African American Women in History: Taking Giant Leaps to Progress Through Activism

Overwhelmingly, when reflecting on African American women’s contributions throughout history, there is one common thread that ties them together—their activism. Black women played significant roles in supporting the abolitionist, women’s rights, voting rights, and educational movements. To capture and distill down the accomplishments of any one of these bright stars in history is as exhausting a prospect as is keeping pace with their seemingly endless list of accomplishments. All these exceptional African American females in history remain larger than life, fearless, and determined to smash expectations and leap across barriers in ways that often defied imagination.

Concerning female criminality, psychologists point to many myths perpetrated around women serial killers in history, such as the reluctant sidekick or manipulated victim of a domineering male who is coerced into criminal acts out of the need for survival. There are appearance-based theories tied to the murderous vixen or the unappealing, revengeful outcast, the copycat criminal following in male footsteps, or a scorned man-hater out for revenge. None of this explains the mystique around these femmes fatales. What motivates them? How are they different than their male counterparts?


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.

  • Rare Titles from the American Antiquarian Society, 1820-1922

    Containing over one million pages of women-authored works from the American Antiquarian Society, the pre-eminent collector of pre-20th century Americana, covering over a century of female writing. This unique corpus of female-authored literature centres on the American female experience in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The database not only provides women's perspective of history but is an essential resource for researchers wanting to undertake in-depth analysis into women's authorship enabling researchers to track the development of female language, literature, and ideas.

    Curated by the American Antiquarian Society the monographs were selected from across the library's collections, including a diversity of fiction genres and non-fiction subjects, but primarily because they were authored or edited by women in an attempt to provide users with a canon of women's literature. This artificial collection has been kept deliberately broad and includes fiction, poetry, instructional guides on domestics and etiquette, personal letters, recipe books, memoirs, histories, pamphlets and leaflets, biographies and autobiographies, personal papers, children's literature, commentaries on fashion, diaries, legal accounts, oration, political ephemera, and religious tracts. This incredibly wide scope supports a variety of research enabling users to answer questions about women's cultural contributions as well as to provide insight into women's day-to-day lives. The individuals within range from famous figures to complete unknowns allowing scholars to make new connections as well as rediscovering lost or ignored works from the past.

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  • Earl Conrad/Harriet Tubman Collection

    The Earl Conrad/Harriet Tubman Collection represents the results of several years of research by historian-journalist Earl Conrad into the life and activities of Harriet Tubman. Known as the Moses of her people because of leading over three hundred slaves to freedom by way of the Underground Railroad, the extraordinary daughter of Africa was also a nurse, spy, and a scout. The collection includes correspondence between Conrad and potential sources of relevant information and documentation, research notes from published works, statements, and texts of interviews with members of Harriet's family as well as with persons who knew or worked with her, and the various typescripts and drafts preceding Conrad's finished publications.


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  • Eusebia Cosme Papers, 1927-1973

    Eusebia Cosme (or Eusebia Cosme Almanza) was an Afro-Cuban poetry reciter, actress, interpreter of Afro-Antillian verse, concert performer and radio show host. Cosme was considered the most successful Cuban diseuse of Afro-Antillian verse.

    The Eusebia Cosme Papers, 1927-1973, deal mainly with Ms. Cosme's career as a diseuse and actress. The collection includes correspondence, personal papers, contracts, poems including some written about Cosme, essays, programs, newspaper and magazine clippings, scripts including radio scripts, certificates, posters, and photographs relating mainly to Cosme's career, including her readings of Afro-Antillian verse, chiefly by Hispanic poets using black themes, as well as Afro-American poets Paul Laurence Dunbar and Langston Hughes. Also, material on Cuba. Correspondents include Felix B. Caignet.


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  • Fredi Washington Papers, 1925-1979

    Fredi Washington was a pioneering African American film actress and civil rights activist involved in the Harlem Renaissance. This collection was acquired by the Amistad Research Center as a gift in three deposits from Fredi Washington. The two acquired in 1975 have been interfiled in a single arrangement. The thirteen items comprising the 1979 addition are filed as one unit at the end of Box 2 and pertain to the career of the donor and other persons in the performing arts. Approximately one hundred items of correspondence from 1933 to 1979 are contained in the Papers of Fredi Washington.


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  • Gwendolyn Bennett Papers, 1916-1981

    Gwendolyn Bennett, African American poet, essayist, short-story writer, teacher and artist who was an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance as well as a dedicated supporter of African American writers and artists. This collection of papers documents the personal and professional life of Gwendolyn Bennett, from her adolescence in the mid-1910s to the late 1940s.


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  • Katz/Prince Collection, 1967-1973

    Lucy Terry Prince, black pioneer, was born in Africa in 1730 and died in 1821 at the age of ninety-one. When she was five she was brought to Newport, Rhode Island and sold into slavery. For the next twenty-five years she lived with the Wells family in Deerfield, Massachusetts, working as a domestic servant. In 1756, Lucy Terry married Abijah Prince, a black soldier and former slave. Although the couple had met in 1746, it took ten years for Prince, freed upon his master's death in 1748, to earn the money to buy Lucy's freedom from Wells. For the next fourteen years, Lucy and her husband continued to live in Deerfield and raise their six children. Throughout her life, Lucy Terry Prince distinguished herself as a woman of intelligence and determination. In 1746, at the age of sixteen, she wrote a poetic ballad commemorating the Indian attack on a Deerfield haying party. As a result of this poem, she is considered the earliest black American poet, a sample of whose work still exists.

    The Katz/Prince Collection of manuscript drafts and research materials on the black pioneer, Lucy Terry Prince, was assembled by writers Bernard and Jonathan Katz.


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  • National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses Records, 1908-1951

    The National Association of Coloured Graduate Nurses (NACGN) was organised in 1908 by a group of fifty-two graduate nurses. Martha Franklin in Connecticut, a graduate of the school of nursing of the Woman's Hospital of Philadelphia, spearheaded the development of the organization. The goals of the new organization were to achieve higher professional standards, to break down discriminatory practices facing black nurses, and to develop leadership.

    The records of the NACGN document the organization and development of the Association and its eventual dissolution. The materials have been divided into the following eight sections: 1) Minutes, 2) Bylaws and Articles of Incorporation, 3) Correspondence, 4) Memoranda, 5) Speeches and Testimony, 6) Studies and Reports, 7) Publications of the NACGN, and 8) Printed Material.


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  • Papers of Mary McLeod Bethune, 1903-1962

    Mary McLeod Bethune rose from poverty to become one of the nation's most distinguished African American leaders and the most prominent black woman of her time. Her life encompassed three different careers: as an educator, she was the central figure in the creation of Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Florida; as founder and president of the National Council of Negro Women, she was a leading force in developing the black women's organization movement; and in the political realm, she was one of the few blacks to hold influential positions in the federal bureaucracy during President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration.


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  • Caroline Jones Collection

    Caroline R. Jones (1942-2001), an African American advertising executive, worked for a number of prominent New York ad agencies and founded her own firm in 1986. She is best known for her work in assisting clients in marketing to minority consumers.

    The collection contains creative presentations, business correspondence, internal memoranda, market research, focus group interviews, production documents, print advertisements, and other documentation for numerous clients at J. Walter Thompson, Kabon Consultants, Zebra Associates, Kenyon & Eckhardt, the Black Creative Group, BBDO, Mingo-Jones Advertising, and Caroline Jones Advertising. Also included are articles and speeches by Jones, including many on the subject of targeted marketing to minority consumers; photographs, awards and publicity; and a small body of personal papers from her childhood in Benton Harbor, Michigan and her experiences at the University of Michigan. The years at Caroline Jones Advertising (1986-1995) are most thoroughly documented and include extensive client files on minority consumer market development for major clients.

    Please note that certain subseries and individual items in physical collection have not been digitized and have been removed due to copyright or data protection reasons.


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