As the old saying goes, to know where we’re headed, we need to know where we’ve been. That’s why this Black History Month we’re looking back at the incredible African-American women in STEM who pushed the equality envelope—in terms of both gender and race.
These trailblazers were smart, savvy, and tenacious. And because these ladies refused to take no for an answer in the past, our current generation now has access to freely pursue an education in the science, technology, engineering, and math fields.
Let’s take a moment to reflect on the African-American women whose passions, contributions and legacies in STEM created our present reality.
First African-American woman physician in the U.S.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler February 8, 1831 – March 9, 1895
Rebecca Crumpler was able to accomplish what few black women—or men—were able to in the 1800s: she was accepted into medical school. She attended the New England Female Medical College in the years leading up to the Civil War—while slavery was still in existence in the South. Once the war broke out, Crumpler was forced to put her studies on hold and even lost some financial aid in the process—yet she persevered.
Not only was Crumpler the first African-American woman to become a doctor, but she also traveled to Virginia to lend her medical expertise to the war-torn state.
First African American Surgeon General
Jocelyn Elders August 13, 1933 - present
Born to poor sharecroppers at the height of the Great Depression, Dr. Jocelyn Elders has an impressive academic background. She was valedictorian of her grade school and earned a B.S. in biology, an M.D. from the University of Minnesota, and an M.S. in biochemistry. She also joined the United States Army where she was trained to be a physical therapist.
In 1987, her impressive educational background and career led to her becoming the first African-American woman in the state to become Director of the Arkansas Department of Health. It was only upward and onward from there. Dr. Elders eventually became the first African American Surgeon General of the United States.
First African-American woman to travel to outer space
Dr. Mae Carol Jemison October 17, 1956 - present
Dr. Jemison is living proof that no matter what your dreams are (or how many dreams you have) it’s possible to achieve them. As a young girl, Jemison wanted to become a scientist and knew it was her destiny to one day take off to outer space. But aspiring scientist and astronaut wasn’t the end of her dreams—Jemison was also passionate about dancing.
When this trailblazer graduated from Stanford with a chemical engineering degree, she was unsure if she should pursue her doctorate or become a professional dancer. While she ultimately chose to become a doctor, dancing would always be a part of life—so much so she would eventually find herself dancing in zero gravity.
On September 12, 1992, Jemison finally fulfilled her destiny and became the first African-American woman to travel in space aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour.
The real-life trailblazers behind “Hidden Figures”
The movie “Hidden Figures,” based on the book of the same name written by Margot Lee Shetterly, is up for several Academy Awards at the end of this month. The popularity of this movie is shedding light on the little-known African-American women who helped the U.S. win the Great Space Race back in the early 60s. Take a look at the real-life feats these women accomplished as they perused their passion for STEM.
Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson August 26, 1918 - present
Even though she was often referred to as “The Human Computer,” the path to education was not an easy one for Katherine Johnson. The public school system she was a part of did not offer to educate African American students past eighth grade.
So, despite Johnson’s apparent aptitude, her parents had to find workarounds to ensure she could continue her education. These efforts paid off, and Johnson would go on to make significant contributions to NASA, including the calculations that made John Glenn's monumental orbit around Earth possible.
Mary Winston Jackson April 9, 1921 – February 11, 2005
Not only was Mary Jackson passionate about science, but she was also committed to inspiring young students to get involved in the field. According to her NASA biography, she voiced her concern about the lack of passion the African American children at her local community center had for science: “Sometimes they are not aware of the number of black scientists, and don't even know of the career opportunities until it is too late." She would go on to becoming the mentor those children needed.
Jackson actively pursued her engineering career and ended up working at NASA for 34 years. She was NASA’s first black female engineer and held the most senior engineering title available.
Dorothy Johnson Vaughan September 20, 1910 – November 10, 2008
When asked what it was like to be an African-American woman working at NASA during the 50s and 60s, Vaughan responded, "I changed what I could, and what I couldn't, I endured." Her endurance and leadership resulted in a 28-year career at NASA as the first African-American woman to supervise a staff at the center. Vaughan even anticipated that computers would eventually eliminate many of the positions her staff held, so she took preemptive measures to teach her team programming languages to prepare for the upcoming changes.
The above is only a handful of the trailblazing African-American women who paved the way for success in STEM. These inspiring figures, and their legacies, are constant reminders that we should never take education for granted. While we have a lot more work to do with regard to gender and racial equity in STEM areas of study, I’m grateful for the month of February to honor the achievements of African-Americans.