5 Black Women Founders and Inventors You Should Know

March 31, 2016

African American women have founded various organizations, they’ve been the masterminds behind innovative products, and they’ve paved the way for new generations’ thought leaders. These champions of change have solved medical mysteries, fought poverty, served on congressional committees, and have helped lead the movements against racism, sexism, and class barriers.

I credit many of my family members for bringing such #BlackGirlMagic to my own awareness. My grandmother chartered an NAACP chapter in Fort Madison, Iowa; my mother works to eradicate domestic violence; and my aunts have broken barriers in the fields of engineering and mental health. This month, I’d like to shed light on the accomplishments of five other trailblazing black women founders and inventors who saw needs and chose to find solutions.

1. Patricia Bath, ophthalmologist and laser scientist (b. 1942)


Bath was an advocate for preventing and treating blindness. Not only was she the first African American to complete a medical residency in ophthalmology, but she also co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness and established a new discipline known as community ophthalmology. Bath also became the first black woman doctor to receive a medical patent when she created the Laserphaco Probe, a new device for cataract surgery. As a young girl growing up in Harlem, New York, Bath noticed that surgery, and medicine in general, was a male-dominated profession. After receiving her medical degree from Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C., Bath joined the University of California, Los Angeles, as the first woman faculty member in the department of ophthalmology.

2. Anna Arnold Hedgeman, co-founder of the National Organization for Women (1899–1990)


Arnold Hedgeman was an author, politician, and educator who fought to end segregation among teachers of color. She was the first black woman to hold a mayoral cabinet position in New York. As one of the founders of the National Organization for Women, she was an advocate for education, feminism, and poverty issues. Hedgeman was also the first African American to hold a Federal Security Agency position in her role as executive director of the National Council for a Permanent Fair Employment Practice Commission. Instrumental in organizing the March on Washington in 1963, it was Hedgeman who pushed for female speakers to be part of the event that initially lacked the recognition of women civil rights heroes.

3. Miriam E. Benjamin, inventor of the Gong and Signal Chair (1861–1947)


In 1888, Miriam E. Benjamin became the second black woman to receive a patent. Her invention, the Gong and Signal Chair, revolutionized customer service practices. The chair included a small button that relayed a signal to an attendant when pressed. This invention would later be used in steamboats, restaurants, and even the U.S. House of Representatives. Today, Benjamin’s creation is used to signal flight attendants on planes.

4. Maggie Lena Walker, founder of St. Luke Penny Savings Bank (1864–1934)


Maggie Lena Walker founded the highly successful St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, an accomplishment for which she’s recognized as being the first African American woman to charter a bank in the United States. Under Walker’s leadership, the bank served a membership of more than 50,000 in 1,500 local branches. From 1903 to 1929, the bank issued more than 600 mortgages to black families, allowing many to realize the dream of home ownership. Walker also served as grand secretary of the Independent Order of St. Luke, an umbrella organization dedicated to the social and financial advancement of African Americans, and she actively campaigned for women’s rights and desegregation.

5. Marva Collins, founder of Westside Preparatory School (1936–2015)


Marva Collins, recipient of AAUW’s 1989 Achievement Award, was one of the most influential education activists of the 20th century. In 1975, Collins founded the Westside Preparatory School in the impoverished community of Garfield Park in Chicago, Illinois. Collins was well known for providing education to low-income African American children who she felt the Chicago public school system had wrongly labeled as “learning disabled.” Through her teaching methods, which focused on phonics, reading, math, and English, Collins tackled behavioral issues and is credited for her techniques of classroom management. At one point, President Ronald Reagan even nominated her to become secretary of education.

We salute these women of change who saw needs, found solutions, and created opportunities for those around them. They remind us all why it’s important to continue to equip today’s young women with the tools they need to become the next generation of leaders and innovators.

This post was written by former Media Relations and Social Media Intern Khallilah Beecham-Watkins.


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