Our History

Black Women's History Gaining Ascendancy

Friday, February 27, 2004

Major research by historians is redefining what we know about the role of black women during slavery and the civil rights era. In part, this research is the result of a rising band of black women historians.

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Lillie Johnson Edwards

(WOMENSENEWS)--Earlier this month, three new books about Harriet Tubman hit bookshelves around the country.

Not only are the books the first adult biographies since 1943 about Tubman, a runaway slave who helped lead dozens of others through the Underground Railroad, but also all were written by scholars--a sign some historians say that black women's history is finally being taken more seriously.

"I think it has to do with the maturing ofthe discipline, which means that there is an awareness of the large number of stories that haven't been told in a systematic way by historians," says Lillie Johnson Edwards, a history professor and director of African American/African studies at Drew University in Madison, N.J. "And that it's not sufficient to resurrect someone's name on a poster in February."

February is, of course, Black History Month. But major research about black women's history and their role in American history goes on all year long and has been for the last 25 years, according to Edwards, the former national director for the nationwide Association of Black Women Historians.

She says several pioneering black women scholars over the last decade helped take black women's history to a new level, from simply making sure that black women were included in American history to analyzing the role they played in areas such as the black church, women's suffrage and professions such as teaching and nursing.

For example, when they started writing about black women professionals, Darlene Clark Hine, a history professor at Michigan State University, and Stephanie Shaw, an associate professor of history at Ohio State University, showed that not all black women during the Jim Crow era were domestics. These two scholars demonstrated that many black women during the era of legalized segregation worked as nurses, teachers, librarians and social workers.

Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, a history and African American studies professor at Harvard University, documented how black women after the Civil War turned the black Baptist church into an institution for social and political change within the black community. And Deborah Gray White, a history professor at Rutgers University, was among the first to write about the lives of black women slaves.

Meanwhile, Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, a history professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore, and Sharon Harley, chair of the African American Studies Department at the University of Maryland, looked at black women's clubs during the turn-of-the century, a time when most historians focus on women's suffrage. They showed that black women were not only calling for the right to vote but leading the cause against lynching.

"They did not distinguish between the needs of the race and the needs of women, but saw them as obviously intertwined for themselves," Edwards says.

Telling Black Women's Stories

The number of black women historians has also grown significantly in the last 30 years, in part to tell black women's story. In the 1950s, 60s and early 70s, when the seminal work on African American history was being done by scholars such as John Hope Franklin, black women's voices, for the most part, were not included. The exceptions were the women Edwards calls the "who's who," such as poet Phillis Wheatley and former slave and popular speaker Sojourner Truth. But, she says, even they were considered a peripheral part of the narrative of African American history.

A group of black women historians, including Terborg-Penn and Hine, organized to change that. They formed the Association of Black Women Historians in 1979. In addition to encouraging the continued development of black women's history by giving out prizes for publications as well as scholarships, the organization provides opportunities for black women historians to network and mentor.

Today, black women's voices are an established part of the history of African Americans. "The assumption now is you can't tell the story, if you don't have black women's voices there," Edwards says.

Black women are also playing a major role in histories of women. In her book, "America's Women: Four Hundred Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines," Gail Collins includes black women throughout her narrative history of women, starting with Mary Johnson, the first black woman colonist.

Collins says the biggest surprise in writing the book was how many stories she found of black women revolting against discrimination and segregation long before the Civil Rights Movement.

"It was just this sort of spontaneous uprising one woman after another across the country that was 100 years before Rosa Park," she says. Harriet Tubman was injured in a fight with a railroad conductor who tried to send her to back of the train. Sojourner Truth had ongoing fights with trolley car conductors in Washington, D.C.

And then Collins came across schoolteacher Elizabeth Jennings, whose story she had never read before. On her way to church one Sunday in 1854, she flagged down a horse-drawn trolley. When the driver told her it was for whites only, Collins says, "she goes crazy, grabs on to the side of the carriage, screams, kicks her feet. They have to drag her out of the thing and they throw her into jail." In turn, Jennings hired a young lawyer, Chester Arthur, who later became president of the United States. She sued the trolley company and won $250.

Collins had seen only vague references to a black woman suing a trolley company before one of her researchers was able to uncover Jennings' story.

Creative Research for Sources

Edwards says documentation of black women's experiences does exist but historians have to be creative about finding it. Sources can include church records, photographs, letters and diaries. Edwards is working on a project using the diary her mother kept when she attended Alabama State University from 1937 to 1941.

"People really need to preserve those church documents, photographs and letters of relatives," she says.

Despite all the new scholarship on black women in the last quarter century, it still remains, for the most part, within college and university circles and has not filtered down to secondary schools, according to Edwards.

As a member of the Amistad Commission, which was created by the New Jersey's legislature in August 2002, she is working with others on ways to incorporate more African American history within the curriculum of the state's 600 school districts.

"Black history is still a February thing or it's 'in the box' in the history textbook," she says. "And every student knows you don't need to know the stuff in the box."

By the time students reach Edward's undergraduate history classes, they are filled with misconceptions. She said one student last semester was outraged to learn that what she had been told in high school about Rosa Parks being an old woman who refused to move to the back of the bus because she was tired was untrue. Parks later said that her feet weren't tired, but that she was just tired of being pushed around.

Not only was Parks an activist, but so were her grandparents and husband. Moreover, Edwards says, historians have only recently acknowledged that there had been a black women's political caucus in Montgomery, Ala., that had been organizing and planning for a boycott all along when Parks was arrested and made the representative of their cause.

Collins writes about the caucus in her book. "There were so many extraordinary women in the Civil Rights Movement doing extraordinary things," she says.

The same could be said for black women throughout history. Edwards believes the time has come for black women to be included in throughout the narrative of American history.

"It really pushes historians to give more depth and complexity to whatever they are analyzing," she says, "and to rethink some of their assumptions about the country and people in general."

Luchina Fisher is a freelance writer and producer.

For more information:

Association of Black Women Historians:
http://abwh.tcnj.edu/

 

 
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