Black Women in History: Teachers of a Better Tomorrow

The history of women in America is the story of the struggle to create a better society and a new woman and man to inhabit that society. The women’s struggle, characterize most definitely by women of color, in particular African American women, provide lessons for the creation of a new woman and man in America and indeed the world.  As writer Toni Morrison deftly stated,” 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.” Moreover, a new looks at the past and an examination of the triumph of recent years show what black women have to teach the world.

African American Enslavement
The remarkable narrative of African American women begins their redefinition of who they were in the midst of slavery. Black women in America refuse to be reduced to the status of a “slave woman, and in the context of slavery, forged families and a network of  parenting- the “black extended family” grounded in the African proverb: It takes a village to raise a child. Building family, loving and caring for children, maintaining the sacred bonds between husband and wife was a central focus of black women during the terrible period in American history known as “Slavery.” This period more than anything demonstrated unimaginable resiliency by black women in not just maintaining their humanity in an inhuman circumstance, but in forging out of this nightmare a new standard and model of womanhood. The will of black women during this period to be human, mothers, and wives is story of heroic dimensions which the world has yet truly honored. Reference: Generations of Captivity, Author: Ira Berlin.

Mutual Aid Societies
The network of care and concern during the extended nightmare of slavery and “Jim Crowism”-the American version of apartheid- grew into the mutual benefit societies where black women were at the forefront. Faced with a total lack of services from the U.S. government, black women took upon themselves to take of the aged and children.  The mutual aid societies represented one of the oldest and most durable African American self-help organizations. At the core of these societies were black women. They were, along with their male counterparts, who “gave bread to the hungry”, “water to the thirsty” and “shelter to the homeless.” The mutual aid societies were, to be sure, a “bridge over troubled waters.” For without these societies and the women who worked and struggle to keep them functioning, the survival of blacks, not to mention the development of the race, would have been greatly diminished and imperiled. Reference: Freedoms Unfinished Revolution, Author:  The American Social History Project.

Black Women Clubs
Black women clubs were central and essential to the development of the black middle class and provided a safety net for poor and working class families. A sampling of their mottoes- “Lifting as We Climb” and “Be Watchful over Each Other” illustrates their commitment to being collectively responsible for developing and sheltering African Americans. Their sense of collective work and responsibility and self-determination grew out of their own moral teachings and the forceful resistance of the U.S. government to provide aid to blacks. Social activist Mary Church Terrell believed that the core mission of black women and their clubs was “saving the race.” Terrell issue a call to black women to reclaim and lift up blacks mired in poverty and illiteracy: “The preservation of the race”, Terrell asserted, “demands that black women go among the lowly, illiterate, and even the vicious to whom they are bound by race and sex to reclaim them.” Indeed, it was through the national black club movement that black women were most productive in their response to Terrell’s call to action. These clubs were organized and staffed by working and professional black women who considered it their job to serve the black community. They believed as stated earlier that it was their duty to themselves and their families to “advance the race” Reference: When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America, Author: Paula J. Giddings.

Talented Tenth
W.E.B. DuBois asserted in 1903 that the “problem of education among [blacks] must  first deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst in their own and other races.” Black women prefigured DuBois call for a Talented Tenth and step forward and accepted the task of educating the “race”.  African American educator Fanny Jackson Coppin in 1879 told her graduating class, “You can do much to alleviate the condition of our people. Do not be discouraged. The very places where you needed most are where you get least pay.” Most of Coppin’s students left comfortable homes to fulfill what they believed were their duty and destiny. Black women were also behind the one of the great and historical black college- Tuskegee.  Tuskegee was made possible by two black women- Olivia Davidson Washington and Margaret Murray. These two women made Tuskegee the most important institution of education for blacks in the in the early 1900s and helped make Booker T. Washington build his power base. Reference: Black Women in America, Author: Maggie Walker.

Housewives’ League of Detroit
In 1930 a group of approximately fifty black women responded to a call issued by the wife of the pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church to create an organization of housewives. This organization was to leverage the economic capacity and build a power base for blacks in Detroit.  The Housewives League combined economic nationalism and black women’s self-determination to help black families and black businesses survive the Great Depression.  The only requirement for membership was a pledge to support black businesses, buy black products and patronize black professionals, thereby keeping money in the black community.  The Housewives League believed that black women were the most strategically positioned group to preserve and expand the internal economy, and they argued that it was their duty as “women controlling 85 percent of the family budget to unlock through concentrated spending close doors that [black] youth may have the opportunity to develop and establish businesses in the fields closest to them.” Historian Jacqueline Jones notes that during the Great Depression, these “leagues had an impact comparable to that of the CIO in its organizing efforts and second only to government jobs as a new source of opening.” Reference: A Shining thread of Hope, Author: Darlene Clark Hine and Kathleen Thompson.

Giving Color to the Arts
In the late nineteenth century, women began to be admitted to some American art schools. Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, born to a middle class black family studied the arts aboard in Paris. In 1913, W.E.B. DuBois asked Fuller to reproduced one of her prized sculpture for the Emancipation Proclamation fiftieth anniversary.  Instead she created a masterpiece, Spirit of Emancipation. Scholar Judith Kerr observed that is “it was unlike any other genre.” “Another woman of the arts, May Howard Jackson, a graduate of Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, led the way for the African American consciousness of the Harlem Renaissance. Because of her sculptural portraits of African Americans historian Leslie King-Hammond writes that Jackson was the “founder of the first movement toward an Afrocentric aesthetic.” Reference: Black Culture and Black Consciousness, Author: Lawrence W. Levine

The lessons of these courageous and forward-thinking black women are instructive for today’s society. These lessons present a value system which is centered on humans and ground in service to others. Interestingly, many of the strategies and ideas which would become popular and attached to men-DuBois, Talented Tenth; Black Nationalism, Malcolm X; Black Arts movement, Larry Neal; were created and practice first by black women. These women, known and unknown, are deserving of honor and praise. We salute them and in saluting them we honor the best in ourselves.


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