Born into slavery circa 1747, Molly Williams is recognized as the first female firefighter in the United States. While a slave to the wealthy Aymar family, she met and married her husband, Peter Williams. In 1783, Aymar sold the Williamses to Wesley Chapel, the first incarnation of the John Street United Methodist Church in Manhattan’s Financial District. The Williams family lived in the basement of the church as indentured servants with Peter serving as the sexton in charge of buildings, maintenance, and grave digging and Molly cooking and cleaning. They had a son, Peter Jr., and eventually bought their freedom.
Mrs. Williams continued to work for Aymar as a servant after she became a free woman. In 1815, Aymar became a volunteer in Lower Manhattan’s fledgling firefighting corps, Oceanus Engine Co. 11. Fires broke out frequently and those most affected were those with the most property, so many wealthy merchants took part in the firefighting corps out of self-interest. Mrs. Williams would accompany Aymar when he went to work at Oceanus Engine Co. 11. Initially, she cooked meals, cleaned the station and cared for the crew when outbreaks of flu, yellow fever, and cholera erupted. However, in time she would replace the sick crew, fighting fires in their stead.
There was a great blizzard in New York in 1818. Between the blizzard and a great influenza outbreak, many male volunteers were unable to work. At the age of 71, Mrs. Williams took the place of the sick men and worked at the firehouse. The members of the firehouse credited her for being as tough as the male firefighters. During the blizzard, Mrs. Williams answered a call that came into the firehouse and “pump[ed] out as much [water with as much] strength as all the men.” Mrs. Williams was remembered for pulling the pumper to fires through heavy snow during that blizzard. Her commitment earned her the name “Volunteer 11.” Often seen fighting fires in a dress and checkered apron, she was known for her distinguished presence and attire. Her fellow firefighters described Mrs. Williams to be “as good a fire laddie as many of the boys.”
Mrs. Williams died in 1821 at the age of 74. George W. Sheldon wrote in the 1882 oral history The Story of the Volunteer Fire Department of the City of New York, that Molly Williams was “one of the most famous ‘volunteers’ of the earlier days.” Though there is very little known about her personal life, her firefighting efforts remain an important part of women’s history and Black history and paved the way for all female firefighters.
This text is excerpted from: https://lithub.com/on-molly-williams-one-of-americas-first-female-firefighters/, http://staging1.firefightersabcs.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Twelve_Amazing_Female_Firefighters.pdf, and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molly_Williams,
Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner was born on May 17, 1912, in Monroe, North Carolina. Her father Sidney Nathaniel Davidson and her maternal grandfather Robert Phromeberger were both inventors. This familial interest in inventing inspired Kenner from a very young age. At just 6 years old, she attempted inventing a self-oiling hinge for doors. She then went on to create other inventions throughout her childhood such as a portable ashtray and an absorbent umbrella that could soak up rain water.
Kenner graduated from Dunbar High School in 1931 and was admitted to Howard University. She attended college for a year and a half, but dropped out due to gender discrimination and financial difficulties. In 1950, she became a professional florist and ran her chain of flower shops into the 1970s while inventing things in her spare time.
In her lifetime, Kenner created many inventions and secured several patents. Many of her inventions were developed out of necessity. During her era, menstruation was not a commonly discussed topic and was considered taboo. Kenner realized that despite society’s general neglect of the issue, there was a wide-spread need for a hygienic tool that would allow women to minimize disruption to their daily routines when they were on their menstrual cycles.
She originally invented the sanitary belt in the 1920s, but she couldn’t afford a patent at the time. She improved her primary version over time and continually updated the invention. The Sonn-Nap-Pack Company heard of her invention in 1957 and was interested in mass producing her product, however when they learned that she was African-American, they were no longer interested.
Kenner described the situation in an interview saying, “One day I was contacted by a company that expressed an interest in marketing my idea. I was so jubilant … I saw houses, cars and everything about to come my way. . . . Sorry to say, when they found out I was Black, their interest dropped.” Notwithstanding this initial rejection, an undeterred Kenner persevered, securing the patent for her sanitary belt in 1957, and going on to invent many other inventions.
In 1976 Kenner patented an attachment for a walker that included a hard-surfaced tray and a soft pocket for carrying items. Kenner also invented a toilet paper holder that she patented. Her final patent, granted on September 29, 1987, was for a mounted back washer and massager. Kenner never received any awards or formal recognition for her work. However, her inventions and contributions helped pave the way for subsequent innovations. Kenner still holds the record for the greatest number of patents awarded to a Black woman by the U.S. government.
As the developer of the precursor to the modern self-adhesive Maxi pad, Kenner transformed the entire world of female sanitary care. Her other inventions have since evolved throughout the years with similar versions still remaining in use.
This text is excerpted from: https://briefly.co.za/94350-mary-beatrice-davidson-kenner-biography-death-quotes-facts-net-worth.html, https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/mary-kenner-1912-2006/, and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Kenner.
Nannie Helen Burroughs was born on May 2, 1879, in Orange, Virginia, to John and Jennie Burroughs, both former slaves. She was the eldest of five children. After the death of her younger sisters and her father, Ms. Burroughs and her mother relocated to Washington, D.C. where there were better opportunities for employment and education.
Upon graduating from M Street High School with honors in 1896, Ms. Burroughs sought work as a domestic science teacher in the District of Columbia Public Schools. Despite her qualifications, she was refused the position because her skin was “too black.” She was advised that they preferred lighter-complexioned Black teachers.
Ms. Burroughs later wrote that after that experience, “[a]n idea was struck out of the suffering of that disappointment — that I would some day have a school here in Washington that school politics had nothing to do with, and that would give all sorts of girls a fair chance. It came to me like a flash of light, and I knew I was to do that thing when the time came.”
Ms. Burroughs continued to work and apply herself. She was employed as an editorial secretary and bookkeeper of the Foreign Mission Board of the National Baptist Convention. Committed to educating and inspiring young Black women and helping them understand their worth and value, Ms. Burroughs opened the National Training School in 1908, a school dedicated to the education of Black women. The school’s motto read: “Work. Support thyself. To thine own powers appeal.”
In the first few years of its existence, the school provided evening classes for women who had no other means of education. There were only 31 students. However, after time, and due to its exceptional reputation, the school eventually attracted women from all over the nation. Ms. Burroughs required all students to take a history course that was dedicated to learning about influential African Americans, since this topic was excluded from general historical curriculum in the U.S. at the time.
The school was only the beginning of Ms. Burroughs’ long and illustrious career as an educator, orator, businesswoman, religious leader and activist. She helped found the National Association of Colored Women, was appointed by President Herbert Hoover to chair a special committee on housing for African Americans, founded the Women's Convention (serving from 1900 to 1947), and acted as a central figure in the network of African American suffragists.
After dedicating her life to educating and uplifting the overlooked of American society, Ms. Burroughs passed away on May 20, 1961, in Washington D.C. After her death, her school was renamed the Nannie Helen Burroughs School in her honor.
Known for her wisdom and insight, she was quoted as saying, “Education and justice are democracy’s only life insurance.”
This text is excerpted from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nannie_Helen_Burroughs,
https://www.azquotes.com/author/24387-Nannie_Helen_Burroughs. To read Ms. Burroughs’ speeches, visit: https://awpc.cattcenter.iastate.edu/directory/nannie-helen-burroughs/.