Celebrating Black Women Trailblazers
February 3, 2021
In my undergraduate work at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine I developed a love of history – thanks to one professor, Sarah McMahon. She taught me to look beyond the textbook, in fact we never used one, and to see and experience and feel history through the eyes, ears, and minds of those who lived it. As a result, I declared a minor in history. In high school, where I hated history, there were so few pages dedicated to strong Black women. Sure, I learned about Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks, but that was it. Even in college, where I found my love of history, we read very little about Black women.
I would like to say times have changed and that our elementary, middle, and high school textbooks are filled with page after page of content detailing Black culture and the many historical achievements of Black people in this country. Sadly, that is still not the case. Most of what is read skims the surface at best. But movies such as Hidden Figures, which details the many contributions of Black women to NASA have opened the door to curiosity, and quite frankly the necessity of peeling back the white-only lens of history.
As a result, I have decided, since it is Black History Month, I will be dedicating this month’s blog posts solely to the contributions and achievements of Black people. And this week, I begin by celebrating Black women trailblazers!
Henrietta Lacks (bottom right) first became known to me after I read the book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, written by Rebecca Skloot published in 2010. It details the life of Henrietta Lacks, specifically her cancer cells, which live on today – in fact, they were the first immortal cells. They have even traveled to space. Her cells were harvested without her knowledge or permission and have been part of numerous scientific breakthroughs including the polio vaccine, cloning, and gene mapping. The sale of her cells has generated billions of dollars, yet this poor Black woman who died in 1951, nor her family, have ever received a penny of that revenue. The use of her cells without her permission sparked ethical debates that have shaped medical law today.
Dr. Alexa Canady (top right) became the first Black woman neurosurgeon in the United States. Born in 1950 in Michigan, she attended the University of Michigan where she studied Zoology and then attended her alma mater’s medical school where she graduated cum laude in 1975. It was path was not easy, “I had a crisis of confidence,” she admitted, but then she heard about a scholarship for minorities pursing medicine and she said, “it was an instant connection.” The path remained challenging with comments about only getting her residency at Yale-New Haven Hospital due to “equal opportunity.” But while working at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) from 1981 to 1982, she received accolades from her fellow physicians when they named her one of the top residents. She went on to win numerous prestigious awards including being named to the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 1989.
Daisy Bates (bottom left) was born in Arkansas in 1914. Violence affected her early, when at the age of three her mother was killed by three white men. At the age of 15, she met her future husband. The two moved to Little Rock where they established the only African American newspaper dedicated to the Civil Rights Movement, The Arkansas Weekly. Although listed as the editor of the newspaper, she often contributed content as well. She went on to chair the Arkansas chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She used her influence to call out white schools that refused to accept Black students after the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that segregation was unconstitutional and later organized what became known as the Little Rock Nine. In 1957, she selected nine students to integrate into Central High School, even driving the students to and from school. She arranged for their protection as well. In 1962, she published her memoirs, The Long Shadow of Little Rock – the book won the American Book Award. While she died in 1999, posthumously she was awarded the Medal of Freedom and for her Civil Rights work, in Arkansas, the third Monday in February is celebrated as Daisy Gaston Bates Day.
Ursula Burns (top left)earned her master’s degree in Engineering from NYU in 1980 and took an internship at Xerox becoming a full-time employee about a year later. Her career trajectory took nearly 30 years, moving from Executive Assistant to the chairman and CEO in 1991, to vice president for global manufacturing in 1999, to senior vice president of corporate strategies in 2000. Then she was named president of the business group, and ultimately in 2009, she was named CEO of Xerox – the first Black woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company. She remained the CEO until 2016. Before leaving Xerox to become the CEO of VEON and a board member of Diageo (beverage company connected to Guinness, Smirnoff, Johnny Walker, Baileys, and others), she generated more than $18 billion in revenue for the company and ultimately split the company into two profitable public companies: Conduent ($7Bn) and the new Xerox ($11 Bn). In addition, she is a founding member the Obama Administration program - Change the Equation, is a nonprofit, led by CEOs to boost STEM education.
These four women are but a tiny sampling of the strong and resilient Black female role models our youth should be learning about in their classrooms. Take time to learn about them and others like them, not just this month, but every other month of the year. Learn the lessons their legacies and experiences have to show us and share their stories with family, friends, and colleagues. Together we can elevate their stories and create a more diverse shared knowledge of who we, as Americans, truly are.
Anne Converse Willkomm
Assistant Dean, Graduate College
Assistant Clinical Professor & Department Head, Goodwin College
Changing Face of Medicine