Overlooked Stories Of 17 Black Women Trailblazers From The Past
Updated: Feb 14, 2022
For this Black History Month, Black Girl Ventures went on a mission to research some of the most impactful Black women entrepreneurs and inventors from our past. These women didn't have to bring seats to the table; they built their own building then brought their own tables and chairs. Yet, another reminder of the incredible resilience and perseverance of our ancestors. Unfortunately, you won't read about these women in the history books so, we hope this list inspires you to propel your dreams forward relentlessly.
Madame CJ Walker
(December 23, 1867 – May 25, 1919)
Madam C.J. Walker created specialized hair products for African American hair care and was one of the first American women to become a self-made millionaire.
She invented a line of African American hair products after suffering from a scalp ailment that resulted in her own hair loss. She promoted her products by traveling around the country, giving lecture demonstrations, and eventually established Madame C.J. Walker Laboratories to manufacture cosmetics and train sales beauticians.
As profits continued to grow, in 1908, Walker opened a factory and a beauty school in Pittsburgh. By 1910, the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company had become wildly successful, with profits that were the modern-day equivalent of several million dollars.
A relentless innovator, Walker used her political outreach to organize clubs and conventions for her representatives, which recognized not only successful sales, but also philanthropic and educational efforts among African Americans.
Walker contributed to the YMCA, covered tuition for six African American students at Tuskegee Institute, and became active in the anti-lynching movement, donating $5,000 to the NAACP's movement. Before her death, Walker changed her will and donated two-thirds of future net profits to charity, as well as thousands of dollars to various individuals and schools.
(August 15, 1818 – January 15, 1891)
Bridget Mason (aka "Biddy") was a Black woman slave who became one of the richest women in Los Angeles. She was a real estate mogul and a midwife. She later gained her freedom thanks to the help of her white son-in-law, Charles Owens.
Bridget birthed three daughters by her slave master, Robert Smith. After converting to Mormonism, Smith and his wife moved to Utah in a wagon, forcing Bridget to follow on foot. A church leader attempted to convince Smith to free his slaves, but Smith was unwilling.
The church leader did persuade Smith to move to California. Smith was unaware he had entered the Union as a free state. Bridget Mason became a free woman. She eventually saved enough money to purchase two estates, making her one of the first Black women to own property in Los Angeles. Over several years, Mason bought and managed more property. She leased some out commercially and sold portions of it.
As Los Angeles grew, so did the value of her real estate. In 1872, she financed the city's first Black church. Soon, Mason was "known by every citizen" as "Aunt Biddy." She was quickly beloved in the untouched town of Los Angeles, which numbered only 2,000 or so residents—less than 20 of whom were Black.
Los Angeles Times wrote:
She was a frequent visitor to the jail, speaking a word of cheer and leaving some token and a prayerful hope with every prisoner. In the slums of the city, she was known as "Grandma Mason," and did much active service toward uplifting the worst element in Los Angeles. She paid taxes and all expenses on church property to hold it for her people. During the flood of the early eighties, she gave an open order to a little grocery store, which was located on Fourth and Spring Streets. By the terms of this order, all families made homeless by the flood were to be supplied with groceries, while Biddy Mason cheerfully paid the bill.
By the late 1800s, Mason had acquired a fortune of $300,000 (approximately $6 million today), making her the wealthiest black woman in the city.
“If you hold your hand closed, nothing good can come of it. The open hand is blessed, for it gives abundance, even as it receives.”
(September 16, 1861 – 1947)
Miriam E. Benjamin was a school teacher living in Washington, D.C. In 1888, Ms. Benjamin received a patent for an invention she called a Gong and Signal Chair for Hotels.
Her chair, as she stated in her patent application, would "reduce the expenses of hotels by decreasing the number of waiters and attendants, to add to the convenience and comfort of guests and to obviate the necessity of hand clapping or calling aloud to obtain the services of pages."
The system worked by pressing a small button on the back of a chair, which would relay a signal to a waiting attendant. Simultaneously, a light would light up on the chair, allowing the attendant to see which guest needed assistance.
The system was adopted and installed within the United States House of Representatives and was the antecedent of the methods used today on airplanes to signal flight attendants. When you're sitting on the plane, and you call for the stewardess, remember Miriam did it.
Mary Ellen Pleasant
(19 August 1814 – 4 January 1904)
Mary Ellen Pleasant was indentured early in life to a Nantucket shopkeeper from whom she learned the basics of running a business. She also learned about the abolitionist movement, since the shopkeeper's family were fanatic abolitionists.
Mary Ellen married a wealthy free landowner named J.J. Smith, who was also an abolitionist, both solidified her fortune and advanced the cause. The Smiths worked to help slaves escape to the North and funded abolitionist causes.
But after her husband died young, Mary Ellen found herself as a cook and a servant for wealthy White families during the Gold Rush. She began to train servants and placed them in several homes, and she used the information she gained from her being in wealthy homes to increase her assets. She invested her money and soon amassed a startling personal fortune based on stocks, real estate, boarding houses, and a series of businesses (including laundries and food establishments) that made her one of the growing city's notable entrepreneurs.
As Pleasant became a powerful woman, she continued her work for civil rights, often in the courts. She used her money to defend wronged Blacks and spent thousands in legal fees, becoming a hero to a generation of African Americans in California and was known as "The Mother of Civil Rights in California." She became known in the Black community for her philanthropy and very public support for civil rights, which was unusual for a woman and doubly uncommon for a woman of color. At her peak, she was estimated to be worth 30 million dollars.
Annie Turnbo Malone
(August 9, 1877 – May 10, 1957)
There would be no Madame C.J. Walker without Annie Turnbo Malone. Walker got her start by working under Malone. Many believe Walker was the first Black woman millionaire, but she wasn't.
A chemist and entrepreneur, Annie Turnbo Malone became a millionaire by successfully developing and marketing hair products for Black women in St. Louis. Her products focused on scalp hygiene versus styling. Despite being denied access to regular distribution channels, the business grew steadily, and eventually, her products went national. Her businesses lasted through the Great Depression and a costly divorce.
Malone used her wealth to promote the advancement of African Americans and gave away most of her money to charity. When hair salons were still anomalies, Malone helped to popularize cosmetology schools, through her own Poro College and taught women about the importance of scalp health.
In the 2019 proclamation of Black History Month, Trump stated, "Annie Malone ... became one of the most successful entrepreneurs in America at the turn of the century and provided opportunities for African Americans to pursue meaningful careers."