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Three African-American Women the History Books Forgot to Tell You About

This blog is the seventeenth installment of UIC Radio’s Black History Month series profiling and celebrating the work of Black artists throughout the month of February. To read the previous entry in this series, click here! For more information regarding Black History Month at UIC and the many upcoming events planned over the next several weeks, visit the Black History Month Student Planning Committee’s webpage here.

Throughout history, African-Americans, and particularly Black women, have often been sidelined and overlooked in favor of others in just about every arena you can think of. Even now, the history classes in American schools spend 90% of their time talking about white men; you’d be hard-pressed to find a single Black woman in a standard American public school history textbook that isn’t named Rosa Parks or Harriet Tubman. Despite their stories going largely untold, Black women have had a massive impact on our country and on the world as we know it, and even though the history books may have forgotten about them, in honor of Black History Month, I am here to share a few of their stories.

Claudette Colvin

Claudette Colvin was born in Montgomery, AL in 1939 to Mary Anne Colvin and Q.P. Colvin. On March 2, 1955, at 15 years old, Colvin was arrested after refusing to give up her seat to a white woman on a segregated bus. This happened just nine months before Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus. After learning about abolitionists like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, she became inspired to stand up for herself and her constitutional rights, and that’s exactly what she did. For many years, Montgomery’s black leaders overlooked Colvin’s efforts to desegregate the busses because she didn’t have the “look” civil rights leaders were looking for, and they wanted to keep up appearances to keep the momentum of the movement going. Nevertheless, we remember her today as a brave young woman who took a step towards equality for all.

Pauli Murray

Pauli Murray (1910-1985) was born and raised in Baltimore, MD. At the age of 16 she moved to New York City to attend Hunter College. After being arrested for sitting in the “whites only” section of a segregated Virginia bus, Murray was drawn to work with the Socialist Workers Defense League. She decided to attend Howard University law school and become a civil rights lawyer. In 1977 Murray was the first African-American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal Priest. She was a co-founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW), a national feminist organization. Not only was she a reverend and lawyer, she was also a published author. Murray wrote two volumes of autobiography and a collection of poetry. She is remembered for her strength and willingness to advocate for everyone in her community.

Shirley Chisholm

Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005) was born and raised in New York City. She was a politician, author, and educator. In 1968, she became the first black woman elected to the United States Congress and the first woman to run for the DNC presidential nomination. After working in early childhood education, Chisholm became involved in local Democratic party politics. In 1964 she was elected to the New York State Assembly. During her 1972 run for president she was blocked from participating in the televised primary debates. She was allowed to make one speech. After entering 12 primaries she was able to get 152 delegate votes (10% of the total). After she retired from Congress, she taught at Mount Holyoke College and co-founded the National Political Congress of Black Women. In 2015 Chisholm was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She wanted to be remembered as “a woman who dared to be a catalyst for change.”

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