Fun facts

5 inspirational female role models from Black history

Get to know these five extraordinary figures from Black history – they were brave, they were bold, they changed the world! 

Puffin team

1. Mary Seacole – Nurse & Entrepreneur

Mary Seacole
Illustration: Vashti Harrison

Mary Seacole was born in the British colony of Jamaica and from an early age, she learned nursing and healing from her mother, who used traditional remedies and kept a boarding house for invalid soldiers. As a young woman, Mary explored the Caribbean, visiting Cuba, Haiti and the Bahamas all on her own – a bold and unusual step, especially for a woman of colour. In 1853, during the Crimean War, Mary wanted to enlist as a military nurse to help the wounded, but her application to the British War Office was refused. She did not let that stop her. She travelled to the Crimean Peninsula with a friend and set up a hotel and boarding house – the British Hotel – behind enemy lines. She used her savvy business skills to provide hot food, drinks and clothes for wounded soldiers. Mary bravely nursed soldiers on the battlefield as well as in the British Hotel. Her dedication to the servicemen was unmistakable – she formed a strong bond with the soldiers she helped. Many years later, when she faced financial troubles many of them banded together to raise money for her. On 30 June 2016, a statue of her was unveiled at St Thomas’s Hospital in London, honouring her as a pioneer in her field. She is remembered as a brave and fearless leader!

2. Rosa Parks – Activist

Rosa Parks
Illustration: Vashti Harrison

Growing up in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks detested the rules of segregation: having to drink from different water fountains or being barred from whites-only restaurants. In the American South, rules on buses were particularly harsh: a black person had to enter through the front door, pay the fare, leave the bus and then get on again through a rear door. Each bus had three sections: a whites-only section at the front, a black section at the back and an overflow section in the middle. If the middle was empty, a black person could sit there. But if one white person wanted to sit in the middle, every black person would have to get up and stand in the back of the bus. In December 1955, after a long shift at work, Rosa waited for a bus with empty seats, and finally got one with a seat in the overflow section. But when the white section became full, Rosa and others were asked to move. Enough was enough for Rosa. She refused to relinquish her seat. Rosa was arrested and jailed. Rosa’s protest caught the attention of the whole country. Martin Luther King Jr called for a boycott of all public transport and The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a key event of the Civil Rights Movement and set off a chain reaction of protests across the United States. The boycott was ultimately successful. In 1956, the bus system became integrated!

3. Shirley Bassey – Jazz Singer

Shirley Bassey
Illustration: Vashti Harrison

From a young age, Shirley’s big voice was unmistakable. She did not always find encouragement at school, but she was certainly praised by her family, from whom she got her singing talent and strong will. But life was not easy at home. Racial discrimination was a constant issue, and Shirley’s family struggled with extreme poverty. Getting food on the table was a daily concern and Shirley had to leave school at the age of sixteen to start work in a factory. Still passionate about music, she continued to sing in her spare time, performing at pubs and clubs after work and at weekends. It was only a matter of time before her big voice got her noticed. At nineteen she was discovered by her soon-to-be manager, Michael Sullivan. Together they developed her signature glamorous look and she released her first few singles. Shirley’s big break came in 1964 when she recorded the title track for the James Bond film, Goldfinger. Her booming voice filled cinemas all over the world during the opening credits of one of the year’s biggest movies. It launched her on the international stage and her voice became forever linked with one of the most famous Bond films. She went on to sing the title tracks for other Bond films – Diamonds Are Forever and Moonraker. These landmark songs, along with her singles ‘Big Spender’ and ‘I Am What I Am’, helped to establish her career and her glamorous vibe. She was the voice of Bond and became synonymous with cool and elegance.

4. Tessa Sanderson – Javelin Thrower & Heptathlete

Tessa Sanderson
Illustration: Vashti Harrison

Tessa moved to Britain when she was only nine years old. Swapping the tropical Caribbean for an English city might seem a scary move but, helped by her love of sport, Tessa quickly made Wolverhampton her home. She joined the local club, where she showed a lot of promise in the javelin and other heptathlon events. She was a rising star on the field and by the age of sixteen had already won her first javelin championship. By 1976 she had earned her spot in her first Olympics Games. Meanwhile, she also participated in the Commonwealth Games – in the heptathlon, an event with seven elements (100-metre hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200 metres, long jump, javelin throw and 800 metres), and in 1981 she became the top British woman heptathlete. Tessa’s biggest moment came in 1984 when she won a gold medal for Great Britain at the Olympics in Los Angeles. This made her the first British woman to win Olympic gold in the heptathlon, and the first black British woman to win an Olympic gold.

5. Dr Mae Jemison – Engineer, Physician & Astronaut

Mae Jemison
Illustration: Vashti Harrison

As a child, Mae loved reading, especially books about science and astronomy. By the time she was in nursery school, she knew she wanted to become a scientist. This, however, did not keep her from other passions. Mae also wanted to be a dancer, and throughout her youth, she studied every type of dance. In the 1970s Mae read chemical engineering and African American studies. When she learned about Dr Martin Luther King Jr, she saw his work as a call to action to help people, so after graduating, she decided to become a doctor. She joined the Peace Corps in 1983 and travelled to West Africa on a two-year programme to provide medical assistance to those in need. After returning, she saw major changes taking place at NASA. Seeing the actress Nichelle Nichols play Lieutenant Uhura in the TV show Star Trek inspired her to apply to NASA. In 1987 Mae became the first black woman in the astronaut training programme, and a few years later she flew into orbit – as the first African American woman in space.

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