Toward an Independence Day for All to Celebrate

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(WOMENSENEWS)–An inside-the-beltway adage is, "If you don’t like the policies, just wait a minute." Those who live and work here know policies seem to shift as often as the weather.

In this case, however, we have waited four years–or more than 110 years, depending on your perspective–for the rectification of an obvious and egregious historic misrepresentation: the omission of Black women and other women of color from their justifiable place of prominence in the suffrage movement and in its monument within the United States Capitol Rotunda.

Now, many African Americans in the Black Leadership Forum organizations enthusiastically applauded the recent introduction of the long-awaited legislation, House Resolution 169, "To Construct a Monument to Commemorate Minority Women," which, when enacted, will occasion the design, construction and installation of a statue honoring Black and other women of color in the Capitol Rotunda.

This legislation celebrates the rich and indispensable contribution of African American women to the suffrage movement, and the rich and continuing contributions of women of color generally to the progress and power of America–past, present and future.

Contributions of All Women of Color Should Be Honored

With legislative initiative, inspired this time by a young woman intern, Jennifer Luciano, working in the office of the Democratic Congressman Danny Davis from Illinois, the battle is once again joined for equality and simple historic accuracy for African American women who led the suffrage movement, as well as all women of color whose contributions to this country are enormous.

In addition, if successful, this current effort will contribute significantly to all Americans’ understanding, not only of the major sacrifice of Black women for the achievement of women’s suffrage, but also of the enrichment of our history and our country by " … Native American, Latina, Asian-Pacific, Jewish and Black women … " as the proposed resolution states.

This is an effort to reverse the disrespectful failure in 1997 to recognize Black suffragists in the Capitol Rotunda, or anywhere else in the nation’s capital for that matter. At that time, the portrait monument to Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony was relocated from the Capitol Crypt, after an intense lobbying effort, to the Capitol Rotunda.

Women from all ethnic groups joined with Black women led by Dr. C. DeLores Tucker, national chair of the National Congress of Black Women, Dr. Dorothy I. Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women, and others to block this installation of a huge statue which depicted three white women as suffrage leaders, but which intentionally excluded Black suffrage heroine, Sojourner Truth, and therefore gave the erroneous impression that women of color were not leaders in the struggle for the right to vote for all women.

We argued then that no statue should be installed in the nation’s Capitol that so bluntly ignored Sojourner Truth’s indispensable leadership role and her ultimate sacrificial compromise early in the movement when neither women nor African Americans had the right to vote. Immediately after the Civil War, Truth went along with Anthony’s concession to some members of Congress who said they would support her if she did not push for Black voting rights. This accommodation was futile, of course, and Black men obtained the right to vote in 1870, a full half-century before any woman did.

Better No Statue At All Than One Without Sojourner Truth

My organization issued a statement in 1997 that expressed its strong objections to there being any decision to place a suffrage statue in the nation’s Capitol Rotunda without first having included a likeness of the American martyr and African American leader Sojourner Truth. We were opposed in part because the history of our nation is replete with afterthoughts concerning the contributions of the African American community. We believed then and believe now that this practice must not continue.

Moreover, the failure to include Truth in the statue, the statement said, was just one more example of a habitual and pernicious tendency to overlook African American contributions to the American democracy.

"Not only has the role of African Americans in the development of American society been economically indispensable, but our place in the history of American democracy has been secured by the moral, ethical and political leadership of the National hero, Sojourner Truth," the statement said. "That her visage was not originally sculpted into that obviously appropriate place in the existing monument is a travesty of justice and an all too familiar and painful omission of a legitimate African American claim."

This concern has only become more profound as time has passed. And so finally in June, we began to move forward, under the bold leadership of Congressman Davis and Democratic Congresswomen Carolyn Maloney of New York and Democrat Juanita Millender-McDonald of California, with co-sponsorship of almost 100 other members of Congress. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, I am told, will be introducing shortly a companion bill in the United States Senate.

Women of Distinction: Remarkable in Works and Invincible in Character

And after 110 years, we also move forward to accomplish an objective sought by my own grandfather, Dr. Lawson Andrew Scruggs, the author in 1893 of one of the very first empirical studies of Black women, "Women of Distinction: Remarkable in Works and Invincible in Character." Grandfather Scruggs, a practicing physician and Renaissance man, stated in the dedication of his remarkably detailed book about 91 African American women:

"To the Afro-American mothers and daughters who, in these dark days of our history, endeavored to be faithful to what they understood to be the principles of truth and virtue; and also to the noble women of the race who, in these brighter days, have assiduously labored, as best they could, to establish an unimpeachable character in the womanhood of the race. … It has been to the author, who has spent many years in careful observation … a painful experience to see how little is known of our great women and their works."

I cannot improve upon my grandfather’s sentiments. I commend this legislative effort, and urge people of good will across the country, men and women of all racial and ethnic groups, to write and e-mail their Congressional representatives and senators to support this reform of injustice. I also refer Congressman Davis and his colleagues to the table of contents of "Women of Distinction" as a place to start on the work of the "Advisory Selection Committee" called for in House Resolution 169.

In his 1893 book, Dr. Scruggs included Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells, Lucie Johnson Scruggs and 85 other Afro-American women whose names largely are unfamiliar to Americans today. But just because they are not readily recognized now does not mean that these women were not important and distinguished in our history. They are truly unsung American heroes.

Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich, Ph.D., a political scientist and policy analyst, is the executive director and chief operating officer of the national Black Leadership Forum Inc., headquartered in Washington, D.C. The forum is a 24-year-old confederation of civil rights and service organizations.

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