Bessie Coleman
Bessie Coleman. NASA.

In 1916 Frances Elliott Davis was the first African American nurse to enroll officially in the Red Cross nursing service. Georgia Hill Robinson became the first African American policewoman in the United States, after passing the civil service exam in Los Angeles.  In 1922, Mary B. Talbert became the first woman to receive the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Spingarn Medal.  Talbert and her husband, William H., pastor of Michigan Avenue Baptist Church, were activists involved in civil rights agitation throughout upstate New York. An educator, school principal and clubwoman, Talbert would not allow mediocrity, indifference or overt racism to stop her from working for the race. She also attended the first meeting of the Niagara Conference which evolved into the NAACP. Also in 1922 Louise Evans Briggs-Hall was the first black woman admitted to the prestigious United Scenic Artists Association for costume, scenic, and lighting designers.

Regardless of race and gender stereotyping, black women excelled in areas of technology and politics. In 1922 Bessie Coleman, the first licensed African American aviator, gave her first exhibition on Long Island.  In 1924 Mary Montgomery Booze became the first black woman elected to the Republican National Committee.  African Americans continued to argue their right to full constitutional protection and in 1926 Violette N. Anderson became the first black woman to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Angelina Grimke
Angelina Grimke. Archibald Grimke papers,
box 39-40, folder 807-814 Angelina Grimke.
Manuscript Division, Moorland-Spingarn
Research Center, Howard University,
Washington, DC.

Black women expressed themselves in creative forms. In the performance and visual arts, they found voices in writing and drama. In 1916 Rachel, a play by Angelina Weld Grimke, was the first known play in the twentieth century written by a black American and presented onstage by black actors.  In 1925 Florence Mills was the first black woman to headline a Broadway show. Skilled in all varieties of jazz and tap dance, she was especially renowned for her 'acrobatic' and 'eccentric' dancing.  In 1930 Nella Larsen was the first black woman to win a creative writing award from the Guggenheim Foundation.  In 1931 Katherine Dunham founded the Negro Dance Group in Chicago.  Dunham was an accomplished American dancer, choreographer, songwriter, author, educator and activist who trained as an anthropologist.  She operated the Katherine Dunham Dance Company for 30 years.  Her company was the only permanent, self-subsidized American black dance troupe at that time, and over her long career she choreographed more than 90 individual dances. Lucy Diggs Slowe, in 1917, became the first black woman athletic champion, winning the women’s singles title at the first national American Tennis Association championships in Baltimore, Maryland.  Slowe was very involved in the academic and social life of Howard University, as a founder of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. She was appointed the first Dean of Women at Howard University in 1922.


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