February is Black History Month a time when we honor the accomplishments of talented individuals who charted new paths and changed the course of history. These people in word or deed helped transform the world they were born into and challenged perceived norms to stake their claim to this world. For many new parents, turning to historical, inspiring figures for baby names is an attractive enterprise. Choosing a name based on a person’s life’s work offers an opportunity to educate themselves and their child later in life.
For Black History Month, we wanted to spotlight some of the most influential Americans who helped us understand our world better, expressed their passion through art, taught us how to persevere through sport, and legislated for a more equitable country. We turn to the arts, sports, science, and more fields to inspire baby names for girls that encourage thoughtful leadership and honor a storied heritage. Check out these 25 baby names for girls inspired by Black excellence that celebrate the legacies of those who changed the world.
Audre Lorde was an American writer, feminist, womanist, librarian, and civil rights activist. She was a self-described “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” who dedicated both her life and her creative talent to confronting and addressing injustices of racism, sexism, classism, capitalism, heterosexism, and homophobia. She also went by an amazing name, Audre. The name has English origins and means “noble strength.”
Ida B. Wells was a journalist and activist and one of the founders of the NAACP. She spent her life fighting for equality especially a seat at the table for Black women. Unfortunately, Ida fell from favor, leaving the US top 1000 in the early 1980s. Ida has German origins that mean “industrious.”
Maya is a beloved multicultural name that you will find in a number of naming traditions. Maya was the legendary Greek mother of Hermes by Zeus and can mean “water” or “illusion” or “mother.” Maya Angelou is arguably the most celebrated American poet of all time with a slew of awards for a body of writing that spanned genre and was produced for over 50 years. She would make a great inspiration for this gorgeous name that’s currently more popular than ever before.
Josephine Baker was an American-born French entertainer, French Resistance agent, and civil rights activist. Her career was centered primarily in Europe, mostly in her adopted France. Josephine is the female form of Joseph, a Hebrew name that means “Jehovah will grow.” This name is on the upward trend again today and we love it. You can also go with Baker’s given name, Freda.
Zora Neale Hurston was an American author, anthropologist, and filmmaker. She portrayed racial struggles in the early-1900s American South and published research on hoodoo. The most popular of her four novels is Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937. Zora is another multicultural success found in Arabic, Slavic, and African traditions. Its most widely accepted meaning is “dawn.” The name has been on an upward trend for the last few years.
Ella has parallel derivations, first as the Norman variation of the Germanic Alia—itself a nickname for names containing the element ali. It’s also a Hebrew name, referring to a tree in the pistachio family or in modern Hebrew, “goddess.” Ella Jane Fitzgerald was an American jazz singer, sometimes referred to as the First Lady of Song, Queen of Jazz, and Lady Ella. She was noted for her purity of tone, impeccable diction, phrasing, timing, intonation, and a “horn-like” improvisational ability.
Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was an American poet, author, and teacher. Her work often dealt with the personal celebrations and struggles of ordinary people in her Bronzeville community on the south side of Chicago. She was the first Black American to receive the Pulitzer Prize. Gwendolyn has Welsh origins and means “white ring.”
The late Cicely Tyson was an American actor and fashion model. In a career spanning more than seven decades, she became known for her portrayal of strong African-American women. If you have not yet 1972’s Sounder, do yourself a favor and treat yourself to one of her finest performances. Cicely is an English form of Cecilia and also means “blind.” This name entered the US top 1000 in 1973 and left it the following year. Let’s honor a great and bring this one back, new parents.
Hattie McDaniel was an American actor, singer-songwriter, and comedian. She won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind, becoming the first African American to win an Oscar. While the character is offensive, her talent was undeniable. Hattie is a perfectly retro name that new parents have brought back to popularity over the last decade. The name is an English form of the German name Harriet which means “estate ruler.”
Kara Elizabeth Walker is an American contemporary painter, silhouettist, print-maker, installation artist, and film-maker who explores race, gender, sexuality, violence, and identity in her work. Her work is so powerful that it has elevated the artist as one of the greatest, most in-demand talents in the world. Kara peaked in the 1980s but remains more popular than the Cara variant. In Norse mythology, Kara was a Valkyrie, lover of Helgi, who charmed his enemies in battle by enchanting them with song. You will also find the name in Latin and Irish tradition giving a number of possible meanings from “face” to “friend” to “dear.”
Lena Mary Calhoun Horne was an American singer, dancer, actor, and civil rights activist. Horne’s career spanned over 70 years, appearing in film, television, and theater. We grew up loving her in The Wiz but we suggest also viewing Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather. This pet form of Helena and other ena-ending names, long used as an independent name, is attracting notice again as an option both multicultural and simple. Lena was a top 100 name from 1880 to 1920. We imagine it will hit those heights again soon. This name has a variety of meanings as you will find it in a variety of places including “bright” and “beautiful.”
Venus or Serena Williams would make great choices for a baby girl with parents who love sports. The Williams sisters are two of the world’s greatest living athletes with both winning a numerous titles and awards. Serena has been in use as a name since ancient Roman times and has Latin origins that mean “tranquil.” This name is a top 500 option thanks in no small part to Serena Williams’ immense popularity.
Mae Carol Jemison is an American engineer, physician, and former NASA astronaut. She became the first black woman to travel into space when she served as a mission specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour. How good is her name? The name is on the rise once more and it is considered a shortened form of Mary or Margaret which mean “bitter” or “pearl.”
Wilma Flinstone dashed the possibility for the name Wilma for new parents and it has not been in the top 1000 since the early seventies. The name has German origins which mean “resolute protector.” The name belonged to Wilma Glodean Rudolph who was an American sprinter born in Saint Bethlehem, Tennessee, who became a world-record-holding Olympic champion and international sports icon in track and field following her successes in the 1956 and 1960 Olympic Games.
Jewel Plummer Cobb was an American biologist, cancer researcher, professor, dean, and academic administrator. She contributed to the field of cancer research by studying the cure for melanoma. Jewel is the least popular it has ever been in the US and we would love to hear it more often on baby girls.
Florence Delorez Griffith Joyner, also known as Flo-Jo, was an American track and field athlete. She is the fastest woman of all time. The world records she set in 1988 for both the 100 m and 200 m still stand today! Florence is a vintage charmer that has been gaining more traction with parents in the last couple of years. The name has Latin origins that mean “flourishing.”
Bessie Coleman was an early American aviator. She was the first Black woman and the first Native-American to hold a pilot license. She earned her pilot license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale on June 15, 1921, and was the first black person to earn an international pilot’s license. Bessie is a diminutive of Elizabeth a name with Hebrew origins that means “pledged to God.” Unfortunately, this form of the name is one of its least popular today making it ripe for revival!
The English name Coretta comes from Cora a name meaning “maiden.” This name fell out of the top 1000 in 1970 and we find that to be unacceptable! Coretta Scott King was an American author, activist, civil rights leader, and the wife of Martin Luther King Jr. An advocate for African-American equality, she was a leader for the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Bring back this name and honor a true, American hero.
Althea Neale Gibson was an American tennis player and professional golfer, and one of the first Black athletes to cross the color line of international tennis. In 1956, she became the first African American to win a Grand Slam title. Althea is a unique Greek name that means “with healing power.” Like Coretta, this name too fell from favor in the the seventies and has never made a return. Let’s bring back this handsome option!
Alexa Irene Canady is a retired American medical doctor specializing in pediatric neurosurgery. She was born in Lansing, Michigan and earned both her bachelors and medical degree from the University of Michigan. In 1981, she became the first Black woman neurosurgeon. Alexa has took a downward turn in recent years due to the popular Amazon product. It has been a popular option among new parents since 1973. The name has Greek origins and is short of Alexandra, meaning “defending men.”
Rosa Parks remains one of the most visible figures of the Civil Rights Movement who is often referred to as “the first lady of civil rights” and “the mother of the freedom movement.” She was instrumental in the Montgomery bus boycott among many other successful activities. Rosa is the Latinate form of Rose that refers to the flower. This name is one of America’s favorites as it has been in the top 1000 since records began for naming in 1880.
Roxane Gay is an American writer, professor, editor, and social commentator. Gay is the author of The New York Times best-selling essay collection and seminal work Bad Feminist. She is one of today’s most talented thinkers and writers who communicates racial and feminist struggles through her own personal experiences. Roxane can be found in Persian, Slavic, and Polish tradition as a name meaning “dawn.” The name has not been widely used since the sixties which we think you should help change!
Harriet Tubman was an American abolitionist and political activist. Born into slavery, Tubman escaped and subsequently made some 13 missions to rescue approximately 70 enslaved people, including family and friends, using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. She also was a spy for Union troops and helped greatly in efforts to end the Civil War. Set to appear on the twenty-dollar bill, you can honor her life and legacy with her name as well. Harriet is a German name that means “estate ruler.” Somehow this name has never been widely embraced by Americans!
A source of endless political inspiration, Shirley Chisholm was an educator and community organizer turned politician who became the first Black woman elected to Congress by constituents in her Brooklyn borough. Later, she would become the first woman and first woman and African American to seek the nomination for president of the United States from one of the two major political parties. If you are looking for a name that embodies Chisholm’s “Unbossed and Unbought” ethos, pick this English name that means “bright meadow.”
Born to civil rights activist parents, Kamala Harris is an American politician and attorney who is the 49th and current Vice President of the United States. She is the United States’ first female vice president, the highest-ranking female elected official in U.S. history, and the first African American and first Asian American vice president. She has been the first in many of her titles and we would love to see her continue to rise. Kamala is an absolutely stunning name that you will find in Hindi and Hawaiian tradition as a name that means “lotus,” “pale red,” or “garden.” We expect this once exotic choice to climb the charts following Harris’s successful run for the Vice Presidency.
There you go! We hope these inspiring figures with their excellent names will help you in your decision in choosing a name for your daughter. Turning to figures who shaped American history and changed the world is one way to celebrate a baby girl born in February, the month we celebrate Black History and Black Excellence. However, we should all be celebrating Black heroes year-round!
Andrew is a Chicago-based writer who enjoys finding the best of the internet, obsessively making lists, and cooking for friends. After studying Film and Art History, he developed a deep love for both topics. Celebrity news, pop culture, and stories that bring people together are his passions.
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