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Black women have a long and proud history of advancing the cause of education in America. Their groundbreaking accomplishments – particularly in higher education –inspire, encourage, and challenge not only black women, but people of every race, age,  gender, and economic background to pursue their dreams.  From the first black female PhD graduates to the first black female presidents of prestigious universities, the 7 women on this list are game changers in the world of education and beyond.

Dr. Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander

In 1921, when Dr. Sadie T. M. Alexander graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School, she became the first black person in America to earn a doctorate in economics, and only the second black female to earn a doctorate in any area. Following graduation, Alexander enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and helped found the National Bar Association. In 1927, she was the first black woman to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Adding to this impressive list, Alexander was the first black woman to pass the bar exam, and when she went to work for her husband’s law firm, Alexander became the first black woman to practice law in Pennsylvania.  In 1948, President Harry Truman appointed her to his Committee on Civil Rights, where she coauthored the Commission’s report, “To Secure These Rights,” which laid the foundation for Truman’s civil rights policy.

Dr. Jeanne Noble

A visionary educator, Jeanne Noble was the first black woman to research black women in college. In 1956, she published her findings in a book entitled, “The Negro Woman’s College Education.” In 1962, Noble was the first black woman to become a full professor at New York University. She was also appointed to federal commissions by Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford, and was the first black woman appointed to the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services. In addition, Noble was the first black woman to serve on the National Board of Girl Scouts USA.

Dr. Johnnetta Cole

In 1987, Dr. Johnnetta Cole became Spelman College’s first black female President. However, the appointment was also noteworthy for several other reasons.  At Cole’s inauguration, Bill Cosby and his wife donated $20 million, which was the single largest contribution from an individual to an historically black college (HBC).  Under Cole’s leadership, the SAT scores of Spelman’s freshman classes ranked consistently higher than any other HBC. Also, in 1992, the college was ranked number one on U.S. News and World Report magazine’s annual survey of best college buys. The magazine also ranked Spelman the top regional liberal arts college in the South.  In 1996, Money magazine listed Spelman as the number one HBCU, the number one women’s college, and the seventh best college in America.  While Cole was President, Spelman’s capital campaign also raised over $113 million, which is a record amount for HBCs.  She is also the first woman to be elected to the Board of Coca Cola Enterprises, and the first black woman to serve as Chair of the Board of United Way of America.

Gwendolyn Boyd

In 1979, Gwendolyn Boyd became the first black female to earn a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Harvard University. After a year at IBM, she joined the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory team, where she performed classified submarine navigation tests and evaluations for the Department of the Navy. Boyd also worked to develop the ATLAS Summer Program, which provides summer internships to minority students majoring in computer science and electrical engineering.  In addition, she oversaw the launch of SEE (Science and Everyday Experiences) to encourage women and minorities to pursue careers in science and engineering. Boyd also established the International Day of Service AIDS awareness program. She received the Black Engineer of the Year Public Service Award in 1996, and Ebony magazine named her among the 100 Most Influential Black Americans in 2003 and 2004.

Dr. Martha Euphemia Lofton Haynes

In 1943, when Dr. Martha Euphemia Lofton Haynes graduated from The Catholic University in Washington, D.C., she became the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. in Mathematics. She then established a mathematics department at Miner Teachers College – which later became the District of Columbia Teachers College – and served as Chair of the Division of Mathematics and Education. In 1966, Haynes became the first woman to chair the District of Columbia School Board, where she was instrumental in integrating the DC public school system.

President Shirley Jackson, PhD

 Dr. Shirley Jackson has a staggering list of firsts.  In 1973, she became the first black female to receive a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  This accomplishment also made her one of the first two black women to receive a doctorate in physics. Dr. Jackson was also the first black commissioner of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and in 1995, she became the first black person and the first woman to serve as chairman of the commission. She is also the first black woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering. Adding to her impressive accomplishments, in 1999, Dr. Jackson became President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, making her the first black female at the helm of a major technological institute.

Dr. Melissa Harris Perry

Although she is best known as the host of The Melissa Harris Perry Show on CNN, Dr. Perry is also a heavyweight in the education arena.  In 2009, she became the youngest scholar to give the W.E.B. Du Bois lectures at Harvard University, and that same year she also became the youngest woman to deliver the Ware Lecture.  Dr. Perry received her PhD from Duke University.  She has taught at both Princeton University and Chicago University, and is currently a professor of political science at Tulane University. Dr. Perry is also the founder of the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race and Politics in the South.


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