In honor of Black history month, I’m sharing some of the stories of black women I learned more about in 2018. As a Korean American woman, I’m so grateful for the ways that these women go before me and the ways that their pursuit of suffrage, justice, equality, and democracy have intersected with my story.
I learned most of these stories while on the #RubyWooPilgrimage, but have also been learning a lot from reading this book with my 19 month old daughter. I pray that she would one day exhibit the same grit, courage, and commitment to justice as these women.
THE FORTEN SISTERS: Margaretta, Harriet, and Sarah Forten were the daughters of James and Charlotte Forten, one of the most prominent black families in Philadelphia during the 1800s. Margaretta Forten was active in both the abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements, and was a strong advocate for social reform and women’s education. Harriet Forten Purvis, alongside her husband, was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, as their home became a haven for fugitive slaves. She also worked with the women’s suffrage movement and spoke out for the right to vote. Sarah Forten Purvis was a writer, poet, and abolitionist who wrote numerous poems and articles for William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator, and her poems were widely shared among the abolitionist movement.
The Forten women helped found the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, which was the first American abolitionist organization founded by women. They also helped build Pennsylvania Hall, an important center for abolitionist activity, but the Hall was burned down in 1838 in the midst of white mob violence.
MARY CHURCH TERRELL: Mary Church Terrell was an influential activist, educator, and suffragist who served as the first president of the National Association of Colored Women and was a charter member of the NAACP. She was the first black woman to earn a college degree, from Oberlin College in 1884, and also obtained a master’s degree in education. Throughout her life, Terrell fought for women’s suffrage, but also spoke out against the racism of the suffragist movement and was relentless in fighting for the right for all women- not just white women- to vote.
Later in her life, she became the first black woman ever appointed to a school board, served on a committee that investigated police mistreatment of African Americans, and fought to end the segregation of businesses in Washington, D.C.
SEPTIMA POINSETTE CLARK: Septima Poinsette Clark was an educator, activist, and civil rights leader who played an important role in the Civil Rights movement and the push for the black vote. Through her background in education, Clark developed workshops for both young students and adults around literacy and citizenship, to help fight for the voting rights during the Civil Rights movement. Her citizenship workshops were a powerful way to provide education, literacy, self-pride, civic awareness, and political empowerment throughout the South. Through this work, Clark insured that African Americans were educated around state government and election procedures.
She was also involved in the work of the YWCA, Council of Negro Women, Federation of Women’s Clubs, and NAACP and became known as the “Queen Mother” or “Grandmother” of the Civil Rights Movement.
FANNIE LOU HAMER: While I had definitely heard her name and some quotes from Fannie Lou Hamer before this year, I didn’t know much about her actual work and leadership. Born to a family of sharecroppers in rural Mississippi, Hamer understood the struggle for economic self-sufficiency in the black community. In 1961, she was forcibly sterilized without her consent, after she went to the hospital for a minor surgery to remove a tumor. Soon after, she became an active voice in the community, fighting for voting rights, desegregation, and debt relief among African Americans in Mississippi. She also became a member the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and was arrested and jailed in 1963 after protesting segregated lunch counters. In jail, she was severely beaten and permanent damage was done to her eyes, legs, and kidneys.
After this incident, she helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, through which she ran for Congress (and lost), and eventually went on to challenge the seating of an all-white Mississippi delegation at the Democratic National convention of 1964, where she delivered a famous and powerful speech. After the convention, Hamer returned to Mississippi, where she became a popular speaker and continued to fight for voting rights, school desegregation, economic opportunity, and Head Start programs for the black community.
RUBY SALES: I had the privilege of meeting the brilliant Ruby Sales in November, and hearing her speak just for half an hour blew my mind. While studying at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama during the 1960s, “Mama Ruby” became a member of SNCC and participated in the Freedom Summer voter registration drives. It was during this summer that she witnessed the tragic murder of Jonathan Daniels, a white seminarian who was shot and killed by another white man after Sales out of the way. This moment significantly shaped the work of Sales throughout her life, and spurred a life of peacemaking and activism work
Sales ended up attending the same Episcopalian seminary as Jonathan Daniels, and has served in a number of roles as a public theologian, historian, activist, social critic, and educator. She has taught at several universities, directed the Black Women’s Voices and Images initiative, coordinated the women of all Colors coalition, and founded the SpiritHouse- a nonprofit focused on community organizing, peacemaking, and spiritually based community building. She is a brilliant thinker on issues or race, class, and gender.
One quote that stands out to me from my time with her is: “The soul force of ordinary people is more powerful than the endurance of empire.”
Who are some of the amazing black women you learned about this past year? Whose stories should we know?