Fannie Barrier Williams (1855 – 1944)
One of the founders of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), Fannie Williams worked to address the social and political needs of black women in Chicago and across the nation.
Raised in a racially tolerant town near Rochester, NY, Frances “Fannie” Barrier Williams believed in social equality for blacks and women, and understood first-hand the role of churches in unifying a community. Struck by the ugliness of discrimination in her career pursuits of art and music, she used her position among Chicago’s black elite to remove barriers for others, including securing a place for black voices and interests at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. Williams actively campaigned for black women’s suffrage and political participation, established integrated services and societies in Chicago, and spoke often on the need for southern churches to denounce lynching and support racial equality.
Photo credit: The colored American from slavery to honorable citizenship, J. Gibson & W. Crogman, c. 1902. Photo courtesy of the Schomberg Center, New York Public Library.
Katherine Coleman Johnson (b. 1918)
Calculating space capsule flight paths by hand in the earliest days of NASA, “when the computer wore a skirt,” Katherine Johnson helped to make sure that the first astronauts landed on time and on target.
A West Virginia native, Johnson graduated college at age 18, after her father worked as a farmer and janitor to send the children 120 miles away to pursue an education beyond 8th grade. After marrying and raising a family, she followed her dream and became a mathematician, earning entry to the all-male flight path engineering team in 1953, and a lasting reputation for accuracy and reliability. Even after retiring from NASA in 1986, Katherine Johnson continues to speak to schoolchildren nationwide about her rewarding career, helping them explore their own potential in math and science.
Photo credit: NASA / Sean Smith.
Photo courtesy of NASA Researcher News.
Linda R. Gooden (b. 1954)
An expert at bridging the gap between people and technology, Linda Gooden worked her way up from software programmer to Executive Vice-President of Information Systems and Global Services for industry-leading technology provider Lockheed Martin.
Gooden studied computer science in her native Ohio, and transformed experience negotiating among her four siblings into the keen managerial skills to match corporate and government clients with her team of 45,000 globally, to the tune of over $12 billion in division sales in 2009 alone. She also works on behalf of engineering education, serving on the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents, and leading efforts to prepare young people for today’s global technological society.
Photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin.
Adrian Bracy (b. 1960)
Seeking a new challenge after mastering executive finance in the high-stakes world of professional football, Adrian Bracy stepped up her game to the realm of philanthropic service.
After a college counselor in Baltimore ignited an interest in accounting, Bracy pursued a career in corporate finance, first working for the Miami Dolphins in her native Florida, before finding a home with the St. Louis Rams in 1995 as vice-president of finance. Although Bracy worked briefly with the Arizona Cardinals, the lure of St. Louis’ African-American cultural institutions, like The Black Rep, brought her back.
Bracy worked in outreach community service during her NFL years as a board member of Girls, Inc., before taking a less-glamorous, but more personally rewarding position as CEO of the Metro St. Louis YWCA. She is currently working on expanding their $31 million budget to improve career, educational & victims’ services for women and girls in the black and Latino communities and beyond.
Photo courtesy of Metro St. Louis YWCA.
Jill Scott (b. 1972)
Tackling stage and screen, Jill Scott is a renaissance woman of the arts, with ascending careers in film, television, music, and spoken word poetry.
Scott’s soulful singing and lyrical poetry have graced the performances of artists across the musical spectrum, earning numerous accolades for her talent, passion, and often-painful honesty. On screen, Scott combines a forceful determination with underlying vulnerability in her roles, notably including star turns in Tyler Perry’s “Why Did I Get Married?” (and its upcoming sequel) and HBO’s “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” opposite fellow singer-actress Anika Noni Rose.
In honor of her single mother and grandmother, Scott started the Blues Babe Foundation in her native Philadelphia to provide scholarship support to people starting college without financial resources. Scott also speaks out to fans and musicians against negative portrayals of black women in music and music videos.
(AP Photo / Jeff Christensen)
Lauren Kelley (b. 1975)
Born in Baltimore, but raised outside of Houston, Lauren Kelley weaves stark, shocking, and sometimes amusing imagery into her new media art pieces reflecting on the outer and inner lives of young black women.
Kelley painstakingly hand-crafts miniature sets and “actors” to examine issues Barbie never dreamed of, including sleazy boyfriends, dead-end jobs, unwanted pregnancy, and negative self-image. Her breakout exhibit, “Soft Brown Narratives”, featuring her short animated film, “Big Gurl”, earned a prestigious award for emerging artists from Altoids and New York’s New Museum, and professional recognition.
Kelley’s sculpture and photograph, “Pickin’”, was recently the cause of considerable controversy when it was used for a Publishers’ Weekly cover story on African-American writers & books. Currently, Kelley is on leave from her gallery curator position at Prairie View A&M, to be an Artist in Residence at The Studio Museum in Harlem, where her new exhibit opens in July.
Still Image from “Big Gurl”, courtesy of the New Museum.
Fatima Robinson (b. 1971)
Years of dancing in the hip-hop clubs of Los Angeles were as close as Fatima Robinson got to formal dance training, yet her captivating moves earned her the once-in-a-lifetime chance to choreograph Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time” video. Robinson used that opportunity to showcase her choreography talents in a wide variety of media projects, including the 2007 & 2009 Academy Awards, President Obama’s Inaugural Celebration, and the film adaptation of Dreamgirls.
Challenging herself to leave her comfort zone, Robinson takes on unusual projects – she recently worked on an ice-skating exhibition – and forges new paths, from directing to social networking. Her LA studio, Foresight, holds open parties for young dancers to show their stuff and learn from one another, regardless of their style, training, or income.
(Photo by Ben Rose / PictureGroup) via AP IMAGES.
Nnedi Okorafor (b. 1974)
Bridging African folklore fantasy and American adventure science-fiction, Nnedi Okorafor evokes difficult feelings about race, heritage, class, and courage in her young adult novels set in a richly-detailed post-apocalyptic Africa where humans serve at nature’s pleasure. Okorafor writes from her experiences as the child of Nigerian parents in the suburbs of Chicago – socially isolated and outcast in white and black communities for her “exotic” heritage, she found refuge in writing.
A champion of the burgeoning body of African science fiction, although critical of the recent film District 9, Okorafor has won literary awards here and in Africa for her novels Zahrah the Windseeker and The Shadow Speaker. She is currently a professor of creative writing at Chicago State University, and her first novel for adults, Who Fears Death, debuts in June.
Nnedi Okorafor with Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka. Photo courtesy of University of Illinois, Chicago.
Ruth Simmons (b. 1945)
The youngest of 12 children and born to tenant farmers, Texas native Ruth Simmons refused to “stay in the background”. As president of Smith College in 1995, she started the first engineering program in an American women’s college, then moved on to become president of Brown University in 2001, becoming the first African-American to head an Ivy League school.
At Brown, she initiated an aggressive fundraising campaign to build facilities and vastly expand full-ride scholarship aid to academically gifted, low-income students. Under her direction, the university has stepped up active recruitment of students of color and first-generation college applicants, enjoying a nearly 50 percent year-to-year increase in black applicants.
A former Fulbright Scholar to France, Simmons is also committed to improving international relations and multi-cultural education in American universities. She serves on the boards of numerous transnational and foreign policy organizations, and speaks on the need to prepare for students for a fully global environment.
(AP Photo / Victoria Arocho)
Gwen Ifill (b. 1955)
Alternately praised and reviled by both right and left for her insightful political analysis and in-depth reporting, journalist Gwen Ifill strives to uphold objectivity and integrity in an increasingly partisan news media environment. A minister’s daughter who moved often as a child, Ifill discovered the power of words early.
A newspaper and broadcast veteran, Ifill covered Congress and the White House for the Washington Post, the New York Times, and NBC News, before moving to PBS in 1999. Ifill currently works as a senior correspondent of “The PBS Newshour”, and moderator and managing editor of the weekly roundtable policy and public affairs show, “Washington Week”, which won a Peabody Award for its 2008 presidential campaign coverage.
No stranger to controversy, Ifill raised ire in 2007 when she rebuked fellow journalists for their apparent indifference to Don Imus’ ignorant remarks about the Rutgers women’s basketball team. In 2008, she refused to step down as moderator of the vice-presidential debate despite allegations of potential bias over her recent book, The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama.
Photo courtesy of PBS Newshour.
Maya Moore (b. 1989)
Named 2009 Big East Scholar-Athlete of the Year, junior Maya Moore maintained a 3.7 grade-point average in interdisciplinary studies at the University of Connecticut while leading her team, the UConn Huskies, to a second conference championship after a record-setting, undefeated season. Praised as the best active player in women’s college basketball, Moore has earned numerous awards and honors for both individual and team accomplishments, along with her partner at the net, sophomore Tina Charles.
Originally hailing from Georgia, Moore is currently considering applying for a Rhodes Scholarship to continue her studies abroad, and was recently added to the highly selective pool of candidates for the 2012 Olympic Women’s Basketball team. In her personal time, she lends her time and fame to the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, visiting patients and participating in fundraising efforts.
Maya Moore with Iowa State’s Chassidy Cole. (AP Photo / Al Behrman)
Roslyn M. Brock (b. 1965)
Ushering in a fresh new era for the venerable civil rights organization, Roslyn Brock is the youngest person chosen to head the NAACP as Chairman of its National Board of Directors.
Brock started working with the NAACP while attending Virginia Union University, and quickly took on a leadership role in order to raise awareness of issues relevant to younger black people. She successfully lobbied the NAACP Board to acknowledge health care as an ongoing civil rights issue, and in 2005 co-founded the “Leadership 500 Summit”, a training and mentoring conference designed to recruit leaders for a new generation of activism.
An expert at fundraising, Brock has raised millions in support from private foundations and individuals for NAACP initiatives on health, community relations, and idea exchanges with international rights groups. Her plans include strengthening relations with other civil rights organizations, including the National Urban League and the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, and ensuring that the NAACP remains relevant and beneficial for another hundred years.
(AP Photo / Mary Altaffer)
Donna Edwards (b. 1958)
A North Carolina native and one of six children in a military family, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) gained an appreciation for community and responsibility that have served her well as Representative of Maryland’s 4th Congressional District. Working constantly on behalf of progressive causes, Rep. Edwards was a co-founder of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, and was executive director of the Arca Foundation, a progressive policy think-tank, until her 2008 campaign.
Despite previously working for former Congressman Albert Wynn, Rep. Edwards twice challenged Wynn for his seat on the basis of his voting record, including several controversial breaks with the Congressional Black Caucus over the Iraq War and the estate tax. After defeating Wynn in 2008, Rep. Edwards has used her position to bring greater awareness to causes she supports, including a notorious arrest during a protest at the Sudan embassy over the Darfur genocide. Recently, Rep. Edwards was selected by Democratic Party leaders to assist in their “Red to Blue” campaign to take Republican Congressional seats in 2010.
Rep. Donna Edwards with Rep. Elijah Cummings. (AP Photo / Lawrence Jackson)
Christine Y. Wiley
Taking a stand for her beliefs is a way of life for Rev. Dr. Christine Wiley, co-pastor of Covenant Baptist Church in Southwest Washington, D.C. and powerful advocate for gay marriage rights and HIV/AIDS testing in the black community.
With her husband and co-pastor, Rev. Dr. Dennis Wiley (son of late civil rights pastor Rev. H. Wesley Wiley), Rev. Wiley has been a crucial public, religious voice in the gay rights movement, including officiating union ceremonies of same-sex couples at Covenant. Such practices have met with considerable opposition within the socially conservative Black Church community, but Rev. Wiley counsels parishioners and pastors alike in acceptance over exclusion.
Reverend Wiley views health care as an extension of her ministry. As a former nurse, Rev. Wiley saw the rise of AIDS first-hand in the halls of D.C. General Hospital in the 1980’s. With some of the highest HIV infection rates in the country found in Washington, D.C., Rev. Wiley takes a hands-on approach to raising education and awareness, encouraging even her elderly parishioners to be tested for HIV, and being tested publicly herself at the pulpit, along with her husband of nearly 30 years.
Photo courtesy of the Covenant Baptist Church, Washington D.C.
- of 16
From caregivers and laborers to CEOs and scientists, black women have held pivotal leadership roles in building America at every level, from communities to cities to corporations. Drawing strength from their position on two intersecting minority axes, black women have used leadership as a means of unifying and aiding those around them. Today we recognize the vital contributions of several noteworthy women who not only lead in their fields of business, politics, science, and the arts, but also inspire and promote leadership in others.