Congratulations, Michelle Janine Howard, the U.S. Navy’s 1st female four star admiral, the service’s highest rank! Likewise, this makes her the 1st African-American woman to earn a four-star ranking in the history of the U.S. military. Michelle is also notable for being the 1st African-American woman to command a U.S. Navy vessel. For more, check-out:
Female four-star admiral: Adm. Michelle Janine Howard makes Navy history (The Christian Science Monitor)
Michelle Howard Becomes 1st Female 4-Star Officer in the Navy (The Root)
You've probably heard of Phillis Wheatley, but chances are you’re not quite sure who she is, or why she’s famous. If you’re nodding your head, keep reading…
Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American to publish a book of poetry, was probably born in 1753 or 1754, somewhere in western Africa. At roughly 7 years old, captured by slave-traders.
Considered too sickly for hard labor plantations in the Caribbean or Southern U.S. colonies, she became a domestic servant for the Wheatley family in Boston. Though they kept slaves, the Wheatley’s were relatively progressive; after witnessing Phillis copying the alphabet in chalk, instead of punishing her, they decided to cultivate her academic interests. During a period when some states outlawed teaching slaves to read, Phillis was studying Alexander Pope and John Milton. Actually, the education she received from the Wheatley’s was superior even to most Caucasian males’.
At roughly 12 or 13 years old, her first poem appeared in Newport Rhode Island’s Mercury newspaper; later, her poetry was printed in throughout New England. Still, Phillis couldn't locate funding for a complete volume of poetry in the U.S., and had to seek patrons across the pond. Her book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was distributed in 1773 by a London published. Subsequently, Phillis became the 1st African-American, male or female, enslaved or free, to publish a book of poetry. Shortly thereafter, she gained her freedom, but, like many free African-American, she encountered severe economic hardship. Phillis never found a sponsor for a second book, and passed-away, destitute, at roughly 31 years old.
To learn more about Phillis’ remarkable early life, rise to literary prominence, and tragic descent into poverty, check-out these resources:
Entry for Phillis Wheatley at Poetry Foundation, article written by Sondra A. O'Neale, Emory University
The Hand of America's First Black Female Poet, news story from NPR
The Phillis Wheatley Monument, article from Black Art Depot Today
Searching for possible images for my series of Black History Month blog-posts, I came across some pictures from “Because of Them, We Can.” Their mission is to share/celebrate African-American’s “rich history and promising future through images that would refute stereotypes and build the esteem of our children.”
To hear more about creator Eunique Jones Gibson’s inspiration and aspirations for the campaign, check-out the video below:
Name: Charlotte E. Ray
Born: January 13, 1850/New York City, New York
Died: January 04, 1911/Woodside, New York
Occupation: Lawyer, educator, African-American civil and women’s rights activist
What Makes Her Bitchin’: In 1872, Charlotte E. Ray graduated from the Howard University School of Law, subsequently becoming the first African-American female lawyer. The first woman admitted to the District of Columbia Bar, Charlotte struggled against persistent discrimination due to her gender and race. Unable to draw a steady stream of clients, she practiced law for only a couple of years. Charlotte eventually relocated to New York City where she became a teacher.
Betcha’ Didn’t Know: Charlotte was the first woman permitted to argue cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.
For more about this litigating lady, check-out :
Charlotte E. Ray (biography.com)
Charlotte E. Ray: A Black Woman Lawyer (PDF)
Name: Zelda Wynn Valdes
Born: June 28, 1905
Died: September 26, 2001
Occupation: Fashion designer and costumer
What Makes Her Bitchin’: A designer and costumer, Zelda created the original Playboy Bunny outfits and costumes for the Dance Theater of Harlem. Among her superstar clientele were entertainers like Dorothy Dandridge, Josephine Baker, and Joyce Bryant. Reflecting on her decades of success, Zelda summed up her career thusly, “I just had a God-given talent for making people beautiful.”
Betcha’ Didn’t Know: Zelda became the first African-American to own a store on Broadway in New York City when she opened her boutique, "Chez Zelda," in 1948.
For more about black fashion’s fairy godmother, check-out :
Fashionable Game-Changer: Zelda Wynn Valdes
Zelda Wynn Valdes: Black Fashion Designer Who Created The Playboy Bunny Outfit
Name: Harriet E. Wilson
Born: March 15, 1825/Milford, New Hampshire
Died: June 28, 1900/ Quincy, Massachusetts
Occupation: Novelist, Spiritualist
What Makes Her Bitchin’: Considered the 1st African-American female novelist, Harriet was also the 1st Black-American, woman or man, to publish a book in North America. Though, in 1859, Harriet’s work, Our Nig, or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black was published anonymously in Boston, Massachusetts, it was not widely distributed. Over a century later, it was rediscovered by the scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in 1982.
Betcha’ Didn’t Know: Harriet was also part of the Spiritualist tradition, popular in America during later 19th and early 20th centuries, and was recognized in Spiritualist circles as “the colored medium.” In the Boston Spiritualist newspaper, Banner of Light, she advertised herself as a trance reader and lecturer.
For more about this novel novelist, check-out:
The Harriet Wilson Project
Harriet E. Wilson Became The First Black Person To Publish A Novel On This Date In 1859
Name: Joyce Bryant
Born: October 14, 1928/Oakland, California,
Occupation: Singer, actress
Nickname/Alias/ Nom de guerre: The Bronze Blonde Bombshell”, “the black Marilyn Monroe,” “The Belter,” and “The Voice You'll Always Remember”
What Makes Her Bitchin’: One of the earliest African-American sex-symbols, Joyce became famous during the late 1940s and early 1950s performing at theaters and nightclubs. Besides her sterling silver hair and body-hugging mermaid dresses, she became noteworthy for crooning the popular standards “Love for Sale” and “Drunk with Love.” Both were prohibited from radio because of their provocative lyrics.
Betcha’ Didn’t Know: Joyce left show business at the zenith of her career, choosing instead to dedicate her life to spirituality. She re-emerged a decade late, becoming a vocal coach for entertainers like Jennifer Holliday and Raquel Welch.
Hear “The Voice You'll Always Remember” sing “Love for Sale”:
Name: Willa Brown
Born: January 22, 1906/Glasgow, Kentucky
Died: July 18, 1992/Chicago, Illinois
Occupation: Pilot, African-American civil rights activist, educator
What Makes Her Bitchin’: Maybe you've heard of Bessie Coleman, but do you know about Willa Brown? She was the first African-American woman to receive her commercial pilot’s license in America AND the first black female to become an officer in the U.S. Civil Air Patrol. She also earned her MBA from Northwestern, and co-founded the Coffey School of Aeronautics to help train African-American pilots. What have you done lately? Yep, that's what I thought...
Betcha’ Didn’t Know: Willa successfully lobbied the U.S. government to integrate African-American pilots into the “separate-but-equal” Army Air Corps and the federal Civilian Pilot Training Program. Having cultivated a taste for politics, she later ran unsuccessfully for Congress.
For more about this audacious aviatrix, check-out:
Name: Angelina Weld Grimké
Born: February 27, 1880/Boston, Massachusetts
Died: June 10, 1958/New York City, New York
Occupation: Educator, journalist, poet, playwright
What Makes Her Bitchin’: A member of the Harlem Renaissance, Angelina was one of the first African-American women to have a play performed publicly. Premiering in 1916, Rachel was also one of the first theatrical productions to protest racially-motivated violence against Black-Americans.
Betcha’ Didn’t Know: Examining her personal correspondence and published prose, numerous modern literary critics believe that Angelina was either bisexual or a lesbian. This would make her our first LGBT History Bitch!
For more about this literary luminary, check-out:
Angelina Weld Grimkè (Black History Now)
Angelina Weld Grimkè (All Poetry)
Name: Eunice Hunton Carter
Born: July 16, 1899/Atlanta, Georgia
Died: January 25, 1970/New York City, New York
Occupation: Lawyer, women’s rights and anti-racism activist
What Makes Her Bitchin’: She was the first African-American women to earn a law degree from Fordham University, one of New York's first black female lawyers, and one of the United States’ first district attorneys of color. Oh yeah, AND she helped take down mobster Lucky Luciano. Basically, Eunice Carter was a BOSS!
Betcha’ Didn't Know: Besides wielding manila folders of evidence like Thor’s hammer, Eunice was on numerous United Nations that championed women’s rights, and served on the Executive Committee of the International Council of Women.
For more about this kick-ass crime-fighting heroine, check-out:
Eunice Hunton Carter, Mob Buster
Women Of Black History: 5 Things To Know About Pioneering Lawyer Eunice Carter
Eunice Carter (The Mob Museum)
Name: Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones
Nickname/Alias/ Nom de guerre: Sissieretta Jones, "The Black Patti" (a reference to celebrated 19th-century Italian soprano Adelina Patti), Madame Jones
Born: January 5, 1868 or 1869/ Portsmouth, Virginia
Died: June 24, 1933/Providence, Rhode Island
Occupation: Opera star
What Makes Her Bitchin’: Though largely forgotten today, this once world-famous soprano was the first African-American to perform at what is now Carnegie Hall. Similarly bitchin’, throughout her singing career, Sissieretta’s vocal stylings were showcased at the White House during the administrations of four consecutive U.S. (Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt). Oh, and she performed the British royal family, too (NBD).
Betcha’ Didn't Know: Around 1896, Sissieretta established Black Patti’s Troubadours. One singer/dancer to perform with the group early in their career was “History Bitches” podcast subject, Aida Overton-Walker.
For more, check-out:
Name: Nina Mae McKinney
Nickname/Alias/ Nom de guerre: "The Black Garbo" (a reference to international movie star/ icon Greta Garbo)
Born: June 13, 1912/Lancaster, South Carolina
Died: May 3, 1967/New York City, New York
What Makes Her Bitchin’: Dubbed “The Black Garbo” for her smoldering good looks, Nina got her start on Broadway before heading to Hollywood. Recruited by MGM, she became the first African-American actress cast in a leading role in a mainstream motion picture, and the first black movie star to sign a long-term contract with a major studio.
Betcha’ Didn't Know: Later, during the 1930s and post-war era, she performed internationally in theatre, film, and television. In Great Britain, Nina became one of the first African-Americans to appear on T.V.
To watch Nina struttin’ her stuff, check-out:
Name: Mary Fields
Nickname/Alias/ Nom de guerre: “Stagecoach” Mary
Born: c. 1832/ Tennessee
Died: 1914/ Cascade, Montana
Occupation: Entrepreneur and stagecoach driver
What Makes Her Bitchin’: She’s described in the African American Registry as a “gun-totin' female in the American Wild West who was six feet tall, heavy, tough, short-tempered, two-fisted, powerful, and…carried a pair of six-shooters and an eight or ten-gauge shotgun.” At roughly 60 years old, Mary became a mail-coach driver, the first African-American woman to hold the position in the United States. She earned the nickname “Stagecoach” for her deathly serious commitment to delivering letters and packages regardless of treacherous weather or unforgiving terrain.
Betcha’ Didn’t Know: Mary spent roughly the first thirty years of her life as a slave. After gaining her freedom, she headed first to Toledo, Ohio, then Cascade, Montana, working for a group of Ursuline nuns at St. Peter's Mission. Mary was ultimately let go because, as Ben Thompson of Badass of the Week explained, she literally popped a cap in someone’s ass.
To learn more about this hard-drinkin’, no guff takin’ bad-ass, check-out:
Stagecoach Mary: The rifle-toting former slave had many admirers
STAGECOACH MARY: A gun-toting black woman delivered the U.S. mail in Montana
Badass of the Week: Stagecoach Mary
February is Black History Month, and to celebrate, I'm writing a series of blogposts spotlighting 10 African-American heroines whose triumphs and legacies are less widely recognized today. First up, is a hard drinkin’, gun totin,’ nun lovin’ (wait, what?) bad-ass chick who made history after becoming the first African-American woman mail coach driver employed by the U.S. government! Check-out her profile and those for 9 other history-making bitches throughout February. Happy Black History Month!
Since tonight is the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympics, I thought I’d kick-off History Bitches’ Black History Month series with a blog-post on Alice Coachman, the first African-American woman to earn an Olympic gold medal. Considering the overwhelming obstacles black and female athletes were forced to overcome, Alice’s victory was truly remarkable.
Born November 9, 1923, in Albany, Georgia, Alice Coachman exhibited her proclivity toward and natural aptitude for athletics. Though her parents were reproachful of their young daughter’s predilection for traditionally masculine pursuits, her most formidable barrier was Jim Crow. As a Black-American in the Deep South, she was prohibited from participating in organized sports competitions, and could not practice at community training facilities. Undeterred, Alice ran and jumped barefoot in fields, on dirt roads, and at playgrounds.
While attending Madison High School, Alice joined the track team. Mentored by the boy’s track coach, Harry Lash, her gifts were refined and nurtured. At age 16, she won a scholarship to Alabama’s celebrated Tuskegee Institute. Before the start of her first semester, Alice competed in the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) high jump championship. She broke the high school and college women’s high jump records…barefoot!
In 1936, Jesse Owen became the first African-American man to compete in the modern Olympics. Frustratingly, Alice had to wait until 1948 to run in the footsteps of her pioneering forbearer. During what many postulate was her athletic peak, the 1940 and 1944 Olympic Games were canceled because the Allies were busy killin’ Nazis. She consoled herself by winning the AAU’s indoor high jump finals nine years consecutively and the indoor high jump three times. She also won national track and field finals championships in the 50- and 100-meter dashes, 4 × 100-meter relay, and running high jumps. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, she also played guard for Tuskegee’s basketball team and lead them to three back-to-back conference tournaments. Thanks for making us all seem like a horde of talentless, lazy assholes, Alice!
Though she'd previously experienced a back injury, Alice easily made the cut for London’s 1948 Olympics. Her qualifying jump of 5’4” even surpassed the former standing record (5’3 1/4”). Competing in the Olympic high jump finals, Alice soared 5’6 1/8” on her first attempt. Subsequently, she became the first African-American woman, and that year’s only female competitor, to earn an Olympic gold medal. She was presented her medal by Great Britain’s King George VI, Queen Elizabeth II’s father. The record Alice set at the 1948 games wasn't broken until two Olympics later.
Returning to America, Alice retired from competing in sports, but continued to be dynamic presence in athletics. Coca-Cola recruited her to be a spokeswoman in 1952, making Alice the first African-American to procure a commercial endorsement. Later, she built the Alice Coachman Track and Field Foundation to foster budding athletes and support Olympic veterans. Alice was honored at the 1996 summer games in Atlanta as one of the 100 greatest Olympians. She presently resides in Tuskegee, Alabama.
This short video from Team USA’s YouTube channel, does a terrific job of putting Alice’s groundbreaking achievement in context, and explaining its yet-reverberating impact on future generations of Black-American and female Olympians:
Happy Rosa Parks Day, friends! On December 1, 1955, Rosa was detained in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to give up a seat in her bus’s colored section for a white passenger. Though she wasn't the first black commuter to rebel against discrimination, her act of defiance signaled a decisive turning-point in the Civil Rights Movement. Rosa has subsequently earned the designations “First Lady of Civil Rights” and “Mother of the Freedom Movement.”
For more about Rosa Parks' bold defiance, check-out:
For more about Rosa Parks' bold defiance, check-out:
What If Rosa Parks Didn't Move to the Back of the Bus - The Henry Ford
Document Deep Dive: Rosa Parks’ Arrest Records
Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh!! You guys!!! AHHHH!!!! The official trailer for Amma Asante’s movie about Dido Elizabeth Belle was released earlier this week!
The U.S. release date is May 2, 2014! Who’s coming with me?
October 15th was Ada Lovelace Day, “an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).” Get your nerdy girl groove on with “History, Bitches” by learning about the day’s namesake and four more pioneering lady scientists.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of Birmingham, Alabama’s 16th St. Baptist Church Bombing. The “four little girls” who perished, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, were recently awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
For more information check-out:
Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections
Four black schoolgirls killed in Birmingham
'Four Little Girls' Awarded Congressional Gold Medal
Researching Dido Elizabeth Belle, I stumbled across a tantalizing historical debate regarding Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Charlotte was Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, and subsequently Queen of the United Kingdom and Hanover, through her marriage to “mad” King George III. The controversy relates to Charlotte’s heritage and speculations she had black ancestry.
Amma Asante’s (hooray lady directors!!) feature film “Belle,” about History Bitch Dido Elizabeth Belle recently premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Here are some reviews:
TIFF 2013 Review: 'Belle' Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Belle: Toronto 2013 - first look review
The U.S. release date is May 2, 2014!
Seeing her picture for the first time, I assumed she was a servant. Lucky for us, her status at Kenwood House, London was vastly more remarkable. Her name was Dido Elizabeth Belle, the charge and great-niece of William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield.
The year of Dido’s birth is alternately cited as 1761 and 1763. The daughter of rear admiral Sir John Lindsay and a possibly enslaved African woman, she was taken by her father to Kenwood. Kenwood was home to William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield and his wife Lady Elizabeth Finch. As Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, Lord Mansfield presided over numerous cases regarding enslaved Africans. The Murrays had no children and besides fostering Dido, a second great-niece, Lady Elizabeth Murray resided there, too.
Discovering Bricktop’s story was like flipping through a yearbook belonging to the most popular girl on campus; everybody knew her. When a young Jelly Roll Morton couldn't decide if he should take-up pimping or piano-playing, she advised that he could do both! When Duke Ellington was playing small-time clubs in D.C., Bricktop secured his first gig in New York City. And when Josephine Baker rocketed to stardom overnight, Bricktop showed her the ropes.
But her life isn’t just some rags-to-riches story boasting a supporting cast of names like Jack Johnson, Cole Porter, and Frank Sinatra. It provides a glimpse into the African-American community, in the United States and abroad, from the early 1900s through the 1980s.
Just in time for the end of Comic Con, I stumbled on a great Tumblr post on Jackie Ormes, the first African-American woman cartoonist. Considering how frackin’ groundbreaking/awesome she was, it’s a travesty of Catwoman (2004) proportions that she’s been forgotten. But we’re going to remedy that right now; hold onto your phasers y’all, I’m ‘bout to drop some knowledge!
Mary Bowser is cooler than you; and not just a little, but infinitely cooler! I’m sorry. You’re my friend and I like you bunches, but I have to give it to you straight. Here, let me explain.
Mary Bowser was born a slave. Her master, John Van Lew, was a prosperous hardware merchant in Richmond, Virginia. Following his death, Van Lew’s daughter Elizabeth set the family’s slaves free. Though Mary was free, she continued working for the Van Lews. When Elizabeth realized Mary’s cleverness, she financed her education at the Quaker School for Negroes in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The History Bitch
Podcaster, tea aficionado, Anglophile, 'Game of Thrones' enthusiast.