by Marieko Amoah, Staff Writer, March 2021
March is Women’s History Month and we mustn’t believe black history stops at the end of February. Using the term coined by Kristen Crenshaw, it is imperative that we look at the “intersectionalities” of race and gender in order to fully comprehend our history as a whole. This article examines some of the first Black American women to speak out against injustice and systematic oppression.
Feminism – Maria Stewart
Maria Miller (Maria W. Stewart) was born free in Hartford, Connecticut in 1803 and was orphaned at age five. She became an indentured servant to a white clergyman until she was 15. When she turned 16, she moved to Boston in hopes of seeking an education, which she received mostly in the form of Sunday School. She supported herself by working as a domestic servant.
In 1826, she married James W. Stewart, who died three years later from heart disease. Her inheritance was stolen from her by white male executors of her husband’s will. She was a widow with no children, and she was forced to become a domestic servant again.
Her deepening religious faith fused with a passion for activism, and a year after her husband’s death, she sought to speak publicly about oppression. She brought a manuscript to white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who published it in his newspaper. Her first official speech was in 1832 at Boston’s Franklin Hall. It was the first recorded instance of a black woman speaking to a coed audience. Stewart called for Black Women to fight back against oppression and made clear the origins of racism and oppression. Using religious language and other imperative literary works, (i.e., the U.S. Constitution), she called for others to speak up and to take action. In her third speech, she defended her right to speak publicly while also addressing black men and the lack of activism she saw from them. Stewart also fought for equal education for black women and created a school for black children of families that had escaped slavery during the Civil War.
She died in 1879, having been appointed Matron of the Freedmen’s Hospital. Her final act was to use the compensation from her husband’s military service (they had a program for widows at the time) to publish a book of all her speeches and writings.
Activism – Ida B. Wells-Barnett
Ida B. Wells Barnett was born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on July 16, 1862. After the Civil War, her parents were politically active and strived to give her an education. Her father helped create Rust College (now Shaw University), which is where Wells received her early education before she was expelled after a confrontation with the university’s president.
At 16, Wells lost her parents and a sibling to yellow fever. She then convinced a school administrator that she was 18 and got a job as a teacher to take care of her six other siblings. She and her siblings then moved to Memphis, Tennessee, to live with her aunt and continue her education at Fisk University in 1882.
In 1884, she refused to give up her seat and was promptly forced off the train. She filed a lawsuit against the railroad company and won her case, but the verdict was overruled on the basis of “separate, not equal.” 100 years before Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin, Jim Crow Laws and overruling of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 were very normal events.
Wells was the owner of two newspapers, Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, in which she discussed issues of race and politics. She also criticized segregation and racism within public schools. As a teacher, she had experienced firsthand the effects of segregation within school systems. Though she was very passionate about the issue and continued to advocate for change, in 1892, the lynching of a friend and his buisness associates led Wells to shift her focus.
She investigated several cases of lynchings and published her findings in a newspaper. Revealing her findings caused local outrage, which forced Wells to move to Chicago. She reran her anti-lynching campaign in 1898 in Washington, DC. Then in 1896, she founded the National Association of Colored Women and became a founding member of the NAACP. Later in her life, she was ostracized from women’s suffrage movements after confronting white women suffragists who ignored lynching and racism. Still, she continued to use journalism and her privilege as an educated black woman to speak out against the racist violence in the United States. Her activism has had a long-lasting legacy and inspires black female activists today. Her unwillingness to bend in the face of opposition and to use journalism and media is what many abolitionists and activists today still do.
Body Positivity – Johnnie Tillmon
Johnnie Tilmon was born on April 10, 1926, in Scott, Arkansas. Tilmon worked as a union shop stewardess in California and was involved in a community organization dedicated to improving living conditions in a local project (government-subsidized housing with relatively low rents). She sought welfare in 1963 after falling ill but was harassed and dehumanized by caseworkers. Because of her maltreatment, she founded Aid to Needy Children (ANC) Mothers’ Anonymous, one of the first grassroots welfare organizations. Tilmon gave a speech about her experience as “fat” black women needing welfare and spoke up about the injustices she faced because of her appearance:
“I’m a woman. I’m a black woman. I’m a poor woman. I’m a fat woman. I’m a middle-aged woman. And I’m on welfare.
In this country, if you’re any one of those things, you count less as a human being. If you’re all those things, you don’t count at all. Except as a statistic.
I am 45 years old. I have raised six children. There are millions of statistics like me. Some on welfare. Some not. And some, really poor, who don’t even know they’re entitled to welfare. Not all of them are black. Not at all. In fact, the majority-about two-thirds-of all the poor families in the country are white. And that’s why welfare is a women’s issue. For a lot of middle-class women in this country, Women’s Liberation is a matter of concern. For women on welfare it’s a matter of survival.
Survival. That’s why we had to go on welfare. And that’s why we can’t get off welfare now. Not us women. Not until we do something about liberating poor women in this country.
Because up until now, we’ve been raised to expect to work, all our lives, for nothing. Because we are the worst educated, the least-skilled, and the lowest-paid people there are. Because we have to be almost totally responsible for our children. Because we are regarded by everybody as dependents. That’s why we are on welfare. And that’s why we stay on it.
Ninety-nine percent of welfare families are headed by women. There is no man around. In half the states there can’t be men around because A.F.D.C. (Aid to Families With Dependent Children) says if there is an ‘able-bodied’ man around, then you can’t be on welfare. If the kids are going to eat, and the man can’t get a job, then he’s got to go.”
ANCMA became part of another organization called the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), and Tillmon quickly became chairperson. Tillmon worked with other welfare mothers and aligned with feminist movements. She fought for welfare rights at local and state levels until the day she died.
Black History is generally represented and taught through the lens of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, and W.E.B DuBois. As we grow older, many of us start to hear more names like Angela Davis, Kristen Crenshaw, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and many more. Although these public figures deserve plentiful recognition and respect, oftentimes, black history is simplified so that it is isolated within time periods. Black history is seldom seen as where and whom it really started with; many never will understand how it was for black women in the movement and all that they have done and said that enabled each of those figures to spearhead such critical work. For me, taking the time to research this topic actualized the fact that black activism started long before the civil rights movement and won’t end until the same rights and attitudes black women fought for in the 1800’s are met in the present.