Cicely Tyson, Diana Ross & Other Black Women Who’ve Received Presidential Medals Of Freedom

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Earlier this week, The White House released the list of people, Barack Obama would award with the Presidential Medal of Freedom before he leaves office. As you may know, the Medal of Freedom is given to those who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” It is the highest honor a civilian can receive in the United States. On this year’s list, there were quite a few familiar and beloved people like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Tom Hanks, Robert De Niro, Bill and Melinda Gates, Michael Jordan and Ellen DeGeneres, to name a few. There was also, veteran actress and arts advocate Cicely Tyson and Motown singer Miss Ross, the Boss. Seeing Ross and Tyson’s names made us wonder just how many Black women have been fortunate to receive this award since it was first given in 1963.
Image Source: WENN

Diana Ross

President Obama will present the medal to Diana Ross at the White House on November 22nd for her contribution to the arts. Ross is an Academy Award nominee and she received the Grammy’s highest honor the Lifetime Achievement Award. She was at the White House in 2007 when she was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors.

Cicely Tyson

For some reason I thought Cicely Tyson had already received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But I was mistaken. Like Ross, she was awarded with the Kennedy Center Honors last year. With a career that has spanned decades, she’s more than deserving.

Source: Getty

Dr. Maya Angelou

In 2010, President Obama invited Angelou to the White House to present her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Before that she received a National Medal of Arts from President Clinton in 2000 and the Lincoln Medal in 2008. During the presentation of the award, you can see that Dr. Angelou was visibly moved as President Obama kissed her on the cheek after placing the medal around her neck.



In 2013, Oprah received a Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama for being one of the world’s most successful broadcast journalists and philanthropists.

Toni Morrison

When Toni Morrison was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, by Barack Obama, she and the president exchanged plenty of chuckles. And when he put the award around her neck, she warned him to mind her hair.

Shirley Chisholm

Last year, President Obama honored Shirley Chisholm, posthumously for her efforts fighting for the minority education and employment and accomplishments in the House of Representatives, becoming not only the first African American to be elected to Congress but also one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus and, of course, her historic run for the presidency in 1972.

Katherine G. Johnson

We’ve reported many times about the upcoming Hidden Figures movie that is coming to theaters this holiday season. Well, it’s based on a true story. Thankfully, Katherine G. Johnson, the character played by Taraji P. Henson, was honored by President Obama last year for her contributions as a physicists, space scientist and NASA mathematician.

Marian Anderson

Anderson, who lived nearly 100 years, (She was 96 when she died.) was presented her roses, while she was still here to smell them. In 1963, the first year the medals were awarded, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded the famed operatic singer with the award for her contribution to the arts. In 1978 she received a Kennedy Honor, a National Medal of Arts in 1986 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, two years before she passed in 1993.

Pearl Bailey

In 1988, Ronald Regan awarded Bailey, a singer and a Tony-award-winning actress with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But it wasn’t recognized by the highest office in the land. 18 years before, Richard Nixon appointed Bailey the “Ambassador of Love” for the work she did entertaining the troops overseas.

Ella Fitzgerald PF

Ella Fitzgerald

The Jazz singer, called the First Lady of Song, won 13 Grammy Awards during her career and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1967. She received an Kennedy Center Honor, a National Medal of Art and in 1992, President George H.W. Bush gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Aretha Frankling to sue over fake assault story involving Patti LaBelle.

Aretha Franklin

I don’t have to list Aretha Franklin’s accomplishments throughout her career. We know them well. And none of them would surprise us. And despite her numerous honors, Franklin famously shed tears in 2005 when President Bush awarded her the Medal of Freedom.

Leontyne Price

In the second year after the Presidential Medals of Freedom were awarded, cancer and opera star Leontyne Price received one at 37 years old. President Lyndon B. Johnson presented it to Price for her contributions, including becoming the “first Negro woman to sing famous opera roles.”

Rosa Parks

n 1996, President Bill Clinton awarded Rosa Parks the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her actions on the bus that day, which are credited as the catalyst for the desegregation of public transportation.

ellen johnson sirleaf

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Known as Africa’s “Iron Lady,” Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in 2007 for her work to bring justice to the people of Liberia, a campaign that had, at one time, resulted in her imprisonment. In 2005, she was elected President of Liberia. Bush presented her the Medal of Freedom for improving the lives of people in Liberia and across Africa.


Barbara Jordan

In 1994, President Clinton presented the Medal of Freedom to Barbara Jordan. She was awarded for her accomplishment becoming the first, Black Congresswoman elected from the deep South, Texas in 1972. She was reported as the moral voice within the American political system and worked to defend the Constitution and highlight the commonalities we share as Americans.

Dorothy Height

The same day Barbara Jordan received her Medal of Freedom, Civil and Women’s Rights leader Dorothy Height also received a Medal of Freedom by President Clinton. She was the president of the National Council of Negro Women and in the 1990’s, she worked in the war against drugs, illiteracy and unemployment. Ten years later, she received the Congressional Gold Medal.

Images via WENN, Getty, AP, Corbis

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Marian Wright Edelman

Marian Wright Edelman’s parents raised her with education as a top priority. In fact, when her father died when Edelman was just 14-years-old, he said to her, “Don’t let anything get in the way of your education.”

Edelman took those words to heart graduating from both Spelman College. Afterward she joined the Civil Rights Movement. She was arrested for her activism and was subsequently inspired to study law. She would eventually graduate from Yale Law School, become the first African American woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar, and start practicing law with the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Edelman’s career is illustrious. She helped to establish the Head Start program, founded a research firm dedicated to issues related to childhood development.

Later she would found the Children’s Defense Fund as a voice for poor children, children of color and children with disabilities.

And that’s the short list.

She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000 by President Clinton.

Veronica Wells is the culture editor at She is also the author of “Bettah Days.” You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter @VDubShrug.

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