5 Barrier Breaking Black Women Officeholders


2018 was a history-making year for Black women: at least 468 Black women ran for political office up and down the ballot, and 25 Black women are currently serving in Congress as a result of that election—the first time this number has gone above 20 in the history of the United States. While we still have a ways to go (Black women make up just 4% of Congress, 2% of statewide elective executives, and 1% of state legislators), the historic number of Black women we’re seeing running for and serving in office now would not have been possible without these barrier-breakers.

Crystal Bird Fauset

The first Black woman elected to state legislature was Crystal Bird Fauset in Pennsylvania. Fauset first worked as a New York City public school teacher, then a field secretary for the YWCA, where she started her advocacy work for the Black community. She was elected in 1938 to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and became friends with Eleanor Roosevelt, becoming part of FDR’s “Black Cabinet.”

And an honorable mention here to Minnie Buckingham Harper, the first black woman legislator in the US, though she wasn’t elected: Harper appointed to the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1928 to fill her late husband’s position.

Shirley Chisholm

The first Black congresswoman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives was Shirley Chisholm. Chisholm is known for her legacy of fighting the status quo. She started her career as a member of the New York State Assembly in 1965, served as a congresswoman from 1969-86, and even ran for President of the United States in 1972!

Lelia Foley-Davis

The first Black Woman mayor in the US was Lelia Foley-Davis, who was elected as mayor of Taft, Oklahoma in 1973. With $200 of her friends’ money in her pocket, Foley-Davis beat the incumbent mayor with less than 100 votes. Despite her detractors, Foley-Davis achieved many things in her fight for public housing for Taft—she even brought her ideas to President Ford, spurring the construction of affordable homes in Taft not long after.

Velvalea Phillips

In 1978, Velvalea Phillips (or Vel, as she was known) won her campaign to be Secretary of State of Wisconsin, becoming the first Black woman to hold a position of statewide executive office. Phillips’s life was built on firsts: she was the first Black candidate to make it past the primaries for school board of Milwaukee Public Schools, the first woman and first Black person to be part of Milwaukee’s Common Council, and the first Black judge in Wisconsin.

Carol Moseley Braun

In 1992, Carol Moseley Braun was the first Black woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate. She was also the first Black woman to win a major party Senate nomination. President Clinton appointed Braun as the U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand in 1999. Braun continued to be politically active even after that, running for President in 2004, and Mayor of Chicago in 2011.

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