Women in History: Strong and Beautiful Black Women Keep on Coming
The extraordinary achievements of African American women did not grow out of the degradation of slavery or segregation, but out of a legacy of courage, resourcefulness, initiative and dignity. For example, a look at the African American Freedom movement and an examination of the triumphs of black women in recent years show what black women have to teach all Americans about womanhood and the human personality. From the onset of enslavement, African American women have been in the forefront in the struggle to liberate African Americans from slavery and to define, defend and develop the humanity of black people in America. In the course of this, they have forged a model of womanhood while playing a significant role in re-making American society.
African American women have received little credit and recognition for their role in pioneering black nationalism. And yet, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, Maria W Stewart, cited as one of the first black nationalist, spoke boldly for racial pride and had nothing but contempt for blacks who expected or even allowed white people to solve their problems for them. A central theme of the many speeches she delivered as early as 1832 was self-determination and economic independence. Mary Ann Shadd Cary was another proponent of black self-determination. She too was a forerunner of black nationalism. She issued a powerful call for self-reliance in her publication, Hints to the Colored People of North America.
In the campaign to end slavery, Sojourner Truth and Ellen Craft worked and spoke out against slavery without the emotional and practice support which male abolitionist leaders received and expected. In the struggle against American Slavery, Sojourner Truth embraced and defined African American Womanhood and by extension womanhood for all American women. Prefiguring the feminist movement and arguments of the 1970s, she asserted in her classical statement, Ain’t I A Woman?
And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arms! I have plough and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me. And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man- when I could get it- and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children and seen most of them sold off into slavery and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
As chronicled in the excellent work on black women, Shining Thread of Hope, few political actions in history have so captured the imaginations as the Underground Railroad. The entire purpose of the “railroad” was to help enslaved blacks escape from the south. Harriet Tubman, best known conductor on the Underground Railroad, achieved fame of mythic proportions with her daring rescue efforts. Her heroic exploits included many trips into the South, recuing more than three hundred enslaved African Americans and delivering them to freedom.
In addition to this, during the Civil War, under Tubman’s leadership and guidance, a band of 300 black soldiers struck fear in the hearts of the confederacy, destroying millions of dollars worth of commissary store and cotton, and recued and nearly 800 enslaved blacks and thousands of dollars worth of property without losing a man. She was the first women general in American military history.
Other black women contributed mightily to the cause of breaking the back of the confederacy and in ending African American enslavement. During the period of enslavement, for instance, free African American women were thoroughly involved in the antislavery movement. Mary Ellen Pleasant, a black businesswoman, helped to finance John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. Women were also among the group of armed African Americans who in 1851 went to the defense of four escaped blacks in Christiana, Pennsylvania, in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Law.
Black women pioneered the social safety net for blacks, known as the mutual aid society right after the end of slavery. “Lift as We Climb” became one of the mottoes of the black woman’s club movement at the start of the 20th century. Black women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries formed clubs to combat poverty, illiteracy, and discrimination on a massive scale, and to promote the welfare of the community. When black women discovered that white government agencies and other organizations had no intension of providing services to the black community, they stepped in to fill the void.
In 1892, Anna Julia Cooper issued a manifesto on womanhood declaring: “All I claim is that there is a feminine as well as masculine side to truth; that these are related not as inferior and superior, not as better or worse, not as weaker and stronger, but as complements-complements in one necessary and symmetric whole.”
In 1908, Josephine Allensworth, a black woman and her husband founded the town of Allensworth, near Bakersfield, California. They established Allensworth so that African Americans could be “free from the restrictions of race.” In the town, Josephine Allensworth was president of the school board. She established a library for the town and sponsored organizations for self-improvement.
African American women also excelled in creative productions-art music literature and science. As Alice Walker poetically stated; “And so our mothers and grandmothers have more often than not anonymously, handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see: or like a sealed letter they could not plainly read.” At the start of the decade of the 1920s, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith articulated the pain and promise of being black in America. Zora Neale Hurston wrote insightfully about the black experience during the flowering of black culture known as the Harlem Renaissance. And, Alice H. Parker, in 1919, was issued a patent for a heating furnace. The invention provided a mechanism for regulating heat to be carried to various rooms of a building.
Black women have been in the vanguard and the rearguard of black freedom struggle. Ida B Wells led the fight against the lynching of blacks, in particular black males. Mary M Bethune built and founded Bethune-Cookman College, and was a leader in the black women’s club movement as well as serving as president of the National Association of Colored Women. Ella Baker helped found two of the most significant organizations of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement- Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Fannie Lou Hamer, field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, helped organize the 1964 “Freedom Summer” in Mississippi, a campaign to register blacks to vote and to establish “freedom” schools.
And most recently, Michelle Obama, First Lady, mother, wife, graduated of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, has continued and expanded the model of womanhood, reflecting the sentiments of Toni Morrison: Our history as black women is the history of women who could build a house and have some children, and there was no problem. What we have known is how to be complete human beings. To lose this is to diminish ourselves unnecessarily.
Shining Thread of Hope, Darlene Clark Hine and Kathleen Thompson
Black women In Nineteenth-Century American Life, Bert James Loewenberg and Ruth Bogin
Too Heavy A Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves, 1894-1994, Deborah Gray White