Writers, musicians, scientists: accomplishments of Black women throughout history

Writers, musicians, scientists: accomplishments of Black women throughout history

In the arts, sciences, humanities and popular culture, Black women have helped to shape our society in ways large and small. You can research them in databases like African-American History Online, Black Women Writers, or Black Thought and Culture.  In this blog, we highlight three of these extraordinary women and their tremendous contributions to American society, history and culture.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, ca. 1938. Public domain.

The guitar stings its notes one after the next, amplified by gigantic speakers.  Up front, in a sleeveless cotton dress, a woman stands in front of a large silver microphone, her hair pulled up away from her face.  She is Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and according to a number of music historians, she invented or promoted many of the conventions that are the foundation of rock and roll.  Born in 1919 to a musical family, she took up the guitar by the age of four.  From the time she turned six, until shortly before her death in 1973 at the age of 58, she toured around the world, blending gospel and secular music with her fierce electrified guitar and bold voice.  Although she landed important gigs in her late teens and early twenties, including playing alongside Duke Ellington and Lucky Millender, in her early thirties she was touring with her own band, which she shared with her recording (and romantic) partner, Marie Knight.  As a queer Black woman in the late 1940s, this was no small accomplishment.  Tharpe recorded for Decca, a major American record label at that time, and was featured on a number of television specials in the latter part of her life.  A number of artists have claimed her as a primary inspiration, including Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley, and her recording of “Down by the Riverside” was preserved by the Library of Congress for the National Recording Registry in 2006.  In 2018, her foundational work in popular music was recognized and she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Mae Jemison

Mae Jemison, 1992. NASA/Public domain.

Other Black women have reached the most stratospheric heights of their fields.  Mae Jemison was born in 1956 in Alabama and dreamed of going into space since childhood.  Initially trained as a physician and working with the Peace Corps from 1983 to 1985, she eventually started taking graduate engineering courses while opening her own medical practice.  After applying for a second time in 1987, NASA chose her to become one of a select group of people to become astronauts.  Her mission, on the space shuttle Endeavor was completed in 1992, with 127 orbits around the Earth.  After leaving NASA in 1993, she founded the Jemison Group, which is dedicated to promoting science and technology throughout the world, and has taught environmental science at Dartmouth University, written two children’s books and, perhaps most interestingly, appeared on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Octavia Butler

1st Photo by Nikolas Coukouma via Creative Commons; 2nd Photo is Octavia E. Butler Landing, where the Mars Perseverance Rover touched down on Mars. NASA/Public domain.

While some Black women make the future seem present, others take the present into the future.  Octavia Butler was and is widely considered among the finest science fiction writers of the past two generations.  She was born in 1947, and her mother would bring home books from her housekeeping clients’ homes.  Although she was dyslexic, Butler would tear through books and ask for more.  She graduated from Pasadena City College in 1968 and took classes with the Screen Writers Guild and Clarion Science Fiction workshop, working on short stories and her first novel along the way.  In 1976, the first book in the Patternist series, Patternmaster, was published to critical acclaim.  She followed the first three books in that series with Kindred, her most popular novel, which tells the story of a Black woman who bounces in time between a 19th century plantation and the present.  Until her death in 2006 from a stroke, she continued to write science fiction from the point of view of the marginalized and downtrodden, challenging race and gender norms extensively throughout.  She is so well respected in scientific circles that the area on Mars where the Perseverance Rover landed has been named after her, reflecting the setting of one of her book series’ settings.  Her books have appeared to predict aspects of the present, from political slogans to transgender activism, and continue to appeal to those seeking a more empowered future. 

Black women in all areas of the arts and sciences continue to push forward the limits of what we know and believe about the world.  Are you interested in discovering more contributions by Black women authors, historians, scientists and business owners?  Looking for more information about Black women’s history?  Curious about new inventions, scientific breakthroughs and the latest artistic creations by Black women?  Ask Us!  Email iueref@iue.edu or simply click here:

Comments are closed.