Riding the Freedom Train
One of the most notable of these was Sojourner Truth, who was born into slavery as Isabella Baumfree in 1797 in New York. She was a known African American Evangelist and reformer who put her energy into the abolitionist and women’s rights movement. In 1827, she would end up in New York City as a free woman. After attempting to reunite her family, Baumfree joined the Methodist church, where she felt called by God to leave the city to testify to the hope she had experienced as a free woman. She took the name Sojourner Truth and began speaking across the country against slavery. In Massachusetts, she joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, the last designated stop on the underground railroad, keeping company with William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass.
Supporting the Underground Railroad, an elaborate secret network of safe houses organized to help enslaved Black people from the American South escape to the North, was fraught with danger. Harriet Tubman was a central figure in this endeavor who led hundreds of slaves to freedom along the route before the onset of the Civil War. Tubman was familiar with the physical violence that was a part of daily life on the plantation which led to permanent injuries, along with physical and emotional scars that lasted a lifetime. She risked her life to secure the freedom of family members and others who sought to escape the plantation system. After the war, Tubman worked as a spy for the Union Army and dedicated her life to helping former slaves and the elderly.
Calling Out Random Acts of Violence
Ida Wells-Barnett was also born into slavery during the Civil War and briefly attended college before taking a job as a teacher. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, she became a prominent journalist, activist, and researcher who used her writing skills to expose conditions for African Americans throughout the South. After the lynching of one of her friends, she began to investigate mob violence and wrote pamphlets, newspaper columns, and exposés on the subject of lynching that enraged locals to burn down her printing press and chase her out of Tennessee. Undeterred by this event, she continued to travel abroad to expose lynchings. She also founded the National Association of Colored Women’s Club to address civil rights and women’s suffrage.
Empowering Others through Education
Empowerment through education and training remains a major objective of the Black community. Mary McLeod Bethune, a daughter of former slaves, became an important voice, particularly among Black educators, and was a civil rights activist and supporter of women’s rights in the twentieth century. In 1904, she opened the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls on $1.50 and a dream, known today as Bethune-Cookman University. This educational institution set standards for today’s Black colleges, in its emphasis on Black culture through positive affirmation, exploration, celebration, and advancement. Bethune served as an advisor to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, helped found the United Nations, and took part in establishing the United Negro College Fund. For the rest of her life, from 1940 on, she would serve as Vice President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Realizing Extraordinary Outcomes through Defiance
During the civil rights movement, what seemed on the surface to be simple acts of defiance led to extraordinary outcomes. Sitting at all-white lunch counters or drinking out of water fountains not designated for “colored” people would place members of the Black community on the receiving end of extreme brutality. One of the most famous incidents of these involved Rosa Parks, who is nationally recognized for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white male passenger. It was an act of resistance that would trigger a wave of protests throughout the country in 1955 and change the course of American history. Too often there is a temptation to look at Parks exclusively through this lens. Before the famous bus ride, Parks was, in fact, a political activist and collaborated with her husband at the NAACP. She was also employed by Michigan Congressman John Conyers from 1965 to 1968 and co-founded an organization to motivate and direct Black youth to reach their highest potential, a priority she would pursue over her lifetime. Parks received countless awards, including the Medal of Freedom, the highest accolade given to a U.S. civilian.
Setting the Bar in Political Life
Before there was Hilary Clinton, there was Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman in Congress in 1968, and the first woman and African American to seek the nomination for President of the United States in 1968. Given the tenure of the times, she had not one, but two things working against her, namely her gender and her race. Ironically, she viewed both as impediments to her success after college, initially pursuing a career and advanced degree in early childhood education from Columbia University in 1951. Chisholm’s convictions would eventually draw her into politics, inspiring a run for office in the New York State legislature. “Fighting Shirley” as she would come to be known, eventually won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives she would hold for seven years. During this time, she introduced numerous pieces of legislation championing racial and gender inequality, the poor, and the end of the Vietnam war.
Giving Voice to Black Experience through Self-Expression
Black women have often expressed themselves through writing, the performing arts, or handiwork. Lucy Terry was one of the first African American poets and a Black Pioneer. Enslaved and transported from Africa, she was taken to Rhode Island. She composed a ballad poem, "Bars Fight," that was relayed orally until its publication in 1855. It is considered the oldest known work of literature by an African American. One of the most recognized female figures in contemporary Black history is Maya Angelou. Born in 1928, she was known to many as a poet, dancer, singer, activist, scholar, and more notably, an accomplished, award-winning author. Her work “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” was praised for her unique voice and autobiographical style in the depiction of her early life. She also was known to perform as a singer and dancer abroad, later joining other African American writers in New York City in 1959 to become a member of the Harlem Writers Guild. Her activism in the Civil Rights movement culminated in her service as northern coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Her contributions to literature and poetry helped give voice to the Black experience. During her lifetime, she earned a professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University, the National Medal of Arts, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and more than thirty honorary degrees when she was alive.
The tireless work of African American women in history in their quest for equality has resulted in greater opportunities in employment, education, and political office, now recognized as part of Black History Month. Just a few years ago we bid farewell to Barak Obama, arguably one of the most beloved Presidents in the history of the office, along with the first lady Michelle Obama. Nothing could predict the circumstances that would lead to the installation of the first Black family in the White House, followed by the first Black woman Vice President Kamala Harris.