Photo Essay - Influential Black Women

Harriet Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The story of the Underground Railroad, a secret trail of safe houses or "stations" in the mid-nineteenth century that led from states where slavery was legal to the free states, is one that captures the urgency and stealthy measures required to rescue slaves from slavery. While many participated in this secretive system, Harriet Tubman has become the most famous "conductor" in this direct-action abolitionism. In 1849, at the age of twenty-seven, Harriet Tubman escaped from the Maryland plantation where she had been held in slavery. Between 1849 and 1860 Tubman made fourteen trips back into slave territory and led seventy to eighty people to freedom. She also helped free fifty others by providing detailed instructions on how to escape undetected.

Sojourner Truth, c. 1864 Courtesy of the Library of Congress

When Isabella Baumfree renamed herself Sojourner Truth, she selected her name as testament to her life's work—as one who travels towards the greater good. Truth's greater good lay in an explicitly feminist abolitionism. In the 1840s and 1850s Truth moved around the country preaching and speaking on the importance of abolition and when she spoke of abolition she meant freedom for all, not just men. While people were not always welcoming to an illiterate black woman who had spent her formative years in slavery, Truth persevered, publishing her life story and becoming an extremely popular and influential speaker. In 1851 Truth gave voice to the complex workings of race and sex with her famous speech on women's equality, "Ain't I a woman?". In this speech she called attention to the contradictions of viewing women as helpless and weak while referencing her own experiences as a strong person—both physically and mentally. Interestingly, Truth's stories have been mostly excluded from the slave narratives literary canon, not because of her race or sex but because she was a northern slave and not a southern one.

Mary Eliza Church Terrell, c.1890-1900 Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Mary Eliza Church Terrell was born in 1863 and lived until 1954, a period of great change in the history of African Americans. In her lifetime she advocated for a wide range of causes—woman's suffrage, adult education, anti-segregation, anti-lynching, and women's employment. Church Terrell's father, a former slave, successfully opened numerous businesses on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, becoming one of the first black millionaires. Despite her father's wishes that she work in a position befitting her class status, Terrell rebelled and went into education. This strong-willed nature was consistent throughout Terrell's life as she spoke against the numerous injustices she saw. Church Terrell worked alongside Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and Mary McLeod Bethune. She co-founded the Colored Women's League in Washington and the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and helped W. E. B. Du Bois found the NAACP.

Ida B. Wells Courtesy of the Library of Congress

In 1892, when Ida B. Wells-Barnett launched the first phase of an international campaign against lynching in the United States, lynching was a fairly common practice. Horrified at the murder of three of her colleagues, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, an activist and journalist, began an extensive campaign speaking out against lynching and quickly became a well-known spokesperson on the subject. Wells-Barnett wrote about and spoke out against lynching in the United States, but she also toured in England and Scotland as she believed that international action was required to end lynching. While the practice continued into the twentieth century, Wells-Barnett's activism brought awareness of the realities of the epidemic to a far-reaching audience, and the court of public opinion ultimately helped to curtail the crimes.

Billie Holiday Courtesy of the Library of Congress

While Ida B. Wells worked tirelessly against lynching, the campaign of terror continued well past her death. In the 1930s Billie Holiday took up the work of addressing the issue in an entirely different manner—through song. In 1939 Holiday began performing "Strange Fruit," a song that would be associated with her throughout her career. The lyrics—"southern trees bear strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root, black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees"—were a barely veiled reference to the bodies of lynching victims dangling from tree limbs. The haunting description of the lynching as well as Holiday's heart-wrenching interpretation were so controversial that Columbia Records refused to record the song and Holiday received a special release from her contract so that she could record the song with an independent label. Throughout her career, Holiday would end her sets with "Strange Fruit," each time chilling the audience with the frank depiction of racial violence.

Mary McLeod Bethune, 1949 Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Mary McLeod Bethune was one of the leading activists in African American history, rivaling the likes of W. E. B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, and Frederick Douglass. Bethune's career began in Daytona, Florida where, in 1904, she founded a school for the domestic education of young girls. The school quickly grew capturing the attention of Booker T. Washington as well as the black press. By the mid 1920s Bethune's tiny school for five students was a thriving coed college. Despite economic hardships during the Great Depression the college managed to stay open and her reputation as a leader in education expanded. In addition to her role as college president, Bethune founded and presided over several of the most important organizations for black women at that time, including the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and the National Council of Negro Women. In 1939 Bethune became director-in-charge of Negro Affairs in the New Deal National Youth Administration (NYA). She reached even greater heights as a leader when she was appointed as a top advisor and organizer in the Federal Council on Negro Affairs, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "Black Cabinet." Bethune's relationships with both F.D.R. and Eleanor Roosevelt opened unprecedented doors for African Americans—both men and women.

Fannie Lou Hamer, Democratic National Convention, Atlantic City, New Jersey, August 1964 Courtesy of the Library of Congress

In the early 1960s it was still the general practice to attempt to stop black people from voting in the South. This was often done by levying taxes against potential black voters, using intimidation strategies such as threatening violence and requiring only black voters to take unfair registration tests. In 1962 Fannie Lou Hamer attended a meeting run by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) regarding black voter registration. Hamer's boss, a farmer who employed Hamer as a sharecropper, discovered that she had attended the meeting and fired Hamer when she refused to agree that she would not register to vote. The combination of the exposure to organized activism coupled with the loss of her job and her civil liberties began Hamer's lifelong pursuit of racial justice and, in particular, equal voting rights. In this photograph Hamer is shown testifying at the 1964 Democratic National Convention about the harassment and beatings she received in her attempts to register to vote.

Odetta, 1864 Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The revival of folk music in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s was intrinsically linked to political movements towards racial equality. Folk music influenced a generation, and for many Odetta was the source of that inspiration. Her strong voice, natural appearance, and strong political messages influenced a generation of people ranging from Rosa Parks to Bob Dylan to Janis Joplin—and thousands of other folk music enthusiasts and activists. Odetta performed at many of the major civil rights events and protests. In 1963 she solidified her place as the musical voice of the Civil Rights Movement when she sang "O Freedom" at the March on Washington. Odetta passed away in December of 2008, but her music and legacy continue to inspire activists.

Coretta Scott King at the Democratic National Convention, New York City, 7 July 1976 Courtesy of the Library of Congress

During the Civil Rights Movement, Coretta Scott King was often seen at the side of her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. While Coretta had previously been involved in activist movements, it was after Dr. King's assassination in 1968 that she became increasingly notable as a leader in the Civil Rights Movement. King's accomplishments were far reaching but of particular note were her 1983 formation of the Coalition of Conscience, her campaign in the 1970s for the establishment of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and her presence in the antiapartheid movements of South Africa. King continued her lifelong pursuit of racial equality until her death in 2006 and her legacy continues through the King Center, which she founded in Atlanta in 1968.

Angela Davis

In the 1970s Angela Davis, the political activist and intellectual, came into the spotlight as an outspoken advocate for social change. The 1963 Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing that took the lives of four black children occurred in Davis's hometown of Birmingham. This bombing as well as other incidents of racially motivated murder spurned Davis into speaking out for social change and she quickly became a figurehead for prisoners' rights and racial equality. In the early 1970s Davis was famously arrested and tried for kidnapping and murder. An international campaign to "Free Angela Davis" ensued, and she was found not guilty in 1972 after sixteen months of incarceration. Today Davis continues to lecture about various types of oppression found in the United States and abroad. She currently teaches in the esteemed History of Consciousness program at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Gwendolyn Brooks, Miami Book Fair International, 1985 Courtesy of Miami Dade College Archive

Sometimes working towards social change takes the shape of direct political action. Sometimes it comes in the form of social commentary and criticism expressed through art, music, and literature. The poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks has a unique perceptiveness about black urban experiences that encourages activism through its frank descriptions of black social reality. Brooks was the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize for poetry for Annie Allen in 1950. As the sixties arrived, Brooks' poetry became more political. Her book The Bean Eaters was in many ways a call to activism. In the 1960s and 1970s Brooks was a strong presence in the Black Arts Movement—a movement deeply rooted in racial politics. Brooks' poetry did not shy away from the political, rather it engaged it. She addressed and blended history and current events into her works—evoking historical figures and moments such as Malcolm X., Medgar Evers, Harold Washington, the integration of the Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, as well as the 1955 murder of Emmett Till.

Audre Lorde Courtesy of Elsa Dorfman

Audre Lorde is known for her ability to meld the personal and the political in her poetry, her essays, and her life. Lorde's writing embraced her experiences as a lesbian, the process of dying from cancer, and the challenges she faced as a mother raising a black son, with little distinction in her work between what can be considered political and what cannot. Lorde's oft quoted line "the Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House" recalls a history of the ways that black women have fought against a variety of oppressions. Her radical thoughts on how the fights against oppressions can occur recall the ways in which the women before her worked—constantly creating new tools and ideas and actions that could in fact change how black women could live in America.