Unsung Black Women in History
As we near the end of Black History Month and approach the start of Women's History Month, it seems appropriate to highlight the intersection of the two: black women in history. Unfortunately, a lot of black history has been neglected from our high school history classes. What’s more, many noteworthy black women have been overlooked in the pages of history textbooks.
History has justifiably applauded the men of black history, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Thurgood Marshall and James Baldwin, yet it forgets the women that today’s Black America stands on the shoulders of.
From pre-colonial America to the present-day Black Lives Matter movement, black women have been the silent birthers of vital movements for the black community. Here are just a few of so many worth highlighting:
Harriet Forten Purvis, the abolitionist movement
The abolitionist movement is remembered in history along with names like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. These abolitionists’ firsthand accounts of slavery’s agonizing and vast horrors helped to propel the system’s abolishment.Their names are remembered through narratives such as “Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass” and speeches such as Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman?”
Another figure who should be remembered among them is Harriet Forten Purvis, an African-American abolitionist and suffragette. Born in 1810 to an affluent black family, Purvis was graced with an enriched education. She was able to channel her cultivation toward founding the country's first biracial abolitionist organization, the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, along with her mother and sisters. She hosted anti-slavery meetings and harbored an Underground Railroad station in her home, as well as fought for black suffrage post-Civil War.
Cathay Williams, Civil War
Despite restrictions on women being able to serve, Cathay Williams enlisted in the U.S. army under the male alias “William Cathay” during the Civil War. She was the first African-American woman to enlist in spite of formerly holding the status of a house slave. At the mere age of 17, she accompanied the 38th U.S. Infantry Regiment under General Philip Sheridan where she fought in key battles such as the Battle of Pea Ridge and The Red River Expedition. Even after contracting smallpox, she quickly rejoined the infantry following her recovery. Her dedication to serving her country in its efforts toward the emancipation of slaves was remarkable. An estimated 400 other women served in the Civil War, but she was the first black woman to enlist and be documented. For her courage and admirable defiance, she should and will be remembered.
Audre Lorde, Civil Rights Movement
As an accomplished writer during her high school and undergraduate career, Audre Lorde amassed many titles throughout her professional career, as well. She publicly identified as gay, which burdened her to face even more discrimination. To help others suffering through similar circumstances, she produced essays and poetry on issues surrounding civil rights and queerness. As a writer-in-residence at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, she further internalized the intersectional adversity she faced by writing multiple poetry books, including “The First Cities” and “Cables to Rage.”As an English professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, she fought for the creation of a black studies department. While Lorde’s accomplishments primarily focused on intersectionality, gay rights and civil rights, her activism extended to founding the Women’s Coalition of St. Croix, an organization dedicated to supporting and uplifting survivors of sexual violence. Amidst fighting breast cancer, she became a more prolific writer by detailing her struggle with the disease and outlining feminist attitudes in medicine. She also wrote anthologies of her poems and essays throughout the years detailing the injustices she had experienced. In an African naming ceremony before her passing, she took the name Gambda Adisa, which means “Warrior: She Who Makes Her Meaning Known.” And her life’s message was known — to channel her personal experiences and education toward the empowerment of marginalized groups.
Jo Ann Robinson, Civil Rights Movement
Jo Ann Robinson is a hidden figure between the lines of history books where Rosa Parks and MLK would be mentioned. Robinson was the president of the Women's Political Council based in Montgomery, Alabama, whose mission was to combat racist voter suppression by engaging women in politics and leadership. The organization would teach members of the community their constitutional rights and laws regarding voter registration. The coalition was founded by Mary Burks, but Robinson became its president in 1950. As president, Robinson shifted the organization’s focus to bus reform by setting up meetings with city officials long before Rosa Parks’s momentous arrest. Following Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat in 1955, the WPC organized multiple bus boycotts and strikes and reached out to local political and religious leaders for assistance. The day of a bus boycott on Dec. 5, 1955, Robinson helped establish the Montgomery Improvement Association — of which MLK would later be elected leader — and became an executive member. Her work and her contemporaries have been remembered, but she has remained the unseen organizer of key campaigns during the Civil Rights Movement.
Michelle Alexander, Black Lives Matter movement and criminal justice reform
While her career and work is nowhere near finished, a current civil rights advocate and litigator worth highlighting is Michelle Alexander. A legal scholar, writer and opinion columnist best known for her work “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” Alexander has dedicated much of her studies and career to shedding light on and campaigning against racial profiling by law enforcement and advocating for prison reform. Her book makes the staggering yet convincing argument that the mass incarceration of people of color that we witness today is a covert form of racial control akin to Jim Crow. She was featured in the documentary “Hidden Colors 2” and discussed the impact of racial profiling on the black community. She directed ACLU’s Racial Justice Project and led other legal feats defending African Americans in prison or under correctional control. Her work is certainly worth following as she and other contemporary female civil rights advocates are in the process of making history for prison reform.