America’s public education system has historically been an appallingly hostile environment for Black children. From school funding disparities and disproportionate exclusionary discipline, to the school-to-prison pipeline and the dearth of Black children referred to gifted education, there’s plenty of evidence that the system continues to miseducate and underdevelop its Black youth.
But the unsung part of this story is that America also has a long history of Black women who have worked tirelessly to ensure Black children and youth have the education and opportunities that are rightfully theirs.
These past and present mavericks — influential Black women who have blazed trails in education — have ensured that Black children learn and thrive.
According to the most recent federal data, 76% of Black teachers are women. And in my work at The Center for Black Educator Development, I am proud to build upon the legacy of the countless Black women who’ve worked — and work — in this nation’s schools.
As we seek to bring liberation and learning to Black children — whether it’s by building an educational ecosystem by creating teaching pathways or identifying, cultivating, and supporting the next generation of activists who become teacher leaders — I look to the Black women who have come before me.
When I talk to my colleagues about pushing for meaningful policy reform and creating solutions for achieving educational equity and racial justice in America, I’m reminded that we walk in the steps of our ancestors, and we have the shining example of Black women in education to guide us.
Here are 12 women, both past and present, who provide an enduring blueprint for what works to uplift and liberate Black youth.
Lucy Craft Laney
Lucy Craft Laney (Apr. 13, 1854–Oct. 23, 1933) was a civil rights activist and pioneering educator. In 1869, she was one of the first to join the class at Atlanta University (later Clark-Atlanta University) where she studied under Dr. W.E.B. DuBois. Craft Laney established the first school for Black children in Augusta, Georgia, the Haines Institute for Industrial and Normal Education, and served as its principal for a half-century. She joined the Niagara Movement, the National Association of Colored Women, and helped to establish a local chapter of the NAACP in Augusta (1918), where she also worked to integrate the YMCA and YWCA. Craft Laney became one of the first African Americans to have a portrait hung in the Georgia State Capitol, an honor bestowed by then-Governor Jimmy Carter in 1974. She was a lifelong mentor to Mary McLeod Bethune. The Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History and Conference Center in Augusta bears her name.
Mary McLeod Bethune
Mary McLeod Bethune (July 10, 1875–May 18, 1955) In 1904, Dr. Bethune founded the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls, which would become Bethune-Cookman (College) University in Daytona Beach, Florida. She was a skilled convenor who grew in influence as a stateswoman and became a trusted advisor to four sitting U.S. presidents.
A global citizen, Bethune was the only Black woman to help draft the United Nations charter in 1945 and “focused her efforts on the rights of people living in colonized countries around the world.”
She founded the National Council of Negro Women, co-founded the United Negro College Fund, and was instrumental in getting the Tuskegee Airmen airborne. She is the recipient of and the first woman to receive the Medal of Honor and Merit, Haiti’s highest honor (1949). A monumental woman, in 1974, the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial in Lincoln Park became the first memorial to honor an African-American built on public land in Washington, D.C.; and in 2022, Bethune became the first African-American to be represented by a state in National Statuary Hall, having replaced a confederate general. Her Last Will and Testament provides instruction that remains evergreen for Black people of the diaspora. Listen to Dr. Bethune in What Does American Democracy Mean to Me?
Septima Poinsette Clark
Septima Poinsette Clark (May 3, 1898–Dec. 15, 1987) was a civil rights leader and educator who studied under W.E.B DuBois at Clark-Atlanta University. She worked with the NAACP in South Carolina and Attorney Thurgood Marshall, prior to his Supreme Court Justice appointment, to achieve equal pay for Black and white teachers in 1945.
Clark directed Tennessee’s Highlander Folk School Citizenship School Program, which was later taken over by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). She would go on to join SCLC and create more than 800 citizenship schools. Clark is the author of the 1962 autobiography “Echo in My Soul” and the 1987 memoir “Ready from Within: Septima Clark and Civil Rights,” which earned her an American Book award. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter honored her with a Living Legacy Award. Clark is also a recipient of the Order of the Palmetto, South Carolina’s highest civilian honor.
Marva Collins (Aug. 31, 1936–June 24, 2015) saw that “far too many children were being created for failure” in Chicago Public Schools and knew they deserved better. She set out to create just that in 1975 from her home and established the Westside Preparatory School.
Her one-year results, which showed students excelled — sometimes advancing up to five grade levels — captured the attention of national news outlets, including CBS’ 60 Minutes. Her success became dramatized in “The Marva Collins Story.”
President Ronald Reagan offered her the U.S. Secretary of Education post, which she declined in order to continue teaching the children she was devoted to. Collins would go on to found the Marva Collins Preparatory School of Wisconsin to prepare teachers, which attracted financial support from Prince Rogers Nelson. She is also featured in the artist’s video “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.” Her book “Marva Collins Way: Returning to Excellence in Education,” with a foreword written by Alex Haley and is dubbed “a prescription for effective teaching,” is still in print.
Attorney Marian Wright Edelman
Edelman says that every issue and policy priority of the CDF came out of her childhood experiences. She successfully defined the needs of children and translated them into humane, well-crafted policies and practices that are funded and are of high quality for all children. She worked to ensure that the nation’s children were healthy by making immunizations available, securing Medicaid expansions, and lobbying for the Child Health Insurance Program.
Edelman expanded children’s access to Head Start and sought to improve unequal schools. CDF Freedom Schools are part of her enduring legacy. Edelman’s autobiography, “The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours,” was a New York Times bestseller. Among many awards, she is the recipient of the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Prize, the Heinz Award, the Ella J. Baker Prize, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.
Dr. Gloria Ladson Billings
Dr. Gloria Ladson Billings (Nov. 3, 1947) is Professor Emerita and formerly the Kellner Family Distinguished Professor of Urban Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Known for her work in culturally-relevant pedagogy, Dr. Ladson Billings says there are three components to culturally-relevant teaching: student learning, cultural competence, and critical consciousness.
Dr. Ladson Billings is a member of the National Academy of Education, a past president of the American Educational Research Association, and recipient of numerous awards and recognition. Her 2006 AERA presidential address “From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt: Understanding Achievement in U.S. Schools” explains the racial achievement gap as an education debt comprised of “foregone schooling resources that we could have (should have) been investing in (primarily) low income kids, which deficit leads to a variety of social problems (e.g. crime, low productivity, low wages, low labor force participation) that require on-going public investment.” Dr. Ladson Billings is also the author of “The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African-American Children.”
Dr. Vanessa Siddle Walker
Dr. Vanessa Siddle Walker is the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of African American Educational Studies at Emory University and a past president of the American Educational Research Association (AERA).
For four decades, Dr. Siddle Walker has documented the effects of school desegregation and educational inequities in the U.S. She is the author of “Their Highest Potential: An African American School Community in the Segregated South,” which received the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Education in 2000, and “The Lost Education of Horace Tate: Uncovering the Hidden Heroes Who Fought for Justice in Schools.”
bell hooks (Sep. 25, 1952–Dec. 15, 2021) was an academician, theorist, and author who served as a Distinguished Professor in Residence at Berea College. hooks authored more than 40 books at the intersection of race, feminism, and class. Her classic essay “Homeplace (A Site of Resistance)” centered the importance of the Black home.
She wrote, “One’s homeplace was the one site where one could freely construct the issue of humanization, where one could resist. Black women resisted by making homes where all black people could strive to be subjects, not objects, where we could be affirmed in our minds and hearts despite poverty, hardship, and deprivation, where we could restore to ourselves the dignity denied us on the outside in the public world.” The bell hooks Center at Berea College bears her name.
Dr. Donna Y. Ford
Dr. Donna Y. Ford (Nov. 24, 1961) is a Distinguished Professor of Education and Human Ecology and Kirwan Institute Faculty Affiliate at The Ohio State University’s College of Education and Human Ecology. Dr. Ford is a leading researcher in Black children’s giftedness and multicultural/urban education, has authored more than 300 articles on Black students, gifted education under-representation, and closing achievement gaps; and is the author/co-author/co-editor of 14 books.
Her work has been recognized by countless organizations, including the 2019 RHSU Edu-Scholar Public Influence Rankings (#57); The International Colloquium on Black Males in Education; Summer Institute for the Gifted; the American Education Research Association, Research on Women and Education SIG; the Early Career Award, and the Career Award from The American Educational Research Association; the National Association for Gifted Children; The National Association of Black Psychologists; and Council for Exceptional Children; The Association for the Gifted, among many others.
Dr. Cheryl Fields-Smith
Dr. Cheryl Fields-Smith (Aug. 17, 1964) is a professor and graduate coordinator in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice at the University of Georgia Mary Frances Early College of Education. She has researched the motivations for Black parents to homeschool their children and has charted the rise of Black homeschooling as a means of resistance since 2006.
Dr. Fields-Smith says more African-American families are homeschooling their children for two reasons: the lack of Black history in public school curricula and the disproportionate disciplining of Black students. In addition to publishing many research articles, she is also the author of the book “Exploring Single Black Mothers’ Resistance Through Homeschooling” and co-editor of “Homeschooling Black Children in the U.S.: Contemporary Perspectives on Black Homeschooling.”
Kaya Henderson (July 1, 1970) is the CEO of Reconstruction, an ed tech enterprise that delivers K-12 supplemental education that “situates Black people, culture, and contributions in an authentic, identity-affirming way so that students of all backgrounds benefit from a more complete understanding of our shared history and society.”
Henderson is a Teach for America alumna and former Executive Director of TFA in Washington, D.C. She also served as D.C. Public Schools Deputy Chancellor. Her board memberships include The Aspen Institute, Curriculum Associates, Robin Hood NYC, and Teach For America. Henderson is the co-founder of Education Leaders of Color (EdLoC).
Dr. Gholnecsar “Gholdy” Muhammad
Dr. Gholnecsar “Gholdy” Muhammad (Aug. 15, 1990) has given us a roadmap to cultivate genius and joy in classrooms and at home. Dr. Muhammad authored “Black Girls’ Literacies: An Edited Volume.” Her Culturally and Historically Responsive Education Model has been adopted across thousands of school districts both in the U.S. and Canada. In 2022, she was named among the top 1% of RHSU Edu-Scholars due to her impact on policy and practice. Muhammad is also the author of “Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework” and its sequel “Unearthing Joy: A Guide to Culturally and Historically Responsive Teaching and Learning.”
Joy S. Jones currently serves as communications manager for The Center for Black Educator Development. She has contributed to brightbeam network’s Citizen Ed, The Center for Reinventing Public Education, Albany State University Center for Educational Opportunity, and Bethune Cookman University. Joy is an alumna of the University of Pittsburgh, Baruch School of Public Affairs and National Urban Fellows.