Gifted Black Women from History Who Don’t Get Enough Credit

February 26, 2021

By Jennifer De La Haye

Augusta Savage (1892-1962) was a brilliant artist who refused to allow racism to force her to keep her gifts to herself. Augusta grew up in Florida, and though her family could not afford toys or art supplies, Augusta found a way to make incredible creations by using dirt from her backyard as clay for her sculptures. When Augusta was in her 20s, she moved to New York to participate in the Harlem Renaissance, and she ended up dedicating her life to teaching young people how to cultivate their artistic gifts. Augusta founded the Savage School of Arts and Crafts and became the first director of the Harlem Community Art Center. She has received acclaim for a sculpture entitled Lift Every Voice and Sing (aka The Harp).

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895), one of my favorite women from history, was bold enough to apply to an all-white medical school all the way back in 1860. Not only was she accepted, but she also became the first female African American medical doctor in the United States. About 300 out of 50,000 physicians in America were women, and only Rebecca was Black. Her work began in Boston, where she primarily specialized in the care of women and children, but after the Civil War, Rebecca moved to Virginia, where she served with the Freedman’s Bureau. She was met with intense hostility and racism, but she devoted herself to providing medical care to freed slaves who would otherwise not have access. The little we know of Dr. Crumpler comes from her published work, A Book of Medical Discourses, which focuses on women’s health and infant care.

Mary Bowser (born around 1840): Confederate president Jefferson Davis knew there was a mole in the White House – someone was leaking valuable information about the confederacy to union officials. No one suspected it could be Mary Bowser, a genius spy with a photographic memory, whose acting skills landed her a job as a servant for the president. She pretended to be unintelligent and simple – no one knew she could read, and her boss certainly didn’t suspect that she could read a page and recite it back from memory, a helpful skill for a spy.

Mary was born in Virginia and purchased by the Van Lew family, who were undercover abolitionists. When Mary was ten, they freed her and arranged for her to receive an education. During the Civil War, Elizabeth Van Lew (Mary’s former owner) organized a female spy ring, and Mary’s role was incredibly helpful in securing the Union’s victory.

After the war, Mary became an educator and a public speaker who operated under various aliases. She eventually disappeared, but she was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame in 1995.

Katherine Johnson (1918-2020) was a math whiz. Katherine skipped seven grades as a child, and she ended up working at NASA (back then it was NACA) as a mathematician who was responsible for acting as an actual human calculator/computer. She worked at NACA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. During the “space race” – the period of time during the 50s and 60s when The U.S. and the Soviet Union were vying for the space spotlight (both countries hoped to be the first to send a man to the moon) – Katherine was in charge of calculating the flight path for America’s first space mission. In 1962, Katherine was called upon to calculate whether NASA’s new electronic computers had generated the correct equations for John Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission – the first time an American would orbit the earth. John Glenn, wary of the new machines, asked NASA to “get the girl,” and when Katherine gave clearance, Glenn’s successful mission commenced. In 2015, President Barak Obama awarded Katherine with America’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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