We glimpse through the stories of three inspirational women and how their actions have contributed to the entirety of black brilliance.
Since the 1970s, the month of February has been singled out to celebrate the greatness of the Black race. Black History Month originated in the United States in a bid to honour African-American heroes who fought bravely and pushed against the inhumane treatment endured by blacks for centuries on end. It has since then served as a source of hopefulness – both in Africa and the diaspora – that their dreams and aspirations for greatness are attainable.
There are a couple of names that have echoed through the years when discussing topics girdling black history: names like Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, who were largely recognised for their contributions to the Civil Rights Movement and the fight against racial segregation. But, there are many others who may not be so well known, whose actions defied seemingly impossible odds, shaped history, and created a stalwart path to a world where blacks all around can be involved in global events.
Today, we glimpse through the stories of three of these inspirational geniuses and how their actions have contributed to the entirety of black brilliance.
Before the era of record talents like Sloane Stephens and the William Sisters, there was a name that wholly dominated the stormy world of tennis. She was Althea Gibson, and her accomplishments not only served as a source of motivation but also contributed to the openness and racial diversity we see in major tennis tournaments around the world today.
Born in the town of Silver in Clarendon County, South Carolina, at a time when racial segregation and prejudice were at their peak in international sports, Gibson achieved some truly impossible feats and is sometimes regarded as the Jackie Robinson of tennis. Her journey into the energetic sport began after neighbours recognised her athletic talents at a young age and raised funds to help finance lessons and a junior membership at the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club in Harlem, New York.
Althea went on to dominate regional tournaments such as the American Tennis Association (ATA) New York State Championships. But despite her laudable successes, she was barred from participating in national events. At the time, players qualified for Nationals by racking up points at sanctioned tournaments organised by “white-only” clubs. But after super intense lobbying by officials of the ATA, Althea eventually became the first African American to compete in the U.S. National Championships (now the U.S. Open) in 1950.
In 1956, she became the first Black athlete to win a Grand Slam title, the French Open, and by the following year, the first to win Wimbledon — receiving the trophy from Queen Elizabeth II. She retired from tennis in 1958 with a total of 11 Grand Slam titles and was the top-ranked female player globally. From there, she transitioned into the world of golf, where she once again traversed racial lines by becoming the first Black contender at the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour.
Although her years in golf were not as blustering as when she was a pro tennis athlete — she won no major title — her actions challenged the hostile norms of racial prejudice in international sports and inspired a greater degree of participation by generations of black athletes who came after her.
Jane Bolin was a woman who achieved remarkable success over and over. She was the first Black woman to graduate from Yale’s Law School, the first to join the New York City Bar Association and the New York City Law Department, and the first black female judge in the U.S.
She was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, on the 11th of April, 1908, Her father, Gaius C. Bolin, practised law for 50 years in Dutchess County, New York, and was a major contributor to her career choice as a lawyer. She was drawn to practising law by some of her father’s books, and the articles and pictures in The Crisis magazine, which spoke of the unjust executions of black Southerners.
After graduating from high school, Bolin enrolled at Wellesley College, where she was one of the only two black freshmen. She experienced her earliest encounters with social rejection and discrimination there until she graduated in 1928 as one of the top 20 students. Despite discouraging remarks, she went on ahead to Yale and eventually became the first black woman to graduate from its law school.
Bolin practised law with her father in Poughkeepsie for a while before taking up a job in the New York City Corporate Counsel’s office. She ran for the New York State Assembly as a candidate of the Republican party but was unsuccessful. However, securing the Republican candidacy bolstered her reputation in New York politics.
On the 22nd of July, 1939, Bolin was appointed as a judge of the Domestic Relations Court by Fiorello La Guardia — who was New York City’s Mayor at the time — and for 20 years, she was the only black female judge in the U.S. She remained the court’s judge till her retirement at 70, serving for 40 years.
Throughout her service years, she worked to encourage racial integration, especially in child services, ensuring that probation officers were assigned without regard to race or religion and that publicly funded childcare centres accepted kids without regard to their ethnicities. Bolin died at 98, in 2007, yet her legacy lives on and has inspired and heightened diversity in legal practices in the U.S.
“The air is the only place free from prejudices. I knew we had no aviators, neither men nor women, and I knew the Race needed to be represented along this most important line, so I thought it my duty to risk my life to learn aviation…” These were some of her famous words. She was Elizabeth Bessie Coleman, the first black woman to become a pilot, and the earliest known black person to earn an international pilot’s license.
She was born in the year 1892, to sharecroppers, George and Susan Coleman, in Atlanta, Texas. When she was 2, she moved with her family to Waxahachie, Texas, where she completed elementary school and proved herself to be an excellent math student. By age 12, she enrolled into a Missionary Baptist Church School on scholarship, and by 18, she was accepted to Langston University, Oklahoma.
Coleman picked up an interest in flying after she dropped out of college to live with her brothers in Chicago and heard wondrous stories from war pilots who returned home from the First World War. She worked two jobs to raise money hoping to become a pilot herself, but American aviation schools, at the time, were not open to women and black people.
Nonetheless, she was encouraged and sponsored by a friend, Robert S. Abbott (founder of the Chicago Defender newspaper) to study abroad. So after she learnt French in a Chicago language school, she moved to Paris, to learn to fly and earn her pilot’s license. Nine months later, on the 15th of June, 1921, she became the first licensed black female pilot, and the first black pilot to be licensed internationally.
On her return to the United States, Coleman had become a media sensation. But, not too long after, she learnt that in order to earn a living as a civilian pilot she had to make flying entertaining — commercial flight didn’t surface until about a decade later. She became a barnstormer (a stunt pilot), performing daring tricks and frolics for a paying audience. She was admired by both white and black folks. They called her “Queen Bess” and for the next five years, her performances had many spellbound.
Coleman had a dream of opening an aviation school for people of African-American descent. Her stardom also came into play to put up a stand against racism. By refusing to participate in events that prohibited the attendance of African Americans, she stood on solid grounds and barred the door against racial segregation.
Her dreams to establish her flight school were short-lived after she died at 34 from a training accident in April, 1926. But despite her rather fugacious career, Coleman’s perseverance not only established room for the inclusivity of black people in the turbo-charged aviation world but also inspired a number of pioneers in other professions, including Robert H. Lawrence Jr. (the first black astronaut) and Mae Jemison (the first black woman to travel to space).
Somtochuckwu Paul is a writer who crafts content that explores various aspects of the human experience. He is the brainbox behind “Memoirs of a Contemporary African”, a monthly newsletter through which he shares intriguing narratives from his unconventional life journeys with ever-curious readers.
Cover Image: By Freepik