27 Famous Black Women Your Students Should Know

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Famous Black women Viola Davis and Ida B. Wells-Barnett.

Every single one of us can make a difference, but some were born to be trailblazers. There are many famous Black women have shaped, and continue to shape, our history. Sharing their stories with students helps teach Black history and women’s history, as well as spark discussions about innovation and grit, throughout the year. While there are certainly many more famous Black women who aren’t included on this list, it features a broad group of influential females, both historical and contemporary, from around the world. You’ll also find links to websites where students can go to learn more about each woman.

1. Sojourner Truth, Abolitionist

Sojourner Truth, as an example of famous Black women.

Once enslaved, Sojourner Truth went on to become one of the most influential and important leaders of the abolitionist movement. She was also a fierce champion for women’s rights. 

Learn more: Sojourner Truth

2. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Journalist

Ida B Wells

Born into slavery, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, was a strong women’s suffrage advocate dedicated to exposing the atrocities of lynching in this country. She went on to become one of the most well-known, respected journalists in U.S. history. Wells-Barnett was a founding member of the NAACP, Alpha Suffrage Club, and the National Association of Colored Women.

Learn more: Ida B. Wells-Barnett

3. Claudette Colvin, Civil Rights Activist


Claudette Colvin

We’ve all heard about Rosa Parks’ brave refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, but many don’t know that Claudette Colvin did it first. Although she was only 15 years old, she was among the first Black activists to openly defy and challenge the law.

Learn more: Claudette Colvin

4. Mary McLeod Bethune, Educational Activist

Mary McLeod Bethune

Recognizing the struggle Black children experienced in getting an education, particularly in the segregated South, Bethune became an educator and founded the Daytona Educational and Industrial Institute for Girls. 

Learn more: Mary McLeod Bethune

5. Madam C.J. Walker, Entrepreneur

Madam CJ Walker, as an example of famous Black women.

Widely considered one of the first self-made female American millionaires, Walker created hair-care products that were sold door-to-door to Black women. The company grew and she went on to hire 40,000 brand ambassadors to sell her popular hair treatments.  

Learn more: Madam C.J. Walker

6. Ruby Bridges, Activist

Ruby Bridges

At just 6 years old, Ruby Bridges needed to be braver than any child should when she became the first Black student to racially integrate an all-white school in 1960. The crowd of racists was so angry that she needed to be escorted by four federal marshals.

Learn more: Ruby Bridges

7. bell hooks, Author

bell hooks

Her work as a feminist writer, professor, and critic ensures she deserves a spot on any list of famous Black women. She helped shine a light on how patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism silenced Black women while empowering them to fight back. 

Learn more: bell hooks

8. Shirley Chisholm, Politician

Shirley Chisholm, as an example of famous Black women.

In 1968, Chisholm was the first Black woman to be elected to the House of Representatives. Four years later, she became the first Black candidate to run for a major party nomination when she ran for president as a Democrat. 

Learn more: Shirley Chisholm

9. Audre Lorde, Author

Audre Lorde

Lorde’s incredible work as a Black lesbian poet helped increase America’s awareness of how the intersectionality of gender, race, and class leads to discrimination, particularly with her 1973 collection From a Land Where Other People Live

Learn more: Audre Lorde

10. Mae Jemison, Astronaut

Mae Jamison

After becoming the first Black woman admitted to the astronaut training program in 1987, Jemison boarded the space shuttle Endeavour just five years later and went on to become the first Black woman to fly into space. 

Learn more: Mae Jemison

11. Lucy Diggs Slowe, Tennis Pioneer

Lucy Stowe, as an example of famous Black women.

Long before Serena, Naomi, and Coco, there was Lucy Diggs Slowe. Not only was she the first Black women to win a national tennis title (back in 1917!), she also championed civil rights, became the dean of women at Howard University, and helped found Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA), the first Greek society for Black women.

Learn more: Lucy Diggs Slowe

12. Debbie Allen, Choreographer

Debbie Allen

Previous Honoree Debbie Allen at the Kennedy Center Honors Medallion Ceremony at the Library of Congress, December 4, 2021. Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress. ..Note: Privacy and publicity rights for individuals depicted may apply.

There are few hats Debbie Allen hasn’t worn. While she definitely made a name for herself as a choreographer, especially during her time on the hit series Fame, she’s also taken on the role of actor, producer, and director. 

Learn more: Debbie Allen

13. Viola Davis, Actor

Viola Davis 26 Famous Black Women Your Students Should Know

Overcoming a very difficult childhood, Viola Davis is considered one of the greatest and most famous Black women actors of our time. She was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2012, 2017, and 2020, was ranked ninth on The New York Times list of the greatest actors of the 21st century, and is one of the few to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award, known as EGOT status.

Learn more: Viola Davis 

14. Tarana Burke, Activist

Tarana Burke

While some Hollywood stars have been associated with it, the true founder of the #MeToo movement is Tarana Burke. Back in 2006, the feminist activist coined the term more than a decade before the hashtag created a watershed moment, bringing down serial abusers like producer Harvey Weinstein. 

Learn more: Tarana Burke

15. Kamala Harris, Vice President of the United States

Kamala Harris, as an example of famous Black women.

Vice President Kamala Harris takes her official portrait Thursday, March 4, 2021, in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

Harris graduated from Howard University and the University of California, Hastings College of Law, before making history by becoming the first woman and person of color to be both district attorney of San Francisco and attorney general of California. She didn’t stop there, of course. She went on to become the first woman and the first Black and South Asian American to become vice president of the United States. 

Learn more: Kamala Harris

16. Lena Waithe, Producer

Lena Waithe

An LGBTQIA advocate, this actor, producer, and screenwriter was the first Black woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Writing – Comedy Series for her work on Master of None in 2017. The following year, she was included in Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.

Learn more: Lena Waithe

17. Sheila Johnson, Co-Founder of BET

Sheila Johnson 26 Famous Black Women Your Students Should Know

The co-founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET), Johnson was the first Black female billionaire included on a Forbes list, in 2000, and is also the only Black woman to have a stake in three different professional sports teams—the Washington Wizards (NBA), the Washington Capitals (NHL), and the Washington Mystics (WNBA).

Learn more: Sheila Johnson

18. Shonda Rhimes, Producer

Shona Rhimes

The 75th annual Peabody Awards, recognizing excellence in broadcast media, were presented May 21, 2016, at Cipriani Wall Street. Keegan-Michael Key was the host.
(Photo/Sarah E. Freeman/Grady College, freemans@uga.edu in New York City, Georgia, on Saturday, May 21, 2016)

For more than 20 years, Shonda Rhimes has been a trailblazer in the film and television industry as a screenwriter and producer, having developed popular series such as Grey’s Anatomy, How To Get Away With Murder, and Bridgerton.

Learn more: Shonda Rhimes

19.  Simone Biles, Gymnast

Simone Biles, as an example of famous Black women.

Not only is Biles the most decorated gymnast of all time, with 32 Olympic and World Championship medals, but she’s also the first American woman to win seven national all-around titles and the first female gymnast to take home three consecutive world all-around titles. It’s not surprising that she was even given her own Special K cereal box! She became an unexpected mental health advocate when she withdrew from the Olympic final individual all-around competition to focus on her mental health.

Learn more: Simone Biles

20. Misty Copeland, Ballerina

Misty Copeland

After joining the American Ballet Theater at just 13, Misty Copeland became a member of Corps de ballet. She went on to become the company’s second Black female soloist as well as the first to be promoted to principal dancer. 

Learn more: Misty Copeland

21. Diana Ross, Singer

Diana Ross

She rose to fame with the Supremes in the 1960s and became a cultural icon when she launched her solo career the following decade. She was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then-president Barack Obama in 2016. 

Learn more: Diana Ross

22. & 23. Venus and Serena Williams, Tennis Legends

Venus and Serena Williams, as an example of famous Black women.

The Williams sisters became two of the most famous Black women when they changed the face of tennis as soon as they stepped onto the court. Together, they’ve earned 122 combined career singles titles and nine Olympic medals. Serena Williams has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles, which is more than any other tennis player in history. She’s also the highest-paid female athlete, having taken home more than $94.8 million in prize money.

Learn more: Venus and Serena Williams

24. Amanda Gorman, Poet

Amanda Gorman

Amanda Gorman recites her inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” during the 59th Presidential Inauguration ceremony in Washington, Jan. 20, 2021. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took the oath of office on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol. (DOD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos M. Vazquez II)

A Harvard graduate, Amanda Gorman became the youngest poet in inaugural history when she recited “The Hill We Climb” at President Biden’s inauguration at just 22 years old. She’s also published three books.

Learn more: Amanda Gorman

25. Beyoncé, Singer-Songwriter


We’re on a first-name basis with Beyoncé, otherwise known as Queen Bey. She’s the most nominated female recording artist of all time, delivers show-stopping performances, and is also a successful entrepreneur—all while raising three kids. She’s also performed at the Super Bowl twice!

Learn more: Beyoncé

26. Angela Bassett, Actor

Angela Bassett, as an example of famous Black women.

We’ve loved Angela Bassett in film and on television since the 1980s and, four decades later, her career continues to flourish. Her performance as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It? earned her her first Golden Globe Award, and most recently she was nominated for an Oscar, making her the first Marvel Cinematic Universe actor to be nominated. 

Learn more: Angela Bassett

27. Rihanna, Singer/Entrepreneur

Rihanna 26 Famous Black Women Your Students Should Know

While she may have launched her career as a pop star, Robyn Rihanna Fenty, best known as Rihanna, is much more than that. With ventures such as her lingerie brand Savage x Fenty and the endlessly popular Fenty Beauty line, Forbes named her among America’s Richest Self-Made Women, making her one of the most successful and famous Black women in business. With a worth of about $1.7 billion, she’s also focused on philanthropy by championing for inclusion and diversity as well as climate justice

Learn more: Rihanna

Who are your favorite famous Black women? Share in the comments below.

And check out these 46 Famous World Leaders Your Students Should Know.

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Ready to introduce some true pioneers and trailblazers in the classroom? This list of famous Black women is perfect for sharing with students.