To Michelle Obama, and Her Sister “First Ladies”
| February 24, 2009
Journalist and historian Janus Adams pays tribute to the First Lady in the White House, recognizing that she joins a tradition of firsts among our nation’s African American women.
Here, at the cusp of Black and Women’s History Months, having celebrated Presidents’ Day and our first African American first family, our new First Lady comes to us bearing another significant “first.” A Harvard Law School graduate like her husband, and Princeton undergrad, she’s the first first-family-member with a degree in African American Studies.
It’s a fact in which I take special pride. With my own studies considered the nation’s first graduate degree in the field, I can bear personal witness to the rich perspective that knowledge of legacy and self can provide.
You can see it in the impact she’s having on children. As one awestruck little girl at a charter school the Obamas visited declared: “when I grow up, I want to be First Lady.” To which the First Lady, smiling softly, confided, “It doesn’t pay much.”
But, her presence is already paying huge dividends.
Test Your Knowledge of History with this “First Ladies Challenge Quiz” Michelle Obama comes from a proud tradition of “first ladies”—women who’ve made their mark on history as “firsts.” To commemorate African American and Women’s History Months, test your knowledge of herstory by clicking on this “First Ladies Challenge Quiz” from author/historian Janus Adams.
You can read it in her mission statement from the campaign: “I want to help other families… not just to survive, but to thrive.” She’s a woman who understands life as it is really lived in the trenches.
You can hear it in the messages she’s delivering on her “getting-to-know Washington” tour of Cabinet-level departments: “For those of you focused on meeting the federal government’s obligations to the Native Americans: understand that you have a wonderful partner in the White House right now.” She has learned her history well—a history as proud as it is shameful.
And, you can gauge the success she’s already having from the wagging tongues of those unaccustomed to an unapologetically proud black woman of style, substance, and A-List credentials.
First Lady Michelle Obama comes from a long line of African American women firsts—tribute to those who “made a way out of no way” to bring her family and the nation to this day.
A woman of faith, she knows the struggle of Jarena Lee who, in 1811, became the first American woman ordained a minister.
A woman with a message, she walks in the footsteps of Maria Stewart who, in 1832, became the first American woman to ascend the lecture podium for women’s rights.
A well-educated woman and university administrator, Michelle Obama identifies with the longing of Sarah Harris, a first in school desegregation in 1832. When enraged white parents withdrew their daughters in protest, headmistress Prudence Crandall made hers a school for “Young Ladies and little Misses of Color”—the nation’s first such school for the upper grades.
With her commitment to military families—especially the wives and mothers left behind—she is in the tradition of Harriet Tubman who devoted her skills as Underground Railroad shero to saving Union lives as scout, and who, in 1863, became the first American woman to lead troops in battle.
With her grace, Michelle Obama cuts a striking image, changing the way African American women see and portray ourselves. Her gift echoes that of sculptor Edmonia Lewis, who, in 1864, etched positive images of black women in stone, becoming our first internationally renowned artist.
Already a trend-setter, our First Lady exemplifies the vision of Julia Ringwood Coston, who, in 1891, founded the first African American fashion magazine. Merging style and entrepreneurial smarts into lucrative business models, two self-made beauty-industry queens—Mme C. J. Walker and her mentor and rival, Annie Turnbo Malone—employed thousands and made millions.
A woman of conscience, Michelle Obama walks a trail blazed by Chicago’s Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a first in investigative journalism, who, in 1893, exposed the scourge of lynching in print and in lecture halls worldwide.
Bessie Coleman was a manicurist in a Chicago barbershop, when—on a dare from her brother and sponsorship from her client (publisher of the Chicago Defender, a landmark African American newspaper)—she reached for the stars. In 1921, six years before Lindberg’s historic flight, she became the first African American to earn an international pilot’s license.
Also from Chicago, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson is well remembered for raising her mighty voice at the March on Washington and soothing troubled souls at the funeral for Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1954, she became a historic first hosting her own radio show.
As a presence in Washington, Michelle Obama stands on the shoulders of Shirley Chisholm, elected the first African-American congresswoman in 1972, and Carol Moseley Braun—another Illinoisan—elected our first African American senator in 1992.
And . . . and . . . there are just so many more—the designers, bankers, lawyers, scientists—too many to name.
“Our roots run deep,” it is said. From Africa’s shores to the Americas and back, there is this to report. In 2006, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected president of Liberia—a nation founded in 1820 by former American slaves. Sirleaf, a portent of things to come here at home, is the continent’s first modern-era woman head-of-state.
Indeed, our First Lady stands, the latest, in a long tradition of African American women leaders and firsts in every field.
For more about these pioneering women, click here for a searchable PDF.