Three Overlooked Black Women of the 20th Century

Can you name them just from their photos? You should be able to and here is why

Mar 29 · 6 min read
Can you name them by just their faces? You should be able to given their accomplishments.

If you read about the Roaring Twenties, there is so much excitement about the technological leaps of the 20th century. There is so much optimism and forward-looking energy. Every single American is looking to a future of great promise. The nineteenth century was in everyone’s rearview mirror. The horse and buggy era was long gone. There was nothing to be learned from that time when we were driving cars and flying in airplanes.

I detect this in the zeitgeist of today. There is this belief in technology. A strong belief it can solve ALL our problems if it is just properly applied. It was similar in the 20th century though. Technology did NOT prevent the Great Depression or World War II. We learned about our human flaws again.

It is important for us to learn and understand our human flaws. Without understanding, there can be no forgiveness. That usually starts with ourselves. I was raised by a cop in Los Angeles in the sixties and seventies. I think some of the great contradictions in my personality are created by this upbringing followed by my marriage to a ”gangster’s” daughter.

What it also means though is I was very racist in my youth. Being raised by a cop during this era in Los Angeles was to be indoctrinated into an incredibly racist culture. I knew every racial slur under the sun before I was out of elementary school. I cannot say for sure about LAPD today, but I can tell you back then it was an incredibly racist police culture.

The police are the good guys. I am just a kid. I am easily influenced by this chauvinistic and racist brainwashing. However, I was also self-aware enough to consider these ideas more closely as I grew into adulthood. During this time, there are three black women of the 20th century who really made me “think” about certain stereotypes I was being told were factual.

In these times of strife, I am a little surprised that these three women get so little attention. However, like Harriet Tubman of the nineteenth century perhaps they are just seen as dinosaurs. Trapped in their times with nothing to offer the future about social justice and racial harmony. Sometimes when I am watching Tyler Perry’s Madea characterizations, I think of these women.

I wonder if he is “channeling” any of these truly BADASS black women of the 20th century. Frankly, are they not just BADASS women? Their color does not matter, does it? Well of course it does. It meant their accomplishments are even more difficult to achieve. Still, I prefer to think of these people as just BAD ASSES. The kind of people you want in the foxhole with you when SHIT GETS REAL.

Here they are. Three Americans from the 20th century who ought to be celebrated in the 21st century. They are trailblazers. They broke ground for all of us, and that includes me. These women forced me to review my sexist and racist indoctrination. If those “things” were true then how could these people be who they were was a question I had to answer.

Shirley Chisholm — As a child, I was early on interested in politics. That meant Shirley Chisholm was right there and in my face. She could articulate her political opinions with great flourish. When I hear Tyler Perry enunciate certain words, I think of Shirley Chisholm as she had a similar way of speaking sometimes. She ran for president in 1972. There is no way to call it a symbolic campaign either. She put up numbers at the convention, which I watched as a child. Her largest support overall came from Ohio, with 23 delegates with a total of 152 first ballot votes at the Democratic convention. Her total gave her fourth place in the roll call tally, behind McGovern’s winning total of 1,728 delegates. Chisholm said she ran for the office “in spite of hopeless odds … to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo”. BAD ASS! Goodness, we need a women like this today. I cannot believe I do not see this woman’s old speeches all over social media. It is shocking to me given today’s racial and social climate that the name Shirley Chisholm is not on every activist’s lips.

Bessie Coleman— I will hazard a guess that few readers have heard of this woman. She died tragically young, but she was a real trailblazer. Chauvinists might believe women could not operate mechanical things. Racists thought the indigenous peoples of North America AND Africa were similarly handicapped, if not more so. Yet Bessie Coleman was the first African-American woman and first Native-American to hold a pilot license. She earned her pilot license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. She knew why she flew too.

These are strong words. They are insightful words, but I think it is her tragic early death which caused me to have to re-examine certain things. You see she was killed while her mechanic/agent/publicist was flying the damn plane. She was getting ready for a parachute jump and the dumbbell crashed the plane killing her and himself. She died in 1926 which probably is one of the reasons why she is not remembered. Still to have died because a White Male Texan had failed to secure his tools in the cockpit so subsequently his wrench gets lodged in the controls causing the fatal crash. Well, it seems a really stupid way to have to check out. Killed by dumb white male arrogance was certainly a legitimate interpretation of how she passed and it was literally how I saw it.

Moms Mabley — This is the woman Tyler Perry’s Madea most reminds me of, I think. When I was a child, this woman was making the late-night comedy circuit. Occasionally, I would see her when the adults would let me stay up late while they drank coffee and gossiped or whatever adults do while they ignore children. Goodness, she was quite funny. She also had a non-threatening grandmotherly air about her. Late in her life though, the fight for civil rights really heated up. Though Moms Mabley was near the end of her career, she was able to get traction with young people.

As I grew older, she appeared in more serious venues too. I saw her sing some songs. I saw her give some interviews. I learned who Moms Mabley REALLY WAS! She had had quite a hard life. She had been raped twice in her childhood, once by a family member and then by a white sheriff. Both these incidents led to pregnancies which she brought to term and then gave the baby up for adoption. It was then at the urging of her grandmother that she ran off at the age of 14 to join the vaudeville circuit.

As tough as that must have been, it could not have been as tough as what she was fleeing. To learn of these things made me very sad. I cried a tear for Moms Mabley. I also learned she was a lesbian. She even made jokes about this during her stand-up. I did not get them at first, but eventually, I understood.

This woman’s life is so trailblazing in SOOO many ways, I am shocked she does not get more attention. It is why I have left her for last. I provided you with a link to some of her stand-up above, but she was so much more than that. Moms Mabley really really had an effect on me, not just as a comedian, but as a singer. Yep, she sang too and when I heard her sing…I was changed.

But you have to see her in a more relaxed setting to really appreciate what she was bringing to the table.

I miss you Moms Mabley.

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