Serena Williams: When she swings her racket, everybody takes notice. First in June, Serena Williams won the French Open, then three months later she annihilated her competition at the U.S. Open. Incredibly, her amazing domination of the sport comes two years after she was sidelined with a pulmonary embolism. But as this year’s documentary film Venus and Serena details, Williams (alongside her big sis) does what champions do—get back in the game, work harder than ever and reclaim their No. 1 status.
Lisa Willis Groves: Discharged from the Army in 1992, Lisa Willis Groves understands that every veteran deserves a warm homecoming. The mother of four is the founder of The Veteran’s Connection, a nonprofit mobile unit that offers emotional support and free resources like clothing and food to those veterans who have fallen between the cracks of the systems put in place to aid them. After traveling across 49 states, Canada and Mexico in 2011, Groves hit the road in her Jeep Compass again this year, reaching out to as many homeless and disabled veterans as possible. “My hope is to be a motivational wave in the world so that my fellow veterans can receive better care,” she says.
Carol and Willie Fowler: When Carol and Willie Fowler learned that their daughter’s planned September wedding had been canceled, they opted instead to join forces with Hosea Feed the Hungry, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing services for the homeless. The Atlanta couple invited 200 hungry people, including children, to enjoy a free meal.
Rachel Jeantel: This July 19-year-old Rachel Jeantel was put in the national spotlight after testifying at the George Zimmerman trial. As she recalled the rainy night she and Trayvon Martin spoke on the phone, Jeantel revealed a side of Martin many of us had never seen. No matter how the defense team and pundits tried to rattle and mock her, Jeantel held her head high and boldly spoke up for Martin who died that night, something she says she will never regret. “Witnesses need to speak up and the justice system needs to know how to treat people like human beings,” says Jeantel. “I wanted to show that a young female could speak up for her friend who had no voice. Men aren’t the only strong ones; women have strength, too, and we need to show it more.”
Antoinette Tuff: President Obama heralded her a hero, but when Atlanta bookkeeper Antoinette Tuff persuaded a would-be school shooter to surrender on August 20, she was simply speaking from her heart. While she negotiated between authorities and the 20-year-old gunman, who had a history of mental-health issues, Tuff’s calmness under pressure was the key to ensuring everybody made it out safely.
Mery Daniel: Victims of notable violence often slip into obscurity as soon as the cameras turn off, but who could ever forget Mery Daniel? The 31-year-old mother and wife lost her left leg and suffered injuries to her right leg during the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15, but she never lost hope that she would walk again. After months of physical therapy, Daniel continues to make progress. Her coach is fellow amputee (she lost her leg at age 5) Paralympian Bonnie St. John, who helped Daniel launch a fund-raising effort—through merydaniel.com—that has thus far raised nearly $50,000 to offset Daniel’s extensive medical bills.
The Dream Defenders: George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the death of Trayvon Martin prompted hundreds of protests this year, but none more inspiring than the Dream Defenders sit-in. In July the group of mostly college students began a 31-day protest outside of Florida governor Rick Scott’s office in Tallahassee, demanding a special legislative session to repeal the Stand Your Ground law. While their efforts didn’t garner immediate results, they returned in the fall to work with state lawmakers on three bills known as Trayvon’s Law, targeting Stand Your Ground, the school-to-prison pipeline and racial disparities in police enforcement.
Robin Roberts: Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts candidly shared her diagnosis of MDS (commonly known as preleukemia) with viewers last year. Then on September 20, she celebrated her reborn day, the first anniversary of her bone marrow transplant. “Robin came through this beautifully. I’m so proud of my baby sister, who has truly grown to be my big sister,” says sibling Sally-Ann Roberts, who donated the life-saving marrow.
Bethann Hardison: There are clear signs that the fashion industry’s notion of diversity is growing. At 2013’s Fall-Winter New York Fashion Week we saw Dior Haute Couture cast six fierce Black models (Alek Wek, Grace Mahary, Joan Smalls, Maria Borges, Kelly Moreira and Yasmin Warsame) for the first time in seven seasons. Also Malaika Firth became the first Black woman in 19 years to be featured in a Prada ad campaign. But while that’s a start, fashion activist Bethann Hardison believes there’s a lot more to be done. Hardison penned an open letter to the Council of Fashion Designers of America and several international fashion governing boards, putting a number of high-profile designers on blast for intentionally choosing not to use models of color in their shows. With the support of her good friends and supermodels Iman and Naomi Campbell, Hardison let the world know both about her disappointment in fashion and her noble campaign to end racism on the runway.
Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton and Nathaniel Pendleton: In January 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton was shot and killed near her Chicago home. Rather than simply mourning her loss, parents Nathaniel and Cleopatra started Hadiya’s Foundation to help protect other youth and their families from senseless gun violence. “The goal of the foundation is to reach the at-risk population so we can reduce violence in the community through education, social services and economic development,” says Cleopatra. “We want to bring it back to the ‘it takes a village’ concept.”
The Inauguration of President Barack Obama: As if the second-term swearing-in of the first Black President weren’t historic enough, the inauguration coincided with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. We saw civil rights pioneer Myrlie Evers-Williams speak and Grammy winner Beyoncé perform. “I want to take a look one more time,” said the President as he addressed the crowd gathered on the National Mall. A historic day, indeed.
The First Lady’s Instagram: Mrs. Obama posted her first photo while she and her daughters visited an all-girls school in Senegal during their trip to Africa in late June. Once news broke that FLOTUS joined Instagram, we couldn’t wait to get a better peek into her fabulous and inspirational life. Who knew she was a fan of #ThrowbackThursday? And the picture of her surrounded by a group of ecstatic little Black ballerinas during her trip to Harlem in September may be our favorite of the year.
Mayor Aja Brown: Since being sworn into office on July 2, Compton mayor Aja Brown hasn’t wasted a minute getting to work. The 31-year-old is the face of a new generation of politicians and she vows to get community leaders and the police to collaborate for the first time ever on initiatives that prevent gang activity in her city. She’s also pushing a mandate that requires city-funded projects to hire at least 50 percent of its workforce from local residents.
Four Little Girls Receive Congressional Gold Medals: September 15 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the day that Denise McNair, 11, and 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley lost their lives during the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. That tragic event remains a painful reminder of the racial unrest that once plagued our country, but when President Obama signed a bill to posthumously award one of the highest civilian honors, the Congressional Gold Medal, to these four little girls in August, he acknowledged that their deaths would never be forgotten. Instead they are forever associated with a movement that would change American history.
The ESSENCE Storybook Wedding Contest: In the February 2013 issue, we featured the ESSENCE Storybook Wedding, and we’re happy to report that love is still in the air for all six couples showcased in our contest. Three of them got married this year, including Jennifer Mack and Kurtis Watkins. “But contest winners Aaron and Kyla Maupin have the biggest update of all—they were blessed with their first baby, Alexandria, who was born this June.
Tomiko Fraser Hines: In our March 2013 issue, former model Tomiko Fraser Hines, then 44, shared her struggle with infertility in hopes that it would remove the guilt and shame women often endure when faced with this situation. Today Hines and her husband, Chris, are parents to 11-month-old twin boys Bryce and Kaden. As for her first year of parenthood, Hines is over the moon. “Being a mother is a completely heart-expanding experience,” she says.
Dance Theatre of Harlem: In 2004 the artistic world suffered a harsh blow when the iconic Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) buckled under financial pressures and suspended operations. Thankfully, this April, the legendary institution’s 18-member company began touring the country and even performed for the First Lady at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Founded in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell and currently led by former star ballerina Virginia Johnson, DTH is back to developing and nurturing talent while inspiring the next gifted generation.
ESSENCE Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon: Our annual fete has become the hottest ticket in Tinseltown since its 2007 inception. This year Oprah Winfrey, Alfre Woodard, Naomie Harris and 9-year-old Academy Award nominee (and star of the upcoming remake of Annie) Quvenzhané Wallis were among our esteemed honorees. But it was this month’s cover girl, Gabrielle Union, who set the ballroom ablaze when she spoke so candidly about her personal struggles as a Black actress navigating Hollywood.
Free Angela and All Political Prisoners: It took eight years to complete, but watching Angela Davis’s journey from political prisoner to civil rights activist unfold in the film Free Angela and All Political Prisoners was well worth the wait. Written and directed by Shola Lynch and produced by Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith and Jay Z, the documentary opened in theaters last April, reigniting interest in the fearless woman with the fierce Afro.
Being Mary Jane: This summer, writer and director Mara Brock-Akil brought to light the story of a young, professional Black woman dealing with life’s ups and downs. Being Mary Jane drew a record-breaking 4 million viewers in its debut on BET. Brock-Akil promises that there will be even more drama when the show returns in January 2014. “Instead of doing the right thing, Mary Jane does the selfish thing,” she says. We can’t wait to see how things play out.
Candice Glover: Fans and judges alike were thrilled when Candice Glover took the top prize as the twelfth American Idol in May. Still on cloud nine following her win, the 24-year-old awaits the release of her debut album, Music Speaks, in February 2014: “I took my time with writing and recording to make sure that it’s exactly the way I want it to be.”
Alicia Keys: Alicia Keys has truly been a girl on fire this year. In addition to a world tour, the Grammy-winning artist and HIV/AIDS advocate teamed up with Greater Than AIDS to introduce Empowered, a public information campaign that challenges women to recognize that their choices can help prevent the spread of the disease. Statistics show that one in four Americans with HIV today is female. Empowered hopes to reach women through ads, social media and public appearances by Keys and other advocates. The campaign also includes a grant program that awarded four community-based organizations $20,000 each to develop programs specifically focused on women and HIV/AIDS.
Halle Berry: This has been an amazing year for Halle Berry. The 47-year-old Oscar winner gave birth to son Maceo-Robert in October, is mom to 5-year-old Nahla and married actor Olivier Martinez in July. Not to mention she testified before California’s legislative committees in support of bill SB606, which protects children of public figures against intrusive media attention. Signed into law in September, the bill takes effect in January 2014 and will impart stiffer penalties against overzealous photographers. Way to go, Halle!
Kerry Washington: Olivia Pope may be a fictional character (based on an actual woman, of course), but Kerry Washington’s success is very real. Along with earning an Emmy nod for her role in the cultural phenom that is Scandal, the Bronx-born actress, whom People magazine named as the world’s Best Dressed Woman, tied the knot with NFL star Nnamdi Asomugha this summer, and rumors about a baby have already been swirling.
Mellody Hobson: Mellody Hobson is much more than just the new wife of billionaire filmmaker George Lucas. The Ariel Investments president serves on several boards, including the Starbucks Corp., and is chairwoman of the board of directors for DreamWorks Animation SKG. She’s also a regular on-air financial contributor for outlets like the Tom Joyner Morning Show and CBS. As if that were not enough, she and Lucas also welcomed their first child, Everest, who was born by surrogate in August. Who says we can’t have it all?
Folorunsho Alakija: When financial magazine Ventures Africa tallied the fortunes of Nigeria’s wealthiest citizens, oil tycoon Folorunsho Alakija ranked fourth on the 55-member list. Having enjoyed success in banking, fashion and literature, Alakija leads the Rose of Sharon Foundation, which offers a second chance to her country’s widows and orphans. Now, with a fortune estimated at $7.3 billion, she holds the title of Africa’s richest woman.
Cheryl Boone Isaacs: Hollywood is still abuzz about Cheryl Boone Isaacs’s appointment as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—she’s the first Black person to hold the prestigious title. Her July assignment was historic, yes, but Isaacs has been making bold strides for decades: A member of the film academy since 1987, she was also the first woman of color to serve as president of theatrical marketing at a major motion picture studio when she joined New Line Cinema in 1997. Job well done.
Carla Thompson: Since joining the W.K. Kellogg Foundation as vice-president of program strategy in 2012, Carla Thompson has become one of the country’s youngest philanthropic leaders. She helmed the organization’s investment in early education for children of disadvantaged families to the tune of $90 million last year. In 2013 the foundation announced a new pledge of $5 million to support organizations that have effectively addressed the obstacles low-income families face in education.
Kirstie and Kristie Bronner: For Kirstie and Kristie Bronner, making history as the first set of twins to earn co-valedictorian honors at Spelman College was the culmination of years of hard work. The Bronner sisters, both music majors, also relied on faith to maintain their 4.0 grade averages. “We live by the [notion] that you have to work like it’s all up to you, but pray like it’s all up to God,” says Kirstie. Since graduating last May, the two have been in the process of writing their first book, which will help other young women achieve academic success. And they’ve joined Atlanta’s Word of Faith Family Worship Cathedral, pastored by their father, as youth coordinators. “We’re operating in our passions,” says Kristie of their new roles, which include planning conferences, overseeing mentoring programs and, of course, teaching the youth choir.
Professor Tricia Rose: Tricia Rose is a professor of Africana Studies at Brown University and was selected in April to lead Brown’s Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America. Rose shifted right into her new role with a community forum on Trayvon Martin that challenged students to think about what to do next as intellectuals and citizens. “My goal is to position us as a hub for new ideas, to create racial and ethnic understanding, and to [foster] social change,” says Rose.
Reba Williams: As the saying goes, it’s never too late to learn something new. And for Reba Williams, the saying is all too true. In March 2013, at the ripe age of 106 and wearing her white graduation cap, Williams earned her diploma from Ohio’s Mount Vernon High School and proved that there is not expiration date when it comes to achieving one’s goals.
Gabrielle Turnquest: Gabrielle Turnquest showed everyone across the pond just how much Black girls rock. When she was 16, the Windermere, Florida native was the youngest student to graduate from Virginia’s Liberty University. Now at 18 years old she has become the youngest person in 600 years to pass the bar exam and qualify as a barrister in the United Kingdom. Keep in mind that the average age of a typical lawyer graduating from the University of Law’s Bar Professional Training Course is 27.
Kimberly Bryant: During college Kimberly Bryant felt like a rarity in her engineering classes. In 2011, with her sights on exposing girls of color to the world of technology, she launched Black Girl Code and has since mentored 2,000+ girls and opened chapters across the U.S. and South Africa. Last August Bryant, who is listed among Business Insider’s “25 Most Influential African-Americans in Technology,” was honored by the White House as a Champion of Change for Tech Inclusion for continuing to inspire, one click at a time.
MacArthur Fellows: Having the freedom and the means to express oneself creatively is a precious gift. In September, dancer-choreographer Kyle Abraham, photographer and video artist Carrie Mae Weems and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney were among 24 artists to earn their wings when they were named as MacArthur Fellows. Along with the prestige that accompanies such an honor, each recipient is awarded a $625,000 stipend to be paid over five years.
Now we’d like to hear from you! From births to graduations to taking a step toward your life goals, what was your shining moment of 2013? Head over to Instagram, post a photo and tell us about your big moment. Be sure to use the hashtag #ESSENCEShiningMoment.