roc Nation record label. A brilliant lyricist, she is currently on the “A Black Woman Created This” tour.

Leslie E. Redmond

Leslie E. Redmond is a Washington, D.C. native. At the age of 25, she became the youngest president of Minneapolis NAACP. She is the founder of the “Don’t Complain, Activate” campaign. Leslie recently received her J.D. and MBA from the University of St. Thomas.

Layla Saad

As a widely read writer, a globally sought speaker and a popular podcast host, Layla is passionate about creating inspiration, education and activation for personal and collective change in the world. Layla’s work is driven by a powerful desire to become a good ancestor; to live and work in ways that leave a legacy of healing and liberation, especially for Black girls and Black women.

Ruby Sales

Ruby Nell Sales is known for her historical organizing work during the Civil Rights movement with the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She currently continues her work in social justice through the SpiritHouse, which is a national social justice organization that brings diverse people together for research, spirituality, education and nonviolent action.

Jessamyn Stanley

Jessamyn Stanley is a yogi, writer, instructor, advocate and creator of The Underbelly Yoga. Her yoga practice and teaching emphasizes a body-positive approach and a deep connection to the way students feel when practicing yoga.

Ida B. Wells

Born into slavery but emancipated shortly after birth due to the Emancipation Proclamation, Ida B. Wells went on to become an anti-lynching activist, an investigative journalist and one of the founding members of the NAACP.

For more learning on Black women’s contributions throughout history, a couple of resources are the African American Interpretive Center of Minnesota and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Learn More about YWCA Racial Justice and Public Policy