Portrait Gallery: Iconic Black (S)Heroes, in Their Own Words

“I want history to remember me … as a Black woman who dared to be herself.”

On the cusp of Women’s History Month and to round out Black History Month, I wanted to share portraits of some of the innumerable Black women who have worked hard for the rights we now hold dear, who have shared their artistic talents, and who have helped to nurture this experiment in democracy that is still a work in progress.

The portraits were painted by my long-time friend Melanie Humble, whom I met on our first day at Swarthmore College in September 1982. At that time, Swarthmore was a hotbed of activism; Melanie and I were at the center of many of those efforts and spent a good deal of our time plotting strategy in affinity groups, joining protests and organizing political events on campus. My Quaker ancestry, collective activism and work within the American political system have fueled my passion for building a democracy where voters have real power to elect candidates of their choice and where legislative bodies reflect the people they serve.

This list of Black women leaders will include some women you already know, and some you need to know—but it’s only a tiny sample of the (s)heroes who have shaped our nation.

Amanda Gorman

Amanda Gorman (March 7, 1998) is an American poet who read a poem at the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris and was the first person to be named youth poet laureate.

While we might feel small, separate, and all alone, our people have never been more tightly tethered. The question’s not if we will weather this unknown, but how we will weather the unknown together.”

The Miracle of Morning

(You may also like Amanda Gorman’s eight reasons to stand up against abortion bans.)

Ava Duvernay

Ava DuVernay is an American filmmaker and producer who became the first Black woman to win the directing award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012.

“Ignore the glass ceiling and do your work. If you’re focusing on the glass ceiling, focusing on what you don’t have, focusing on the limitations, then you will be limited. My way was to work, make my short… make my documentary… make my small films… use my own money… raise money myself… and stay shooting and focused on each project.”

Condoleezza Rice

Condoleezza Rice (November 14, 1954) is a former diplomat, a professor at Stanford University, and served as U.S. Secretary of State from 2005–2009.

“My parents elected me president of the family when I was 4. We actually had an election every year, and I always won. I’m an only child, and I could count on my mother’s vote.”

Glynda Carr

Glynda Carr is president and CEO of Higher Heights for America which she co-founded and is a leading advocate for Black women’s representation and leadership in the United States.

“And so, our work beyond 2020 is, what does the pipeline to the U.S. Senate look like? How do we actually build out a 2022, 2024 and 2026 strategy where you’re going to continue to see people running for office?”

Jessica Byrd

Jessica Byrd is a political strategist and is one of the architects of the Movement for Black Lives Electoral Justice Project and the Black Campaign School. She has raised nearly $10 million for Black electoral strategy and movement building. 

Black people have been saying for literal decades that we want a meaningful place inside of the national political dialogue, and meaningful means specific public policy solutions that meet the height of the need and the height of the problem, we have yet to have it in this country, on any side.”

Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris is the first woman to serve as vice president of the United States. Prior to serving as vice president, Harris was a candidate for the Democratic Party nomination for president and served as a United States senator from California—one of only two Black women to have served in the Senate. (The other was Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun—check out her guest appearance on the Ms. podcast, where she and Rep. Katie Porter discussed the best ways to rebuild America.)

“Anyone who claims to be a leader must speak like a leader—that means speaking with integrity and truth.” 

“If anyone ever gets in your way and tells you to not follow your dreams—be it because of your age, gender, what you look like of where you came from—don’t listen. Do not be burdened by what has been when you can create what should be.”

Kristen Clarke

Kristen Clarke is an American attorney and civil rights champion who serves as president of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Clarke is President Biden’s nominee to serve as the assistant attorney general for civil rights.

“Hate crimes are not random; they’re the result of deep-seated resentment toward a specific group. Normalizing these incidents and promoting the people who fan the flames of hate only exacerbates their detrimental effects. Instead, we must detect hate crimes, report the attacks to relevant authorities, and vehemently oppose an intolerable reality wherein people face violence or hatred because of their skin color, their house of worship, their LGBT status or other protected status.”

Linda Thomas-Greenfield

Linda Thomas-Greenfield is a seasoned American diplomat who serves as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the Harris-Biden administration.

My fellow career diplomats and public servants around the world, I want to say to you: America is back, multilateralism is back, diplomacy is back.”

Michelle Whittaker

Michelle Whittaker is a campaign strategist, communications expert and democracy reform leader who directs the campaign for ranked-choice voting in Maryland and serves on the board of RepresentWomen.

“Echoing the words of Shirley Chisholm, we must be at the table to affect positive change and if they don’t give us a seat, we bring a folding chair. Our ‘folding chair’ to address representation is electoral reform: fair representation with ranked-choice voting.”

—”What Comes After Black History Month?

Muthoni Wambu Kraal

Muthoni Wambu Kraal served as the national political organizing director for the Democratic National Committee and worked at EMILY’s List. Kraal now serves as a partner at NEWCO strategies.

“It’s been the honor of my lifetime to help elect President Joe Biden, our historic Vice President Kamala Harris—HU!—and to help build the multi-racial, intergenerational, diversely abled, coalition that elected Democrats.”

Onida Coward Mayers

Onida Coward Mayers is vice president of the MiRam group, former director for New York City’s Voter Assistance at the Campaign Finance Board, and an award-winning communications executive.

“I have dedicated my professional life to serving others. RepresentWomen delivers the research, analysis and advocacy to bring awareness and policy that supports the agenda of parity for women in America.”

Ruby Bridges

Ruby Bridges is an American civil rights activist who was the first African American child to desegregate the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans on November 14, 1960.

“Don’t follow the path. Go where there is no path and begin the trail. When you start a new trail equipped with courage, strength and conviction, the only thing that can stop you is you!”

Sharon Nelson

Sharon Nelson is the founder and CEO of Civically Re-Engaged Women (CREW), as well as the CREW TV network, who leads Seneca Falls Revisited—the multi-year celebration of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“Parity and political leadership is not for the faint of heart; this is serious business.”

Stacey Abrams

Stacey Abrams is an American voting rights activist who served as a legislator and Democratic Party leader in the Georgia House of Representatives from 2007 to 2017. In 2018 Abrams was a candidate for governor of Georgia and founded Fair Fight Action.

When we show up, act boldly, and practice the best ways to be wrong, we fail forward, no matter where we end up, we’ve grown from where we began.”

Susan Rice

Susan Rice is an American diplomat who served a national security advisor in President Obama’s administration and now serves as director of the United States Domestic Policy Council in the Biden-Harris administration.

“Progress is the product of human agency. Things get better because we make them better. Things go wrong when we get too comfortable, when we fail to take risks or seize opportunities.”


Black Women in Congress

Black women members of the House of Representatives: Alma Adams (D-N.C.), Karen Bass (D-Calif.), Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.), Cori Bush (D-Miss.), Yvette Clark (D-N.Y.), Val Demings (D-Fla.), Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.)

Black women members of the House of Representatives: Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), Robin Kelly (D-Ill.), Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), Lucy McBath (D-Ga.), Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.).

Black women members of the House of Representatives: Stacey Plaskett (D-V.I.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Terri Sewell (D-Ala.), Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.), Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), Nikema Williams (D-Ga.), Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.).

Rest in Power

Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934–November 17, 1992) was an American writer, poet, feminist and civil rights activist.

“When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”

Coretta Scott King

Coretta Scott King (April 27, 1927–January 30, 2006) was an American author, civil rights leader, and wife of Rev Martin Luther King, Jr. (Read more about the reproductive justice legacy of Coretta and Martin Luther King.)

“Hate is too great a burden to bear. It injures the hater more than it injures the hated. Struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation.”

“Women, if the soul of the nation is to be saved, I believe that you must become its soul.”

Dorothy Height

Dorothy Height (March 24, 1912–April 20, 2010) was a leader in the civil rights movement and a women’s rights advocate.

I want to be remembered as someone who used herself and anything she could touch to work for justice and freedom… I want to be remembered as one who tried.”

Ella Josephine Baker

Ella Josephine Baker (December 13, 1903–December 13, 1986) was an American civil and human rights activist best known for promoting grass-roots organizing.

“Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.”

Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer (October 6, 1917–March 14, 1977) was a civil rights and voting rights activist and a community organizer.

“When I liberate myself, I liberate others. If you don’t speak out ain’t nobody going to speak out for you.”

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman—born in Dorchester County, Md., on March 10, 1913—was an abolitionist and political activist known for her courageous work on the Underground Railroad.

Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”

Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells (July 16, 1862–March 25, 1931) was a journalist, educator, civil rights leader and a co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”

Marian Anderson

Marian Anderson (February 27, 1897–April 8, 1993) was an American contralto who sang at the White House and on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on April 9, 1939 after she was barred from singing in Constitution Hall because of her race.

“Every one has a gift for something, even if it is the gift of being a good friend.”

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928–May 28, 2014) was a prolific American poet, author and civil rights advocate.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks (February 4, 1913–October 24, 2005) was an American civil rights activist best known for her role in the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott.

“Each person must live their life as a model for others.”

Shirley Chisholm

Shirley Chisholm (November 30, 1924–January 5, 2005) was an American politician who became the first Black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1968 and the first Black woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1972.

“I want history to remember me… not as the first Black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the United States, but as a Black woman who lived in the 20th century and who dared to be herself. I want to be remembered as a catalyst for change in America.”

Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth (1797–November 26, 1883) was an American women’s rights activist and abolitionist who became the first Black woman to win a case against a White man for custody of her son.

“There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a word about the colored women; and if colored men get their rights, and not colored women theirs, you see, the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before.”

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison (February 18, 1931–August 5, 2019) was an award-winning American author, academic, and editor.

“If you find a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”


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About

Cynthia Richie Terrell is the founder and executive director of RepresentWomen and a founding board member of the ReflectUS coalition of non-partisan women’s representation organizations. Terrell is an outspoken advocate for innovative rules and systems reforms to advance women’s representation and leadership in the United States. Terrell and her husband Rob Richie helped to found FairVote—a nonpartisan champion of electoral reforms that give voters greater choice, a stronger voice and a truly representative democracy. Terrell has worked on projects related to women's representation, voting system reform and democracy in the United States and abroad.