Did you know that the Statue of Liberty was supposed to be a black woman? Here are a few African American women you probably don’t know much about, but should.
1. The Original Lady Liberty
The first Statue of Liberty was a black woman. France wanted to give the United States a gift in commemoration of independence and the abolition of slavery. Frederic Auguste Bartholdi designed a piece that featured a woman with clear African background. The American committee involved in the project rejected her in favor of a woman with more European features. The original model featured broken chains around Liberty’s feet and a broken chain hanging from her left arm, a crown on her hair.
The model we now have sitting on Liberty Island was remade in the image of the sculptor’s mother.
2. Sara Delaney, biblio-therapist
Apparently, above the entrance to the library of King Ramses II of Egypt, it read “the house of healing for the soul.” Sara Delaney’s conducted research to prove it. The concept of reading to heal is ancient, but the American Library Association didn’t seriously consider it until the late 1930s. Sara began healing her patients in 1924 at her “lab” in a veterans hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama.
When she arrived at the hospital, after years in the NYC Public Library system, she found a table and about two hundred books. When she left, she left a healing environment, about 4,000 books, and a legacy. Her research on the healing power of selected reading was published in 1938 and helped librarians and others realize the importance of mirror literature. That is, people need to read stories similar to their own. When we read about people we can identify with, our literary experience has the power to heal.
Related: Women Changing the World Right Now
3. Madame CJ Walker, businesswoman
Her real name was Sarah Breedlove, but since she was probably the first female self-made millionaire in America, she gets to be whatever she wants. (Her second husband was CJ Walker, so I bristle at the moniker, but part of feminism is letting this go I suppose.) She made her fortune on a line of beauty and hair products that she developed and sold internationally. She and her staff trained nearly 20,000 women to sell the products and teach customers hair care techniques. Her ability to make an empire from extremely ‘humble’ beginnings would be noteworthy at any time. At the time she did it — before women could vote, before civil rights — it’s incredible. She said:
“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there, I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there, I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground.”
4. Nancy Green, Aunt Jemima
Nancy was a former slave from Kentucky who attracted the attention of Christ Rutt, the man who would revolutionize American breakfast with his pancake mix. She became the first live trademark. Nancy’s personality and presence made her wholly appealing for marketing comfort food. Rutt hired her to serve pancakes and chat with fair-goers in Chicago in 1893. It was such a marketing win that other companies tried to create their own “black woman trademarks.”
Even at the time, the spectacle created a stir. Ida B Wells and Frederick Douglass wrote and distributed a protest pamphlet about her work in the fair.
5. Coretta Scott King, civil rights activist
My six-year-old daughter is required to read one fiction book each week. Recently, while at the library, nothing on the non-fiction shelves could tempt her besides a volume entitled: Women Who Broke the Rules: Coretta Scott King. It sparked a few good discussions about race and the troubled history we have, and I have a new historical figure I wish I could meet. Married, of course, to Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta held her own.
She played a significant role in the advancement of nonviolent protest and worked toward social change her whole life. She remained calm under fire and even in the face of horrible opposition, personal attack, and tragedy. Coretta stayed the course. Even when Martin was killed, she carried on. She took his speaking engagements and continued the work they had begun together, ultimately inspiring generations.
She called for women to be politically active, to be “the soul” of the country, and to stand firm.