Overlooked Stories Of 18 Black Women Trailblazers From The Past
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 female 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."
Marjorie Stewart Joyner
(October 24, 1896 – December 27, 1994)
Marjorie Stewart Joyner was the inventor of the Permanent Wave Machine, thus ensuring her a prominent place in cosmetology history. Joyner opened a salon on South State Street in Chicago, where she met Madam C.J. Walker, an African American entrepreneur who owned a cosmetic empire. Joyner worked for Walker and became the national advisor to Walker's company, overseeing 200 beauty schools.
In 1928, Joyner created and patented her famous invention, the Permanent Wave Machine. A client would sit in the hood for a certain period, to set in the curls. She also invented a scalp protector to make the process less painful. Despite the popularity of her invention among black and white women, Joyner never saw any profit from the invention as Madam C.J. Walker owned the rights.
Joyner was passionate about helping other African Americans and particularly Black beauticians. She raised money for HBCUs and developed a relationship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to fight racial segregation and discrimination. She founded the Alpha Chi Pi Omega Sorority and Fraternity to help raise professional standards for beauticians. Over her 50-year career, Joyner taught around 15,000 stylists.
Joyner expanded her reach and became the director of the Chicago Defender's charities overseeing food and clothing drives and fundraisers across the city of Chicago. In the 1930s, Roosevelt named Joyner to a women's leadership position on the Democratic National Committee, where she advised several New Deal Agencies reaching out to black women.
By 1935, Joyner helped found the National Council of Negro Women.
Marjorie Stewart Joyner was the inventor of the Permanent Wave Machine, thus ensuring her a prominent place in cosmetology history. She helped write the first cosmetology laws for Illinois and founded the United Beauty School Owners and Teachers Association with Mary Bethune McLeod in 1945. Joyner was also active in the African American Community, raising money for black colleges and working with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to fight racial segregation and discrimination.
Eunice Walker Johnson
(April 4, 1916, — January 3, 2010)
Eunice Walker Johnson co-founded Ebony Magazine with her husband John H. Johnson in 1945. Johnson became a force in the fashion world when she created the annual Ebony Fashion Fair in 1958. She produced and directed the fair for nearly 50 years, in which she raised a total of 50 million dollars.
The fashion tours showcased African American models and African American designers. She was also instrumental in establishing a line of beauty products, Fashion Fair Cosmetics, that were formulated for the complexions of women of color.
Her initiative prompted other cosmetics companies, such as Max Factor, Revlon, and Avon, to follow suit.
Marie Van Brittan Brown
(October 30, 1922 – February 2, 1999)
Marie Van Brittan Brown was the inventor of the first home security system. She was a nurse, and her husband was an electrician. Brown's security system was the basis for the two-way communication and surveillance features of modern security.
Her original invention consisted of peepholes, a camera, monitors, and a two-way microphone. The final detail was an alarm button that could be pressed to contact the police in case of an emergency. She filed her patent in 1966.
Brown's invention laid the foundation for later security systems. These systems used similar concepts such as video monitoring, remote-controlled door locks, push-button alarm triggers, instant messaging to security providers, and police, as well as two-way voice communication.
Her invention is still used by businesses, homes, and multi-unit apartments. The Browns' patent was later referenced by 13 other inventors, including some as recently as 2013. She is also credited for inventing the first closed-circuit television.
(1832 – 1904)
Sarah Boone was an American inventor best known for her patented improvements to the ironing board. She was one of the first African American women to receive a patent in United States history.
Boone's ironing board was perfect for ironing the sleeves and the curves of ladies' wear because it was narrow and curved. Her invention made it easier to iron both sides of a sleeve and various clothing that had curves and cuts to prevent creases.
Judy W. Reed
(1826 – ?)
Not much is known about Judy's life. Reed applied for a patent on her "Dough Kneader and Roller." This was before Sarah Boone submitted her patent. Her application detailed an improved design on existing dough kneaders. Reed's device allowed the dough to mix more evenly through two intermeshed rollers carved with grooved slats that would act as kneaders. The mixture then passed into a covered repository to protect the dough from dust and other particles.
Eliza Lucas Pinckney
(December 28, 1722 – May 26, 1793)
At 16 years old, Eliza Lucas Pinckney unintentionally became a businesswoman. After the death of her mother, Eliza ran her family's three South Carolina plantations and cared for her younger siblings. At the same time, her father, a British military officer, was stationed in the Caribbean. She dedicated her life to her family, education, political activities, and supported free colonies.
Eliza's love for botany and her keen awareness of growing trends in the textile industry led her to experimentally plant indigo seeds that her father had sent from Antigua. Failure struck twice before Eliza managed to raise a crop that produced 17 pounds of indigo, which eventually was exported to England. She is most likely the first and most crucial agriculturalist in the U.S.
The crop's success helped boost her business and South Carolina's economy. Because of Eliza's business acumen, indigo became the second-largest crop in the state, exporting 134,000 pounds of indigo in 1748 — until the surge of cotton. The indigo crop sustained South Carolina's economy for nearly 30 years. They produced one million pounds of indigo annually with a present-day value of over $30 million.
Maggie Lena Walker
(July 15, 1864 – December 15, 1934)
Maggie Lena Walker was one of the foremost female business leaders in the United States. She became the first woman to own a bank in the United States. Walker's entrepreneurial skills transformed Black business practices while also inspiring other women to enter the field.
Walker held many high-ranking positions, including civic organizations, such as the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). She then served as the Vice President of the Richmond chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1902, Walker began publishing the organization's newspaper, The St. Luke Herald. She used her influence to encourage African Americans in Richmond to harness their economic power by becoming business owners.
From there, she continued her entrepreneurial pursuits. In 1903, she founded the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank. Walker was the first woman of any race to charter a bank in the United States. The bank was a powerful representation of Black self-help in the segregated South. The Penny Savings Bank also worked to appeal to children by passing out banks, which encouraged them to save their money. The bank is still in operation to this day.
(January 1, 1800 – October 23, 1885)
Clara Brown, a former slave established a successful laundry business during the Colorado Gold Rush. She was a Black pioneer, the first African American woman in Denver, a community leader and philanthropist.
Brown found a partner and expanded her laundry business. She invested her earnings in real estate and mines. After a few years, Brown had accumulated $10,000 in savings, an unheard-of amount for one person to acquire during her time. A fierce businesswoman, she owned building lots in Denver, houses, and mines.
She continued her philanthropy among the needy for the rest of her life and spent large sums of money helping other Blacks move west while assisting them in finding employment. Brown gave generously to her community, and her home served as a hospital, church, and housing for the homeless. She was known as the Angel of the Rockies.
Christiana Carteaux Bannister
(1819 – 1902)
Christiana Carteaux Bannister was an African American abolitionist, philanthropist, and entrepreneur in New England in the mid-19th century. She owned several salons in Boston.
She met her husband, Edward Bannister, at her hair salon; the two were active in the Boston Underground Railroad, helping runaway slaves reach the next station. The Bannister hair salons became famous meeting grounds for African American and White abolitionists, and they protected approximately 100 runaway slaves. Their home is the most documented of Boston's Underground Railroad stations.
During the Civil War, Bannister raised money for the 54th Massachusetts Regiment of Black soldiers, immortalized in the film Glory. She also held fundraisers to benefit widows and orphans of African American soldiers killed during the Civil War.
She also helped establish a nursing home for African American women, called the Home for Aged Colored Women, which opened in 1890. It's still in existence today, and it's called Bannister House.
Sarah E Goode
Born into slavery in 1850, inventor and entrepreneur Sarah E. Goode went on to become the first African American woman to be granted a patent by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, for her invention of a folding cabinet bed in 1885.
She owned a furniture store with her husband, Archibald. Lots of her customers, mostly working-class, lived in small apartments and didn't have much space for furniture, including beds.
To solve this, Goode invented a cabinet bed, which she described as a "folding bed," similar to the modern-day Murphy bed. When not being occupied, the bed also served as a roll-top desk, complete with compartments for stationery and other writing supplies.
Sarah Spencer Washington
(June 6, 1889 – March 23, 1953)
Sarah Spencer was a hairdresser who started a hairdressing business in a small one-room beauty shop. She began to experiment with ingredients and later was granted a patent for a new process of straightening Black women's hair.
In 1919 she founded Apex News and Hair Company. Apex Beauty Systems made Sarah Spencer one of the first African American millionaires. But not only did she work at the salon, but she also taught students the trade and sold her cosmetics throughout the city in the evenings. She gave women skills beyond working in the kitchen.
By the mid-1930s, the Apex Beauty Products Company was the largest New Jersey Black-owned business and one of the nation's leading Black manufacturing companies. Washington also owned Apex Publishing Company, which published Apex News for beauticians and sales agents, Apex Laboratories, Apex Drug Company, and Apex Beauty College. She had a total of 11 beauty schools in the U.S. She was awarded a medallion and was named one of the "Most Distinguished Businesswomen" in the country.
"Now is the time to plan your future by learning a depression-proof business."
(May 17, 1912 – January 13, 2006)
Mary Kenner was an African-American inventor most noted for her development of the sanitary belt, also known as the sanitary napkin. Racial discrimination prevented its adoption for 30 years. Kener comes from a family of inventors.
Her father patented a clothing press to fit in suitcases, but he was never financially compensated. Then her grandfather invented a light signal for trains, and her sister, Mildred Davidson Austin Smith, invented and sold board games commercially.
Despite her success, Kenner stated she created these items because she enjoyed making life easier for people and that it was never about the money.
Alice H. Parker
Alice H. Parker was an African American inventor famous for her patented system of central heating using natural gas. This revolutionary idea conserved energy and paved the way for the central heating systems that are in modern-day homes. The concept of central heating was around before Parker was born, but her design was unique because it used natural gas as its fuel instead of coal or wood that had been previously used.
Her invention was convenient because it meant that people did not have to go outside and chop or buy wood. It also decreased the risk of house or building fires. People no longer had to leave a burning fireplace on throughout the night.
Parker's filing a patent was a remarkable milestone because it preceded both the Civil Rights Movement and the Women's Liberation Movement. These movements removed the barriers that women of her generation faced.
Gladys West is an American mathematician known for her contributions towards developing the Global Positioning System (GPS). But no one would have known this had it not been for her fellow Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority member Gwen James who discovered what she did and shared it with the world.
West is a mathematician who's math skills advanced satellites, missiles, and used highly complex computer algorithms to analyze enormous amounts of data. When asked if she uses the GPS, she says she still prefers the use of a paper map.
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