African American Women

Marian AndersonMarian Anderson was the first African American invited to perform at the White House and the first to perform with the New York Metropolitan Opera.

Anderson was born on February 27, 1897 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She began singing with the youth choir in her church.  Adult members were so impressed with her voice that they started a fund so she could formally train with a local and well known voice instructor.

After two years of voice lessons she won a contest organized by the New York Philharmonic and later received a scholarship to sing on a tour through Europe.

In 1939 she was invited to perform in the White House when President Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt were entertaining the King and Queen of Great Britain.

Later, when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her perform at Constitution Hall in Washington DC, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was a member of the organization, resigned in protest. Roosevelt then arranged for Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939. 75,000 people attended the performance.

Marian Anderson made her debut at the New York Metropolitan Opera in January 1955, and in 1961 sang the National Anthem at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.

Marie Maynard DalyWho was Marie Maynard Daly?

She was an educator, biochemist, researcher, science pioneer and the first African American woman in America to receive a PhD in chemistry. She was committed to improving heart health and determining factors that led to heart attacks. Additionally, with the lack of diversity in the study of the sciences, she was committed to developing programs that increased the enrollment of African Americans in medical school and in graduate science programs.

Marie Maynard Daly was born in 1921 in Corona, Queens, New York. She loved reading and was particularly fond of books written by scientists. Her favorite was “Microbe Hunters,” a book about the major discoveries of the microscopic world.

Daly’s parents supported and encouraged her love of science. Her father once had hopes of becoming a chemist himself but was forced to drop out of Cornell University for financial reasons.

Maynard Daly attended school in New York City. She studied science at Queens College in Flushing, New York and graduated magna cum laude in 1942. She completed a master’s program in chemistry at New York University followed by a doctoral program at Columbia University. Her studies at Columbia included research on how the body’s chemicals aid in the digestion of food. She graduated from Columbia in 1947 with a PhD in chemistry.

Shortly thereafter she applied and received a grant from the American Cancer Society to examine how proteins are created in the body. Her research led her to the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research where she was part of several important medical studies with leading scientists.

In 1955 Dr. Daly joined the faculty of the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia where she began collaborating with Dr. Quentin Deming, a physician renowned for his work on how various chemicals influence the heart’s mechanics. Daly and Deming authored numerous articles that were published in medical journals. Their research advanced the understanding of how foods and diet affect the heart and circulatory system and they pioneered studies on the connection between cholesterol and clogged arteries.

Dr. Daly left Columbia in 1960 and joined the faculty of Albert Einstein College of Medicine. She continued her collaboration with Dr. Deming as well as her research on underlying causes of heart attacks. She remained at Albert Einstein until her retirement in 1986.

During her career Dr. Daly taught at several universities including historically black Howard University where she taught courses on the physical sciences. After retirement, and in keeping with her commitment to encourage more African Americans to study science and medicine, Dr. Daly established a scholarship fund in 1988 in honor of her father and for the benefit African American science students at Queens College.

Fanny Lou Hamer

Who was Fannie Lou Hamer?

She was born to sharecropper parents on October 6, 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi. The family worked on a plantation and at the age of six Fannie Lou was already helping in the cotton fields.

Hamer’s life change in 1962 when she attended a meeting and met several civil rights activists, including members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC members were in were in Mississippi to encourage African Americans to register to vote. Hamer was inspired by what she heard and got involved. She also decided that it was time for her to exercise her right to vote.

When Hamer tried to register she was asked to interpret a portion of the Mississippi constitution. Naturally, she failed the test. During this period Mississippi, and much of the south, had a policy that required people, particularly African Americans, to take literacy tests before they be allowed to register to vote. Those tests were almost impossible to pass and if African Americans did pass they were threatened with physical violence when they attempted to vote.

Also, blacks faced consequences from their white employers and landlords if they attempted to register. Hamer was no exception. When word got out that she had tried to register to vote, her landlord, for whom she also worked, threatened her with eviction if she attempted to register again. Not willing to give up that right, Hamer moved in with a relative.

Finding herself with no means of income, she went to work for SNCC. The organization need local black citizens to encourage their friends and neighbors to register. Hamer became a voice for voter registration. She also participated in sessions that SNCC held to help citizens interpret the Mississippi constitution. In December 1962 she passed the literacy test and became a registered voter.

This was really just the beginning of Hamer’s activism. She continued her work with SNCC and became a strong voice for voter registration. In 1963 she attended a citizenship training school in Charleston, South Carolina to learn how to teach her neighbors the benefits of citizenship. On the bus trip home from Charleston, she and others were arrested and beaten by law enforcement officers during a confrontation that occurred following their attempt to be served at a café lunch counter.

In the early 1960s grassroots activists particularly black activists, were often threatened and beaten. Hamer endured it all and sustained injuries that would stay with her for the rest of her life, yet she never gave in and continued to speak out.

In 1964 civil rights workers in Mississippi decided to challenge the all-white delegation that was selected to represent the state at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Hoping to give African Americans in Mississippi a voice in the selection of the presidential nominee, they formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and selected sixty-eight people, including Hamer to represent them at the convention. Hamer gave a passionate speech at the convention and talked about how she had been jailed and beaten because she wanted to be treated like a first-class citizen and be allowed to register and vote. She also asked that the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s delegates be seated* at the convention. When that request was not granted Hamer questioned America’s failure to provide equal justice for all.

Hamer did not get the outcome she wanted but she had been heard. Two MFDP delegates were seated at the convention. Also the Democratic party voted that future conventions would not welcome segregated delegations.

After the convention Hamer continued with her activism and her fight for voting rights, civil rights and equality. She died in 1977.

*Seated meant you could vote and help determine who should run for president for your political party.

Fanny Lou Hamer Quotes

“When I liberate myself, I liberate others. If you don’t speak out ain’t nobody going to speak our for you.”

“One day, I know the struggle will change. There’s got to be a change – not only for Mississippi,
not only for the people in the United States, but people all over the world.” 



Mary FieldsIn July 1775 the Second Continental Congress established the US postal system. Enslaved men, who worked for transportation contractors were among the first postal service mail carriers. Women began carrying mail in 1845.

The first black woman to carry mail for the United States postal service was Mary Fields, “Stagecoach Mary.”

Fields was born into slavery around 1832 in Hickman County, Tennessee. After becoming a free woman she went to work for St. Peter’s Catholic School in Montana. She provided protection for nuns at the school, drove their supply wagon, and made necessary repairs to keep the school running.

Although known for her kind heart, Fields had a temper and stood her ground when confronted. When one confrontation ended with her shooting a man in self-defense, she was fired by the Bishop.

Fields relocated to Cascade County and opened a restaurant, which soon failed. She was not considered a good cook and often fed many that had no means to pay. She then opened a laundry. Fields was beloved by the people in the town. When her laundry burned down the townspeople pitched in and helped her reopen it.

In 1895 she got a job delivering mail for the United States Postal Service. Fields was more than sixty years old at the time. She drove the mail stagecoach and delivered mail between Cascade, St. Peter’s Mission and remote homesteads until she was almost seventy. She never let the weather or the rugged trails keep her from doing her job.

Field, who was often described as a “cigar-smoking and crack shot who was as tough as any man around” died of liver failure in 1914.

Mary Church Terrell

Though less known than others, she was an important figure in the fight for equal rights and should be included in all lessons on civil rights and lessons on women’s rights.

Mary Church Terrell was born Mary Eliza Church on September 23, 1863 in Memphis, Tennessee to parents who were former slaves. She attended Oberlin College in Ohio where she received a master’s degree in education.

NOTE: Oberlin was the first college in the United States to admit women and one of the earliest to admit students of all races.

Mary moved to Washington, D.C. in 1887 and taught at a local high school for black students. In 1891 she married Robert Terrell, who became a lawyer and later the first black municipal judge in Washington. After marrying Robert, Mary became active in the suffrage movement and worked for civil and equal rights for women and African Americans.

In 1896 she helped found the National Association of Colored Women, an organization that supported women groups throughout the country. Mary served as the association’s president for the first two terms. She also worked with other civil rights groups and in 1909 was one of the signers of the charter that established the NAACP.

One of Mary’s goals was to end segregation in public establishments in Washington, D.C. In 1950, after being refused service in a whites-only restaurant, she brought a lawsuit against them. The case went on for three years. In 1953 the courts ruled that segregation in restaurants in Washington, D.C. was unconstitutional.

Terrell continued to work and fight for equal rights for women and African Americans until her death in 1954, just two months after the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v Board of Education.

Her former home in Washington, D.C. is now a National Historic Landmark.