Great African American Women Leaders

Madam C. J. Walker

African American women have had a lasting impact on United States history. Their courageous contributions continue to inspire and motivate others toward greatness.

Since the early 1700s when Africans first arrived to the United States, African American women have made heroic choices and actions. They grew up acquainted with hardship and resistance. As they continued to face their own fears and overcome obstacles they earned their way into history and created businesses and creative works that inspire, motivate and encourage men, women and children across cultures.

When severe challenge or life threatening crisis face people, there are few who stand up and begin to fight valiantly on another person’s behalf. The following women did just that. What they accomplished, the causes they raised and supported, paved the way for people of various ages and cultures to achieve even greater successes.

Sarah Breedlove (Madam C. J. Walker)

Sarah Breedlove was born on December 23, 1867 on a cotton plantation in Louisiana. She was orphaned when she was only seven years old. After her first husband was murdered, she strived to raise their daughter as a single parent. While cleaning laundry for a living, she experienced great stress. Her hair started to fall out as a result of the tremendous emotional stresses she endured.

It was during a dream that Madam C. J. Walker received guidance to create hair products. Initially she sought help for her own situation, but as she created and distributed the hair products to help others, her business strengthened and her revenues grew. Madam C. J. Walker only had two dollars when she and her husband decided to start their own hair product business.

By 1916 that company had employees in North and Central America and the Caribbean. Madam C. J. Walker was a powerful speaker; she was also active in the community. The buildings she housed her businesses and schools in can be found in Harlem today. Madam C. J. Walker was a woman who saw her future and went after it.

Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks

Brooks was born on June 7, 1917 in Topeka, Kansas. When she was a very young child, her family moved from Kansas to Chicago (a city Gwendolyn considered “home”). She attended Chicago’s Hyde Park High School. Her first poem, Eventide, was published in American Childhood Magazine in 1930. Poetry and writing called to her early in her life.

In 1934 Gwendolyn Brooks became a staff member of the Chicago Defender. Two years later she graduated from Wilson Junior College. Post graduation Gwendolyn Brooks started to participate in poetry readings and workshops at various venues on Chicago’s South Side. Life for Gwendolyn Brooks began to take on a hastened pace.

In 1938 she married Henry Blakely. Together the couple had a son, Henry Jr. Henry was born in 1940. Eleven years later, Gwendolyn and her husband Henry gave birth to their daughter, Nora.

For her literary achievements, Gwendolyn Brooks has won numerous awards including the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Eunice Tietjens Prize, and the highly esteemed Pulitzer Prize (Annie Allen [Harper & Brothers, 1949] earned her this recognition making her the first African American to receive the distinguished award). Her works continue to inspire other poets and writers like Dayton, Ohio’s Denise Turney, author of the book Portia [Chistell Publishing, May 1998], an inspirational story set on the South Side of Chicago in honor of Gwendolyn Brooks.

Awards and Honors for Poet Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks has read before Presidents and other dignitaries. She has won numerous honorary degrees and served as the poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. In 1994 she was chosen as the Jefferson Lecturer, the highest award in the humanities the government issues. In 1968 she was appointed poet laureate of Illinois. By many, she is considered to be “Chicago’s Poet.” She journeyed back to the ancestors on December 3, 2000.

New York City and Chicago libraries are excellent resources for teachers, students and interested persons to learn more about businesswoman, Madam C. J. Walker, and poet, Gwendolyn Brooks.