African American Women's Firsts: Part One (Photo Gallery)

Our MAKERS mission is to assemble the largest collection of women's stories ever, and so during Black History Month, we take a look at the unknown stories of African American women and the incredible firsts these women were able to accomplish despite the persecution, segregation and racism they faced.

Part one of our photo gallery begins in the late 18th century with a published poet and ends in 1926 with a Ph.D. from Yale University.

Take a look at the part one of these African American women's firsts.


1773 Phillis Wheatley becomes the first known African American woman to publish a book. Sold into slavery at seven-years-old, Wheatley learned to read and write poetry and published "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Mortal" which brought her fame in England and the American colonies. George Washington is known to have praised her work. Photo: Library of Congress

1858 A graduate of Oberlin College, Sarah Jane Woodson Early becomes the first African American woman college instructor when she was hired at Wilberforce College. Photo: Library of Congress

1862 Mary Jane Patterson becomes the first African American woman to earn a B.A. degree. Photo: Oberlin College Archives

1866 Cathay Williams becomes the first African American woman to enlist and serve in the U.S. Army. She posed as a man under the pseudonym William Cathay in order to serve in the Civil War. After a stay in the hospital, it was discovered she was a woman and Williams was discharged from the Army in 1868.

1869 Born into slavery, Fanny Jackson Coppin was purchased by her aunt at the age of 12. Following college, Fanny Jackson Coppin worked as the principal of the Ladies Department at Philadelphia's Institute for Colored Youth. She was eventually promoted to become the first African American superintendent of a school district in the U.S. 

1879 Mary Eliza Mahoney becomes the first African American woman to work as a professionally trained nurse in the U.S. Mahoney also co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses which eventually became the American Nurses Association.

1883 Hortense Parker Gilliam becomes the first known African American woman to graduate from one of the "Seven Sisters" colleges, Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Photo: Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections, South Hadley, MA

1884 Judy W. Reed becomes the first African American woman to hold a patent, hers being for an improved dough kneader. Photo: Don Farrall

1892 Soprano Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones becomes the first African American to sing at Carnegie Hall. Among her program she sang Charles Gounod's "Ave Maria" and Giuseppe Verdi's "Sempre libera".

1895 Mary Fields becomes the first African American woman to work for the U.S. Postal Service.

1903 Maggie L. Walker becomes the first woman to found and become president of a U.S. bank, St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, known as the Consolidated Bank & Trust Company since 1930. In 1923, Walker received an honorary Masters degree from Virginia Union University and was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 2002. Photo:

1908 The first intercollegiate Greek-letter sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, is established by African American women at Howard University. Student Ethel Hedgeman Lyle led the formation. Photographed are members of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority greeting Lady Bird Johnson in Richmond, Virginia, October 15, 1966. Photo: Getty Images

1910 Entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker becomes regarded as the first female self-made millionaire in America. She founded Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, an African American cosmetics manufacturer. The Walker Company is considered one of the most widely known and financially successful African American-owned businesses in the early twentieth century. The company closed in 1981.

1916 Georgia Robinson becomes the first African American woman police officer in Los Angeles. Photo: West Adams Heritage Association

1917 Lucy Diggs Slowe becomes the first African American women to win a major sports title--the national title of the American Tennis Association's first tournament. Diggs Slowe was also one of the original founders of Alpha Kappa Alpha and was appointed the first Dean of Women at Howard University in 1922.

1921 Bessie Coleman becomes the first African American woman to become an aviation pilot and the first American to hold an international pilot license. Photo: Getty Images

1921 Sadie Tanner Mossell becomes the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in the U.S. She was also the first woman to receive a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. In 1928, Mossell became the first African American woman appointed as Assistant City Solicitor for the City of Philadelphia. From 1943-1947, she became the first woman to serve as secretary of the National Bar Association.

1926 Otelia Cromwell becomes the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. from Yale University. Photo: Smith College Libraries